[Disclaimer: Please note that this interview was conducted many weeks prior to Kate Duffy's passing. She will be greatly missed.]
Tell us a little about you and your publishing house.
Kensington Publishing Corp. is the last remaining independent U.S. publisher of hardcover, trade and mass market paperback books. 2009 marks our 35nd year in business. From the time our very first book (Appointment in Dallas by Hugh McDonald), became a bestseller, Kensington has been known as an astute and determined David-vs.-Goliath publisher of titles in the full spectrum of categories, from fiction and romance to health and nonfiction.
Kensington now accounts for about 7% of all mass market paperback sales in the U.S. Through the Kensington, Zebra, Pinnacle and Citadel press imprints, the company releases close to 600 new books per year and has a backlist of more than 3,000 titles.
About me: I have a B.A. in English and a Master’s Degree in Publishing. I worked for an educational publisher before landing at Kensington, where I have been for the last 2 ½ years.
What made you decide to edit fiction?
I wanted a job that I loved. So I thought, “I love to read. How can I made a career out of that?” And voila, an editor.
Are your favorite pleasure reads markedly different from the fiction you edit?
Not at all. I love my job so much because I get to read books I was already reading for fun, except now I get paid to read them. I still love all the older classics; Dickens, Austen, Hardy, etc, but I naturally gravitate towards romance. I like reading stories about real characters with real problems who are able to overcome them to get to their happy ending.
What kinds of manuscripts do you acquire? Who are some of the writers with whom you work?
I acquire all genres of romance for our Zebra and Brava lines, historical fiction, and urban fantasy. I will also occasionally look at a women’s fiction proposal. Some of my authors are Cynthia Eden, Mary Wine, Zoe Archer, Allegra Gray, Bianca D’Arc, and Maggie Robinson. I am also very lucky to work under the fabulous Kate Duffy, so I get to work with a lot of her authors, including Jacquelyn Frank and Mary Jo Putney.
What about a manuscript grabs your attention and makes you consider making an offer?
The voice. Which is unfortunately a rather vague answer.
What do you look for in a synopsis?
Honestly, I don’t even look at the synopsis until I’ve read the sample. If I’m reading the synop, your writing has already intrigued me. A synopsis needs to prove you can plot well. Common issues: the plot is too generic, there are plot holes that would be difficult to fix, there isn’t enough conflict to sustain the plot, there is too much conflict and it gets confusing. And yes, sometimes the synopsis can’t tell me all this. If there is any doubt at all, I request the full.
How do you balance the commercial with the literary value of a book, either in your buying decisions or your editorial approach?
Most people will tell you there isn’t any literary value in romance…I find that these people usually have never picked one up and read it. The books really have to have commercial value, because otherwise it doesn’t matter how well written it is. At the same time, if the plot is commercial, but the writing isn’t up to snuff, it wouldn’t be able to compete in a crowded marketplace. Plots can be fixed, a voice cannot. So if I find a great voice and there are issues with the particular manuscript that make it unmarketable, I work with the author to find something that we could sell.
What makes for a great editorial relationship with an author? What doesn’t?
This varies by author, but is similar to what you’d look for in any healthy working relationship in your life. You want a partnership where you can bounce ideas off each other, and work together to get the best book possible. You do not want a relationship where one party is constantly complaining, whining, unable to see your point of view, etc. Some editors and authors are close, because their personalities mesh well.
Others can work together just fine, but are more detached. It’s the same as if you work in an office; you are naturally going to get along better with some co-workers than others. Some you will want to have lunch with or get a drink with after work, some you can deal with in the office but would rather not see otherwise, and there is always the occasional co-worker that you avoid if at all possible.
How do you handle it with an author if there's been a slump in sales?
Depends on why I think the slump occurred. If I think we marketed it improperly or the cover art just didn’t work, then I don’t go to the author. If I think it’s because the author is not writing quickly enough and losing momentum, or some other author-related issue, then I bring it up with them. Otherwise, I generally do not discuss numbers until it’s time for contract renewal.
How do feel about authors working with other publishers or in other genres?
As long as doing so doesn’t affect your ability to do what you need to do for me, then I’m fine with it. But if you start missing deadlines because of your other obligations, that’s when it starts making me cranky.
What do you wish that authors understood about your job?
Ha! I could talk about this for a very long time. There are a few main ones. First, reading submissions is not the most important part of my job. Nor is giving feedback to authors not under contract. I know all authors are anxious about their submissions, and want to improve, and I admire that. But if I didn’t specify a problem in my “pass” letter, that is not an invitation to call me and ask for my opinion. The main focus of my job is selling the books I’ve already bought, so sometimes it takes me three months to read a submission. But wouldn’t you want your editor to be giving you more attention than she gives to potential authors?
Two, contract deadlines are not arbitrary. If you don’t get the book in on time, I have a long list of people I have to make excuses to.
Three, this is a business. It may feel personal because writing is at times very personal, and also, at least in romance, conferences give us the chance to meet in a less rigid environment than the standard professional meeting. But at the end of the day, it’s a business. Your manuscript is like your resume; it should be professional and easy to read. If I pass on your project, it’s not personal. I just don’t think I can sell it well.
What advice do you have for seasoned authors in the current publishing climate?
Get your books in on time. If you don’t, it throws off marketing and publicity plans, catalogs, covers, sales kits, etc. If you are consistently late, you are just handing your publisher reasons not to renew your contract. A caveat: we are not inhuman. We understand that relatives die, people get sick, and computers tend to misbehave just when you need them the most. It’s when we are handed excuse after excuse that we get very wary.
How do the numbers like sell-through and Bookscan sales influence the offers you make?
These numbers are what we base our renewals on. We run a form called a P&L, find out how much it costs us to make the book and estimated buys, and from there we figure out what kind of advance we can offer, if any. Sell-throughs are very important. They can make or break an author. If the sell-throughs are too low, we don’t renew the contract. Simple as that.
For new authors, there are in-house “standard” offers based on the genre and format, and those can be occasionally be tweaked, but we would have to have really solid reasons for doing so.
Do you buy series from proposals? If so, what are you looking for?
I have to see at least the first full manuscript from a new author (unless I am already very familiar with your work, e.g. you published several books at another house). Generally I will then ask what direction the author would like to go in after book 1, and that’s all I need. To date, I have never made a 1-book offer. If I like your writing, I want more of it! If it is a continuing author, a proposal is fine.
How do you decide if a ms. (either from a current or from a new author) calls for mass market, trade paperback or hard cover?
Usually, it’s based on the imprint. Zebras are generally mm, Bravas and Aphrodisias always start in trade. Our romance hardcovers are authors who have started out in trade or mm and worked their way up to hard cover.
Is there anything else you'd like to address?
For submitting manuscripts, do yourself a favor and actually read some books in the line you are submitting to! Don’t do a blanket submission and just send to whomever will accept manuscripts unagented. Would you walk into a job interview without having done any research on the company, or without looking at the job requirements? Of course not! On that topic, in your cover letter, pick a genre.
Don’t say it’s a historical romance/mystery/women’s fiction. Those are three different sections of the bookstore. It goes back to the “it’s a business” thing. If I don’t know what section your book would be sold in, how on earth am I going to be able to sell it?
Also, erase that line on your cover letter that says, “If you aren’t the right editor, please pass along and give me their contact info.” Nothing annoys an editor more than an author unwilling to do their own research. Kensington lists all our editors and their preferences on our website…if you can’t figure out which editor your submission should go to, don’t expect me to do it for you.