Monday, September 15, 2014

How a Book Editor Works: A conversation With Heather Lazare


My debut novel, The Crown, was brought out by Heather Lazare, an accomplished editor who has acquired historical novels by Michelle Moran, Julia Gregson and Stephanie Lehmann. Heather bought my second novel, The Chalice, and edited it along with my UK editors at Orion. And she acquired the third novel in my trilogy, The Tapestry. Working with her on these books was a great pleasure. Heather was thoughtful and insightful, with a passion for history and an eye for detail. Last year Heather shifted to the freelance world, but we've kept in touch. To my delight, she made time for this interview, in which I learned things about her I never dreamed of. 50 Shades of Gray?? LOL.

I know that at the beginning of your career you were in publishing but not working as an editor. What motivated you to head in that direction?

I started at the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency in Del Mar, California. Sandy’s husband had been a professor of mine and my thesis advisor suggested I meet her. I had no idea what an agent did, but I learned very quickly. I spent quality time with the slush pile while I was there and I had the opportunity to edit a few manuscripts that were eventually submitted and sold to publishing houses. The thing is, I didn’t feel those manuscripts were “done.” I wanted to keep tinkering, to keep editing—I wanted to be on the receiving end of those manuscripts so I could make them even better. A few years later I ended up in New York and got a job as an Editorial Assistant at Crown (Random House).

What is the most satisfying aspect of being a book editor?
For me, it’s helping an author achieve the full potential of their book. I love giving feedback that will help change the quality of the work and that will take it to a level the author might not have been able to reach on his or her own.

When you were acquiring novels for Random House and Simon & Schuster, what sort of book would get you excited enough to make you take the submission to the group making the decision?
I know authors hear over and over again that the first page has to “grab” the reader, and this is so true. The books I fought for were ones that had me on page one—but then didn’t let up until the end. Whenever I read something with a voice that feels fresh and different and a plot I haven’t seen before, I’d get really excited. As I read, I’m always formulating the pitch in my head thinking, how would I describe this to my sister? What would make her want to pick up this book? I’m also always thinking about the authors I would compare this author to. That’s how so much of publishing works—when an editor goes into an editorial meeting and talks about something they want to acquire, they have to be able to give an elevator pitch that will compel a number of other people in the room to want to read the book too. Of course, the book then has to deliver on that pitch and excitement!

Did you ever feel sad about a book that got away and chart its progress elsewhere?
YES. I could tell a very long and tearful story, but I’ll simply say that I was an underbidder on the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. Think what you want about those books, but they made people READ. I heard from a surprising number of people who read only a few books a year (yes, those people exist), that they had read the trilogy. Acquiring those would have certainly changed my career.

What is the secret to a good editor/writer relationship?
I think the best relationships are collaborations. It can be very lonely being an author and to get to share your work with someone who gets it just as much as you do, who loves your characters as much as you do, and who wants to see you succeed as much as you do, is a very special bond. I always tell my authors that it’s their book, not mine, so if I suggest a change they don’t agree with, they can push back. The editorial process is give and take and it’s best when the author and editor have open communication and are willing to be totally honest with each other.

How about agents, what is the optimal editor/agent relationship?
The best agents are advocates for their author in all things, but they also know when to concede. After an editor is finished editing, there is so much that goes on behind the scenes to get the book through the publication process and at that point it’s not just the author/agent/editor relationship, there are now a lot more cooks in the kitchen and when the author/agent want something, it’s not always up to the editor to give it to them. It’s up to the agent to trust that the editor is doing the best job they can, always keeping the author and author’s work a priority.

You acquired some excellent historical fiction at the houses where you worked. What drew you to this genre in the first place?
Thanks, Nancy—you’re a lovely example of my fine taste ☺. I’d always been a fan of historical fiction and I was lucky enough to work for Allison McCabe when I started at Crown. She gave me Karleen Koen’s Dark Angels to read before I started working for her and I felt like Karleen was a revelation—why hadn’t I read her before? I learned so much from Allison, and I eventually took over the Jean Plaidy books we were reissuing—the brain child of a previous Crown editor, Rachel Kahan (now at William Morrow). I loved reissuing the Plaidy books and even appeared on a few of the covers (hiring a real model is expensive!). When Allison left, I inherited many of her authors and started to make my mark on the historical fiction world. Typically, editorial assistants work for two editors and the other editor I worked for had just published World War Z by Max Brooks, so my taste remains rather eclectic to this day.

What do you think of the trends in historical fiction in the last decade? It seems that there are three types: the novels with characters who are from history and are well known, the novels with imaginary characters from another time, and those that mix "real" with invented characters. Do you see strong futures for all three subgenres?
This is a great question and one I get asked often. I personally feel that a real person taken from history is a good idea, because it’s an easy sell for an editor—immediately the publicity and marketing team have the factual angle they can go after and if no one has written on the topic before, that’s an enticing hook. As to the imaginary characters from another time, I think these will continue to do well, specifically when that time period is linked to some little-known part of history—I’m thinking about books such as Kathleen Grissom’s The Kitchen House and Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train. Novels like yours that mix real and imaginary characters also have long legs—again, you have the hook of the real time period, but when an author gives us a point of view the reader has never seen (a novice!), the approach stands out amongst the others on the shelf. For a while, I felt that the best historical novels were from the point of view of a woman, but then I read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and was totally blown away.

As a freelance book editor, how is your job different from working on a staff?
Now I get to take on any project I like, and that’s a very welcome change. At publishing houses, I would sometimes read books that I loved but that I knew were too small—i.e. the audience wouldn’t be wide enough to warrant a big advance. There was a lot of pressure on us editors to buy only big books—which is a totally frightening aspect. I watched books that were bought as “big” (usually more than $500K advance) barely sell more than the debut paperback I was publishing, and yet the $500K acquisition was considered more important and therefore got a bigger budget. When I read something now and I like it, I get to work with the author no matter what the future of the book might be. Some authors come to me knowing they want to self-publish and others are hoping to get their manuscript in agent-ready shape, and I enjoy all aspects of the process.

What is your process on a book you've agreed to edit?
I like to begin by reading the first twenty pages and a synopsis of the book. By reading those I will know if it’s the kind of book with which I’ll connect and if so, I’ll schedule a call with the author. I like to speak to people before we work together so that we both know what we want out of the relationship. I want to hear what the author expects and I outline my process so that we’re clear up front. I then schedule the manuscript onto my editorial calendar. When it’s time to edit, I work on the electronic document in track changes (unless the writer prefers a hard copy). I read through once making a few notes but really just getting a sense of the story. In my second read I look for places to cut (if it’s running long) and I also look for things that might need to be strengthened: character, plot, pace. I then read through a third time and make any additional line edits that might be necessary. I make notes on a separate document during each read, then I go through that document and elaborate my notes; this becomes my editorial letter. I then set up an editorial call with the author before sending anything back. That phone call could be anywhere from one to three hours and the author and I talk about the book. I go over the editorial letter so the author isn’t surprised by any of my comments or thoughts and if there are places where I have questions, we talk it out and come up with possible solutions for the author to work on. I then send back the edited manuscript and editorial letter via email. After that, I’m available to the author if they need any help—clarification, brainstorming, etc. We can schedule another call or just go back and forth over email, whatever is easiest for the author.

What do you think of the trend of "hybrid" writers, those who write books for both publishing houses and publish themselves?
I think it’s ambitious and exciting. I know when I was working for publishing houses, this was an ongoing discussion. If the publishing house has paid an author an advance, they want to be sure that the book the author is writing for them is the priority, so publishers can be reluctant to let an author self-publish while under contract. If an author is savvy enough in the self-publishing world, I think it’s a great idea to publish a novella or a short story between publications in order to keep fans interested and enticed. Authors in the New Adult genre have really mastered this.

What can authors do to support the publication of their books, both those working for traditional publishers and indie authors?
There’s so much both kinds of authors can do, but I’ll just focus on my top recommendation for each.
For those published by traditional houses, I always recommend keeping some of your advance in order to supplement whatever the house is doing. A publishing house has marketing money set aside on every title, but it’s rare that there’s much advertising after the first 4 weeks on sale. I’d suggest that authors get a clear vision of the marketing plan—when the ads are starting/stopping, where they will be advertising—and then buy their own ads after the publishing house’s ads have stopped. Even getting feedback from the house regarding click throughs can be helpful, that way you can see if you want to advertise on the same sites or not.

For Indie authors, focusing on your core fans and getting early reads and reviews up on Goodreads and Amazon is necessary. Those reviews and being an active member of Goodreads will not only help your book, but it will help grow your Indie community.

How important is a cover to a book taking off?
Admit it. We ALL judge books by their covers. So yes, a cover is extremely important to a book being picked up at a bookstore, but it’s less important to a book taking off. Books take off because of what’s between their covers, not because of their covers, but a beautiful and enticing jacket helps. I don’t miss the cover process at all (I could write an entire post about the endlessness of it), and what authors need to remember is that it’s not advantageous to tell the entire story on the cover. In so many instances authors had a vision for the cover that was so literal to the book that every detail on the cover needed to perfectly reflect their narrative. Trying to tell the story on the cover is overly ambitious, so I always like to think about Kathryn Stockett’s The Help (not the move-tie-in, the original cover). What does that cover actually tell you about the book? Not a whole lot. It’s a yellow cover with the title embossed on a purple lozenge and three birds below that. I love the simplicity of this cover and the fact that it’s not trying to tell the entire story.

You are now a consultant as well as a freelance editor. What kind of guidance do you offer your clients besides the editing of the manuscript?
I do a number of different things and cater to the specific needs of the authors and their books—anything from helping pair them with an agent to giving advice about how to go about self-publishing. Getting an agent seems to be the most popular, so that process works like this: After I’ve worked with an author and feel their book is ready for an agent’s eyes, I come up with a list of agents I think would be a good fit. These are people who have been my contacts for years and so when I reach out to them and tell them I’ve been working with someone, they are usually eager to put the author’s manuscript on the top of their reading pile. I don’t submit for authors—I think it’s important that they start the agent process themselves so they can have a personal relationship with their agent from the start. I try to match make with agents I think will best respond to the author’s material. I never guarantee representation, though I won’t reach out to agents about an author unless I think their work is near ready for publication—it’s my reputation on the line, too, so I want to be sure I’m advocating for the very best manuscripts!

I sometimes work with authors who have an idea for a book but want to talk about how to flesh it out—or they have a few ideas and want to know which sounds the most viable. We have a phone call/Skype date and then I’m available for follow-up questions via email after.

Heather Lazare is an independent Editorial and Publishing Consultant who has worked for Random House and Simon & Schuster. She lives in Pacific Grove, CA with her husband and toddler son.

8 comments:

  1. Really splendid interview with tons of good advice! Miss you, Heather.

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  2. Miss you too, Anne! I'm glad you liked the interview!

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  3. This interview is chock-full of great information. Thanks for posting!

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  4. Excellent and informative. Thank you Nancy and Heather. Heather, do you only work in the Historical marketplace? And how does an author contact you to discuss a project they'd like you to help them with?

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    1. Thanks so much, Emelle! I work on all kinds of fiction, not just historicals. You can contact me directly at heather@heatherlazare.com.

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  5. What a great interview. Miss you, Heather!

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