Moonrat Speaks! The Editing World Revealed!
For this weekend's interview, I thought I'd pick the brain of someone fascinating to me - Moonrat from Editorial Ass fame. For those of you that aren't familiar with her blog, she talks about publishing from the editor's chair, and all from an anonymous - and hilarious - point of view.
1. So how did you get started in publishing? Degree? Friend of a friend?
I'm not sure when I made the decision to try to become an editor, although now that it's been made I can't imagine it having worked out any other way. But I suspect I decided to make a go of it around my senior year in college. As it turned out, though, I had the trifecta that editors look for in assistants--I had worked in a bookstore for a long time, I had interned at an agency, and I was an extreme geek who could rhapsodize about my favorite authors for 10 minutes. I think a lot of editors like to see unabashed rhapsodizing during interviews. (I know I do.)
I think if you're organized enough to know you want to be an editor (and I really wasn't--I was just kind of lucky about where I had whimsically chosen to work) the best thing you can do for yourself is get a job in a bookstore and work in an agency. Now that I've been on the hiring end and have had to think seriously about what I look for in an assistant, I have to admit those qualities overrule shiny degrees and just about everything else. The agency experience is vital because it shows editors the other side of the business--the selling side--and because it forces you to think creatively. Frankly, I think just "shopping" for agency projects is a little boring, and I think it's important for an editor to be able to bring his or her own creative ideas to a project to help shape it.
The reason bookstore experience is so important for an editor is because it teaches category management. If you're an editor who's never worked in a bookstore, when you get a submission of the most amazingly written memoir slash novel that you think is a pure piece of genius, you might bid on it. If you've worked in a bookstore, though, you'll know there's nowhere to shelve a memoir slash novel, so Barnes & Noble won't be able to carry your book, so your orders will be really low, so your print run will be really expensive.
2. What's a day in the life of an editor like? I'm sure you get asked this a lot, but honestly, I have no clue what you do all day. ;)
This is a tough one, since there's so much variation. How about a typical week, instead? At my company, like most companies, there is an editorial meeting each week. At the ed meeting, we pitch new projects and give one another feedback. And by "give one another feedback" I mean "try to convince the publisher to give you money to buy them." There is also a production meeting each week where editors, publisher, and production team discuss the state of books "in production" (meaning ones that have already been edited and are in copy edit, typesetting, or printing stages). There is a marketing meeting where we discuss books we're planning on cataloging in the near future to discuss money alocations, rights situations, reasonable sales expectations, etc--this is a book "launch"-- and there's a publicity meeting to dicuss plans for books that are going to press in the upcoming season. Besides all these infernal meetings, I spend about 50% of my remaining time editing, 20% looking at new submissions, 20% on miscellany like writing rights letters, author liaising, chasing down certain publicity opportunities, and critiquing cover, page, and bindery samples, and 10% arguing with my designer on the phone.
3. Let's say you bring my book to the editorial meeting because you want to buy it - what are some of the reasons it wouldn't be bought? What do you do if the book gets rejected at the meeting and you had your heart set on it?
You try to guess any reasons a publisher might say no beforehand, because it is just ugly heartbreak if you get as far as ed meeting before your hopes get dashed, but some of the reasons I might not be allowed to buy a book (or might choose not to buy a book) are like this:
-the book doesn't have enough commercial potential--it might be a great read, but if Robert the Publisher can't believe he'd sell at least 4,000 copies, he really can't afford to publish it.
-the book doesn't fit on a shelf--this goes back to the bookstore thing. The unfortunate fact of our very chain-driven commercial society is that it leaves almost no room for books that don't fit franchise rules.
-another similar book on a similar topic was announced in PubLunch last week... or hit stores a couple of months ago and has really not taken off.
-there's too much fiction on the list right now (it almost never works in the other direction). The old truism is that we publish nonfiction to pay for our fiction--you never know if fiction is going to make money, so you have to be really careful that you have at least some (target: half) your eggs in nonfiction baskets.
As for what I do if a book is rejected at ed meeting, I'm afraid I really don't take it well. I don't let books get that far unless I really believe in them 100%. I tend to bring stuff back and bring it back again, retooled, reworked, with new information, with new endorsements, new marketing leads, until I wear poor Robert out. But that's ok--his job is to point to everything that could possibly go wrong, and my job is to make sure it won't. And at this point he has faith in me (most of the time) because the books I've nagged him into buying have been performing (perhaps because of the whole pre-acquisition tug-of-war process!).
4. What's the biggest perk of working in publishing thus far?
Meeting heroes. I'm still star-struck every time it happens, but since I've been an editor, I've had nearly-legitimate reasons to be in touch with people like Margaret Atwood, Gloria Steinem, Michael Ondaatje, Paul Auster, Neil Gaiman, and Catherine Zeta-Jones, among others. And I haven't really been in publishing that long.
5. You mentioned before that you don't understand how some editors can't read for pleasure anymore. What's the type of stuff that you like to read for pleasure? Why?
I read everything--literally. (Reviewer's note: You can check out her reading tastes at THE BOOK BOOK ). I probably read mostly literary fiction, but I try to read a lot of narrative nonfiction, since that's what I like to acquire, and there is a dark and not-so-secret corner of my heart that really loves fantasy. I'm trying to lead a movement to support more female fiction writers (I got really upset that so few books by women were recognized in any 2007 book lists or awards lists), but alas I love a lot of male writers. My recent favorite is Michael Chabon. But seriously, I'll read anything. I try to finish a book each week outside work stuff.
6. How the heck did you get hooked on j-pop and Mr. Children?
I wish I had a reasonable answer for you. But let's face it. How can you NOT love Mr. Children?! Go to Youtube and put in "Kurumi" if you want to be converted. It's a break-up song, but the totally unrelated video is about a middle-aged businessman who decides to buy a guitar and start a band with his buddies. It's pretty magnificent.
7. There's the old saying that "Everyone has a book in them." Obviously, some of these books have escaped and probably made their way to your desk, when they really should have been taken out to the back yard and shot with a air-rifle as a mercy killing. Want to share the worst submission/book you've ever seen cross your desk?
I got a doozy this week. (It was unagented, incidentally.) The author proposed to write an expose about the sordid sex-life secrets of famous actors, writers, and other famous people. The author had the perfect platform to write the book, he explained, because he was the mayor of a small town and is a rather attractive middle-aged man and has, as a result, been come onto by everyone from high school students to their mothers to their grandmothers, so he has ample experience with both sex and sexual harassment. I'm telling you, I couldn't even make that one up.
8. If you could give one piece of advice to those of us on the submitting side, what would it be? What do we do that makes you want to slap your forehead and choke a writer?
Honestly, I rarely want to choke a writer on the submissions end (on the editing end is a whole other story!). If there are flaws with a proposal I receive, I tend to think of it as the agent's fault--if the manuscript isn't clean or professional, the agent should have caught that; if the agent harasses me too much or too little, I get annoyed at the agent, not the author; if the book is just awful in general, it's the agent's fault for having bad taste. I don't even judge an author for having a bad agent! I know how hard it is to get one, and how hard authors work around the clock to get a foot in the door. I do feel sad, though, when agents seriously botch things.
My one piece of advice to authors who are submitting is to be as involved in your agent's submission process as you comfortably and politely can. It's true, agents have systems, and many agents are very good and have it all down. But ask if you can see the proposal; make sure it's well written and grammatical and puts your best foot forward. Make sure your agent really sells your platform and doesn't bury it in talk (this is the first thing I have to look for, and most editors, I think you'll find, will agree).
9. I've heard the ugly rumor that if an author asks their editor what sort of book the editor wants the author to write, it's the kiss of death. From the editor's point of view, what's your take on this?
I don't think it's the kiss of death at all--it depends on the relationships of author/editor/book. An editor might be able to help direct things at the beginning, as opposed to having to fix everything up at the end, which might be more energy. It's also a great time to talk about where the author and editor differ in their visions, and pre-empt artistic disappointments by laying down ground rules for each other. If it's a nonfiction book we're talking about, this is a great question, since authors are frequently experts in their topic but frequently not experts at publishing.
10. If you won the lottery tomorrow, what would you do with it? Would you still work? Start your own line of publishing? Bribe Mr. Children to come and have karaoke night with you in NY?
I love working. I could never give up working. I imagine I would have answered this question along the lines of "take a trip to Egypt" or something, but now that you've made the point about Mr. Children I can't possibly imagine spending my money any other way!! Do they ever come to America?! Will you PLEASE let me know?
11. Everyone really wants to know ... Robert the Publisher. Wacky but good at heart? Typical product of the publishing scene?
Robert the Publisher very good at heart--he's like my dad. Everyone's dad, seriously. And while he is rather wacky in the office setting, he manages to fool everyone who meets him outside of the office into thinking he's the most normal, charming man on earth. Which he is. Sort of. But yeah, definitely a typical product of the publishing scene, although I'm not sure some characters you'll run into ARE as good at heart as he is.
Wasn't that a great interview? I thought her answers were terrific and really made me think. For more tidbits on the publishing industry from the 'Dark Side', check out Moonrat's blog atEditorial Ass. She's friendly, funny, and gracious...just don't try to guess her identity. ;)