Isabel Swift, Editor Emeritus, Harlequin
When I was an acquiring editor for series romances at Silhouette , I was always surprised at encounters with writers when theyâ€™d announce theyâ€™d sold a project Iâ€™d turned down with a tone of glee at having proved me wrong. I think I startled them by my enthusiastic congratulations!
So if an editorâ€™s role isnâ€™t delighting in crushing dreams and chagrin at having let a good one get away, what is it?
My goal as a series editor was to find content â€”stories that I believed would appeal to the audience I was acquiring for. Not what I personally liked or disliked, but work I thought would deliver a satisfying experience to the readership.
It is also helpful to like the work, because tapping into your emotional response can be part of your assessment tools as an editor. If you donâ€™t personally enjoy the work, you have to rely more on the intellectual aspect of your editorial judgment.
But the elements you need to remember in your assessment are:
1. What is the story trying to achieve/deliver?
2. Does it workâ€”and do I, as a reader, care?
3. Who is your reader?
4. Do you think this story will deliver satisfaction to them?
Not necessarily in that order. And while series is a unique and remarkable animal in the publishing menagerie, I think most of these points are relevant for editors in general.
My job meant I needed to pay attention to my readersâ€”to hear when she said, but especially observe what she did (often two very different things). Our readerâ€”the marketplaceâ€”is a constantly moving target. Just as most series authors started as or became readers, the same goes for editors. Itâ€™s easier if you have an understanding of trends and can respond with a gut feel. But as an editor, you have to respond with your head as well as your heart.
Some situationsâ€”a new direction or line launch, the strength and skill of an author, a marketplace or demographic trend, single titles to a varying degreeâ€”can offer more scope for experimentation. Especially in series, though elsewhere as well, a reader can be surprised, amazed, intriguedâ€¦but must not be disappointed. Not in terms of delivering on the promiseâ€”overtly made or subtly impliedâ€”in the distribution, choice of format, packaging, promotion, past experience with the author.
While series is often seen as more limited in scope than a stand-alone single title, authors have experimented with remarkable thingsâ€”aliens, paranormal, magic, the list could go onâ€”and remained commercially viable. Incorporating elements that a single title author might find hard to include without being establishedâ€”and willing to risk a drop in sales if the experiment doesnâ€™t work.
As readers, we all bring expectations to opening a book. My goal as an editor was to ensure the story I acquired would deliver on those expectations.
And just getting to that final reader means being able to clear a number of gates and gatekeepers. An acquiring editor usually needs to convince other editors of the strength of the story and have them share the positive assessment. If itâ€™s a significant acquisition, she may need to get other departments on boardâ€”sales, marketing, art, publicityâ€”as they will need to be committed to developing the convincing selling package and story to take the material to market. Now the book advocate team will need to collectively convince the sales force that they have the â€œweaponsâ€ they need to convince the booksellers and distributors in turn that they should take the title.
The editor is only the first of a long series of people that must be convinced to take a chance on the title, spending time and money and rack space to make it available to a reader.
Harlequin and Silhouette series romances are amazing because they are not sold in individually but as a series, thus allowing a remarkable opportunity for writers to find their voiceâ€”within series parametersâ€”to experiment, to understand what is working/not working with the readership without the pressure to succeed and grow on every title that faces every stand-alone single title. Series can allow writers to perfect their craftâ€”and one of the key and universal elements of storytelling: to create characters we care about.
And in response to that cranky turned-down-now-acquired author, sometimes an editor is wrong in her assessment. Their assumptions about an audienceâ€™s interest can be off, and the market turns out to be much broader than past experience would indicate. But also the project may just not be right for the readership that editor is acquiring for, like a strong, but mis-cast actor.
True, you can occasionally edit a square peg into a round hole. But itâ€™s better for that peg to find a square hole. An editorâ€™s role is juggling all this and more.
But there is always the love of storytelling that drives usâ€”of finding a great story and working to make sure it will reach an appreciative audience. Iâ€™m delighted when a story finds the right homeâ€”with any of the many Harlequin imprints , or somewhere else.
I love when that happens!
Hey, thank you to everyone!
And Cait, you are dead on with the continuities within series. They are somewhere between Dickens writing in installments and earlier novels that were often in two or three volumes. There are many ways to tell a story!
Great blog Isabel, thanks so much.
A great reminder to someone slogging it out in the trenches!
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Thanks for posting a blog with OCC. Great to hear from you!
Isabel, thank you for the blog. I loved it.
– Sue Phillips
Isobel, excellent post. As for single title authors, there is a home for them also in series, if they write author-driven miniseries. What would be a single-title can be separated into segments, much as Jan Karon does in her series. Through miniseries installments the canvas can be made larger for those whose muse takes them to longer projects. However, there is a freshness, creatively speaking, when turning to new, individual stories per book.
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