Guest Post: What’s love got to do with it?

May 24, 2008 by in category Blogs tagged as with 6 and 0
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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 they’d announce they’d sold a project I’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 editor’s role isn’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 —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 don’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 work—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 readers—to hear when she said, but especially observe what she did (often two very different things). Our reader—the marketplace—is a constantly moving target. Just as most series authors started as or became readers, the same goes for editors. It’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 situations—a new direction or line launch, the strength and skill of an author, a marketplace or demographic trend, single titles to a varying degree—can offer more scope for experimentation. Especially in series, though elsewhere as well, a reader can be surprised, amazed, intrigued…but must not be disappointed. Not in terms of delivering on the promise—overtly made or subtly implied—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 things—aliens, paranormal, magic, the list could go on—and remained commercially viable. Incorporating elements that a single title author might find hard to include without being established—and willing to risk a drop in sales if the experiment doesn’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 it’s a significant acquisition, she may need to get other departments on board—sales, marketing, art, publicity—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 “weapons” 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 voice—within series parameters—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 craft—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 audience’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 it’s better for that peg to find a square hole. An editor’s role is juggling all this and more.

But there is always the love of storytelling that drives us—of finding a great story and working to make sure it will reach an appreciative audience. I’m delighted when a story finds the right home—with any of the many Harlequin imprints , or somewhere else.

I love when that happens!

Author Details
Marianne H. Donley writes fiction from short stories to funny romances and quirky murder mysteries. She makes her home in Tennessee with her husband and son. She is a member of Bethlehem Writers Group, Romance Writers of America, OCC/RWA, and Music City Romance Writers. You can find Marianne on social media:,, and
Marianne H. Donley writes fiction from short stories to funny romances and quirky murder mysteries. She makes her home in Tennessee with her husband and son. She is a member of Bethlehem Writers Group, Romance Writers of America, OCC/RWA, and Music City Romance Writers. You can find Marianne on social media:,, and


  • Anonymous
    on June 26, 2008

    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!

  • Anonymous
    on May 28, 2008

    Great blog Isabel, thanks so much.
    A great reminder to someone slogging it out in the trenches!

  • Anonymous
    on May 26, 2008

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • Anonymous
    on May 26, 2008

    Thanks for posting a blog with OCC. Great to hear from you!

  • Anonymous
    on May 25, 2008

    Isabel, thank you for the blog. I loved it.

    – Sue Phillips
    OCCRWA President

  • Anonymous
    on May 25, 2008

    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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