Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Writers' Wednesday: An Interview with Editor Deborah Nemeth

Welcome to a very special edition of Writers' Wednesday! Instead of interviewing an author today, I'm interviewing Samhain Publishing editor Deborah Nemeth. Want to hear an inside scoop on the world of editing and publishing? Here's your chance! (And yes, if you're wondering, Deb is my editor at Samhain...she's tough but good!)

Deb, thanks so much for joining me today! Tell us, how did you get into the business of editing?

I starting out writing fiction and found that I enjoyed the revising and polishing steps the most. And like all editors and authors, I’ve always loved reading. Editing allows me to combine the best of both, since I spend a lot of time either reading submissions or guiding authors through revisions.

How long have you been at Samhain Publishing? What do you like most about working there?

I first met Angela James, Samhain Publishing’s Executive Editor, in the fall of 2007, at a time when I was editing for a few other e-publishers. Angie impressed me so much, I asked her on the spot about job openings and began editing for SP soon after.

SP has a dynamic leader in Crissy Brashear, a great staff and a wonderful team of generous, helpful editors. I’ve learned a lot and had the pleasure of working with several dozen talented authors. The other thing I like is the thrill of signing a new author, especially a new, never-before-published talent.

Of course, editing has its downsides, too. It’s never easy to send anyone a rejection letter. The worst part of my job is rejecting a manuscript from one of my authors—especially after having sent them a revision letter.

What makes you fall in love with a submission from a new author?

More than anything, I’m excited by an author’s voice. Voice is hard to describe; it’s rather like that definition of pornography, I know it when I see it . It’s the way a writer expresses herself/himself that can encompass perspective, attitude, rhythm, word choice, personality…

But voice alone won’t do it. I recently rejected a submission from the slush pile from an author with a wonderful voice because, after sending a revision letter and receiving the revised manuscript, it was apparent the author wasn’t able to do edits, and none of the pacing problems had been fixed. I was so disappointed, because I’d had high hopes of signing this author and I loved the setting and premise, too. Lack of well-structured conflict and sluggish pacing are the biggest problems I see with manuscripts from otherwise talented authors.

In addition to the author’s voice, I have to love the hero and heroine and care about their goals. The conflict must grab me from the first page and carry me through until the end. The story has to have a black moment in which I can’t figure out how the heroine and hero can possibly overcome the odds. Stories that make me laugh and cry are more likely to stick with me. And if the submission has all that and a kickass premise, well, there’s a good chance that lightning will strike.

What are you looking to acquire right now?

Male/male romance is selling very well for Samhain right now, as are erotic romances, especially ménage, so those submissions are always welcome. I’m eager to sign more authors who write Renaissance/Georgian/Regency/Victorian-set historicals—especially erotic Regencies, Regency romantic comedy, Regency suspense, or paranormal Regencies.

I love paranormal romance but would like to see something other than vamps—witches, ghosts, djinns, genies, cat shifters, dragons, fallen angels, whatever—only because I already have quite a few authors writing vampire series. (Vampire authors, fear not—there are other SP editors who love the fangy subs.) In general, I prefer fantasy in richly layered worlds over sci fic or futuristic-set romances.

Romantic suspense manuscripts will interest me if they’re well-paced, with high tension, especially when the romantic conflict is deftly interwoven with the suspense plot.

When it comes to straight contemporary romance, I’m looking for deeply emotional stories with fresh premises and real external conflict—not stories that rely on the same old I-was-hurt-before-and-don’t-want-to-trust-my-heart-again for the sole conflict. And, last but not least, I’m a sucker for romantic comedy that makes me laugh out loud.

In the synopsis package, I like to receive complete manuscripts in .rtf format, along with a short (1-3 page) synopsis and query letter. My email address is

Any other thoughts or advice for new authors seeking to sign that first contract?

Study the craft—learn how to handle viewpoint, layer in backstory, hook a reader, give your characters bridging goals. There are so many great books out there. I recommend Stein on Writing, How to Grow a Novel, GMC: Goal Motivation & Conflict, Writing the Breakout Novel, and Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. Read agent and editor blogs.

Don’t submit a manuscript until you’ve sat on it, revised it umpteen times, sent it to critique groups and/or beta readers. Ditto for your query. One day you may not need to do this, but for a first book, you probably need to get input from others with more experience. But make sure you’re getting advice from authors who are published in your genre, because bad advice is worse than none.

Be aware that your online personality may affect an editor’s decision to take you on. If I google you and find out that you’ve been sniping at someone on Dear Author, I’ll be hesitant to make you an offer. So if you’re one of those people who has to get the last word in and simply can’t restrain herself from replying to any perceived criticism, we’re probably not a good fit.

Be prepared to promote tirelessly. New authors are often surprised and dismayed by this aspect of publication. I suggest not waiting until you have a contract to design your web site, set up your blog, and learn everything there is to know about promoting your ebook.

What are the most common reasons you reject manuscripts?

Lack of conflict and pacing. If these are missing in the opening pages of the manuscript, I’m not interested in reading far, no matter how much I like the voice, setting, or premise. Another thing that will make me set a manuscript aside is a heroine who’s too wimpy/has no goal or passion.

What advice would you give new authors in working with an editor?

Be prepared for your precious words to be criticized and dissected nine ways to Sunday. This can be difficult and it’s natural for your defenses to come to the fore. When your hackles rise, step back, take a deep breath, and remember we’re on the same side—my pay depends on your sales. As your editor, it’s my job to ensure consistency in style and to point out anything that will make readers pause and scratch their heads.

Don’t rely on your editor to do your work for you. We’ll painstakingly point out every dangling modifier in your first manuscript but we do expect you to apply yourself and get the hang of the whole punctuation and grammar thing by the second or third book.

Some authors turn in a beautifully polished manuscript for their first book—a manuscript that’s been through critique groups and contests ad nauseum in the author’s quest for publication. Then, after that first sale, these authors get sloppy and start submitting first-draft stuff. Um, no. Unless your name’s topping the NYT bestsellers list, you shouldn’t expect your editor to polish your subsequent manuscripts. That kind of thinking will only result in rejections and disappointment.

Be honest with your editor. We can’t help resolve any issues—whether with cover art, your marketing blurb, or your publication date—if we don’t know about them.

Where do you see publishing trends moving in the next couple of years?

I’m an editor, not a publisher, so I don’t see myself as an industry expert. I’m more comfortable discussing slushpiles, viewpoint, pacing and where to use a semicolon than industry trends. Since I lack experience in economic forecasting, which would be helpful in projecting the future (either that or a crystal ball), my thoughts on this topic shouldn’t be taken as having any particular significance.

Given the current economic climate, I would expect most companies to continue paring operational expenses. This could very well mean fewer imprints and fewer publishing slots for new authors, at least in the near term. But of course that won’t last forever, and I can’t imagine a time when editors and agents would ever stop looking for new talent.

My personal hope is that prices for ebook readers will come down to a point where the devices become as common as MP3 players. I don’t expect that to happen during the next two years, though, so I’ll have to be patient for few more years yet.

Deb, thanks so much for all these words of wisdom! Readers, if you'd like to read more on Deb's take on pacing, visit her recent Samhain blog here. And remember, all comments left today qualify you to win the prize pack at the end of this month!