Wednesday, August 11, 2010

#WomeninPublishing: Interview with Faith Black, Berkley Books

Sometimes we TKers strap on our pith helmets and venture outside our house, to find those inspiring forces in publishing in other offices…this week, one of my favorite #womeninpublishing (for more, go check this Twitter hashtag), Faith Black, editor at Berkley Books (a division of Penguin), answers my questions about genre fiction, gets her to 'fess up to e-love, and asks what advice she has for people entering the publishing business.

What kinds of books do you edit?
I’m an Editor at the Berkley Publishing Group and I handle mainly mysteries (mostly of the cozy variety for our Prime Crime imprint) and Westerns.

How did your career lead you to this kind of position/material?

My dream was always to work with fiction, and the transition ended up being a pretty easy one, in the end. I was very comfortable at an academic press, considering myself a bit of an academic at heart (I was in grad school getting my Master’s in English at the time). From there I moved over to Avalon Books (for whom I had previously done freelance work) where I took on genre fiction (specifically romances, mysteries, and Westerns), which I had never worked on before. But a good story is a good story across the board and I was thrilled to be working with fiction and interesting stories, it was a nice break from textbooks. From there it was an easy leap to Berkley where I continue my work with mysteries and Westerns.

Genre fiction has a lot of rules, especially the romances you were working with at Avalon. Is editing a romance that’s supposed to avoid sex different than a conventional romance? Avalon romances are intended to be family friendly. So there’s no sex and everybody keeps it clean. However, anyone who’s read more conventional romances will realize that this definitely isn’t the norm. It’s challenging to find the line between "just enough steaminess" and "too much."

What about the difference between a straight-up western (say, Louis L’Amour) from a novel set in the West (say, Cormac McCarthy)?

Well, for the Westerns, you can pretty much set anything you want in "the West," but that doesn’t necessarily make it a Western. Most of the Westerns I work with tend to be fairly traditional and involve a lot of standard Western themes—gun fights, saloon girls, sheriffs, Indians, etc. They’re historically set, as opposed to contemporary and any sort of romance involved is usually secondary (separating a Western from a Romance with a Western setting, another tricky line to find sometimes). That being said, though, I’m working on some new Westerns right now that are a little more outside the traditional mold and I’m really excited about that.

When you’re editing a manuscript, what do you focus on, the reader or the story?

I tend to focus more on the story itself than any sort of typical reader. I suppose, self-centered creature that I am, that I tend to use myself as a yardstick when need be. But mostly I’m concerned with the book as a whole and how everything fits together and does it flow and does it make sense. Am I hooked? Do I like the main character? These are all more important to me than tailoring a book to some sort of specific audience. Especially when reading is such a subjective experience anyway.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about genre fiction today?

I think the most common misconception about genre fiction (because I used to think this way too, before I became more aware of it) is that it’s less worthy somehow than other forms of fiction. That it’s not as worthwhile as, say, literary fiction. I was definitely a snob about genre fiction before I started working with it on a day to day basis. I made the inevitable jokes about romance novels and Fabio, etc. But having worked with genre fiction now for about 4 years, I can say that this really isn’t the case. Some of the genre fiction that I’ve read both as an editor and just as a consumer (now that I’ve gotten past my initial snobbery) has been some of my favorite reading of the past few years. For instance, I really adore the cozy mysteries that I read—both the ones that I edit myself and the others in the Prime Crime line that my colleagues work on. There are certain series that I make sure to snatch up as soon as the newest installment comes out. Genre fiction is more rewarding reading than most people give it credit for. And it’s started showing up on the NYTimes bestseller list, so people do seem to finally be taking notice.

Where do you stand on the e-book question: do you think they’ll replace hardcovers, or evolve into their own kind of reading phenomena?

I think we’re all sort of feeling our way through the whole e-book thing. For myself, I always said I would NEVER get an e-reader and that I had NO INTEREST WHATSOEVER in ebooks. Well, turns out I lied. I have a Kindle that I adore. However, it will never replace real books for me. There is still something about having the physical book in my hands (and if it’s a mass market book, then it fits in my purse better than my kindle does, which is handy when I need something read on the train). I think both physical books and e-books have their place and that one doesn’t necessarily preclude the other.

In general, there seems to be a crisis in reading in this country; literary fiction and non-fiction rarely reaches a point of mass readership, which sometimes makes a girl wonder if people are reading at all. Yet genre fiction--romances, mysteries, westerns--are all over the bestseller lists. Why do you think these books catch on...and who's reading them?

I think maybe it's a question of genre fiction being more accessible to a wider range of people. Maybe people find literary fiction more intimidating. But I also feel like there's been a surge in literary fiction and nonfiction as well recently. But maybe that's just in my own personal reading habits. If I were able to tell you why certain books, or genres, catch on, then I'd save all the information for myself while I went out to hunt down all the bestsellers.

What has been the biggest challenge in your editing career?

I needed to learn to trust my instincts. When I first started out in publishing I was reluctant to speak too strongly. I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings by rejecting their work or suggesting a rewrite. Who was I to make these decisions? But over time I realized that my instincts were good ones. And I have worked with and been trained by some amazingly talented people. Their faith in me taught me not to underestimate my own judgment. I am, after all, a lifelong reader and I know what I want out of books and this helps me talk to my authors and explain to them how to make their book the best it can possibly be.

What aspect of the publishing industry do you think deserves a makeover?

Insanely massive advances have always seemed a bit silly to me (except in those fantasies I have where I write an amazing novel and get a big fat one myself). It seems to make more sense (except in extreme circumstances where you know it’s going to earn out) to have more moderate advances and spread the wealth around a bit more.

What do you read in your spare time?

Spare time? What’s that? I kid. I read a little bit of everything and often find myself in the midst of multiple books at once. I like nonfiction (specifically of the narrative variety—Bill Bryson, David Sedaris, A. J. Jacobs). And of course I love fiction as well (Alexander McCall Smith, Jasper Fforde, Tana French). And that’s to say nothing of my own authors, of course (Joyce and Jim Lavene, Casey Daniels, Diana Killian, Terri Thayer, Peter Brandvold, Dusty Richards, Jory Sherman, Lyle Brandt, I know I’m leaving some out, but I love them all).

What advice would you give to someone starting a career in publishing tomorrow?

Publishing can be an immensely rewarding career and I have loved every second of it. If you’re looking for big bucks and glory, then publishing isn’t the place for you, but I have found that the rewards in a career in publishing are far more important than money or fame (cheesy, I know, but true). Finding a new author or acquiring a new book and seeing it out in print, flipping through the pages of something that you had a direct hand in producing and bringing to life—it’s an amazing feeling, for me at least. It can take a while to get to a place you want to be, but have patience. It make take a few years and you’ll have to start out as an assistant and pour through slush and do endless filing but it’s all worth it in the end.

No comments:

Post a Comment