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Interview With Editor Brian Geffen
Today I have the very great honor of interviewing my editor, Brian Geffen of Philomel Books!
Brian bought my upcoming YA Asian fantasy, FOREST OF A THOUSAND LANTERNS, in a three-book deal last June. It has been wonderful to work with such a brilliant, sharp-eyed editor and he has helped me turn this book into one I'm truly proud of!
He kindly agreed to give us a sneak peek into the acquisitions process and answer some great questions I collected from Twitter folks several months ago.
Without further ado, here's Brian!
Thanks so much for joining us today, Brian! When did you decide to become an editor and how did you do it?
It took me quite some time before I arrived at that moment of realization where I thought to myself, “hey, I need to become an editor!” I was always an avid reader as a kid, particularly of fantasy, and like so many others, reading Harry Potter was a formative experience in my life. But even before that, I remember being obsessed with books like The Giver, A Wrinkle in Time, Holes, Bridge to Terabithia, and even earlier in life, all of Shel Silverstein’s work. Yet I still never even contemplated becoming an editor until later in college when I interned for Scholastic one summer. Even then, I interned in the Book Clubs Production department, so I wasn’t working in Trade or Editorial, and I was also considering totally different paths outside of publishing. Basically, I was just dipping my toes in the water at that point.
It wasn’t until I was teaching English in France, a year after college, when I was writing and reading voraciously that a light bulb went off in my head and I realized I needed to work with books, to be part of the creative process, to help build stories for the kid I once was—and still am at heart. In many ways, the fantasy series The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan swept me away and changed my life, propelling me onto the path of an editor. I was so enamored with that story that I knew I wanted to help make something like that a reality in my own work. I already had publishing internship experience at that point, so I started applying for tons of editorial positions. After months of rejections or nonresponses, I grew frustrated, but I remained determined. I continued to try to meet publishing professionals through alumni networks and other means. I only got one interview despite applying for over a hundred positions and meeting with dozens of publishing professionals. Thankfully, I got the job at Philomel Books, and it turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me.
It was one of the best things that ever happened to me, too, because I get to have you as my editor! You must get a ton of queries from agents. How do you prioritize what manuscripts you read?
I prioritize manuscripts in a few different ways. First of all, I try to never take longer than three months to get back to an agent, really two, but unfortunately, these days, it can stretch to three when I’m particularly busy editing contracted manuscripts. When I have enough time and I find my groove, I can often cut that response time down to a month or less. Though that often means working a lot on weekends and weeknights.
If I receive a query from an agent who I’ve worked with in the past or one who I know has really similar tastes and deeply understands what I’m looking for, I might move that query up to the top of my pile. Usually, when I receive a query, I read the summary and a few pages right away. If I’m captured in those first few pages, I might drop everything and dive in fully because this is a competitive industry and editors can move VERY quickly on projects. I can’t stomach the thought of missing out on a project I love because I didn’t read it quickly enough.
Finally, and most importantly, the queries that sound the most original and up my alley are those I normally turn to quickly. There are so many wonderful books being written these days, but because the volume of manuscripts published is so high, it can sometimes feel as though queries sound familiar, especially in the midst of one trend or another. Original manuscripts feel like a breath of fresh air.
How often do you read manuscripts from agents you don't have a connection with already?
I always look up agents I don’t have a connection with, and as long as I don’t find that the agent has a shady background, I will always read a manuscript as long as I’m interested in the query. By shady, I mean an agent who works outside the normal processes of literary agents, possibly charging clients or some other red flag. Those agents are a stain on the industry and they do writers a great disservice. I think it’s pretty obvious they make me angry! There’s something predatory about that sort of practice. Writers, beware and always do your research.
If a query really doesn’t sound right for me, I will politely refuse—that applies to agents I do have a connection with as well.
What percentage of books do you acquire that you read?
Some editors acquire more books than others, it varies, but for whatever reason, I tend to be on the lower end of the spectrum in terms of the number of books I acquire per year. On average, I receive around 20-25 queries per month. So, that comes to about 250 submissions per year. Last year, I acquired four distinct projects, though most of those were multi-book deals so it ends up being more than four books. That works out to just over 1%.
What are the main reasons you might pass on a book?
The number one reason, and I know it’s the most frustrating reason for writers, is narrative voice. It’s so subjective, which is why I think it’s so frustrating, but if I don’t feel that deep, indescribable, I-need-to-keep-reading-this connection with the voice, then it’s a deal breaker. I think that’s true of most, if not all, editors.
Other than voice, I tend to look for tight, quick pacing. If the pages aren’t turning with ease, if the intrigue isn’t constantly exciting, if I’m not being kept on my toes, then I’ll likely reject. I read until I’m no longer interested so I need to stay captivated from start to finish. Pull me in from page one and never let go.
I also work on a lot of fantasy and I find that worldbuilding is very difficult for many writers. Understandably so, as it’s a monumental task. If the worldbuilding feels either underdeveloped or derivative, I’m out. Since I’ve read so much fantasy, I look for fresh, distinct worldbuilding.
I am a huge proponent of the We Need Diverse Books movement for so many obvious reasons, but one aspect of publishing that I find both troubling and astounding is how many cultures and parts of the world are not sufficiently represented in teen and middle-grade fiction. Both realistic fiction and fantasy. Particularly with fantasy, I’ve been so thrilled to see so many submissions in the last couple years with fresh, diverse worldbuilding that draw on cultural identities and mythologies from throughout the world.
It’s not only essential that kids and teens see themselves represented in books, but also that they see themselves in all types of stories, both realistic and more fantastical, literary and genre fiction. Which is one of so many reasons why I was thrilled and honored to edit Julie’s AMAZING!%#! Forest of a Thousand Lanterns. That’s my one not-so-shameless plug. I couldn’t help myself! You need this book. (Okay, I promise I’m done now.)
I am grinning from ear to ear! And I agree with everything you said about the need for more diverse representation in kids' books. If you love a book, what are the main reasons a book dies at acquisitions?
There are two main reasons a book dies at acquisitions--and, thankfully, this doesn't happen too often. First, the team doesn’t see the same potential in a story or writing that I do. Again, the publishing industry, especially the editorial side, is largely dependent on instinct and opinion. It’s subjective. Meaning that sometimes I might love something, but the rest of the team doesn’t see it. Luckily, that doesn’t happen too often.
The other reason, which is also very subjective, is that in some cases the team doesn’t see there being a sufficient audience for a book. If a book feels so niche or if it feels too all over the place genre-wise as to not have a distinct target audience, then a book could die at acquisitions. I don’t want to give off the wrong idea, though—that’s not to say we expect every book to win an award or hit the bestseller list. If I feel so strongly that I must publish this book, that it is so stupendous, sales potential aside, and my team feels that same conviction, the book will be published. Publishing is a business, but we are first and foremost curators of art and we never lose sight of that responsibility and privilege.
Do you have any advice for teens who want to be editors one day?
Obvious, but essential: read, read, read! And specifically, that means current books, not just old classics because every editorial candidate has read Harry Potter. I meet with a lot of recent college grads and I’m often surprised by how many of them haven’t read a recent young adult or middle-grade novel or picture book. You need to know the market to understand what you’re looking for, to understand your tastes, and even as a green editorial assistant, that process can never start too early.
And also, write, write, write! I think this is underrated. Just because we’re not authors (though some editors are), it doesn’t mean editors aren’t writing copy weekly, even daily. Jacket copy, online descriptive copy, title information sheets, presentations, and of course, line edits. Editors also need to be able to effectively communicate with authors, and that’s a skill that one hones over time, but it starts with a robust writing foundation. Building your writing ability improves your ability to communicate. Most important of all, I think it’s critical to understand the craft of writing, to have practiced it sufficiently on your own, in order to be able to understand the perspective of a writer. In other words, to critique the craft, one must understand the craft.
Lastly, in terms of more constructive advice, I’d say to not feel obligated to choose a particular major in college. If you want to be an English major, great. But if you don’t, that’s fine too. I was an International Studies and Religious Studies major because, like I said, I didn’t know what I wanted to do after college. I think any sort of liberal arts background introduces you to a host of new ideas, to creativity in its many forms, to the art of writing, and I think there’s no set way to become an editor in terms of your area of study. Pursue a major you love and always seek out ways to expand your mind. Then, when it comes time to apply, try to meet people in publishing, whether at job fairs, through your alumni network, etc. I even cold-contacted alumni on LinkedIn who worked in publishing. It’s not the most fun part of the process, but every connection counts. Internship experience is key.
Thanks so much for taking the time to share your experience and insight with us, Brian! You're the best!
For those of you reading, did any of this information surprise you? What are your thoughts on the editorial process? Feel free to discuss in the comments below!