Sunday, July 8, 2007

Michael Stearns at Hollins

Michael Stearns, editorial director at Harper Collins, came to speak to writers at Hollins on Friday evening. In addition to his editorial director title, he is also the head of foreign acquistions and manages a half dozen other editors.

He gave sort of an Introduction to the Publishing World 101. While much of the information I have read about and heard before, he gave us a visual representation (via a hand drawn chart) that really summarized publishers and what books fall into different categories.

There are four extremes on this chart (imagine a x and y axis). Literary books on one end of the extreme--competent books on the other end. They intersect with institutional books one on end and commercial books on the other end. Most books fall somewhere in the four quadrants. Likewise, most publishing companies publish within a certain range.

Here's the jist:
* Big publishers--Random House, Harper Collins, Simon and Schuster
These publishers have to concentrate a lot on commerical books that are big sellers. They have many divisions that focus on certain types of books. They have certain expectations on money to be brought in and have fewer slots for mid-list books by unknown authors. The bigger the publishing house, the more pressure on the editors to bring in books that have commercial appeal. He says he is always looking for books he can fall in love with. Series fiction is big with the bigger houses too.
* Mid-Size Houses--Harcourt, Holt, FSG, Bloomsbury, Candlewick, Abrams
These publishers don't have the big budgets, so they can't afford to do as many commercial books that the big houses do. They can take more opportunities to purchase literary fiction.
* Smaller Houses--Walker, Tricycle, Marshall Cavendish
These publishers are very effective at focusing on publishing for the school and library markets.

What is selling right now?
* Chick Lit
* Teen novels with an edge (The Book Thief, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing)
* Series Fiction
* Middle Grade Fiction--Stearns is always look for this

Books he recommends writers read:
Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy
The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman
A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly

He also had us take a look at the current NY Times Bestsellers List. He said it was important to take a look at what types of books are selling well and to read some of those books on the list.

Some advice for writers:
1) Go to conferences (like SCBWI). He recommends meeting with agents there and have them critique your manuscript. In fact, he recommends meeting with agents over editors. He says agents know what the individual editors are looking for. He also recommends trying to find an agent that is trying to build up a list of authors.
2) Go to workshops and learn about your craft.
3) Try to understand that rejection is not personal. An editor has to really LOVE your book to spend time with it and take up space on their list. They must feel like they can't live without your book--and sometimes even that isn't enough at an acquisitions meeting.
4) Read broadly. Read a variety of books.
5) Read books on craft. Books he recommends include: Narrative Design by Madison Smartt Bell, Revising Fiction by David Madden, and Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern.
6) Learn to love language--language is what it's all about in kids' books.
7) Most importantly--Do NOT write to trends. Yes, it's important to see what's selling and to read the authors that are doing well, BUT it's also best to write what you LOVE! Publishers work so far in advance that it doesn't matter what is hot now. If you write to the trend, it may not be what you are passionate about, and it will be not a trend by the time it gets published.

Check out Amy's take on the same lecture at The Virginia Scribe.

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