The 5-Question [Book/Acquisitions] Editor Interview: Jennifer Lawler
What’s important is your willingness to engage with others—to share information, to let your personality shine, to make a connection.
—Jennifer Lawler [on platform]
Jennifer Lawler is the acquisitions editor/imprint manager for Crimson Romance, a new romance imprint from Adams Media (a division of F + W Media, Inc.). She spent many years as a freelance writer and book author and is also a former literary agent. She began working with Adams Media in 2010. She writes romances herself under a pen name and is a dedicated fan of the genre.
Meredith: With all the manuscripts that cross your desk, what is the internal experience between the one you know is “the one” and all the others—even if all the others are quite good?
JENNIFER: As a genre, romance is all about the emotional payoff. You know how it’s going to end (because if there’s no happily ever after, it’s not romance. It may be wonderful, it may be a love story, but it’s not romance). For it to end in that perfectly satisfying way that makes you smile—that’s the difference. My favorite experience is to wonder “How on earth are these two characters ever going to get to the happily ever after?” and to be surprised (but not in a “What the hell?” way). This can be dramatic or subtle—either approach can work.
I can usually tell from the beginning if I’m in the hands of a good storyteller, even if the prose sometimes doesn’t always sing, and I am always rooting for such a storyteller to get the ending right. It’s a lot harder than it sounds.
Meredith: How do you view rejection? What greater purpose does it serve in the creative process—for the writer?
JENNIFER: A rejection from me is just information that this particular project isn’t right for us at the moment. That’s it. I realize, though, that it’s hard for writers not to read more into it than that. But I have to emphasize that a rejection from me means absolutely nothing beyond that. It’s not a comment on the quality of the writing, the ability of the writer, or anything of the sort. Maybe it’s just a matter of you have a plot that’s just a little too similar to something already under contract or maybe I’m just full up on werewolves.
This business is so subjective—it’s really hard for writers, especially newer ones, to realize just how subjective. I definitely have my preferences for types of characters, plots, etc. but someone else has different preferences.
In terms of using rejection in the creative process, it’s crucial for a writer to place rejection in context. That means one rejection is not enough information for you to do anything. If you get a lot, you need to figure out, is the problem your query letter? (Most writers have terrible query letters, so I rarely make a decision based on a query unless it’s obviously not going to work—wrong genre or something. But many editors/agents do base their entire decision on that letter.) Are you starting the story in the wrong place? etc. Since most agents/editors can’t offer detailed feedback in a rejection (and one person’s opinion simply isn’t that meaningful) it really helps to have other writers (especially experienced, published writers) who can help you make sense of rejection and figure out what to do about it from a creative perspective. A while back, as a beginning romance novelist, I found my local RWA chapter extremely helpful in this regard.
Every genre has its conventions, and maybe you’re getting rejected because you’re not understanding (or even aware of) some of those conventions. For example, romance = happily ever after (or “happily for now”). If your story isn’t happily ever after, it’s not romance. You’re just not going to get a romance editor to buy it. A more subtle one is that readers don’t like a heroine who has an affair with a married man, so if that is part of your plot, it probably just isn’t going to fly with an editor. Here’s one I’m noticing a lot—I’ve been getting a lot of first-person submissions, and most romance readers prefer third person. So there is just a limit to how many first-person romances I’m ever going to be able to buy. The thing about conventions is that they’re rarely insurmountable (for example, if your heroine didn’t realize at first that the man she had an affair with was married then that is more palatable for readers, and actually makes her more sympathetic. By the same token, why not try telling your story in third person?) Does that mean you can never tell a first-person story with a heroine who knowingly has an affair with a married man and get it published? It’s possible, but the book has to be outstanding in many other ways to accommodate for it. That’s a lot to ask when some attention to genre conventions could move your work from “unpublished” to “published.”
If an editor takes the time to offer guidance for revision and suggests you resubmit after rewriting, that may feel like a rejection but it is extremely promising and means you’re on the right track.
So a rejection can tell you nothing, or it can mean you’re missing an important convention, or it can mean your writing just isn’t of publishable quality yet. The only way to know which it is is to keep trying, to read widely in your genre/field, to connect with other writers, to keep putting your work out there.
Meredith: What’s the deal with platform, honestly? And I mean, as an editor, how do you really (and I mean, really) determine when enough is enough? I know writers who scramble to get this many Twitter followers, or that many Facebook likes, only to be disappointed to find out that some other author has double, or triple or fifty times the amount. There has to be something more substantial than simply one’s persona in the world. Yes, I know, the work needs to hold up. However, often we see works that struggle to hold up, yet they are published. Can you help us understand the whys, and hows?
JENNIFER: Publishers (and therefore editors) live and die by sales, so platform is one way they can gauge whether a book will sell. This is a business, after all, and publishers exist to make money. For editors, the more we can hedge our risks, the happier we are. If you have two writers of equal ability with books of equal appeal (this is a hypothetical situation if there ever was one!), the one with a larger following (e.g., bigger platform) is more likely to sell more books.
Platform is less important in fiction than in nonfiction, but we do want writers who are willing to talk about and promote their books. You’re the author, so you’re the person who is going to care the most about your work. But it is a mistake to think a Facebook page or a Twitter account equals a platform. You have to have an actual strategy—if you’re just going to post links to where people can buy your book, your efforts are going to be counter-productive and you’d be better off not doing anything at all. What’s important is your willingness to engage with others—to share information, to let your personality shine, to make a connection. Support and promote others as much as you promote yourself. Be authentic. And do what works for you—there’s so much you could do, you have to set limits. What do you like? (Personally, I enjoy Facebook more than Twitter, so you’ll find me on FB a lot more than on Twitter. I have a blog but it’s very personal and I connect to a different audience there. I accept that my blog readers want something different from my FB fans/friends and try to give it to them.)
Numbers matter in the sense that if you have fifty thousand followers, some amount of them are probably going to buy your book, but it’s more than just a numbers game. Your connections have to feel like they want to support you/buy your book. They do that when they feel engaged with you.
It’s easy to wonder how Joe Smith got published when his work doesn’t hold up, but remember that this business is very subjective. Almost certainly someone did think his work held up! There are several best-selling writers I can’t read because I think their books are so bad. Yet they are hugely popular, so maybe it isn’t *them.* Maybe it’s *me*—it’s just not to my taste. That is a really crucial perspective in this business, because it helps you step back and say, okay, what is this person doing in their writing—and in connecting with readers!—that makes them so popular?
And just for the record, at Crimson Romance we buy books solely based on whether we like them and think our readers will, too. We don’t consider author platform in the acquisitions process, although of course most publishers do.
Meredith: Inside the publishing house, does the editor kind of, sort of, have to have an internal “platform (there’s that word again!) with the marketing and promotions department? How does that whole behind-the-scenes selection process go, and what do you or will you help your authors understand?
JENNIFER: In terms of acquisitions, I decide what books get published at Crimson Romance. I work with an assistant and several editors, but I choose the books based on a vision the publisher and I created together. This is quite different from other publishing houses, where acquisitions have to go through an editorial committee, with input from the sales team. This model allows us to meet an aggressive release schedule and simplifies the whole process.
In terms of working with the marketing department, we have an agenda for the entire imprint. We’re focused on promoting all of our authors with equal vigor. However, yes, I am absolutely going to say to marketing, “Look, Jane Doe has a gazillion Facebook followers, let’s help her leverage that.” Or “Jane Doe has some great promotion ideas; how can we help her achieve them?” In my many years as a book author, I found that marketing/promotion departments were always much more responsive when I went to them with specific ideas versus my just waiting for them to produce results. As an editor, I can see why this is so: marketing and promotions people want to do great work but their work is never-ending; if you can give them five concrete tasks to do it’s so much easier for them than if you say, “Promote my book to readers!” If you’re a writer, take heart: if you’re the person who says, “Can you do these five things for me?” you’ll get much better results than if you say, “Let me know when I hit the bestseller lists.”
Meredith: Is the decision to publish an author – or not publish – ever excruciatingly difficult? What is going through your mind? And your heart?
JENNIFER: This hasn’t happened much (so far) because I have a lot of latitude in what I acquire—no one is looking over my shoulder. So I’m not thinking, “I love this book but Joe Smith on the acquisitions committee is going to hate it. What to do, what to do?” Sometimes a manuscript has the kernal of a great book inside it, and I know it’s going to require a lot of editorial work to get it there, so I do sometimes wrestle with that (Iike editors everywhere, I already have more work than I can handle!) So I have to ask myself whether it will be worth the effort. Can the author really accomplish what needs to be accomplished? And am I kidding myself that a great book is hiding inside? But I have a lot of experience as a writer (not just as an editor) and I do have a fairly good sense of what is promising and can be fixed versus what is promising but beyond help. In the former case, I will send a revision letter; in the latter case, I will tell them to send me their next book.
However, I did have this situation come up recently. I loved a book for its haunting story, its imagery, its beautiful words. It was just breathtaking . . . but it wasn’t quite what you think when you think romance. So I wrestled with this for a while and then I went back to the author and said, “Look, this is a fabulous book, and you can almost certainly find someone who will publish it as is. But I can’t; it has to skew romance a little more than it does. Here are my ideas for making it so. But please don’t think that this is your only shot at getting the book published. It’s a fantastic book and someone else will love it.” And the author wrote back and said, “Thanks, you know I figured I’d have to do some revision for it to fit your line, so I will. Let’s get started.” And I felt very very lucky. I keep thinking, “This is the kind of book that is going to make our reputation.” Look for it in June 🙂