Algonkian Writer Conferences Interview Series with Editors: Dana Isaacson of Random House

Algonkian Writer Conferences talks platform, passion, and craft with Dana I.

Dana Edwin Isaacson is a Senior Editor with the Random House Publishing Group, where he edits both fiction and non-fiction. He has worked as an abridger, a writer and a literary agent. He has also been an editor at ReganBooks, St. Martin’s Press and Pocket Books.

AC: These days it appears more and more true that for various genres of fiction aspiring authors often have an edge in getting a first novel published if they possess an authentic platform for telling the story, i.e., a media platform, or at least one of sufficient experience and expertise that applies in a significant way to the essence of the work. For example, the author of one of our recent successes at the New York Pitch Conference, Lipstick in Afghanistan, would fit easily into the category above.

Do you see platform becoming more important these days for certain types of fiction. And if so, what kinds? What do you look for in the way of platform when in the office, or at a conference listening to a writer pitch you their work? And can you give us writers some tips in this area?

DI: Regardless of their book’s category, an author’s platform has become ever more crucial in the brave new world of electronic publishing. If your book is published as an ebook, how is the consumer to find that book and purchase it? Owners of ereaders very well might not stroll down the bookstore aisle and pick up what catches their eye. Instead, new and innovative ways must be found to connect authors and readers. This is the sort of marketing that many introverted writers have difficulty mastering, but without a doubt online communities, personal blogs, or alternate outreach strategies can be extremely useful in boosting an author or a specific project’s visibility. If an author has sensible strategies to reach potential readers, they have a leg up on the competition.

AC: Which fictional elements do you like to hear clicking soundly in a pitch communication, those that enable you as an editor make a decision as to whether or not the project has commercial potential? Can you summarize the elements and tell us which ones are most important to you, and why?

DI: With a commercial novel, the emphasis must always be on a well-structured narrative, one that unflaggingly keeps the reader engaged. When a proposed book idea sounds gimmicky or cluttered with explanations rather than an absorbing or rollicking good story, I start to tune out. The emphasis must always be on story: it should be unique, the characters should resonate with the reader, and it should be resolved in an fashion that is both satisfying for the reader and that makes sense within the construct of the narrative.

AC: Do you feel such discussions about characters and plot, etc., help the writers focus on the truly vital issues they need to hash through before they can become published authors?

DI: Nothing thrills most writers more than talking about their creations, and such discussions are incredibly valuable. An isolated writer at his or her desk can overlook narrative problems that are obvious to others. Obviously the more feedback an author receives the better. 

AC: It seems axiomatic over time that publishers prefer, if possible, to market novels with great stories and characters, and that it behooves an aspiring author in most genres to attempt, insofar as possible, to create a story that is "high concept", i.e., commercially viable yet not sounding like a tale you've heard a few thousand times, or worse yet, one that everyone knows has failed in the marketplace. Can you discuss this? How important is a story that sounds unique while also flying a banner of potential commercial success? Or is "mid" or "low concept" equally acceptable as long as the prose is superb, as one might find in more literary novels? Or does it naturally depend on the genre?

DI: For a novel to be truly successful, a high concept idea must be secondary to a satisfying plot. “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” Ultimately, a publisher is skeptical when hearing you have an idea that is as good or better than “The Da Vinci Code.” A clever concept within any genre might grab a reader, but an absorbing narrative will win a reader’s loyalty. Publishers want to be convinced that your novel’s story absorbs the reader like “The Da Vinci Code,” that its well-constructed narrative causes readers to flip the pages as fast as they would with a novel by Jody Picoult, or Janet Evanovich, Nicholas Sparks or Ian McEuen.

AC: How important are a writer's fiction writing credentials in the genres you represent? Are you more or less likely to ask to see a project if the writer has strong fiction creds? What are your standards? Do you balance creds against a great story or are both equally important?

DI: Writers learn how to write by writing a lot, so naturally an editor looks closer at a project from a writer whose past signifies discipline and a seriousness about the craft. Still, the past matters only so much. The question facing the editor at a pitch conference is: does this story sound like it will sell books tomorrow?

AC: What other advice can you give the aspiring authors out there? What is important to you that we have yet cover?

DI: Read as much as you can and learn. Join a writers group to get feedback for your work. Establish a writing routine and set deadlines. While of course publication is the dream of most writers’, also understand that the act of creation is the most satisfying part of the process. If you are serious about writing, you should do your best to enjoy the very long journey it takes to get published. Be Buddhist about the craft.

AC: In general, what do you see as the future of novel-length fiction, both in terms of quality, and in terms of evolution away from paper? Will bookstores always have a place in American culture?

DI: People will always love physical books, and I certainly hope there are always bookstores. One fantastic development that comes with electronic publishing is that length becomes less relevant. Works of fiction that would in the past have been too short or too long can now be marketed and sold. For example, if they can find their readership, publishers and writers can sell short stories for 99 cents. And of course there is a democratization that comes with electronic publishing, which is why the major publishers will remain relevant. As in the past, they will continue to be seen by book buyers as the gatekeepers for quality.