CJ: Unfortunately, platform is important for every type of fiction. It isn’t simply a matter of writing a terrific book (though that doesn’t hurt). From a publishing perspective, editors have to take platform into consideration because our goal is to sell as many books as possible. If an author has a strong platform, it means that they have already assembled a group of potential readers. That said, we also help authors build platforms (by reaching out for blurbs, establishing a presence for them online, etc) if we think a book is truly amazing. So there is still hope if you don’t have a strong platform just yet.
AC: As you know, we train writers to examine the most vital fictional elements in their novels from the inside out, and quite frequently, if the premise or plot or characters are lacking in some manner, that fact comes through in workshop discussions and presents itself in need of a fix. Though we can't always fix everything, 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?
CJ: I’m always on the lookout for a strong, unique narrative voice and a great premise. Everything else, in my mind, is malleable. An editor can help you add depth to your characters by pointing out what elements are missing. If you have a meandering plot, an editor can help you streamline the story. But an engaging narrative voice is something that should come directly from the writer. And I think a unique voice is what sets bestsellers apart from midlist titles—readers gravitate to a fresh narrative perspective. Similarly, a strong hook helps a book stand out in the crowded fiction marketplace.
AC: Have you found it a valuable or rewarding experience to engage in discussions with writers about their projects? 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?
CJ: I always find it valuable to speak directly with writers, and I hope they feel the same way. It’s important for writers to understand who editors are and what they value. I also think that when a writer is forced to speak about their work, they discover more about what they feel is vital and important. Every editor is going to have a different opinion about what ingredients are necessary for a great book, so it is important to establish your own set of values too.
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?
CJ: I don’t think that “high concept” is absolutely necessary. A great hook does help a book stand out in the fiction marketplace, which is why editors tend to look for high concept material. That said, great storytelling is also valuable.
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?
CJ: Even though I said that platform is important, I’ll take an excellent manuscript by an author with no platform over a lackluster novel by a big name any day. I concentrate on mysteries and thrillers at Grand Central, and I’m always on the lookout for authors that we can grow. In order to really build a debut writer, you need an incredible manuscript, the type of book that you can tell your publicists and sales force that they won’t be able to put it down. So, while credentials might help me take notice of a writer, I won’t skip over a manuscript just because an author doesn’t have a long list of awards, publications, or degrees.
AC: What other great advice can you give the aspiring authors out there? What is important to you that we have yet cover?
CJ: Don’t let rejection get you down. It’s part of the business. All of the great writers out there were rejected again and again. To be successful in publishing, you need to believe in your writing and forge ahead.
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?
CJ: I think novel-length fiction will always have a place in the marketplace and American culture. That said, the online realm is opening exciting new opportunities for short fiction, and that’s where the next frontier of publishing lies.