Saturday, November 8, 2008

RichWriters Interview with Razorbill Editor: Lexa Hillyer -- Part 2

Here is the second part of Jeff Rivera's exclusive interview with Razorbill Editor: Lexa Hillyer.

* Jeff Rivera: What makes you decide to read a submission overnight compared to it rotting on the bottom of your slush pile?

Lexa Hillyer:
Um, the agent nagging me to read it? Haha, just kidding. If I really love the concept of the story, I will put it higher in my pile. If I am bored by the first page, it will start to sink lower in that pile. I will often read a submission overnight on the strength of the writing, with the hope that even if the plot goes ridiculously haywire, there’s some grain in it that can be cultivated into a great story. Sometimes though, I just keep reading because the idea behind it is so damn compelling and I have to know what will happen. I love a manuscript that makes me gasp or cry or laugh out loud or dance around in my chair feeling warm and gooey and happy to be human. But I have a very short attention span, very little time, and I get viscerally frustrated when a story is not working. I’m a very peaceful person but I can be quite violent toward bad manuscripts. I really don’t read past 50 pages if I’m not compelled to do so by the voice or narrative. I’m not going to stay up late reading it just in case. I know a good manuscript when I wake up with the pages scattered around me at 4am, a pen buried somewhere in the sheets and the light still on, when I can’t really remember which parts of the story happened on the page and which parts happened in my dream.

* Jeff Rivera: What's the best way for a writer to contact you? Query letter?

Lexa Hillyer:
Sure, but through an agent or shared acquaintance is best. And include some chapters and a synopsis.

* Jeff Rivera:
Are you open to receiving submissions from self-published authors?

Lexa Hillyer:
I will say yes, but I need to be convinced that there’s a reason that a big publishing house should invest in their book. It is a business exchange, after all. Some people prefer to have complete control over their own work. If so, self-publishing was probably the right choice.

* Jeff Rivera: Are you open to receiving unagented submissions?

Lexa Hillyer:
Unfortunately no, unless we’ve met and I’ve agreed to look at the submission already. I have acquired unagented writers upon meeting them at conferences or through friends and discovering their amazing work. But really, you need to find an agent. Agents are EXTREMELY HELPFUL, and it may take awhile to get one but it’s worth it.

* Jeff Rivera: What are you personally doing in order to adapt to the changes in the marketplace? (Changes meaning: lower print runs, shrinking book review outlets, over saturated market and chains stores being more selective about what books they put on their shelves)

Lexa Hillyer:
A lot of things, really. An editor is always angling to get the right attention for her books. The market is definitely very saturated, so following trends is getting trickier. If the subject matter is timely and relevant, it’s important to get it out on shelves as soon as possible. If it’s more universally appealing, I want to take the time to nurture it and get it exactly right before thrusting it out into the market. It’s important to listen to what booksellers have to say about the cover and the content, without becoming a slave to that. I try to be very selective about what I acquire, and I must understand it completely—meaning, I have to understand exactly why I think people will buy it. That’s always been true, but now there’s less room to simply say, I love it so let’s publish it. When I have a sense of what kind of readers will want the book, I try to target those readers. Get early copies of the ARC into kids’ hands and mentions on blogs and all of that. Ultimately, having fewer books, each as perfect as possible, seems to be the best way to go. And then, if something gets hot, we have to be ready to jump on board and increase that success.

With Obama’s election and the financial crisis, trends are already changing. We’re noticing there seems to be less traction with bubbly or voyueristic rich-kid stories and we anticipate more interest in grunge, in darker stories, in sincerity—these things always sort of come in tides, and some chick-lit has been waning for a little while now. While business may be harder, I actually think good literature can really thrive in times of economic struggle. But, yes, every company wants the next blockbuster that will take up 75% of the floor at B&N—and while that may seem annoying, it’s often those few hits that are sustaining everything else.

* Jeff Rivera: Book Publicity Departments are often overworked and overwhelmed, how do you personally make sure the books you acquire and shepherd get the attention they need?

Lexa Hillyer:
Well there are a couple of points to this issue. First is that it’s important to address what kind of publicity a book will really benefit by, and how to get that. I think authors often have a misguided sense of how much publicity they “need.” For instance, book tours. Those are great for revving up excitement around authors who already have a dedicated fan base. But in YA, how many teens are really hanging around at readings? Most are at the mall or the movies in their free time or doing anything at all that is not structured and monitored by adults. What I’m saying is, there’s nothing worse than setting up a book signing for a debut YA author and then hearing the crickets chirp and the tumble weed blow by in the empty book store. Those visits can be expensive and time consuming with literally no pay off for the author, publisher, or venue. So, it’s important to adjust the author’s expectations in those cases.

That said, of course we try to support all of our books and if the publicity department is overworked or not focusing on certain titles that we think need help, we do our best over at Razorbill to support them ourselves, to mail out galleys, to set up online networking opportunities and most importantly, encourage our authors to get connected to readers and fellow writers and booksellers. Often the efforts on the part of the author are the most rewarding, because they bring that personal touch. A bookseller who has met and liked the author is more likely to be interested in promoting the book than a bookseller who’s received a letter from the editor or email from the publicist.

* Jeff Rivera: What about the publicity and promotion departments in houses is not working and what suggestions do you have to make them work?

Lexa Hillyer:
From my perspective, I would guess that there’s sometimes less opportunity for effective innovation simply because there’s so much maintenance at all times. These departments tend to focus on just a few potential hits per season. That is not a dysfunction, that is necessary strategy so as not to peter out everyone’s time and money. Yes it can be frustrating but since I do not work in publicity or ad/promo I really can’t discuss what’s “not working” versus what’s just plain unrealistic.

* Jeff Rivera: How much of a books decision has to do with the talent and how many books similar to it have sold great numbers?

Lexa Hillyer:
Of course you want great comparison titles that have sold well, but you also want the book to be different (and hopefully better) somehow. Yes, we are interested in books that we feel confident will work because other books in the same area have worked in the very recent past. At Razorbill we really do try to innovate and take some risks, but we realize that this means that not all of those risks will succeed in a big way. A publisher has to have balance between books that are safe and books that are fresh enough to stand out in the marketplace, set new trends and become major hits.

As for “talent”—I really try not to buy a book where there isn’t talent!!

* Jeff Rivera: Is it becoming necessary for fiction writers to have their own platform too? If so, if not, why?

Lexa Hillyer:
Of course it helps, but that does not carry a book. Good “platforms” include having sold well in the adult market, being related to a high-selling author or being well-connected in some other way. It really doesn’t get you that far to have written the book when you were 10 or to have grown up as an elephant trainer on mars. You can be the most boring person with no interesting back story but if you connect well with the public and reach out and people love your book, that’s the best platform you can have. But yeah, it doesn’t hurt to market yourself however you possibly can!

* Jeff Rivera: If a writer came to you with their own fanbase that they built online, or verbal agreements from a Quick Pick Committee to nominate the book, or significant letters of agreement from stores that they would purchase the book once it's out, is that pretty much a slam dunk for you to walk into an acquisition meeting and convince the team?

Lexa Hillyer:
Everyone has to read it and love it. Even then, nothing is a slam dunk.

Jeff Rivera: If you need help with your book promotion contact and we'll find a way to help you within your budget.