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Interview with Paul Stevens
At the Columbus Writer's Conference Ciara and I had the pleasure of meeting Paul Stevens, an Assistant Editor with Tor Books. Mr. Stevens graciously agreed to share his experience in the publishing industry with our readers.
Fiction Factor: What is the average time frame for a manuscript to go from acceptance to the bookstore shelves?
Paul Stevens: Once the manuscript is finished and turned in to the production department, it’s roughly nine months until the finished book hits bookstore shelves. However, the real answer is a little more complicated.
Various factors must be weighed in determining the publication date for a book. The book’s subject matter (holiday books, for example), how many other books we have in the schedule that are similar to this book, how well we think the book will do, etc., all have to be considered.
Another factor is endorsements. Especially with new authors, we’re going to want to get as many blurbs for the book as we can before the sales and marketing process starts, so we may purposely push the publication date for a book back in order to give us more time to get blurbs.
So, even though the book is finished and ready to go, it may still take a year or more for the book to hit shelves.
FF: Do you ever look at manuscripts from the slush pile?
PS: Yes. So far we’ve bought one manuscript from the slush pile that I found, and I’m working on getting support to buy a second. However, the odds for something to be bought from the slush pile are very very slim simply due to the volume of submissions we receive. I worked here for three years before I found anything from the slush pile that I felt was worth considering.
FF: How many manuscripts (partials and whole) do you read in the average week?
PS: Not enough, to be honest. Most of my reading gets done on the train and bus to and from work. I’ll grab 100 pages of a manuscript and read it on the way home. I rarely have time to read manuscripts in the office due to interruptions and other work that needs to get done. When I find a manuscript that makes me keep reading once I get home (instead of checking my e-mail, making phone calls, etc.) that’s a really good sign.
FF: What is the average number of edits a novel goes through once it's been accepted?
PS: That depends on the editor. At this point, since I’m fairly new at this game, I am less likely to consider something that will take a huge number of rewrites. I haven’t yet gained the experience needed to be able to see a diamond in the rough, as it were. That will change over time. I’ve gone through three edits on the last book I bought (one major rewrite and two minor tweakings). Other editors have authors that might require up to five full edits. Editors that have been editing for thirty years will be better able to see the promise in a rough manuscript and feel confident that they can work with the author to make it shine.
FF: How important is it for an unknown author to have an agent in terms of getting their manuscripts read?
PS: These days a lot of publishing houses don’t accept unsolicited submissions, so having an agent is key to submit to those publishers. That’s a policy we’ve resisted adopting at Tor. Everything submitted to us will be looked at. Having a reputable agent will definitely help your work get a closer look because the agent has already screened the manuscript and probably gone through at least one round of editing.
But notice I said “reputable agent”. Be sure you do your research to make sure that the agent is the real thing. Check out sites like the Association of Authors Representatives (www.aar-online.org) or the Science Fiction Writers of America “Writer Beware” page (www.sfwa.org/Beware/) for good info on what to look for in an agent and what to avoid.
FF: What qualities must a manuscript possess in order for you to really push to see it published?
PS: First of all, I really have to believe in the book. In order to acquire a book, I have to stick my neck out and convince a lot of people that this book is worth spending our time and money on. Also, I’m essentially competing with other editors clamoring to get attention for their books. And, when it’s all said and done, my performance is largely evaluated by how successful my books are both critically and monetarily.
Unfortunately, it’s not enough to have a good book—there has to be some sort of marketing hook or marketing plan. The more you can tell us up front about ideas for marketing the book, the better. For example, do you have contacts with established authors who might be willing to give you a blurb? (If they’ve already read the book and have given you a blurb, make sure we know that right up front!) Do you have some sort of expertise that helps lend credibility to your work? (If you are writing a medical thriller and you work in the healthcare field, please tell me.) Do you have contacts at publications that will help us get reviews?
There is no way I can underemphasize how important the prepublication blurbs to the success of a book. Networking is key. I can use my contacts, but the more contacts you are able to bring to the table, the better.
FF: At the conference you said that Tor has a lot of sword and sorcery novels in their catalog, what would it take for you to consider a sword and sorcery novel for publication?
PS: Let me tell you a story. Way back when I first started out working for Analog Science Fiction, I sat on a panel with about ten book editors. The topic was “What are editors looking for?” One response was, “I’m looking for something I’ve never seen before.” The audience laughed, because this didn’t seem a very practical answer. Well, impractical as it seems, I’m afraid that’s that answer to this question, too. If you’re able to show us something unique and refreshing, it’ll certainly get us more excited than something we’ve seen many times before.
One of my favorite fantasy series in recent years is the Liveship Traders (Ship of Magic, Mad Ship, Ship of Destiny) by Robin Hobb. Although it’s not sword and sorcery, I mention it here because it is so original and unusual. Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince, Dragon Star, and Exiles series come to mind, too.
FF: What are the biggest pitfalls facing a new author in the negotiating their own contract?
PS: Not being familiar with the publishing business. Contracts are long and involved, and some items are negotiable and some are not, so you have to know the business. This is where agents come in handy.
FF: How many manuscripts do you accept and see into print per year?
PS: We publish around 200 books in hardcover each year; most of these are new books, though a few are reprints and omnibuses. And there are a handful of mass market originals each year.
FF: What advice would you give the new author seeking publication?
PS: It’s neither a fast nor an easy process. If you’re passionate about it, don’t give up.
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