During last year’s New York Comic Con, Garrett sat down with Anne Sowards, executive editor of Penguin’s speculate imprints Ace and Roc. We’ve been sitting on the interview for a while, but since Sowards is the editor for Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files, among other things, this seemed like the perfect time to share it with you.
If you’re a fan of urban fantasy, I can definitely recommend this interview to you. In it, Anne Sowards speaks about her work as an editor and her relationship with the authors she edits. She also introduces some of the titles she has worked on and explains how to get into the editing business.
Without further ado, here is Garrett’s interview. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did.
Most places do interviews with authors and the like. Most people don’t get what happens behind the scenes. So what is it exactly that you do?
I am an acquisitions editor, which means that I pick which books we’re going to publish. So, the mission is to decide what I think is a book that I like and also a book that we think will sell. It’s commercial. And then I work with the author throughout the entire publication process. I do what’s called developmental editing which is more about plot and character. So I work with the author with that to improve the book. I don’t actually do the spelling or the grammar. We have freelance copy editors that do that part of it. So that’s not my area, I do more of the bigger things. Then I also meet with the art department and we kind of talk about the concept for the cover. So, pretty much all of the stages from acquiring a book until the book actually becomes a book. And then I handle any kind of questions the author has about the book, any questions that people in-house have about the book. So I’m sort of a point person for both areas, both inside and out-house.
So you’re the PR person for the book?
Not exactly. I mean, we actually have different publicity divisions. One of the things I do is definitely to get everyone else excited about the book. I will be presenting the book in meetings and getting the sales department excited about it and wanting to sell it. That’s another thing that I do—get people sold on it and get people interested.
Well, that’s worked for me, because for a lot of the authors I read, you’re the editor.
Well, that is very flattering. You and I must have similar taste in books.
I am definitely on an urban fantasy kick right now. So, Kat Richardson, Jim Butcher… Tom Sniegoski?
I’m not Sniegoski’s editor. I’m breaking your streak there.
Oh well, oh well. Who cares, details, details. So, I’m assuming it varies from author to author, book to book, just how much interaction you have with each author?
It definitely varies. Some authors are much more… I don’t know how to describe it. Some authors are more social than others. Some, they just don’t really need to talk to me that often. Others are in much more frequent contact. And then I also sometimes… editing the books, it just depends on the nature of the book. Like, some books you’ll get in, and you’re like, “Wow! This book really is in great shape, I don’t really see a lot that the author needs to do at this point.” And then there’s the other ones where you may need to go through multiple edits to help the book to become as strong as it can be. It really does vary for each project—and even some authors, it can vary with an author. Like maybe one, there might be one time when their book will need little changes and another time when it might need more work. So it’s individual, you know. Definitely by project.
When you’re editing a multi-volume series, that definitely affects it as well, right?
Yeah. There are different issues with multi-volume series that you don’t find in a one-off. My thing—I really annoy my authors with this—is that I’m always like, “You need to remind us who all these people are.” Because I have the worst memory in the universe. It’s probably because I read so many books, but I just have a hard time keeping track of everything in my head. So I’ll be like, “Um, who is this person again, and what are they doing here?” I’m always telling authors that what I want them to do is to explain, at the beginning of the book, who is this person, what are they doing, what is their situation, and then other stuff, just remind us as it appears. If a character shows up, just say, “Oh yeah, this is my best friend from high school, who was attacked by a vampire.” You know, just kind of add a line when they show up, so the idea is that new readers, anybody who hasn’t read previous books in the series, they can read it and enjoy it. They may not get everything but they’ll have enough information to understand the book.
So what’s a typical day like for you?
You know, I actually do a surprising amount of emails. I’ll come in in the morning and this author will be like, “Why isn’t my audiobook on Audible?” And I’m like, “Huh.” So I have to ask the guy in that department, “What happened, did something go wrong?” And they have to find out. Whenever anything goes wrong, I deal with it, pretty much. Sometimes good stuff too. Like, oh, we got this great review, so then I have to pass that on to the author.
I realized one day when I was thinking about this, I’m kind of like a middle person. I’m just sort of middleman, middlewoman, whatever. I’m passing things on. People will send me stuff and say, “Do you think your author would be willing to do this blog post for the Penguin blog?” So I have to write an email asking, “Would you want to do this?” And then they get back to me yes or no, then I have to tell Online yes or no, and it’s just kind of a lot of disseminating information. It can get a little complicated.
One thing that people are sometimes surprised about is that I do very little reading at work. I mostly am doing my editing on weekends or I do work at home days sometimes and then I read most of the submissions on the train. That’s kind of my little system. I find that it’s very difficult to focus when I’m at work. When I’m doing an editorial and we’re editing a book, I really just need to not be interrupted all the time and it’s really hard to do that during office hours, because whenever anybody has a question about something, they come to me or they’ll come and say, “Oh, here, Anne, here are these, can you look at this right now really quick? Or, can you sign off on this?” I’m also approving everything as well. So art, sample, design pages. And ads, all of these things that I have to sign off on. I’m doing all of that during the day at the office and that’s why I don’t do my reading or editing there. I have been trying to take some work at home days just because it was getting to the point where even working on weekends, I wasn’t getting it done, because I’ve got a lot of titles.
How many titles do you handle?
Approximately sixty per year. It varies, and not all of them are going to be original titles so they may not all need to be edited, but they all will have a cover, they all might have ads or whatever. There’s definitely less work when it’s a book that we’re reprinting or it’s a paperback, a book that was previously in hardcover. There’s definitely less editing work on those, but some things still need to be done for those titles. So right now it’s about sixty titles per year. I wish I could kind of get it down a little bit, but it doesn’t seem to, it seems to be hovering around that number.
We’re a traditional paperback division even though we do our own hardcovers, but we originally started out as a division that would reprint the hardcover size books into paperback, and because of that we had a very high volume, because we weren’t doing as many original titles. But now, with the way the business has changed, we’re doing a ton of original titles, like original paperbacks. I also do a number of hardcovers. We still have that high volume, but doing a lot more original books. It’s pretty busy. An editor that’s in one of the traditional hardcover divisions might do between twelve and twenty books a year. It’s a pretty big difference in volume.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
Some of my… Oh you can’t ask me my favorite authors, that’s like asking me my favorite kids! I could tell you some of the people I work with, or you know… Yeah, you can’t ask me who my favorite authors are. It honestly really depends, too. When people ask me to recommend titles, I really have to ask, “Who do you like to read?”
Something that people don’t always know about me is that I love military science fiction. I really like it, but if someone asked me, “What kind of books do you think I might like to read?” I have to ask, “Well, do you like urban fantasy, do you like…” and if they tell me name of an author that they like, then that can help me to decide.
Yeah, then it’s a lot easier.
Exactly. Because, “What are some books I should read,” that’s a really hard question to answer. It’s so individualistic. I actually have a fair amount of urban fantasy. My guess is that readers of your website are pretty familiar with the differentiation, or should I go into that at all?
They can find out on our website if they have a question.
I would say “urban fantasy,” shorthand: “Our world, but there are vampires or werewolves.” So things like Buffy the Vampire Slayer with a contemporary setting, but there are vampires, or werewolves, or wizards, or whatever. I do a fair amount of that, and, obviously, I think my best-known author in that area is Jim Butcher, who writes a really terrific series about the… I guess he’s still the only wizard in the Chicago phone book? I can’t think of anybody else who’s challenged him for that at this point.
No, he’s the only one in the Chicago phone book. I think there’s one in LA but other than that…
Yeah, yeah. So he’s a wizard in contemporary society. There is a great sense of humor to those as well. So I edit him.
I also do Patricia Briggs, who I really love a lot. We actually kind of define urban fantasy a little bit in the business as “girl” or “boy.” So Jim Butcher is more of a boy urban fantasy because the main character is a man. As far as the romance area, I mean, Harry just seems to always have… it always goes wrong. He falls in love with somebody and they’re like, oh, a fallen angel, or they turn into a vampire or whatever. So far, he really has not had a successful relationship. But we also have the girl urban fantasy where the main character tends to be female and although romance is not the main focus, there is usually a little bit of a love story in there. Patricia Briggs is an example of girl urban fantasy. Her character, Mercy Thompson, is a car mechanic who can change into a coyote, which is pretty awesome. In the early books, there’s a little bit of a love triangle going on between her and Adam, who is the alpha werewolf of the local pack, and Sam, who is a werewolf that she knew from her childhood. That is resolved, so you don’t have to fear that it will be going on forever. It’s a series that I really like.
I also edit Kat Richardson, who you already mentioned as being someone that you read. Then there’s Ilona Andrews. The interesting thing about her, she does vampires like nobody else. Normally vampires, at least in the current crop of books, tend to be more sexy, more brooding love interests. And her vampires are really not that way. They are actually mindless creatures and they are controlled by the masters of the dead, the necromancers. The necromancers can kind of see through their eyes, hear through their ears, and pilot them, make them do things. It’s a really interesting concept for vampires. The thing about her is that, while it definitely appeals to the urban fantasy reader, it’s got a very unique spin on things. Her books also do some very interesting things with mythology. I think the third book in the series, Magic Strikes, dealt with Rakshasas, Indian demons, and I think book two was maybe more Celtic—not the things that everybody knows, but more the unusual creatures from those mythologies.
I definitely need to check those out, then.
Oh, and I didn’t mention this but sometimes Ilona Andrews is actually a husband and wife writing team, Ilona and Andrew. So I’m sometimes calling them “they,” and I realize I should explain that for your readers. Ilona is native-born Russian and I think Andrew was in the Army or something like that. They actually met in English class in college. They’re really fun people.
Apart from urban fantasy, like I said, I like military. I do like military science fiction as well. There’s just something about it. In that genre, I edit Jack Campbell, who has written The Lost Fleet series. The interesting thing about that series, I think, is the way he does the space battles. He really considers the physics. If you come into this galaxy and the other fleet is one point two light minutes away, it will be an hour until anyone even knows they were here and can react. He really takes that into consideration when he’s describing the battles, and I find that very interesting.
Myke Cole is another of my writers. He’s doing a relatively new series, the Shadow Ops series; the first book is Control Point, and the second book, Fortress Frontier, comes out soon as well. The thing about this series is that while it’s very much appealing to military science fiction readers, it is not science fiction. The way I would describe it… I had a way I described it. It’s basically as if you took our armed forces today and added a division that could do magic. You’ve got completely contemporary military stuff—Black Hawk helicopters, all of these things—but with a division of people that can sling fireballs or fly. How would our military integrate this kind of people into the armed forces?
Additionally, over the course of the book, you’ll discover that there’s this other plane they call the Source. It is the magical area, and they’ve got this whole forward operating base where they’re trying to establish a presence, so they’re sending the armed forces there. They’re there and trying to take over that area and fighting with the local denizens, which are not exactly goblins but sometimes described as that, because they’re shorter and everything. I really think the readers of military science fiction will love it because of all of the military battles and everything. It’s awesome, but technically it’s more fantasy. I can’t think of anyone else who’s doing contemporary the way that Myke does it. Control Point is definitely military fantasy, but unlike other contemporary works, it tends to be more Lord of the Rings style fantasy.
So, how did you get into the editing? What did you do college-wise, and then getting into this?
Well, I was kind of a long time science fiction and fantasy reader. I actually taught myself to read when I was four and was really into fairy tales. My father was a science fiction reader, so I started reading what books my parents had in their house, including my dad’s science fiction collection. I would read Robert Heinlein, Neal Frank Herbert, etc.
When I went to college, I was not really sure what I’d do, so I kind of ended up as an English major: “Oh, I like books, I like to read.” I was kind of thinking, “Okay, what am I going to do with this English degree if I don’t want to teach?” I started thinking about publishing as an option. My university had a student-run science fiction magazine, so I joined that to see if I liked working in that area. I found that I enjoyed doing it, so after I graduated, I ended up… well, I knew that if I really wanted to work in publishing, I needed to move to New York City. It is all in New York, or at least the major trade publishers are. So I moved to New York City and got a job working temp, so that I could support myself before I found a permanent job. I started interviewing for publishers that had openings, entry level, into editorial assistant. Publishing, and editing specifically, is very much an apprenticeship process where you don’t necessarily really go to school to become an editor. Most of the people they hire have entry level bachelor’s degrees—usually in English, although not always—and then we train them. I started out answering my boss’s phone, doing her filing, and doing reading for her. She taught me to be an editor. Over the course of my time, my focus kind of changed until I was doing more editing, less assistant stuff. And now I have my own assistant who helps me with that aspect, which is awesome because I’m handling so many books, it would be very difficult to do it all by myself.
A lot of it is timing, especially in my area. There is a very limited number of people who are science fiction and fantasy editors. If you are interested in doing what I do, coming to New York is one thing, but there also has to be an opening at the time that you are interviewing. I was lucky it worked out for me, but there was a guy who worked at the same science fiction magazine I did and moved out to New York and wanted to try to find an editing job. I told him about openings, but he just never really seemed to find the right fit. Sometimes there are just no openings at all in the area that you want. We are so specialized, there’s just not a lot of room. Somebody has to leave for there to be an opening because publishing is not necessarily an area that is growing rapidly.
What do you do in what little free time you have? I know you’ve tweeted about video games and stuff.
Yes, I’m not like a “hardcore” gamer. Sometimes weeks will go by before I’ll play anything.
A part-time gamer.
Yeah, that doesn’t sound nearly as impressive as saying you’re just a “gamer.” Work keeps me pretty busy and so I don’t have a lot of time. But yeah, I have a PS3 and I also have old systems like a GameCube, an XBox, and a DS. I’m a little more of an RPG girl. Not so much FPS. You know, that’s great, but like, my brother tried to teach me to play Halo and I kept falling off the stairs or falling off the space station, or getting stuck in the corner. It’s just not my thing. I tend to like games that are more a combination of fighting, puzzles, talking to people, doing quests, and things like that.
Like old school N64 Zelda?
Zelda is great, I love Zelda. And right now I’m actually playing a lot of Magic: The Gathering video game. Which is really awesome, especially if you’re not an expert Magic player, or you don’t have people to play Magic with all the time. It’s a great way to learn, especially because I’m not a hardcore M:TG player so I don’t have zillions of cards and deck building still confuses me. I guess the hardcore gamers would consider me a bit of an amateur because I have a hard time; I actually find it easier to just play with the pre-constructed decks. Or the video game, which is awesome. I highly recommend the video game. It’s a lot of fun.
I also knit, believe it or not, and I’ve gotten into Korean TV shows lately. So I watch a lot of Korean dramas. But also KPop now, Korean boy bands. I guess that’s kind of some stuff I’ve been doing in my free time.
Thank you very much. It was enlightening.
All right. Any other questions, or did I cover everything?
You covered everything.
Covered everything? Okay.