Molly O’Keefe contacted me and suggested she interview her editor, Shauna Summers. I thought that was a great idea. Shauna talks about the rise of the 99c book; self publishing; her favorite romance of 2012 (which is not one she published); and an enviable thing she attends called the Editorial Book Club.
To make it even more fun for the readers, we are going to give away four sets of books. The set includes copies of Crazy Thing Called Love, Iced, Born to Darkness and A Gentleman Undone.
On to the interview.
Molly: Tell us a little about your experience working on some very significant romance series – Brockmann, Karen Marie Moning, Lara Adrian. Does it require a great deal of trust? How involved are you in the creation of the arc of the book/series?
Shauna Summers: Working on all three of these authors has been hugely gratifying. I haven’t been very involved at all in the creation of the arc for any individual titles or the series as a whole—that usually comes from the author, as it should. I have been more involved at times with the direction of things once the series gets going. For example, Suz and I had a lot of conversations with the Team 16 books about Sam and Alyssa, when they would finally get together, how long she could put that off without readers revolting, how and when to spin-off to the Troubleshooters series, etc.
Molly: I’ve actually been thinking about the Sam and Alyssa plotline lately and wondering if Suz Brockmann would have held out so long if she was writing that series right now. I wondered because of the amount of back and forth between readers and writers today. Would she have been able to hold out as long as she did with a constant tweet stream about Sam and Alyssa?
Shauna: That is an interesting question! I feel like she was getting a lot of feedback (some of it very resistant) from readers even then, though it obviously wouldn’t have been the real-time, constant barrage of Twitter and Facebook. Suz has pretty strong vision about her writing and storytelling so I don’t think a tweet stream would have been enough either way. As a writer, would you feel some level of obligation to consider reader’s opinions in where you take a story or a set of recurring characters?
Molly: No – not obligation. Not in terms of story or something I’m committed to. But there’s a lot of instant feedback out in the world now, for good and bad. What about working on the Fever series?
Shauna: With the Fever series, Karen knew exactly what she was doing with those first five books. There was a certain degree of trust required with the first two books (DARKFEVER and BLOODFEVER) because it was quite a departure from what Karen had been writing. But by book three (FAEFEVER), I had no worries. I knew she knew exactly what she was doing. And in that instance, she deliberately told me very little about where she was going so that I could experience it as a reader, not knowing what was going to happen. We’re only one book in on the Dani O’Malley trilogy (also set in the Fever world) and because it’s a different writing experience for her, I think we are going to be having more back and forth about the details. She knows where she wants it to go, but unlike the first five books, there are multiple points of views and more moving pieces. I feel like one of my strengths as an editor is being able to adapt to a writer’s process. Some of my writers deliver complete manuscripts without me knowing a thing about what they’re writing (Mary Balogh, for example), and others have me read at the halfway or so mark, and some writers want/need different things depending on the book. The collaboration is one of the best parts of my job.
Molly: I feel like you and I collaborate in a long stream of pop culture references. When I said that the marriage dynamic in Crazy Thing Called Love was based on questions I had about “that young handsome American Idol winner a few years ago who had just gotten married.” You immediately recalled his name – Kris Allen and you understood the conflict of young love and that kind of fame. And I have to say that let me really explore that relationship. And then we talked about Blue Valentine, too, didn’t we? With the flashbacks. After each conversation I thought “man, she totally gets me.” Did you learn how to adapt your collaboration style over the years? Was that a struggle? Or did that part come naturally?
Shauna: I forgot about our Kris Allen conversation! I do think it’s helpful in my job to be fairly current pop culture-wise for a variety of reasons. It’s important to have a sense of what’s resonating with the younguns, and that kind of shorthand is particularly useful in capturing a feeling. My best example of that with you is our conversation at RWA last summer about “Girls” and how the things critics hated about it were the things that made you love it.
Molly: I do love a difficult female character.
Shauna: But back to my collaboration style. I’d say it’s always been the way I’ve worked, and honestly, I feel like the role of an editor is to facilitate and advocate for the author. So I’m perplexed when I hear stories about editors having a lot of demands or requirements about how they work with their authors (other than expecting the writer to deliver the best book they can in a timely manner—that’s fairly essential and non-negotiable).
Molly: What do you think of your role as a ‘curator”? Will readers who love one of your authors find many of the same sorts of traits across many of her authors? Do you feel like a curator? Is that role more important in the age of discoverability?
Shauna: This is a great set of questions and something I wouldn’t have even thought about 2-3 years ago. I think of myself as an all purpose romance reader who likes almost all sub-genres and a variety of styles and voices. So in that sense, if a reader has very specific likes and dislikes, they might find my list confusing. I suppose in reality I am something of a curator in that I have an impact on what is published on our list and what is not. At this point, it’s a little unclear how important that role is in the age of discoverability. In some ways, it’s no different than it ever was—editors want to buy books that they are passionate about and bring them to the widest audience possible. Sometimes we succeed at that and sometimes we don’t. One of the things I love about books or movies or TV is that at the end of the day, the power resides with the consumer. We as publishers can do everything right as far as delivery—excellent content, perfect packaging, smart and effective marketing—and have it succeed fantastically (Gone Girl; Wild) or have it fail miserably (can’t think of any examples—maybe because it’s too heartbreaking to remember them?) because the receiver simply says “no, I don’t want that and I won’t buy it.” And then you have those sleeper hits where a book (or TV show or movie or whatever) finds an audience regardless of publisher efforts (or lack of) and expectations. So I can curate all day and every day, but ultimately readers decide what they want and don’t want to read.
Molly: I think the role of curator is more important than ever. And the role of editor as curator is a tool that’s underused. Perhaps I’m too close to the subject (you as curator) but I feel that so many of the authors you work with while sitting very firmly in the romance pocket, manage to push an envelope. Cecilia Grant is such an perfect example of this – those books are romances, but there’s something so new and outside the box about them.
Shauna: I do like seeing an envelope successfully pushed! That’s one of the great things about self-publishing. I think it sometimes allows for books that are left of center or not traditionally marketable to find an audience. All the great new adult books are the best example, but even something like ON THE ISLAND. I like when I think, “How is she going to pull this off?” to then have it successfully happen.
And not to toot the editor’s horn too much, but I do think there’s value in what we do. And nothing makes me crazier than when I read on-line criticism from authors and readers about how editors don’t respect or care about the books they work on, don’t have a sense of what readers want, etc. I’m sure there are instances where that is perhaps somewhat true, but I’d guess they’re exceptionally rare.
Molly: I couldn’t imagine trying to put out a book without the help of an editor. Seems like the best recipe for failure. Though, I suppose I’ve been proven TOTALLY wrong about that.
Molly: Do you think the rise of the 99 cent bestseller has changed the romance reading audience/average romance reader? And have publishing houses kept up with that change?
Shauna: This is hard to know. I think there are certain types of readers who are perfect for the 99 cent bestseller—they’re prolific and voracious readers who are always happy to give something new a try, especially for the right price. And I think there is a certain amount of lower expectations for some readers when they’ve paid only 99 cents—like, “well, it wasn’t great, but good enough for that price.” Will they buy the author’s next book, even if it has a higher price? That’s the big question. I think some readers look for a curator, whether that’s reader reviews (which I think are HUGELY important these days) or blog posts or cover blurbs or recommendations from friends or librarians or booksellers. Perhaps those are also the readers that might be wary of something that is 99 cents, with the thinking being, “if it’s so great, why is it priced so low?” Whether or not we’ve been able to keep up with these changes (and not just the 99 cent bestseller phenomenon but all things digital) probably depends on who you ask and what is happening that week. That’s how fast things seem to be changing. Our mission as a publisher is to deliver great books to readers in whatever format they want it. That’s what guides all our efforts—editorial, publicity, marketing, sales. Which boils it down pretty nicely for me—do I love this book? Do I see a readership for it?
Molly: What are you reading these days?
Shauna: One of the most satisfying experiences this year has been the creation of our editorial department book group. It’s been really great to be able to talk about books with my colleagues as readers but also from a publishing angle. For example, we read DEFENDING JACOB by William Landay, which we published to great success earlier this year (see question #2), and were able to have Bill’s editor Kate Miciak tell us all about what was changed, how the book evolved, the publishing process. And some of the best books I read this year were discussed in that group: THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green and WILD by Cheryl Strayed. My favorite romance this year was probably EASY by Tammara Webber. And I really loved WONDER by R. J. Palacio.
Molly: An Editorial Book Club? With guest appearances by the book’s editor? Everyone reading this is gnashing their teeth with jealousy.
Shauna: I have to say, I’m a little jealous of me and I get to participate! Our first discussion was about Q184 by Haruki Murakami, which was not my kind of book. I think I forced myself to get to 20% or so before I gave up. Since it was a new experience, it seemed like everyone was hesitant about being harsh and honest, particularly with a book that had been so critically acclaimed and all over the “best of” lists for last year. But that didn’t last long—I feel like everyone is pretty comfortable being truthful at this point, and we’ve had some pretty heated discussions since then.
And for that meeting, one of our editors used to work at the literary agency that reps Murakami, so she had all these insights about him as a person and a writer. We were also able to talk about the publication of it—why Knopf published it in one volume instead of in four (I think?) like they did in Japan. How the book itself was so beautifully produced from the jacket and cover to the end papers to the interior design.
We read a book (that shall remain nameless) that I thought was hugely overrated and I said to one of my colleagues who I knew felt the same that I was afraid I’d lose respect for people who actually loved it. But lo and behold, the few who did love it were able to explain why very persuasively, so thankfully no respect was lost.
Molly: As it should be. I think specific and thoughtful criticism is a boon to all readers. Whether our opinions differ, being able to talk respectfully about why we like or don’t like something elevates the conversation, which elevates the genre. On that note, thanks to Dear Author for having us and for keeping the romance discourse insightful.
Molly: What are you looking forward to in 2013:
Shauna: Well, I’ll be psyched for the new Lee Child, as always. Very psyched for the next/last book in the Veronica Roth Divergent series. Looking forward to the new Sarah MacLean and Lisa Kleypas books, which are coming in the next few months. Is there finally going to be a new Sarah Dessen book this year?
As for books I’ve edited: we’re publishing Deb Caletti’s first adult novel called HE’S GONE in May which we’ve gotten really great advance quotes for (she’s an award-winning YA author—a little gritty). I’ve got a debut novel called THE LIFE LIST by Lori Nelson Spielman coming out in July, which I’m also very psyched about—great commercial women’s fiction. New Mary Balogh called THE ARRANGEMENT in the fall. New Cecilia Grant called A WOMAN ENTANGLED in the summer. And of course WILD CHILD in the fall.
Good luck to commentors!