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January 2011

RAMONA RICHARDS
Fiction Editor, Abingdon Press

 

Richards WG:      Welcome, and thanks for stepping into my spotlight this month. To start off, please tell us a bit about yourself.

RR:      I'm the fiction editor for Abingdon Press, which is a fairly new line. I actually started with Abingdon in 1981, in their children's book department. After a few detours through magazines (Ideals), fiction and non-fiction (Rutledge Hill Press), Bibles, non-fiction, and curriculum (Thomas Nelson), and about 8 years as a freelance fiction editor, I came back to Abingdon.

WG:      Can you tell us why you decided to pursue a career as an editor and what steps you took to get you where you are today?

RR:      I decided to become an editor sometime during my junior year of college, after I'd passed on careers in music, theater, medicine, and politics. My mother was terrified I was about to become the eternal student when I settled on an English major. I went as far as getting a Master of Arts degree before I got bored with school.

WG:      What genres/lines do you currently acquire?

RR:      I handled Abingdon's fiction line. We acquire 22-24 books a year.

WG:      When was the last time you acquired the work of an author from the slush pile?

RR:      We don't keep a slush pile. Abingdon only takes submissions from agents or from unagented authors I meet at conferences. Unsolicited manuscripts are returned unread.

WG:      Are you actively seeking out new authors, and if so, what would it take to catch your eye?

RR:      Absolutely. I'm looking for that unique voice that crackles right on the first page. I want to be singed with glee before I turn the first page. Abingdon publishes a number of books that don't fit the usual CBA formula, so I'm definitely looking for authors who have a new approach, even if it's a story I've heard before.

WG:      Do you think contest credits help an author further their career? Have you ever acquired a manuscript that you discovered via a writing contest?

RR:      The feedback you get from contests can be helpful (if it's constructive and instructive), and can expose you to new agents and editors. I haven't judged contests as an Abingdon editor yet, but I did read one in the first round of the ACFW contest a few years ago that I would have bought in a heartbeat. Unfortunately, it didn't even make the second round - so contests CAN be a mixed blessing.

WG:      When asked what they look for in a new author, most editors and agents will mention a fresh and/or strong voice. How do you personally define voice?

RR:      "Voice" is more than great syntax. It's a combination of the way an author puts dialogue and description together with his or her worldview. It can be obvious in an unpolished manuscript, but the polish of craft and talent push voice to that next level, the way a Stradivarius violin makes a master sound even better.

WG:      Have you ever considered penning a novel yourself?

RR:      I've written quite a few. I've sold 5 to Steeple Hill/Harlequin. I've written two books of devotionals and contributed to several others.

WG:      How would you describe your editorial style?

RR:      Intense and gentle. I'm a "big picture" editor, and I will push an author to improve what is already good through questions, suggestions, and encouragement. I'm more likely to say, "You know this could be better if you..." than criticize.

WG:      What is your involvement with the author's creative process? With his/her career planning?

RR:      With established authors, not much. They usually have a grip on both their careers and their own ways of writing. With a new author, I'll coach and encourage, including advice on publishing and branding. But I'm only one voice. I encourage most authors to work with their agents on these.

WG:      What do you see as the main strength you personally bring to the table as an editor?

RR:      My ability to see the overall "arcs" of a book in their entirety and whether they work on the larger level as well as in the details. I do not sweat commas; I sweat whether your plot is missing elements, your "world" is consistent, and your characters stay true to themselves and the story. Your agoraphobic heroine cannot go shoe shopping. I'm the one who'll tell you your heroine has too much sexual chemistry with the hero's best friend or that you haven't finished your second subplot.

WG:      Are some/all of your submissions read by someone else in house before they reach you? If so, what sort of feedback and/or screening do you expect that reader to provide?

RR:      I read everything first. If I think something might be a good addition to the list, I sometimes seek another editor's opinion.

WG:      Realistically, what is the normal timeframe for your response to queries? Partials? Fulls?

RR:      That depends on the time of year. We have six-week windows (usually around February/March and October/November) when the manuscripts for the next lists arrive that I don't even read new submissions. I just don't have the time. Other than that it'll be a month or two.

WG:      Given that you feel an individual author's manuscript is marketable, how important is it that you personally like the work in order for you to pursue acquiring it?

RR:      This is a hard question to answer because I read so widely and enjoy excellent works in all genres. If it's written well enough to be marketable, I'm probably going to like it.

WG:      What input do you personally have on the cover art selected for the manuscripts you acquire? What level of involvement do you feel the author should have in this process?

RR:      Our covers are developed by a team headed by one of our production managers. The author will be asked for an "art sheet," which will provide a vision for the characters, key scenes, etc. I also ask for the author to "cast" the novel. Then production manager meets with the designer, the marketing manager, business manger, and me. We draw heavily on the art sheet, but we all have input, which the designer uses to develop the cover.

One thing most authors don't understand is that the cover is not just about the book's contents. It's about SELLING the book. It's about making someone pick it up off the shelf (or clicking for more info). There's a rule of thumb for covers - "five at five." You have five seconds to sell a book from five feet away. Plus, we have to take into consideration the requirements of the booksellers and chain buyers. That's why the final decision on a cover's look has to be a marketing one.

WG:      Do you feel that writers' conferences provide significant value to you in the way of personal contact with your authors, other authors (either published or unpublished), and/or other industry professionals? Do you receive any value from other offerings such as the presentations, pitch appointments, and/or networking opportunities?

RR:      I can't say enough good things about writers' conferences, and it goes even deeper than "iron sharpens iron." I benefit from being around other professionals both spiritually and mentally, and I always leaved exhausted and enthused. I ALWAYS learn something new, no matter how many times I've been to a conference. Next year, I'll be attending 8 or 9 at least.

WG:      Do you visit the websites and blogs of authors you work with or of authors you are considering acquiring? If so, is there something in particular you look for that potentially impacts your view of the author and their work?

RR:      Yes. I'll also look at social media pages. I'm looking for the authors' CURRENT public personae, interests, and ability to present work in a clear, accessible way. Do they present themselves publicly in a fashion that will benefit their career in Christian publishing? The Internet is foreverpeople forget that it's archived and even deleted files can be located, but I care less about what they did 10 years ago than now. People change. But I would prefer they not have spent a lot of time naked bungee jumping last week. That can be a little difficult to explain to booksellers.

WG:      Do you approach submissions by agented authors differently from those without agents? Does your familiarity with/opinion of the agent impact this?

RR:      No . . . and yes. I know many of the agents in the business, or I'm familiar with their philosophy of agenting and ability to spot talent. An unagented writer, even one I met at a conference is an unknown quantity, without that endorsement of another industry professional. But my expectations of the manuscript are the same: that it be a stellar story in a voice that makes me go...WOW.

WG:      What piece of advice or 'pearl of wisdom' would you like to offer authors who are considering submitting a work to you--or to any editor for that matter?

RR:      That talent and a good story is just the beginning. An IMPORTANT beginning; the foundation. But you'll also need craft, a unique voice, a thick skin, flexibility, perseverance, and a sound belief in God's path for your work and your life. You need to be "teachable," and remember that this is a business as well as a ministry.

WG:      How important do you think self-promotion is to a writer's career? If so, is there a particular area of promotion that you feel is most effective?

RR:      This is hard to pinpoint because the industry is quite fluid. What works for one book in one genre today may flop tomorrow. Right now, speaking engagements and a strong web presence (loops, blogs, social media) seem to be more successful than mailings and chats. Giveaways are good as are blog tours, but that seems to be shifting as well. What we are ALWAYS looking for, however, is someone who will partner with our marketing team on all those, even taking the lead on some. Our marketing folks are the ones who track trends and can help an author find the best path for self-promotion.

WG:      I love to collect quotes, all kinds of quotes - inspirational, quirky, motivational, profound, etc. Do you have a personal favorite you'd like to share?

RR:      One of my favorites is from Ray Bradbury, which has sort of become my life's motto: "If we listened only to our intellect, we'd never have a love affair or friendship. We'd never go into business. Well, that's nonsense. Sometimes you've got to jump off cliffs and grow your wings on the way down."

The other one is something Harlan Ellison said in an interview: "Any writer who CAN be discouraged, SHOULD be." His point is that if you're a writer, you're going to write, no matter what anyone says or reads or sells.

WG:      What do you do to relax and have fun?

RR:      I sing. I'm in our church choir, but I also rock out on the piano or in the car with the volume cracked up. I LOVE live music. I sometimes cross-stitch, and I love to scuba dive and hike. But music is always first place.

WG:      Other than your client's work, what do you enjoy reading?

RR:      I read a lot of non-fiction (history, theology, biographies), but I love suspense books from James Lee Burke, Harlan Coben, and Robert Crais. I read romance of all genres, and the occasional science fiction.

WG:      What are your favorite movies and/or TV shows? Why?

RR:      Wow, you love asking me to pick my favorite kids! I love the classics, especially the romantic comedies of the 40s. The Thin Man movies should be required viewing for anyone trying to learn to write snappy dialogue. Babette's Feast is an absolute picture of love and sacrifice. Chocolat engages the romantic nomad in my soul. The Matrix will be at the top of the list (it changed my life). Loved the recent Star Trek (Chris Pine awes me with his talent), and, of course, Pirates of the Caribbean. Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio did a couple of really long interviews that should be a must for writers.

WG:      Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on your life? In what way?

RR:      Too many to count! Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land and Dorothy Dunnett's Checkmate taught me that a book could stay true to its heart and rip yours wide open. Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time showed me that expected voices are still out there beginning to be discovered. Yann Martel's Life of Pi taught me that even the implausible can fascinated in the hands of a master.

When I was in the fourth grade, my teacher, Mrs. Kaye, read White Squaw: The True Story of Jennie Wiley to the class. Not a great book, but enchanting and memorable. It cemented my desire to write.

WG:      I know in addition to being an editor you are also an author in your own right. Do you think this has impacted your work/effectiveness as an editor, either positively or negatively? Please explain.

RR:      I think each has made the other better. I'm a better writer because I edit other folks and I'm a MUCH better editor because I know the writer's heart.

WG:      Why don't you tell us a bit about your current projects as an author.

RR:      In April 2011, my fifth Love Inspired Suspense book, House of Secrets, will be released. It's about a woman still struggling with the loss of her husband, the new man in her life, a murdered preacher, and the grand Victorian home that holds the secrets to everyone's problemsif they can only find them.

WG:      Is there a website you can point us to where folks can go to learn more about you and/or your publishing house?

RR:     www.abingdonpress.com/fiction

WG:      And finally, thanks again for taking some time to 'stop by' this month!

 

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