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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Interview with Anne Sowards (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

BIOGRAPHY: Anne Sowards is an executive editor at Penguin Group (USA) Inc., where she primarily acquires and edits fantasy and science fiction for the Ace and Roc imprints. Some of the great authors she works with include Jim Butcher, Patricia Briggs, Anne Bishop, Ilona Andrews, Karen Chance, Jack Campbell, and Rob Thurman. When she's not reading, she listens to Chinese rap and spends way too much time playing video games. She recently won the ESGR Patriot Award as well. Follow her on twitter.

In the past decade I have come across many authors whose books have thrilled me to the core. Over a period of time, I noticed one similarity in all of them, they were all thanking one person profusely i.e. their editor Anne Sowards. I happened to also notice that the imprint wherein she works also produced some of the best books in urban fantasy currently and since I have an active interest in this specific sub-genre. I was looking forward to hearing her thoughts on many subjects. I would like to thank Liviu my senior editor for his acumen and insight with this interview and some of the questions, also a extra, special THANK YOU to Ilona Andrews for agreeing to participate & coming up with their own set of questions for Anne and lastly to Anne herself for taking the time amidst her hectic schedule. The interview has been divided into three sections, so read forth to know more about Anne & her views...


Q] Welcome to Fantasybookcritic, You’ve been editing for a while now. Where does your love for writing/editing arise from and what events led you to pursue a career as an editor?

ANNE: I was always reading as a child—and I’d read whatever was around the house, even the cereal box or encyclopedias. In my quest for reading material, I soon expanded to my parents’ bookshelves. My dad was a major science fiction fan so I discovered authors like Frank Herbert and Robert A. Heinlein through his book collection.

In college I majored in English but wasn’t sure if I wanted to teach, so I started thinking about what else I could do, and considered publishing as a career. I joined our student-run science fiction magazine and found I really liked it, so a few months after graduation I moved out to New York City to look for a job. I was hired as the assistant to Susan Allison, the editor in chief of Ace, and worked my way up from there.

Q] Earlier you were a senior editor and since May 2009 you have ascended to the position of an Executive editor, how many responsibilities have increased with this shift? Conversely what are the perks you now enjoy that you didn’t earlier?

ANNE: In editorial a change in title is partially a recognition of your value to the company, and your actual day-to-day job may not change radically. I still find books for the company to publish and work with my authors through the whole publication process. That being said, I’ve become much more involved with scheduling (deciding which books we’ll publish when). As far as perks, I’d love to tell you all about my jaunts to London on the company plane but the truth is, I don’t think Penguin even has a company plane. I did get new business cards, though!

Q] With editing being your profession, you must often get very little time for personal reading. But if & when you do, what are the genres you like to read in? Also who are your favorite authors besides the ones you work with?

ANNE: It’s true, I have less time to read for pleasure than I used too—most of my reading time is taken up by the books I’m working on. When I’m reading for fun, I like historical fiction, romance, fantasy & science fiction, Young Adult, and narrative nonfiction.

Q] Could you please describe a typical day in your professional life? How much of your work do you bring home with you?

ANNE: There are three aspects to my job:

1) acquiring new books for the company to publish.

2) editing the books I acquire and working with them throughout the entire publication process.

3) everything else—a lot of resolving problems and answering questions.

I read submissions on the train, and primarily edit at home. The “everything else” takes up the bulk of my time when I’m in the office. I’m the point of contact person for the book and the author, so any questions the author or agent have for different departments (publicity, sales, etc.) go through me—and any questions in-house departments have about the book go through me. This results in a lot of questions! I spend a surprising amount of time composing emails and responding to questions.

I write marketing materials and put together sales information, selling points, quotes praising the author or the book, a description of the story, etc. and combine it into what we call a TI or Title Information sheet. These are used by all the other departments.

Also: attending meetings. We have a meeting to decide on a cover approach, a meeting to strategize the book with the sales department, and a meeting to discuss publicity for current titles on sale. There are also meetings to decide on the pricing of a book, to decide how many copies to print and reprint, and the list goes on and on. Again, since I’m the point of contact for the book, I go to many of these meetings.

Q] I hear you are an avid gamer, so which system do you have/prefer and what are your favorite games?

ANNE: I am definitely a gamer. I don’t know if I’m allowed to call myself an avid one; I’ve been so swamped lately I haven’t had a lot of time to play! Of the current gen consoles, I have a PS3. But I have a GameCube and Xbox kicking around and my Nintendo DS is still getting a fair amount of play. I love RPGs and puzzle games so some of my all time favorites are STAR WARS: KNIGHTS OF THE OLD REPUBLIC and THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: OCARINA OF TIME.

I just finished DRAGON AGE 2, started MASS EFFECT 2, and am also working on unlocking decks in MTG 2012: DUELS OF THE PLANESWALKERS (Archenemy mode is so fun!). My brother tried to teach me to play HALO but I kept falling off the stairs and getting stuck in corners—something about the first-person view in FPS games gives me trouble. Plus I admit shooting things and boss fights are not usually my favorite parts of a game.

Q] On your penguin page you have mentioned that only terrific storytelling can make you go forward with stories involving cannibalism, incest & circuses. Could you give us examples of each wherein the story (you read) involved one or more of the unreadable trinity? Lastly I’m curious, the first two subjects are icky and understandably gruesome, why circuses though? Circuses don’t seem to be in the same league.

ANNE: The opening line to Jeff Carlson’s PLAGUE YEAR is “They ate Jorgensen first.” In spite of my dislike of cannibalism, I pressed on, because you have to admit that’s a killer opening sentence. And Jeff’s terrific post-apocalyptic story, of people struggling to survive after a nanotech plague kills off everyone below 10,000 feet, won me over. George R. R. Martin’s rich storytelling and characterization drew me in even though there’s a brother-sister affair between Cersei and Jaime Lannister. I’m still looking for the Great Circus Story. Though to be honest, since circus storylines don’t generally appeal to me, I’m not looking super hard.

I agree, on the surface circuses don’t seem to be nearly as disturbing as cannibalism or incest. But you’re forgetting the clowns.

Q] You are also known to watch Bollywood which is very cool to know, especially for a non-desi. How did this fascination arise? which films are your favorites & who are you favorite actors (if any)?

ANNE: My interest in Bollywood came about serendipitously, like many things. I was channel surfing one day and came across a Southeast Asian entertainment program that was showing videos of dance numbers from popular Bollywood films. I was fascinated. I’ve always liked musicals and dance movies, and have also had an interest in India ever since I read my mom’s copy of SHADOW OF THE MOON by M. M. Kaye (historical fiction set in India during the time it was under British control).

So this was a great chance to learn more about India while watching movies that were all musicals (even when it sometimes seems incongruous). I started renting Bollywood films, kind of randomly. These days sometimes people give me specific recommendations but I rely a lot on Netflix reviews. Some of my favorites are DHADKAN, JODHAA AKBAR, GANGSTER, OM SHANTI OM, and (of course) DHOOM 2. As far as actors, I particularly like Hrithik Roshan, Aishwarya Rai, and Shah Rukh Khan.
[Photo Credit: Myke Cole]


Q] What are the factors/elements that you look for in any new submission which you receive? Are they genre-specific or something which work across the spectrum?

ANNE: I am looking for a story I can fall in love with and characters I care about. It doesn’t matter if it takes place on a spaceship or on horseback if it has those qualities.

Q] Do you have any specific reading habits or methods for evaluating submitted manuscripts?

ANNE: I read my submissions on my trusty Sony e-reader, on the subway going to and from work. Generally, I read until I have a sense of the story, quality of writing, and commercial appeal. Sometimes I can determine this after a sentence or a page; sometimes I need to read the whole book to decide whether it’s right for us.

Q] Who is the one author (either living or dead) that you would give a limb to work with? And what is it about her/his writing that makes it special for you?

ANNE: I admire the late Octavia Butler tremendously. When I read her Xenogenesis trilogy (now in an omnibus as Lilith’s Brood), I was gripped by the story she created—a frighteningly plausible story of an alien invasion. But these aliens haven’t come to kill, but to assimilate. They survive by finding new partner species to trade genes with—it’s how their race evolves. So humans are faced with joining the Oankali, knowing their children will no longer be human, or resisting and fighting against them. It’s an amazing series, so powerful and thought provoking.

Q] While evaluating manuscripts in the past couple of years, did you ever have a conflict between your personal preferences versus that of being the executive editor? If so how did you resolve it?

ANNE: Certainly there are sometimes submissions that are not necessarily to my own personal reading taste. (Maybe the story involves clowns.) Acquiring manuscripts is very subjective, and my list is a reflection of my tastes and what I think will interest readers. I’ve had to pass on books that I loved but that we didn’t think were viable commercially. I’ve also passed on books that were commercial but just didn’t do it for me as a reader. Part of my role is to get everyone else at the company excited about a book, and it’s hard to do that if I don’t fall in love with the story.

Q] What is your opinion on an imprint having an "image"? Is it advantageous as that means you have a stable of committed readers, or is it sometimes limiting in a way or another?

ANNE: Well, since Ace and Roc are science fiction and fantasy imprints, it means I can’t publish something wildly off base (like nonfiction about the history of Laundromats). It’s just not what retailers and readers expect or want from us. That being said, I feel lucky to work on science fiction and fantasy. The kind of books we can publish are so varied, I rarely feel limited.

Q] What are your thoughts about online book promotion? What roles do social media (Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads) and review blogs play?

ANNE: Review bloggers are so important! There are not as many print reviewers covering books these days, and even when there were more, their focus was usually not on genre titles. So it’s great that online reviewers are filling in the gaps and discussing fantasy and science fiction titles.

Goodreads is also valuable; it’s amazing how early buzz can start there. One of my YA books, FALLING UNDER by Gwen Hayes, got put on some lists in Goodreads pre-publication and I definitely think it helped to increase awareness about the book.

Online book promotion can be incredibly powerful, or incredibly annoying. It all depends on how it’s done. For me, it’s about connection, and also about being genuine. I have a Twitter account but I don’t tweet BUY THIS BOOK 24/7. I would unfollow anyone who did that!

Sometimes readers fall in love with a book and want to find out more about the world, what’s coming next, the author, or what other people thought about the book. So they might seek out the author’s website or Facebook page or Goodreads listing, or [and here’s where I come in] the publisher’s or editor’s website or Twitter feed.

The trick is to be interesting, engaging, and real (hence, no endless BUY MY BOOK posts). My feeling is that readers want to connect with authors via social media because they liked the author’s voice / storytelling; if you’re just doing BUY MY BOOK posts they won’t necessarily stick around. They want to know YOU.

So I talk about books and what I’m working on. But I also talk about laundry, what video games I’m playing, my knitting, and my current obsession with K-dramas. I post links to stories about the publishing industry and links that are funny or quirky or possibly interesting to no one but me. I have a lot of fun with it, and hopefully the people who look at my Twitter feed do too. And by coming to know me and my tastes, they may become interested in the books I like and the authors I’m working with and want to check them out.

Q] Ace & ROC are pretty much the leaders in urban fantasy, not surprising you also publish Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files which by almost universal fan opinion is the best UF series out there. How did this occur? Was it a conscious decision on the part of Ace to specifically focus on UF? What more avenues will be looked upon in the future?

ANNE: We were in on the ground floor with the urban fantasy movement, because of our success with Laurell K. Hamilton, Jim Butcher, and then Charlaine Harris. As their sales grew, we recognized that readers wanted more stories that were set in our world, but with vampires / werewolves / magic in them, so we looked for authors writing those types of books. As a result, today we have one of the strongest urban fantasy line-ups in the industry.

But our list is quite varied, and we don’t limit ourselves to urban fantasy. We’re always looking for the next thing, whether that is military science fiction, steampunk, or edgy fantasy. Publishing is a business, and we want to bring people the books they’re interested in reading. We do our best to keep up with what’s coming out and paying attention to what’s successful—with the goal to continue publishing the books readers want.

Q] What are some of titles which are coming out in the second half of 2011 & the forthcoming year which you are excited about?

ANNE: This is a toughie! We have lot of great books and there’s no way I can cover them all, so please check our website or Facebook page to see everything we publish.

Here are a few highlights:

In December, check out--

Kelly McCullough’s BROKEN BLADE, which is the beginning of a terrific new series about an ex-assassin trying to make his way in the world after the goddess he served is destroyed.

Ilona Andrews’s FATE’S EDGE is a fabulous and romantic story about an ex-thief and a con man who team up in the Edge, a unique world where the mundane world of Wal-Mart and technology is on one side and a magical realm of Changelings and Blueblood warriors is on the other.

Upcoming in the first quarter of 2012 we have--

SHADOW OPS: CONTROL POINT by Myke Cole, first in a hard-hitting military fantasy series. Imagine today’s ultra-realistic modern combat combined with magic and you get Shadow Ops. Myke Cole is currently an officer in the US Coast Guard Reserve and also served three tours in Iraq, so he’s the real deal and that authenticity comes through in his writing.

FAIR GAME, the new Alpha and Omega novel from Patricia Briggs, about the hunt for a serial killer targeting werewolves and fae. There are events at the end of this book that will have major ramifications for this series and the Mercy Thompson series, since they share a world. Exciting!

FATED by Benedict Jacka, which is a tremendous new urban fantasy series about a mage in London. Alex Verus is a diviner or probability mage, which means he can sense likely futures, and it is awesome. Definitely check this out if you’re a Jim Butcher fan and suffering from Dresden Files withdrawal.

There will be many more fantastic books coming, so please do check out our website or Facebook page if you’d like to be aware of what’s in the pipeline.

[Photo Credit: Elze Hamilton]


Q] You edit many authors in the Urban Fantasy sub-genre such as Jim Butcher, Patricia Briggs, Karen Chance, Ilona Andrews, Devon Monk, Lisa Shearin, and many others. When you started out, have you ever imagined you would be an "urban fantasy" editor?

ANNE: My career has definitely taken unexpected directions! Back then, I thought of myself as more of an epic fantasy girl—I was a huge fan of authors like Robert Jordan and David Eddings. But then I read Laurell K. Hamilton’s first Anita Blake novel, GUILTY PLEASURES, and it blew me away. I hadn’t ever read anything like it before, and my love for urban fantasy was born. I feel so lucky to be able to work with all the amazing authors that I do.

Q] When you offer editorial suggestions, how extensive are the changes you usually request?

ANNE: It completely depends on what the project needs. For some books my suggestions are miniscule, for others, they could be 20+ pages of suggestions.

Q] Do all authors implement the changes you suggest, or have you had instances of someone refusing to make the edits?

ANNE: At the end of the day, it’s the author’s name on the book, and it’s their story. So it’s their decision how they respond to my suggestions, and some authors prefer to handle the issues in a different way.


Nayan said...

thats a really wonderful interview. Really surprised to find the Bollywood interest angle.

Mihir said...

Hi Nayan

Thanks yaar, it was interesting to know that about Anne. She knows her Bollywood :)

Rebecca Chastain said...

Thanks for the great interview!

Mihir said...

Thanks Rebecca, glad to hear you enjoyed it :)

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