Author Interview: Jessie Chaffee and Brendan Kiely

by Ruta Rimas

The Get Lit Salon on January 13 — the first one of 2019 — will feature not one, but two guest authors, Jessie Chaffee and Brendan Kiely. They are both highly acclaimed, award-winning novelists with a special distinction: They’re married.

Two authors, one roof.

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Jessie Chaffee’s debut novel, Florence in Ecstasy

Jessie Chaffee’s debut novel, Florence in Ecstasy, was published by The Unnamed Press in 2017, and translated into five languages. She was awarded a Fulbright Grant in Creative Writing to Italy to complete the novel, during which time she was the Writer-in-Residence at Florence University of the Arts. Her writing has been published in Literary Hub, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, The Florentine, and Global City Review, among others.

Brendan Kiely is The New York Times bestselling author of All American Boys (with Jason Reynolds), Tradition, The Last True Love Story, and The Gospel of Winter. His work has been published in more than ten languages, received a Coretta Scott King Author Honor Award, the Walter Dean Myers Award, and the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award.

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Brendan Kiely’s most recent novel, Tradition

His work has been selected twice as one of the American Library Association’s Best Fiction for Young Adults and was a Chicago Public Library Best of the Best. Originally from the Boston area, he now lives with Jessie in New York City.

This couple’s literary credit rolls deep and we’re excited to speak to them in person. In advance of the salon, I asked these two writers the same question.

Why write?

Jessie Chaffee:

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Author photo by Heather Waraksa

I write because it is my way of making meaning and of understanding the world and my place within it. Whenever there is an issue that I’m grappling with, whether personal or global, the solution is always writing, because it is in putting words on the page that my understanding takes form and shape. Sometimes that process provides answers, but more often it just clarifies the right questions—and then those questions keep me writing! I write because I’m a reader and, like reading, writing is a path to empathy and connectedness. It takes me further into myself but it also takes me far outside of myself. It gives me access to an entirely new existence and to characters who are vastly different from me, who surprise me, who stretch me and challenge my sense of what it means to be a person in the world. Florence in Ecstasy took almost a decade, and while the writing process was at times maddening and there were plenty of dead-ends, I got to spend those ten years with a city that I love but that is not my own, with art and rowing and history, with Italian women and men and American expats and ecstatic saints. I’m grateful for every one of those years. I write because I’ve always felt most at home in books, in those moments when I glimpse truths that I might understand deeply—being lost, being at war with oneself, being in love—but that I haven’t seen captured in the (exact right way) that my favorite writers have managed to articulate them. And I write because I hope that my books might provide similar moments of connectedness for other readers.

Brendan Kiely:

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Author photo by Gary Joseph Cohen

I take inspiration from Toni Cade Bambara’s line, “the role of the artist is to make revolution irresistible.” I write as an act of social engagement. Whether it is the scandal of abuse in the Catholic Church (The Gospel of Winter), racism and police brutality (All American Boys), or the violent repercussions of misogyny (Tradition, May 2018), I write novels examining the motivations of people grappling with the complex social issues of our day to try to inspire action for social change. I write to move the heart and the feet: I write in search of hope.

Join us on Sunday, January 13th at 5 pm, at Oak Vino, to continue the discussion with Jessie and Brendan.

Burning Questions About Book Publishing: What’s the deal with children’s books?

By Ruta Rimas

When people think of children’s books, the first type that usually pops into mind is picture books, the often large-trimmed delights of young childhood, sometimes (but not always) read at bedtime. Most adult readers can fondly look back upon their youth and recall a few favorites books, the ones that transformed them into the readers they are today.

There are the classics: Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, anything by Dr. Seuss, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie (which has countless spinoffs!) by Laura Numeroff. But if you don’t have a toddler, an elementary-aged kid or teenager, you may not know that the children’s book industry is so much more than picture books, and so much more expansive than the classics. For instance, my employer produces over six hundred new children’s books every year.

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A classic picture book.

Children’s books often get lumped into one giant box, but this segment of the publishing industry is robust, diverse, innovative, and vast. The books published in this category span 0-18 years of age, and that includes:

A board book is short and simple, made from thick cardboard for little hands that like to pull and little mouths that like to bite. Generally, children’s publishers either repurpose content for board books or write board books in-house.

Picture books are usually geared for readers aged four to eight, and contain both a text-based narrative and a visual one. Dragons Love Tacos by Adam Rubin and The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt are modern picture book successes.

For young readers who are eager to begin exploring stories on their own (or perhaps with a reading partner) there are chapter books. These tend to run between 10-12,000 words, sometimes have spot art, and are gobbled up by kids six to nine years old. A great example of a chapter book is the Clementine Series by Sara Pennypacker

There are also middle-grade novels, usually for readers who are eight to twelve. These tend to be longer and offer more complex and sophisticated stories. Diary of Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney is middle grade, as is Wonder by RJ Palacio.

Finally, children’s publishing also encompasses the thriving young adult category. These are books published for teenagers, though there is a significant adult readership, too. Recent YA successes include To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.

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A modern YA bestseller

The business wasn’t always this way: The world of children’s publishing fundamentally shifted about twenty years ago and we have a young wizard to thank for that. The Harry Potter series changed everything for this part of the publishing business, and created a shift from a primarily back-list driven industry (i.e., books that have been published many years prior) to a front-list driven one (i.e., new books). This type of model is much more in line with how the traditional adult book market functions. The Harry Potter series is also responsible for the invention of a children’s New York Times Bestseller list, too, because when those books published, they ate up the slots on the regular bestseller list.

Children’s books. It’s where it’s at.

Burning Questions About Book Publishing: How is a book cover created?

By Ruta Rimas

The cover of a book is by far its most valuable marketing tool, and many ideas (and opinions) factor into the final design. Publishers want unique, eye-catching book covers. Ask yourself what makes you pick up a book, and that is the very question publishers ponder at every stage of the design process.

Well over a year in advance of a book’s on-sale date, the cover design process begins. There’s good reason for the early start: we need the image and a printed jacket for the sell-in process, which occurs about six months prior to a book’s on-sale. A book has a stronger chance of being ordered by booksellers if they can visualize it. No book cover? Many booksellers will skip an order, especially if the book is by an unknown or unproven author.

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This is the final cover for a book that goes on sale in June 2019.

The process of book cover design looks something like below, though it varies from publisher to publisher.

Editor presents the book to design: The editor shares what the book is about, who the audience may be, what  comparative and competitive books are already on the shelves, and then offers some ideas to the design department. To give you some perspective, for my Fall 2019 books, I started talking covers with my designers in… August 2018.

Designer is assigned: The creative director assigns a designer who they feel is the best fit for the project. The designer and editor begin bouncing ideas around. The designer often reads the manuscript at this stage, if one is available.

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This was the first cover direction for the book pictured above, scrapped after input from sales and marketing.

Designer drafts ideas and presents to editor: The designer whips up several different directions using inspiration art, stock photos, unique lettering, even illustrations. The editor offers input and sends the designer back to work until finally, an idea is agreed on. This stage has a lot of back and forth and is often the longest. Once everyone is on the same page, it’s time to set up a photo shoot or to hire an artist. Sometimes, we use stock photos for book covers, too. It all depends on the need of the book, our budget, and where we see the book shelves at stores.

Editor shares with author and Editor shares with sales/marketing: This step can happen simultaneously or sequentially or flip-flopped. Editors want their authors to be happy and proud of the book cover. Most editors take their author’s feedback into consideration and will share that feedback with the designer. Sometimes if an author is very unhappy with the cover, the cover is scrapped and a new idea pursued. We also take our sales and marketing feedback very seriously. Sometimes sales and marketing might even ask us to rethink a cover. And then we start all over again, until…

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Take two! The author saw this version and provided feedback, which was incorporated for the final cover.

BOOK COVER IS DONE! Then…

The cover feeds out digitally to retailers: About six to nine months prior to on-sale, just in time for sales calls, the book cover posts online at Amazon, B&N, and IndieBound.

Jacket proofs are printed and mailed: Once a final image is agreed upon by everyone, and as the sales force continues their sell-in process, the production department creates jacket proofs for the sales team to show accounts. The proofs may not be the final jacket that wraps around the final book, but generally they are very close and will include things like special effects (embossing, spot gloss, a unique finish like “soft touch,” for example).

The above steps are a general overview of the process, but talk to your author friends and you’ll find exceptions to every stage. Sometimes books don’t have manuscripts available early enough for the editor — let alone the designer! — to read and publishers have to create covers based on a synopsis or sample pages. Some books are crashed onto a season after the sell-in process begins, and so the cover has to be whipped together immediately. And sometimes, books change cover design from the hardcover to the paperback.

But one thing is certain. All book covers are tailor-made and with a common goal: encouraging readers to buy the book.

Burning Questions About Book Publishing: From start to finish, how does a book end up on a bookstore shelf?

By Ruta Rimas

As a publishing professional, I’m often asked about the process of book-making, how a Word document is transformed into a beautiful, typeset, bound, physical object that one can purchase.

The answer seems obvious —  write, send off the files to the printer et voilà! Book! — but many are surprised by how complicated and time-consuming the creation of a book can be. The general process outlined below can take between one to two years, though it can vary depending on the needs of the book and what is selling in the marketplace (e.g., a publisher will “crash” a book and speed up this process if they think a book needs to hit the shelves sooner).

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How does a book go from your brain to Binnacle?

Many different people have a hand in book creation; once the book is written, it’s touched by agents, acquiring editors, assistants, managing editors, production editors, designers, marketers, publicists, sales reps, warehouse staff, and more. Writing is solitary but book creation is a team effort.

How a Book Is Made

  1. Manuscript is written. This step is the most obvious. There is no book without words strung together by a writer.
  2. Agent offers to represent writer. Posts 1 and 2 address agents.
  3. Editor acquires book Check out post 3 for an overview of that process.
  4. Editor edits. Working as a one-on-one creative writing workshop, the acquiring editor will often send a letter and notes on the manuscript to the author, making revision suggestion on aspects like plot, characters, arcs, continuity issues.
  5. Manuscript is finished. After a few rounds of revision, the manuscript is sent into managing editorial and the managing editor begins copyediting and proofreading. At the same time, the Book cover is designed. The book cover is generated fairly early in the process as it is the first material that the sales teams shares with their accounts, like Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Independent Book Stores, etc.
  6. Author addresses copyeditors questions. Working from a master Word file created from the copyeditor, the author will go through the pages and address any outstanding issues, including grammar. Most publishers use the track changes function in Word for this step.
  7. Manuscript is sent to design. This step is a fun one: the interiors of the book, the galley pages, are laid out.
  8. Advance Readers Copies are created. These are early bound galleys, sometimes referred to as ARCs, and they look like paperback books. Publicity, marketing, and the author are able to send ARCs to reviewers and to others to generate early buzz. Generally, these are available 6-8 months before a book is on sale.
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    This is an ARC of a book that publishes as a hardcover in December 2018. Note that the back has a section dedicated to list the marketing campaign.
  9. The production editor schedules the book at the printer. Working closely with editorial, design, and managing editorial, contacts the printer to set up the printing schedule for ARCs, jacket proofs, and final books. Many publishers work with international printers, usually in China or India. Some books are printed domestically, depending on how quickly they are needed. This scheduling can become complicated during certain times of year, like Chinese New Year, when overseas printers close for a few weeks.
  10. The books ship from the printer and are warehoused. The printer will place books on ocean liners to arrive at US ports. Trucks will pick up the boxes and drive them to publisher warehouses. From the warehouse, the books ship to booksellers, distribution centers, and other facilities.
  11. Books are delivered to the store, shelved by staff, and ready to buy!

This list addresses the physical production of the book but it doesn’t outline everything that is happening simultaneously with nearly every step: Sales meetings! Marketing and publicity discussions! Licensing opportunities! That will be the subject of a future post in the Burning Questions about Book Publishing series.

If you have any additional questions about book publishing, please ask in the comments and those questions may become the topic of another post in this series, too.

Burning Questions About Book Publishing: What are editors thinking about when they want to buy a manuscript?

By Ruta Rimas

Thank you to those of you who submitted questions about book publishing. My two previous posts address the most common question – agents and what they do! (Post 1 here, Post 2 here)

The next question I was asked delves into the business of book publishing:

What are editors thinking about when they want to buy a manuscript?

(For the purposes of this post, assume that I am speaking about the big New York City houses that publish fiction and nonfiction, like HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Penguin Random House.)

As readers, we know that a book is a wonderful and complex piece of art, cherished and held on high. Every person who works in book publishing feels this same way – it’s an industry of book nerds, basically.

Book nerds work at the above publishers.

Books tend to be held to different standards, and are oftentimes considered more dignified than other forms of art or entertainment. As writers, we need to remember that though this is a creative industry, publishing houses are also profit-driven entertainment businesses, and many are part of a larger media conglomerate. A book is also a product. It’s consumed. It’s for sale, a piece of merchandise created to generate money.

So, what are things that editors might consider? There’s a multitude of factors, including but not limited to:

  • The overall idea: Is this manuscript compelling and fresh? What comparative titles are out there already and how will yours stand out?
  • The type of writing and the publisher’s aesthetic: What is the writing quality? Is the writing literary, beautiful, contemplative, meandering? Is the writing more commercial, accessible, easy-to-digest? A pop-culture imprint may be great for a biography about Beyoncé, but not the place for your Civil War-era romance, for example.
  • The marketplace: Do we see this book as making a huge commercial splash, is this book an award-winner, is this book quiet and niche? Who are the readers, where do we see this shelved at our accounts? Is this book regionally focused? How are other books like this one selling? How can we use those book sales to our advantage?
  • Sales expectations: How many copies do we think we can sell in hardcover? In paperback? In ebook? Are there subsidiary rights that we think we can exploit, like a sale into the UK or other foreign territories?
  • The advance: How do we balance our market-expectations with what we think we can afford to pay the writer? If we overpay, that’s bad for us and very bad for the author – it can kill their career if their book doesn’t earn out its advance. Are multiple houses interested? If so, how can we be competitive with our offer?
  • Marketing and publicity: Will this book require a significant investment in marketing and publicity? Does the author have a pre-existing platform or network that we can leverage in this regard?

This list of factors is not all inclusive but will give you a good idea of what editors are thinking about when they want to buy your manuscript. At the end of the day, for the big publishers, the best type of book balances the beauty of words and ideas with commercial success and wide appeal. For a book to be both literary and commercial is an editor’s dream.