What I Learned in School Yesterday

Jill shared wisdom from the masters in her class on writing suspense.

Greetings from the Home2Suites in Albuquerque, where the view is of a complex freeway interchange and my neighbors are fellow presenters at the University of New Mexico Writers’ Conference. I was one of three editor/publishers here to spout off about the book business yesterday and listen to pitches from aspiring authors. Joining us publishers were several (terrific) agents and a few (also terrific) authors, who served as instructors. Our own Jill Orr (The Bad Break, The Good Byline) was one of the instructors, teaching a superb class on how to write suspense.

I’m coming home with three things I want to remember, which is why I’m writing them down. It’s not new information, but I need the reminders, as do most of us in the book world.

  1. Writing is an art and publishing is a business. Smart and thoughtful agent John Cusick of Folio in New York articulated this very well yesterday. If an agent or publisher rejects a book, that rejection has nothing to do with the book’s merit as a work of art. It is strictly a business decision, based on the agent’s or editor’s knowledge of the market, what other books are in the pipeline, if the book fills a particular hole in a season’s lineup, what budgets are available, what the sales reps think, and a hundred more factors. The author should not lose faith in the value of his or her book, and the agent/publisher should not feel guilty for acting as businesspeople, because that’s what we are.
  2. A certain amount of suspense is essential to every story, even if it’s not a suspense novel—yes, even if it’s a biography or how-to book. Jill laid out in a most entertaining and clear way the essential roles of foreshadowing, making the reader wait just long enough, and the element of surprise, and it was a great reminder for me as an editor.
  3. Data matters. I wasn’t thrilled to learn about how successful another publisher has been with its business model of in-depth focus-group research, algorithms, and analytics-based marketing, because A) that all sounds exhausting (and expensive), and B) it seems antithetical to the things I most love about this business, which are the people, the words/images, and the actual books. But we ignore the world of data at our peril. Figuring out the balance is the challenge.

Next weekend will bring a bounty of the fun stuff—people, books, words, music—at the LA Times Festival of Books. Come see us at booth 103!

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