What the Editors Are Looking For
Something writers often hear is that they should submit their novels and sotires to editors and literary agents who will be a “good fit” for their work. The reasons for this are twofold: “good fit” editors are more likely to offer you a contract and they’re more likely to “get” your novel and share a vision of your work.
A concern I’ve often heard is that authors are afraid big, scary, corporate editors will overhaul their stories. That fear is greatly diminished when you know the editor gets your book—which is why you want a good fit editor. This is something most authors understand.
The trouble some writers on the traditional publishing road run into is that it’s sometimes tricky to figure out what individual editors like because they work behind the curtain. Yeah, you know the book came from Tor, but who inside of Tor worked on it? A lot of times you can find that information by looking in the acknowledgements in published books similar to yours. Pub Rants, a blog from Kristin Nelson of the Nelson Literary Agency, often has her impressions of what editors in general are looking for during a given season or year. There are also small contributions like the one I’m about to give you: my specific observations from speaking with four editors at WorldCon.*
Jim Frenkel (Tor)
Jim is looking for “really good books,” which isn’t very helpful for most people who are already pretty sure they have one of those. But if you’ve already got a really good book on your hands, Jim is pretty open in terms of genre. He’s edited science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, thrillers, historical fiction, and engaging science-related nonfiction. He’s hardly picky.
Right now a book he was excited to talk about is Lady Lazarus by Michele Lang. If you don’t know already, it’s a historical urban fantasy set at the beginning of World War II in an alternate universe where the main character is the last in a long line of Jewish witches who help keep demons from meddling in human affairs.
Jim also mentioned that he does agenting on the side and works a lot in foreign rights, so I would be inclined to believe (though he never actually said this) that he thinks at least somewhat on a global scale.
Liz was one of this year’s Hugo nominees for Best Editor, Long Form. She has a background in comics (and she’s starting to get her fingers into more of those again), and she prefers more literary-style fiction. (Since “literary” is such a non-descriptive word: She recently edited Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal, if that helps you peg one aspect of what she considers literary.)
Moshe Feder (Tor)
Moshe was also a Best Editor, Long Form, Hugo nominee. He’s the editor for Brandon Sanderson and Dan Wells (to give you some reference points for his taste). Moshe has a background in science fiction, so he appreciates magic and worldbuilding that make sense (which explains why Sanderson’s almost scientific magic systems appeal to him so much).
One thing Moshe stressed while I was speaking with him was how he strives for empathy and understanding in the author–editor relationship, even with authors whose books he passes on. That isn’t to say that other editors don’t strive for it too—both Jim and Liz said that they want authors to have authority over their books—but it was a point of emphasis for Moshe in our particular conversation.
Lou has been nominated for Best Editor, Long Form, five times, and this year he took the Hugo home. When one of my friends (the lovely Charlie Holmberg) asked him what he was looking for in a book, initially he answered with an abstract measuring stick. If his wife has to ask him what a manuscript is like and he just meanders through a list of its merits, she’ll let him know he needs to put it down; if instead she has to force him to sit down and finish reading the manuscript because he’s so excited to tell her about it, he knows it’s something he needs to buy. (So essentially, he wants writers to be brilliant.)
After the more abstract description he was able to give some definite genres he’s looking for, though. He digs sword and sorcery (he even edited an anthology of short stories in the genre) and epic fantasy. He watches ebbs and flows of interest and developing ideas carefully. He knows the history of speculative fiction genres and he has it in mind when he’s looking at fiction. If you’re a writer who flourishes in the “anxiety of influence,” try running your stuff through Pyr’s open submissions pile.
I mentioned more about Lou’s preferences when I posted about publisher’s styles, so you can find those there if you want more information about what he’s looking for right now.
There are, of course, many more editors than these four—but these are the ones I’ve met and spoken with recently, so that’s all I’ve got for you right now.
*Please remember to take my observations with a grain of salt. I’m hardly perfect.