Easily, one of the greatest joys of being on the board of the Philadelphia Writers Conference is that I get to meet all sorts of cool and interesting people.
One of those people is John Bryans, Editor and Chief of Plexus Publishing. Plexus is a small press, located in Medford, NJ who publishes a variety of works, most notably a little historical piece about a prohibition era Atlantic City political boss named “Nucky” Johnson. You may have heard of it, HBO bought the rights and based some sort of show that won some kind of awards …
I ran into John at the Authors on the Green event in Smithville, NJ a few weeks back and asked if he’d share his thoughts on the publishing world, and he was kind enough to say yes. This is what that wrought:
Plexus has a very wide ranging category of works (from Pharmaceutical Reference to Murder Mysteries), do you have a favorite?
Okay, this is me speaking personally because “officially” I love all the books we’ve done and, in fact, variety is what excites me about the program. Once upon a time I would have said I favor fiction–especially historical fiction, with which I have the longest relationship–but after working with the late, great Howard P. Boyd on two of his four environmental books about the New Jersey Pine Barrens, and with attorney John Hartmann on his memoir, Jacket (which is either honestly subversive or subversively honest–I still can’t decide) I’ve come to realize it’s the quality of the writing that matters most to me, not the genre. I do love humor, though. In my early teens I discovered S.J. Perelman, James Thurber, and Clarence Day. At his best, Perelman (who wrote for The New Yorker but also famously for the Marx Brothers) is the funniest writer I’ve ever encountered. So I love books that make me laugh out loud. Jacket did that for me, and so did Richard Powell’s Pioneer, Go Home!, which we published in a 50th anniversary edition. It’s hilarious.
What are the most significant changes in the publishing world over the last 35 years?
There is no doubt that the Internet, ebooks, and trends in self-publishing have and will continue to hold sway over commercial publishing. I certainly like to look for and stress opportunities rather than negatives–I have to in order to keep going–but it’s becoming harder for writers and publishers to make a living at it because a glut in output is happening at the same time as the readership dwindles. People are impatient, distracted, and have less time for reading now than in any time in our history, I think. The long form is a primary victim of this trend, I’m afraid. I often wonder, in a world where everyone is a writer, where will we find readers?
What are some common mistakes writers make?
The biggest mistake is plunging into the submission process without having done your research first. Uninformed submissions, along with sloppy ones turn editors off immediately, and once you’ve made that poor first impression it’s hard to turn it around. So, go to the bookstore, go to the library, go online, and seek the advice of successful authors–know what you’re doing before you submit anything to anyone. The second biggest mistake is failure to follow up on your submissions. Editors not only need to be reminded they have your proposal and sample chapters, most of the time they’ll appreciate you for following up with them.
What are the things you most look for when reading submissions?
That care has been taken in the preparation. If the label is a child’s scrawl, it doesn’t bode well. If the cover letter is ugly and rambles onto a second or even a third page, it’s a red flag. So, odd as it may seem, the impression the writer makes with the introductory elements before the editor starts (that is, if he starts) reviewing the pitch are really, really important. I look for focus and clarity and if I find it in the cover letter, and if the concept is appropriate for our program, I will read at least a few pages of the manuscript to see if it grabs me.
How has the success of Boardwalk Empire impacted Plexus?
It put us on the map, which wasn’t always a good thing for me when the series first began on HBO. Suddenly I was receiving dozens of queries and proposals a day, and I’m the only editor here so you can imagine how challenging it was to keep up. I couldn’t. Eventually I took down our proposal guidelines from the website so that only the most industrious writers could figure out how to reach me. While I did work through the slush pile about 3 years later I know there are still some poor souls who never heard back from me even with an SASE. If any of you are reading this, I’m truly sorry about that! (Did you follow up?)
More importantly, Boardwalk Empire became a New York Times bestseller–the first I’d ever acquired and edited, and Plexus’s first. That helps to open a lot of doors. For instance, I had the great experience, after first negotiating the dramatic rights with HBO, of licensing all sorts of subsidiary rights. I was pretty much determined to do it myself, without an agent, and I think it worked out well: I did a deal for a UK English edition with Random House, an audiobook deal with Audible, and the book has been translated into 14 languages. I learned a lot through this process and I really enjoyed the challenge.
How important are things like conventions and conferences to writers today?
There’s plenty of social networking going on—it’s pervasive–and call me a dinosaur if you like but there’s nothing like spending time in a room with people who share your dreams and who have complementary goals, skills, and knowledge to your own. Conferences are energizing, they give you hope, and the same is true of writers groups. Not everyone is cut out to be part of a writers group, but those who are have so much to gain from the support of likeminded members. Here in my backyard I’m impressed by Amy Hollinger and her fellow writers of the South Jersey Writers’ Group—they’re not only critiquing one another’s work, they are actually using new digital tools to publish it!
To close, I just want to add that one of the best things about my work is that I’ve gotten to know and become friends with talented writers hailing from all walks of life, and with every imaginable quirk, foible, and point of view. I admire writers and I am here to support them—that’s what I do—and when starting out with a promising writer my biggest hope is that we will go on to produce multiple books together. I’ve been fortunate over the years to have worked with several authors on 4, 5, and in at least one case even 6 books. These weren’t all major commercial successes (though many have been and most made a small profit) but they were all very good books. And the author and I had fun producing them. For me, that’s important.