A few years ago, I had the opportunity to spend time with Meghan Stevenson at the SDSU Writers’ Conference. Her energy was infectious, and her desire to see writers succeed was equally impressive. Hence, Meghan was obviously a natural fit for the Red Sofa Chats.
A little about Meghan:
Meghan Stevenson is a freelance editor, collaborator and ghostwriter. Before launching Meghan Stevenson Books in 2012, she worked for nearly a decade as an editor at Penguin Group USA (Hudson Street Press and Plume) and Simon & Schuster (Touchstone Fireside.) During her publishing career, she enjoyed four bestselling books, including The Bro Code based on the CBS hit sitcom “How I Met Your Mother” and The First 20 Minutes written by New York Times fitness columnist Gretchen Reyolds. Meghan has a Masters of Science in publishing from Pace University and Bachelors of Arts degrees in Communication Studies and English Writing from Winona State University. Originally from Wisconsin, Meghan lives with her husband, two dogs, and two cats in New York City.
She can be found on Twitter at @megstevenson
1. Why did you choose to become an editor?
This is totally cheesy and cliché, but I don’t think I ever chose to be an editor. During my sophomore year in college, I edited a friend’s manuscript—a fantasy novel, something I wouldn’t read on my own—and really enjoyed the process.
I was a major in Communication Studies, but decided to double major in English because it only required a few more classes than an English minor. My junior year, I ended up in a creative writing class where the students edited each other’s work. At the time, I was applying for MFA programs since I really didn’t know what I wanted to do after graduation. The professor for that class, Beth Oness, suggested that I might be better suited for a publishing program than a MFA since my strength seemed to be editing, not writing.
I ended up applying and getting in to Pace University’s publishing program in New York City. I had visited New York earlier in college and fallen in love with it, so I was really excited to move. I was probably more certain about moving than I was about publishing.
When I started at Pace, the internship coordinator was able to get me a late interview to be a fall intern at Simon & Schuster. When I began to work as an intern and eventually was hired as an editorial assistant there, I realized very quickly that my talents and skills were a great match for being an editor. I also was exposed pretty early on to the idea of freelance editors and ghostwriters, which seemed even more appealing to me.
I was an editorial assistant and assistant editor at Touchstone Fireside (S&S) for four years, and an associate editor at Hudson Street Press and Plume (Penguin) for another four. And while I liked being an acquisitions and developmental editor at the houses, I really love being a freelance editor and collaborator. I get to choose all the projects I work on, and am even more hands on with the authors I help.
2. Are there any projects you wish you could have edited?
So many! An author I encountered early in my career, who I always wanted to work with, is Jen Lancaster. My first boss in publishing, Cherise Davis Fisher, received a proposal for her book Bitter is the New Black as a submission. We both read it and adored it immediately. Cherise tried to acquire the book, but ultimately it went to NAL, where Jen is still published.
After the auction ended, I emailed Jen directly to tell her how much I loved her proposal and her blog. I was one of her first “book” fans. She’s been super generous with me; she sent me signed copies of her later books, and gave my authors blurbs while I was an editor at Penguin.
Unfortunately, I was never able to poach her or try to acquire her as my author, because I ended up working at Penguin, where she’s very happily published. But, almost a decade later, Jen’s still one of my favorite authors. (I gladly buy her books now!)
I also had a few projects on submission I adored that my editorial board (a group of editors who say yay or nay on whether projects should be published) rejected. The last one I remember from Penguin was Confessions of a Scary Mommy by Jill Smokler. I loved the proposal, loved talking with Jill on the phone, and knew that her huge blog following would translate into books sold. But my colleagues just didn’t get her humor, so I wasn’t able to buy the rights to publish it. That book later became a New York Times bestseller.
I would guess that for every book that I “won” and acquired, there were usually two or three that I wish I could have published (and didn’t get to, for various reasons) at the houses.
3. What are you reading right now (for personal reading, for fun)?
A habit I developed in college was to read two books at the same time: a nonfiction book and a novel. I usually switch back and forth unless a book gets really good and I can’t put it down.
I just finished Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink, about the events in a New Orleans hospital during and immediately after Hurricane Katrina, which was completely engrossing. It’s an excellent piece of journalism that leads you thinking and wondering after you’ve finished—a hallmark of a great book.
But what I’m reading now is completely different: One Last Thing Before I Go a novel written by Jonathan Tropper. He is one of my favorite authors, because his characters are flawed and real and hilarious, all at the same time. The main character in this novel, Silver, reminds me of Jeff Bridges in a good way. If you haven’t read any of Jonathan Tropper’s books, you should. His last book, This is Where I Leave You, was so entertaining I read it in one sitting.
I’ve also recently read Margot by Jillian Cantor, an amazing novel imagining what would have happened to Anne Frank’s sister had she lived through the Holocaust. I’m also still working through Loretta Lynn’s Coal Miner’s Daughter, mostly because I’ve become a big fan of her music recently and want to know more about her life.
4. How do you utilize Twitter? How do you believe it has changed the way we go about publishing books?
Oh jeez. I don’t use Twitter as much as I should.
I suspect that more people paid attention to my Twitter feed when I worked at the houses, because there’s a mystery to working for a big publisher. People, especially prospective authors, were curious as to what I did all day. (Also, following an editor basically gave them free advice.) But now that I’m a freelancer, not as many people want to know what I’m up to. Because of that, I use my Twitter feed now mostly as a promotional tool, and I suspect that’s how it works best for authors too.
The most important thing authors should know about Twitter is that it’s a networking site, just like Facebook. A lot of people just tweet without interacting with others, which minimizes what the site is really good at: connecting people. The sheer availability of people, from celebrities to pro athletes to famous authors to star editors and great literary agents is what makes Twitter so great.
I’m a big baseball fan, and once I sent a tweet about reading an article where R.A. Dickey mentioned that he was reading a Haruki Murakami novel. In the tweet, I wondered what else he liked to read. He responded with an answer, and we chatted more about that. It was a simple exchange, but it’s a great example of how you can make a genuine connection on Twitter with people you admire.
Authors can do that too. Aspiring authors especially can make a lot of connections on Twitter. But the important thing to remember that, like in-person networking, you have to be genuine about what you are saying and the person you are trying to connect with. If I had approached R.A. differently, he might not have responded to me.
Very recently, I made sort of a Twitter mistake. After finishing Margot, the novel I mentioned earlier, I sent Jillian Cantor’s editor and agent an email relaying how much I loved the book. Later on, I realized that I could have used Twitter to share my enthusiasm for the novel directly with the author. I felt sort of old fashioned and silly for emailing people instead of just tweeting about it. The next day, I went on Twitter and not only tweeted to the author about how much I loved her book, but also tweeted about the experience. A lot of people retweeted me, and what I realized is that my old fashioned step actually required more work than just a simple Tweet—so it was totally fine.
The lesson I took away is that Twitter is not the be all and end all. Like so many other things, it hasn’t changed the publishing world. The old ways still work, but Twitter and other new tools like it are helping authors expand their reach. It’s changing the game, but it’s not overhauling it.
What Twitter and tools like it have changed about the publishing business is how aspiring authors approach it. Thanks to social networking and the access to people it provides, there’s a lot more transparency about how our business works and how aspiring authors can get their work published.
For example, on Twitter an aspiring author can read #askeditor and #askagent conversations, read publishing news about deals, follow prominent editors and agents, and generally learn as much as they want to about the industry and where they fit in before querying a single agent. When clients or aspiring authors come to me having done their homework online, it’s wonderful, because it puts us in a better position to achieve their goals, whatever those might be.
Answering this question really makes me want to be better about keeping up my Twitter feed!
5. If you had a crystal ball, where do you think (or hope) publishing will be in 5 years?
The single most exciting thing, in my opinion, about publishing today is how democratized it has become. Ten years ago, self-published books were a joke. But in the past few years, deciding to publish your own book has become a viable and legitimate alternative to the traditional publishing houses. Which opens the market to so many more authors.
Many of my clients decide, based on their project and the market, to self-publish. For a variety of reasons, these clients don’t want to go through the rigmarole of traditional publishing. Instead, these clients hire a team of freelancers—including me—to help publish their book in a professional way. In my opinion, that’s totally fine. Readers really don’t care how the book is published as long as it looks like a “real” book and is a good read.
One of the first questions I ask my clients is whether they are open to self-publishing or want to find a traditional publisher. The response is split. Some clients want to control the publishing of their project from start to finish. Others really want to achieve their dream of becoming a “real” published author. But more often than not, people are willing to try the traditional way first, and then self-publish if they don’t get an agent or a house to offer a deal.
No matter what my clients choose, though, just having that choice is a huge change in our industry. The message seems to be out that if you want to be published, you don’t have to follow the traditional route to see your book on Amazon or at your local bookstore. And that’s great, because it increases and diversifies what’s available to read. (Not to mention that it supports a freelance economy of publishing professionals like me, great in a world where the houses are consolidating and shrinking their staff.)
The most important change, to me, is that authors are empowered today in a way that they simply haven’t been before. If you publish a great book in a professional way, it has a decent chance of getting noticed—regardless of whether you’ve gone the “traditional” route or not.
In the next five years, I expect publishing to be even more democratized and expansive. And while that will definitely include an increase of slush out there—badly written memoirs and terrible novels—I think we’ll see more Amanda Hockings and E.L. James’s out there too. And a lot more innovation in terms of formats, lengths, topics, etc—the possibilities are endless. And that’s really exciting.
Something that’s radically different for me as a freelance editor versus an editor at a publishing house is that as a freelancer, I don’t have to worry about the marketability for most of the projects I work on. Unlike an editor at a publishing house or an agent, I don’t have to sell that book or project. I just have to make the read the best it can be. So I’m not constrained by convention or the market. I’m solely focused on what will work for the book and its readers. I think that when books are edited that way, readers and authors benefit.
I love to speculate about what will happen in our industry. Personally, I think authors will be fine. Getting published will still be difficult, and you still won’t make much money writing books unless you’re a bestselling author. I suspect the biggest challenge for authors today is standing out and having your book be noticed by readers.
I think agents might have to innovate to keep their business model working, and I suspect another house or two will consolidate, like Penguin Random House did this year. The ratio of e-books sold versus print has probably stabilized, though I do think people who read voraciously are still our main audience, driving sales in both mediums. Print will always be around, just like vinyl records are today, though e-book sales might end up trumping them in the end.
But, as legendary Loretta Barrett once told me, anyone who says they know the future of publishing is full of it. So you probably shouldn’t put too much stock in my predictions…
Thanks so much Meghan! This was a wonderful Red Sofa Chats. For our readers, how do you feel about the democratization of publishing today? What has your experience been thus far?