Friday, February 18, 2011
Interview with Deborah Nemeth of Carina Press
Today we have something very exciting going on at Mysteries and Margaritas. Deborah Nemeth of Carina Press has agreed to stop by and answer your questions. Deb’s an avid mystery reader and one of Carina Press's freelance developmental & acquisitions editors, and she’s actively seeking more mystery submissions. And guess what, people? She’s willing to take your online pitch today only. Here are the rules. She'll take the first 50 mystery/suspense/thriller pitches (no longer than 5 sentences each and only one per person) but she won't comment online. She'll send her response directly to you (If you add your email address or send it directly to me at Liz@LizLipperman.com, it will be easier to get back to you.) So, sit back and relax, grab a margarita (okay, it’s early – better make that a coffee.) and pick her brain.
Good morning, Deb. We’re so excited you agreed to join us. I know the readers will have lots of questions for you. But first – on to mine.
Liz: Can you tell us a little about Carina Press and when it got started?
Thanks, Liz. I’m excited to be here today. Carina Press is the digital-first imprint of Harlequin Enterprises. We publish across a broad range of commercial fiction, pretty much everything except young adult—mysteries, thrillers, horror, suspense, science fiction, fantasy, paranormal, women’s fiction, gay/lesbian, and erotica, plus all subgenres of romance. Right now we’re releasing approximately 3 books a week, and I expect that number will increase midyear.
Our ebooks are available on the Carina Press website in either pdf or ePUB format, free of DRM (digital rights management) so readers are able to read stories on a variety of devices. They’re also sold through third-party retailers such as Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com. Audible Inc. has produced audio versions of many Carina Press titles and made them available at Audible.com, iTunes and Amazon.com.
Although Carina Press is primarily an ebook publisher, some titles will be issued in print. The first ones to go to print will be part of Harlequin’s Mystery and Suspense DTC (Direct to Consumer) program and will also be available to order on eHarlequin.com. Titles selected for this program so far include Fatal Affair by Marie Force, In Plain View by J. Wachowski, and Presumed Dead by Shirley Wells, with more to be announced.
Liz: As a mystery author, myself, I’m very excited that Harlequin is now in that market. Can you tell us what kind of mysteries you’re looking for? Do you publish thrillers?
I’m looking for all kinds of crime fiction, from cozies to police procedurals to hard-boiled private eyes to capers. I’m also interested in hybrid genres, such as historical, space opera or dystopian-set mysteries. I’d especially love to acquire a steampunk detective series.
I really enjoy clever writing and intelligent characters who are larger-than-life—memorable in a compelling way. If the story involves an amateur detective, the hero or heroine needs to have strong motivation for getting involved in a case. I want a mystery that’s going to make me work damned hard to figure it out—maybe even one I can’t work out, but makes complete sense once it’s solved. I generally don’t like it if too much information is withheld from the reader. I want a chance to pit my wits against the fictional detective.
Thrillers? Yes, yes, yes, yes, I want to acquire thrillers. I haven’t acquired any so far, but I’m actively seeking them.
If you’re not pitching to me today but are interested in submitting to Carina Press at a later date, you can visit our website to check out our submission policies.
Liz: A lot of people don’t realize there is a difference between a cozy and a straight mystery. Can you enlighten us?
A cozy mystery typically features an amateur sleuth in a local/confined setting, one with a strong sense of community and a limited group of suspects. While the bodies might pile up, the deaths are handled with a minimum of gore and violence. The tone is less gritty, the sexual content and language less graphic than you’ll get for example in an urban-set police procedural. The sleuth commonly has an occupation or hobby that serves as a theme or focal point of the book or series, such as a catering business or a quilting circle. Relationships and motives are important, as is the whodunit/whydunit puzzles. Cozies tend to be more escapist, engaging the mind, providing cerebral entertainment without edgy, hard, cold realism. I have a real soft spot for cozies and would love to acquire more for Carina Press.
Aside from cozies, there are a variety of mystery subgenres, including legal, medical, police procedural (focusing on the step-by-step process of crime-solving by professionals), and hard-boiled (first-person terse style featuring a tough-talking PI). If your mystery has a light, comic tone, possibly featuring a heist and/or offbeat characters, with feats of audacity and clever twists, it’s a caper. Mysteries featuring private detectives, cops, forensics specialists, crime reporters and medical examiners tend to be darker and grittier than cozies or capers, containing more violence, danger, sex, blood and guts, often in urban settings.
Liz: I have personally read Amy Atwell’s Lying Eyes and Kathy Ivan’s Desperate Choices, and both were excellent. What are some of the other authors you acquired from the slush pile and what caught your eye with them?
I can’t take credit for Desperate Choices, but I was lucky enough to pluck Amy Atwell’s manuscript out of the submission queue. Lying Eyes is an absolutely delightful romantic suspense caper set in Las Vegas, with a jeweler heroine and an undercover cop hero. I was very impressed with the energy of her writing and her ability to deliver emotional punch in a light tone, an uncommon skill.
Shirley Wells’s British PI mystery Presumed Dead was another one of my exciting slush-pile discoveries. I was captivated by Shirley’s natural voice and dry wit on the very first page, fell into the story and didn’t come up for air until I finished it. Dylan Scott is the most likable chauvinist I’ve ever come across, and her writing fits this detective’s character perfectly. This title will be one of the first Carina Press books to go to print. And I’m happy to announce that in August we’re publishing a second Dylan Scott mystery, Dead Silent.
My very first slush-pile find was Toni Anderson’s romantic suspense/mystery Sea of Suspicion. I immediately fell in love with her Scottish detective hero, Nick Archer, and I especially love the way he uses the heroine in his pursuit of revenge. The setting is depicted brilliantly, and the story works equally as well as mystery and romance. Toni followed that up with another Scottish-set romantic suspense, Storm Warning, this one with paranormal elements but a hero just as compelling.
Some of my mystery and suspense acquisitions came not from the slush pile but from authors I or other Carina Press editors worked with previously.
Shelly Munro’s The Spurned Viscountess is a Gothic historical romance set in Georgian England. I just love the way she layers in tension in this atmospheric novel.
Clare London’s Blinded by Our Eyes is a gay mystery romance set in the world of contemporary London art galleries. It’s a fascinating character study and psychological mystery, with a strong focus on whydunit.
I was thrilled to acquire Josh Lanyon’s upcoming release, Snowball in Hell, a gay historical mystery about a crime reporter and a police lieutenant in Los Angeles during WW2, the first in his Doyle and Spain series. Josh’s writing is so smooth, and his voice in this ms suits the period perfectly. It doesn’t release until April, but another one of Josh’s m/m suspense novels, Fair Game, is currently available from Carina Press.
Carina Press will be doing a romantic suspense spotlight the first week of September, and Anne Marie Becker’s Only Fear will be one of our featured titles. I was impressed by the intensity and clarity of her prose, and the use of fear in the story. Her villain, a killer who stalks a talk-show psychiatrist, takes “chilling” to a whole new level.
My most recent suspense acquisition is from W. Soliman. Her Unfinished Business, a Charlie Hunter mystery, features a reluctant private eye who loves jazz and lives on a boat on the south coast of England, and will be published in late 2011.
I also have a cozy mystery offer of publication pending. So, as you see, I like a variety of mystery and suspense books, with and without romance or sex, both dark and lighthearted. The common threads are good storytelling, crisp writing, conflict and suspense.
Liz: Mystery and Suspense is all about creating tension. Do you have a magic check list an author can use to make sure he/she gets just the right amount of it into their writing?
No magic list. The best measure is whether I can easily put the book down. You want to hook the reader’s interest as soon as possible. You can grab us with voice and character, description and mood, but above all, hook us with conflict and tension. Introduce questions in the readers’ minds and make us care about the answer, so we want to turn the page to find out what comes next. Will the woman walk home alone? What’s in that package that was just delivered? Why did the husband hide that letter from his wife?
In a mystery, it’s best to be concise with the story’s setup, so we get to the mystery as soon as possible, maybe a missing persons case or the discovery of a dead body. We also need stakes. Why is it important to the protagonist to solve this crime? Why should the reader care? Give us well-rounded, strongly motivated characters whose goals we’ll care about, then stack the deck against them. Feed us the clues, and increase the level of unease as we uncover motives and identify additional suspects, wonder which characters the heroine can trust, and worry when she’s alone with one. Raise the stakes as the story progresses.
Suspense is different from mystery. In a mystery, the focus is typically reflective, to discover whodunit and whydunit. Or, if we already know the perp (like in the old Columbo TV-movie series), the focus is on whether, how and when the detective will figure it out. We don’t need to have action or danger in a mystery, although we often get both at the climax.
In suspense, the protagonists are in danger of their lives, and we might get action, too. The focus is on stopping a villain—and surviving. It’s less cerebral and depends more on creating anxiety. The readers might know about the danger and be biting their nails over whether the killer hiding in the closet is going to jump out and clobber the heroine. There needs to be more pulse-pounding moments in a suspense novel than in a mystery. The odds against the protagonist’s survival need to grow as we reach the story’s climax.
In a thriller, the stakes are larger. It’s not just a small group of characters in danger, but a building’s worth. Or a city, country or planet, and it’s up to our heroine/hero to save all those lives. It should be packed with constant action and surprise. We don’t always see the villain loading the weapon, we just see the explosion. Pacing is hugely important in a thriller.
Liz: Is there anything specific that turns you off when you’re reading a manuscript, other than the obvious newbie mistakes like weird fonts, typos and bad grammar?
Tired openings can turn me off, and huge info-dumps, long expositions that stall the story. Lack of goals/motivation/conflict is another biggie. Pacing is important, and repetition and wordiness can make the pacing drag. I don’t like preaching, didacticism or political screeds, and for some reason I’ve seen a lot of thriller submissions with heavy-handed agendas that overwhelm the story.
Most rejections are of the not-quite variety. The writing is not quite there, not subtle enough, too overwritten. Or maybe the writing is strong but the story just doesn’t stand out quite enough or get me excited enough. Maybe the characters don’t engage me, or the mystery is too easy and feels too familiar. These are the ones that take me the longest to make up my mind about, often requiring a full read. They’re also the hardest rejections to send. On the other hand, a ms that I feel is “not quite there” may really appeal to another editor, because the acquisition process is just as subjective as reading published books—not everyone likes the same thing.
Liz: Can you take us through the process of making an offer on a submission and taking it all the way to publication?
When I read a submission that thrills me, I draft an acquisition recommendation and send it to Carina Press’s Executive Editor, Angela James. This includes my assessment of the title’s strengths, marketability, and editorial needs. A member of the Carina Press acquisition team will do a second read. A submission needs at least two editorial recommendations in order to make it to the next step. Once a ms receives a second acquisition recommendation, the team discusses it in a meeting and makes a decision to move forward with an offer of publication.
Once an offer has been accepted, terms are agreed and the contract is signed, the editor is notified, so that’s when I’d get involved again. I’ll send a new author a welcome letter, let him or her know if a new title will be needed, and get started on edits. Each manuscript is given at least three rounds of edits, using tracked changes. I do developmental (content) editing and line editing rounds, then one of Carina Press’s copyeditors does the final round of copyediting. The author is sent cover copy to review and a cover art form to complete, giving input on the cover design. Approximately a month before release, our titles are uploaded to Netgalley, a site that makes electronic review copies available to book reviewers. The editing process takes about three months, and the production process another four, so a title can sometimes be released as soon as seven months after an author signs a contract.
Liz: We’re hearing more and more about the way publishing is changing, and the road seems to be leading to e books and self publication. Can you tell us the advantages of epublishing to author?
This is a really exciting time for digital publishing. The sales of ebooks exploded this past year as ereaders and tablets became mainstream devices. Epublishing opens up new avenues for writers at all phases of their career. If authors haven’t been able to break into traditional publishing, digital provides additional opportunities to establish themselves and build a readership. Many ebook authors have successfully moved on to bigger print publishers, although it’s possible to earn good money in digital publishing itself. Last week, an ebook romance by Maya Banks hit the New York Times bestseller list.
Epublishing can benefit authors at other points in their career too. Perhaps an author didn’t earn out her advance, and the traditional publisher passed on her next book. It’s possible an digital publisher might be interested in that ms, even if it’s a series.
Digital publishing provides an author with creative flexibility in terms of length, content and genre. Perhaps your big, fat urban-fantasy thriller weighs in at 130,000 words, an expensive proposition for print. Or your mystery is only 38,000 words—too short for print, but not for an ebook. Carina Press accepts anything from 15,000 words and up. Maybe you’ve written a space opera mystery or other hybrid genre that’s hard for an agent to sell. Or maybe you write in a genre that’s out of fashion. Family sagas, glitz-and-glamour novels, chick lit, and historical romances set in unglamorous locales such as Poland are not something traditional publishers are likely to buy, but digital publishers are more willing to consider them. Digital also lends itself well to the interactive, choose-your-alternative multiple-endings story. At Carina, we’re looking for great stories, period.
I do advise authors to choose their digital publisher carefully. Not all houses out there give their editorial staff adequate training, and you don’t want to trust your masterpiece to someone who isn’t properly trained or paid to give it the care it deserves.
Liz: And finally, how involved does Carina Press get with author promotion? Any advice for any author out there on how to increase his/her sales?
Carina Press staff members conduct author training sessions on topics such as social media, web site design, author branding and promotions. Authors blog on Carina Press’s website during their release week, and CP supports their release on Twitter and Facebook. Carina Press has an online community, part of eHarlequin. Carina Press also runs banner ads on many sites and in specialty magazines.
Advice on sales? Always write the best book you can. Don’t send a ms out unless it’s your very best effort, so you never disappoint your readers. If you’re interested in maximizing sales, then I’d say the best way to develop and grow a readership is to keep giving them the same sort of book, and you’ll gain new readers with each release. By this I mean writing in the same or similar subgenres, and the same voice. If you follow up your gritty procedural with a witty romantic caper, they both might be books of your heart but you will confuse your readers, dilute your brand image and quite probably hurt your future sales. Also, write steadily. Try not to make your readers wait three years between books.
Find out where readers in your genre hang out online and engage them. Develop a social media strategy that works for you, whether it involves Facebook, Twitter or blogging or a combination of them. Keep your website updated and clean. Design your site so that it’s easy to find out about your new and upcoming releases, and to identify which books are connected in a series (and what order to read them in). Make sure buy links are prominently displayed so it’s easy for browsers to purchase a book. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is when authors make it hard to find them online.
Well, there you have it, folks. Even I now understand the difference between mystery/suspense/thriller writing. Now get those pitches and questions ready.