Monday, March 18, 2013

Interview with Deni Dietz, Senior Editor for Five Star Publications, Part I

Denise [Deni] Dietz, Senior Editor for Five Star Publications, doesn't want to know that General Santa Anna was captured in 1836. She prefers to know that he was naked except for his underpants.

Deni is also the bestselling author of 20 books and stories, including the Ellie Bernstein diet club mystery series and Fifty Cents for Your Soul.

As Mary Ellen Dennis, she wrote “the book of her heart,” Heaven’s Thunder: a Colorado Saga, with an emphasis on the Ludlow Massacre and Colorado’s silent film industry. Deni is often asked what she likes best: writing or editing? The answer, of course, is both.

But here in this brief blog bio, she confesses that she likes working with brand new authors best, and when she offers one a contract she does a Snoopy dance.

Welcome back to the rock, Deni.

Thanks, Pat. Great to be here.

CIR:  Five Star, an imprint of Gale which is part of Cengage Learning, now acquires manuscripts direct from authors and agents. How did that change impact your job description?

Deni:  First, my job description changed. (grin) I went from Associate Editor to Senior Editor and the line became my responsibility. That means I share the kudos if I guess right, take the blame if I guess wrong. I try not to guess wrong. I have three “Developmental Editors” who work for me, and in my unbiased opinion, they are the best in the business. So far, every book I’ve chosen has received rave, if not starred, reviews and one of my authors is up for an Edgar Award (the first time a Five Star Mystery has been nominated for an Edgar).

Second, since Five Star doesn’t accept simultaneous submissions, I respond to queries within 2 weeks, and submissions within 4 to 6 weeks (not necessarily a yes/no reply—like most other publishing houses, that takes weeks, if not months—but at the very least a status update).

Third, as Senior Editor I’m responsible for rejections. As an author I’ve “been there, done that,” so I despise form rejections. My husband Gordon Aalborg (aka Harlequin author Victoria Gordon), said it best: “If you don’t tell authors what they are doing wrong, how can they learn?”

CIR:  You live on Vancouver Island but Five Star is located in Waterville, Maine. How do you make that work?

Deni:  At Five Star we do everything electronically. Let’s take it step-by-step. An author queries me at FiveStar (at) cengage (dot) com and, if I feel the book is right for my line, I email the author submission guidelines. Those include formatting instructions and the request for a one-page synopsis. The author then sends me his or her manuscript and one-page synopsis, as email attachments, labeled with the book’s title (so it won’t get lost). For example: “FOOTPRINTS IN THE BUTTER – synopsis.”

Should the book fly…make that soar…I will send it (as an attachment) to Five Star and ask for “permission to acquire.” Every other week, Five Star and I have a conference call, where I tout my recommendations. This is like the editorial meetings at other pub houses, except—as you said—I’m in Canada. All editing is done electronically with Track Changes. Authors should consider downloading Skype, a free program. It saves a lot of back-and-forth emailing, and is terrific for “walking” an author through the formatting process. So it doesn’t matter if I live on Vancouver Island or in Colorado Springs (my home town) or NYC or the land of Oz, as long as my computer programs are up to date and I know how to use them!

CIR:  At present, what genres does Five Star publish and how many books per year in each genre? Are there any plans to expand into different lines?

Deni:  Five Star’s parent company publishes non-fiction/textbooks. Five Star is their crime fiction line. We publish 48 books a year. Recently, Five Star has expanded by initiating a new line called FRONTIER FICTION—books set prior to the 1940s that don’t necessarily follow the standard western genre formula. Subgenres include: Historical Fiction, Frontier Romance, Frontier Women’s Fiction, Frontier Fiction with Young Adult crossover ability (coming-of-age themes) and Traditional Westerns.

CIR:  One of the challenges for authors hoping to sign a contract with Five Star involves the detailed formatting and manuscript preparation guidelines. Why does Five Star handle submissions this way? What happens if you receive a “rogue” submission--one from an author who is unaware of the requirements or who chooses to ignore them?

Deni:  Why does Amazon want books formatted a certain way for Kindle, while Nook has a different set of formatting rules? Why does Alfred Hitchcock Magazine want italics underlined? Why do publishers still want submissions snail-mailed? Why do agents and editors ask for three chapters submitted electronically, when they can delete the full manuscript if the opening chapters don’t fly? Why do authors put new chapters halfway down the page or 2 spaces between sentences? Is it because it’s “always been done that way?” Five Star doesn’t have type-setters, so the old rules are obsolete. In fact, the Five Star Production Department has “Keyers” rather than typesetters.

My point is, the computer is an author’s tool of his/her trade. I wouldn’t want a doctor to operate on me if he didn’t understand how to work an x-ray machine or, even worse, didn’t know which end of the scalpel to use. I wouldn’t want a lawyer to say, “You’ve been accused of murder, Deni, but don’t worry about it. I’ve watched Law and Order and CSI.”

I always suggest an author to put a practice manuscript on his/her desktop and learn the toolbar. Hit every Icon. Install Track Changes. That’s what I, as a former luddite, had to do.

If I receive a rogue submission from an author unaware of requirements, I send guidelines and ask the author to resubmit. An author who chooses to ignore guidelines is a different story, pun intended. Frankly, that author is toast!

Here are some of the wonky excuses I’ve heard:
"I've always used two spaces and can't change now, why should I?"
"It's hard to proof TNR."
"I like Courier and you are the only one that’s ever asked me to change it” (Dear Unpublished Author, that should be who).
"Editors should format, it's their job!"
"What do you mean, you shouldn't start a new chapter halfway down the page? It's always been done that way." (Sad smile)
"What's a tab (page break, em-dash, ellipsis)?"
"I won't format until I have a contract!"
"Editors are hacks who think they are God." (I kid you not!)
"Editors should all use the same format!"

But here’s the good news. Formatting for Five Star is the same as formatting for Kindle (minus name/title and page numbers). Keeping your e-rights is NOT a deal breaker; all Five Star asks is that you wait a year from publication to “go digital.” Otherwise, you’d be competing with them (and with yourself) when it comes to sales, especially library sales. Which is a good lead-in to the next question…

CIR:  In the past, Five Star published primarily for and marketed to libraries. Is this still the case? What does Five Star do to assist authors who want to reach a broader audience?

Deni:  Five Star still focuses on library sales, but look at it this way: Libraries buy books and rarely return them, so royalties can be lucrative. Furthermore, Five Star hardbacks are reviewed by “the big 4”: Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Library Journal and Booklist. Since libraries often use reviews to make purchases, I make it a point to choose the crème de la crème—books that will appeal to reviewers as well as readers.

When it comes to reaching a broader audience, Five Star will provide books for various venues (including bookstore events, book fairs, and awards like the Edgars). But, and this is only my opinion, rather than worrying about a book signing at the local Barnes and Noble, or ordering fridge magnets with one’s book title on them, authors should spend the majority of their time and energy writing a second, then third, great book. Which brings me to the next question…

…which will appear right here tomorrow on Chiseled in Rock, where Deni will also talk about the author Denise Dietz (aka Mary Ellen Dennis). This interview was conducted via e-mail by Pat Stoltey.

1 comment:

Julie Luek said...

Loved learning about Five Star and appreciate the personal touch you offer authors, even in rejections. Thanks for sharing your insights and experience, Deni!