Today we have an interview with Lou Aronica, who has worked with Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Lisa Kleypas, and Neil Gaiman. He's worked for Bantam and Avon and has recently begun his own house, The Story Plant.
How did you first decide on publishing as a career?
To be honest, it wasn’t my first choice. I wanted to be a teacher and I had visions of spending my summers writing unforgettable fiction. Teaching jobs were in short supply when I graduated college, though, and book publishing was one of the few other choices available to someone with an English degree. I found the industry intriguing as soon as I started at Bantam, but I didn’t fully commit to publishing until I started working in the Publisher’s Office there a couple of years later. At that point, I got a true inside glimpse at the inner workings of the book business and I was completely hooked. Ian Ballantine, who founded Bantam (along with Ballantine and, for that matter, brought the mass market paperback to America) took me under his wing and I received the most incredible education from him. This caused me to fall completely in love with the field.
I want to go into the publishing industry myself, so I know a little about the various people needed to produce a book, but I also realize itʼs fairly obscure information. Perhaps you could say a little about what being a publisher entails? What are your favorite and least favorite parts of the job?
There are dozens of steps involved in bringing a book to market. The editorial side of the business seeks out manuscripts to acquire and works with the writer to make the manuscript as strong as possible. A book’s editor is the person closest to the material at any house. The publishing/marketing side deals with packaging and positioning the book and puts the plans together to draw attention to the book. The managing editorial/production side deals with copyediting, proofreading, generation of galleys, and all of the other steps that go into the physical creation of the book. The sales side deals with getting the book into the marketplace and maintaining relationships with booksellers. The warehousing side deals with getting the books from the publisher’s warehouse to retail and wholesale sites. Then, of course, there are corporate, financial, and management components of any large publishing house.
I love the editorial and publishing/marketing parts of the job. I also love working with production and sales people. I don’t dislike any part of the job but, since I’m not the best detail person on the planet, I tend to have much less fun with the small details.
You have a long history in the publishing industry. What led you to start your own publishing house, The Story Plant, with Peter Miller?
In 2000, I decided that I was going to focus my career on writing and editorial development and I started a company called The Fiction Studio. I love this work and The Fiction Studio is very much a living entity, but I slowly discovered that I missed being able to publish books. I especially missed publishing fiction and Peter and I both felt that the major publishers had taken a very jaded view of fiction publishing. We genuinely believed that we could do this with passion and vigor and the only realistic way to do so was to create our own house. You can see what we’re trying to do at www.thstoryplant.com. Our first two books, American Quest (a contemporary fantasy) and Capitol Reflections (a medical thriller) have just come out. It’s very exciting to be back on this side of the business.
Part of that history is your time as Deputy Publisher at Bantam. You launched the Bantam Spectra and Bantam Crime Line imprints. How is it decided that there is a need for a new imprint? Once itʼs established there will be a new imprint, how is one developed?
Different publishers have different opinions about this. Some prefer not to segregate any portion of their lists. Others, like me, believe that you can only create a genuine vision for a publishing program if you create an imprint. Imprints only make sense if the house has a deep commitment to publishing in a particular area. Spectra was my first imprint and it developed from the size and scope of the sf/fantasy list I’d put together at Bantam. We were very committed to this kind of fiction and we wanted the list to have an identity distinct from the rest of the Bantam list.
Developing an imprint requires having a consistent publishing plan (a certain number of titles that you will publish in a season or in a year), and an editorial focus. Beyond that, the mechanics are relatively simple. You come up with a logo, you develop some marketing materials, you make some special presentations to your sales people and your key accounts, and you’re off to the races. To be honest, the toughest thing about and imprint I ever started was coming up with the name. This sometimes took months.
You also acquired the Star Wars book publishing program. I spent my elementary and middle school years devouring Star Wars novels, completely unaware how much geek cred I would gain from the experience. Iʼm curious about how the line began. Did you realize how large the publishing program would become?
Thanks for buying all of those books. The launch of the Star Wars program was a fascinating story. There had been novelizations along with an original novel published during the release of the first three movies. Then the property lay fallow for a long time. Since there was so much more of the story to tell, we all expected more movies, but one day I read that George Lucas had said that he wasn’t going to do any additional movies. I decided to write him a letter saying, “If you aren’t going to make more movies, why don’t you let me tell the rest of the story in books.” I got no response to the letter and just assumed that he tossed it out. Then, a year later, I got a call from Lucasfilm saying they found the idea interesting. The Director of Merchandising there told me that Lucas was still thinking about making prequels, but was open to the idea of letting novelists explore the world after “Return of the Jedi.” I convinced them that we should launch the novel series with a major trilogy, that we should get an award-winning sf writer to write these, and that we should publish the books in hardcover (all of which was highly unusual for licensed fiction at this point). We signed Timothy Zahn to write the novels and the very first one went to #1 on the New York Times hardcover list. Lucasfilm actually credits the book program with reviving interest in the property. I always knew the program would be hugely successful, though it turned out to be even more successful than I imagined.
In your years at Bantam and Berkley and Avon you worked with a wide variety of authors. What are some things that might make an author easier or harder to work with?
Writers should try to do as much as they can to help market their books, especially by creating a presence online. The most important thing a writer can do, though, is commit to writing a number of books for a similar audience. I can’t tell you how many writers short-circuit their careers by bouncing from one kind of book to another. This isn’t to suggest that you need to write the same book multiple times; what it means is that you need to offer the same kind of experience to the reader multiple times. Think of writers like Neil Gaiman or Nelson DeMille. Each novel is distinctive and surprising, but it also fulfills reader expectations. When a writer delivers a consistent reading experience to an audience, that audience grows.
In addition to your job, you write fiction and nonfiction yourself. Is it difficult to find time to write? Is it strange to be the author rather than the publisher?
I do find myself getting up earlier and earlier every day. On my current pace, I will soon be waking up before I go to bed. At the same time, I have a real passion for both, so I need to find a way to do both. It is somewhat strange to be the author rather than the publisher. This was especially true with the early books where I had to remind myself to avoid being the kind of writer publishers disliked working with. Of course, up to this point, they have been distinct careers. My next book, The Element (written with the brilliant Sir Ken Robinson and coming in January from Viking), will be the first to come out since we started The Story Plant. It might be a more schizophrenic experience because of that, but Viking is doing such a good job with the book that I really just need to sit back and admire at this point.
You can find out more about Lou Aronica here. You can find The Story Plant at this site.