A Conversation With Jennifer Sawyer Fisher

by Claire E. White

Jennifer Sawyer Fisher is a Senior Editor at Avon Books where she oversees the Avon Twilight mystery line and also
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acquires suspense and thrillers. Some of her authors include Dennis Lahane, Lawrence Block and Katherine Hall Page (all hard/soft with Morrow Books) and Avon authors Richard Herman and Richard Montanari. Her mystery list includes Susan Rogers Cooper, Barholomew Gill, Carolina Garcia-Agilera, and Fr. Brad Reynolds. She began her career in publishing at Kensington Corp., and most recently worked at Dutton/Signet. She has been with Avon for nearly two years. Her love for her work is evident in the way she speaks about it. Her favorite part of her job is finding new writers to share with the world. Like most editors, her schedule is taxing. At any one time, her desk is piled high with manuscripts -- both agented and unagented. But she always takes the time to read everything that comes across her desk -- a rarity in the busy world of publishing. When she's not working, you can find her spending time with her husband, gardening or finding a new walking trail to try out.

Jennifer spoke with us about the Avon Twilight Mystery imprint which she oversees, current trends in the mystery and thriller genres, and gives some great advice for writers trying to break into the field.

How did you get your start in the publishing industry?

Oh, I got lucky (laugh). I went to a liberal arts college. Actually, it was someone there who suggested that I actually look at an editorial position. I'm not sure it was necessarily books, but that's what it ended up being. I started out at Kensington Corporation and was there for about five years, then I moved over to the Penguin group on the Dutton/Signet side and was there about two years and I've been at Avon for just shy of two years.

It seems like you do a lot of things at Avon!

(laughs) It might seem like that. I've got a good thing going here. I am a Senior Editor and I oversee the Avon Twilight mystery program. The kinds of books I edit are mysteries, suspense, thrillers, and more mainstream commercial books, such as those by Stephen Cannell. I also have just a few projects on the side which I just call "other" and they're lots of fun: a couple of nonfiction books and some ethnic fiction. The nice thing about Avon is it does afford you the luxury to work on other projects -- not just in your area of expertise. I think that's a luxury today.

Tell us about the launch of Avon's new imprint, Twilight. How did that come about?

Well essentially Avon's always had a history of publishing mysteries. We've got two authors who've been with us for a while now. One is Jill Churchill the other is Mary Daheim. They go way back, meaning five, six, seven years or so.
"If you don't love what you're doing, if you're not invested 100% into writing, as I need to be into editing, you will never be a success as a writer. This life's too short to do something you don't love."
They're just two of the authors on our list. We've had a presence in the mystery community, but frankly it was never as focused as it should have been. We publish in various areas and, hopefully, with time comes more awareness on the part of readers. But readers don't necessarily look at what publisher put a book out -- that's more the publishing community that notices that kind of thing. Lou Aronica, our publisher, is a proponent of looking at the strength of the list and really making it work for us. His philosophy was to break out the list. Some of the areas that we have focused on recently are romance and science fiction. We have a very strong romance program. We had not done so well in the area of science fiction, but we had some fabulous authors, so we now have Avon Eos, which is dedicated to science fiction and it's doing fabulously well right now. We also wanted to get people excited about Avon and break into the literary fiction and nonfiction area which we're doing with our new imprint, Bard. Avon Twilight was an effort to go out and let the publishing community know that we have got some pretty fantastic mystery writers and get them some focus. The whole agenda with Twilight was to give the imprint a name, and to create an awareness for the authors we have. It was launched in February of last year with four months worth of books which included press kits and a nice launch party at the Malice Domestic Conference in Washington, D.C. We did a marvelous mystery tour in which we sent some of our authors around the country to do book singings and things of that sort. And it's done exactly what we wanted it to do. People now know or are aware of Avon Twilight. It's gotten the word out that we have some pretty fantastic mystery writers. We had six nominees last year for the Edgar Awards, which is really pretty fabulous. We'll be continuing with that focus now and into the future. The program is in place. We have hardcover and paperback. We want to grow authors within the program.

How many titles does Twilight publish a year?

We do four paperbacks a month. Those might include reprints of our hardcovers. So that's 48 paperbacks a year. We do have a republication program, which is an additional paperback. And then we have approximately 12-16 hardcovers during the course of the year.

What's the focus? Cozies? Thrillers?

I would say its pretty much across the board. Perhaps our history is in the cozy area. Jill Churchill very much writes to a cozy audience. We have some "edgy" books. We publish Lawrence Block's Scudder series in paperback. We also publish Peter Robinson who's done a fairly gritty police procedural.

You have Elizabeth Peters now don't you?

We have Elizabeth Peters. Absolutely. I think our forte is an area that I call sort of "soft medium-boiled", which is to say it's not cozy. When I say the word cozy I think a lot of people think cat mysteries and all that stuff. I'd prefer to call what we publish the "soft medium-boiled," which might feature say a female P.I. whose got some attitude, but she's not out there swearing constantly and tossing back drinks one after another. I think when people hear "hardboiled" they usually think a book is going to be dark with the hero/heroine roaming the mean streets. We strive for diversity. We've got some historical mystery authors as well. We also try to cover all regions. I mean I don't necessarily say, "Oh, we don't have a series set in Texas, so we need one." But the Pacific Northwest was just going great guns for awhile, and we have about four different series set in that general area. So I will be very honest when yet another series comes in set in the Pacific Northwest I say, "Hmmm...what's my shtick here? This better be really, really good, because we have more than enough in that area."

What does a submitting author need to do to really make an impression on you?

We'll I'd have to say -- to be brutally honest -- nowadays it really helps to have an agent. I'm not going to say once you have an agent it's a piece a cake.
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A Long Line of Dead Men by Lawrence Block
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But I'm getting so much material in right now that, unless I feel it's been pre-screened, my inclination really is just not to look at it first. I don't have the time to take it as seriously as I do when it's coming from an agent that I know and I've done business with. I'd address it in two ways. If you're working with an agent, obviously you want your agent to really know the business. Don't just sign up with any old agent. Get someone who really understands the mystery community and understands what our intentions are versus, say, St. Martin's. We have two very different philosophies and approaches to publishing, and it's important that an aspiring author understand the difference between the two houses. If you don't have an agent yet, my favorite thing to recommend is go to your bookstore, look at the books that you feel are similar in nature, atmosphere or tone to what you are writing and see who publishes them. See if they have thanked an editor and/or an agent in the book. And if they have, send a letter. Target the agent first, because I think that makes the most sense. If you're getting nowhere, then submit it without an agent. It is a little flattering to get a letter from an aspiring writer which says, "I just finished A Crooked Little House by Susan Rogers Cooper and I noticed that you were her editor and I just loved it. I have a similar feel to my book and it will really appeal to you." I mean, there is a little bit of flattery going on, but at least that letter has a way of rising from the pack versus the standard letter which says, "Here is my proposal..."

So you do look at some things that just come in over the transom?

I always do the courtesy of looking at material that comes into me. I personally do look at it. I just don't give it as much time as I do something that comes from an agent. I'll look at it and if it really makes me think, "Wow! You know what? This really does have a neat angle to it," I will read more.

Do you prefer reading a short query or do you like a synopsis with first three chapters with the query? What do you want to see?

To be honest, just a short intro and some samples of the writing. Even a chapter's really good. Just to give me a feel. Because the writing quality is the important thing. You know, it can be great pitch letter, but if the writing isn't there I don't care how good it is, how good the scenario it is. So it is good to get a taste of the writing.

Let's talk about the author/editor relationship. How do you approach the author/editor relationship? How do you present your suggestion for changes to the manuscript? Is it difficult?

I don't think so. Although, I've worked with some challenging authors over time.

We won't ask you to name names!

Good, because I'm not going to anyway! (laugh) I use the word "challenging" in the sense that they feel very strongly about their work. I also feel equally as strongly that the author/editor relationship is very much a collaborative one. I'm not working in a void, nor are they. I'd like to say that my experience in publishing gives me perhaps some insight or some suggestions to enhance a story, to make it tighter, to make it more focused, or to target the audience in a better way. But I am not the author. And I do not presume to say that I can rewrite the book, nor do I want to rewrite the book. I am not an aspiring author. I have no interest in doing that. So my editorial approach is very much along these lines: I've read it. I think these are the pluses. This is what's holding me back from saying it's the best book that I've read. If you agree with this, great. If you have counter suggestions let me know -- let's talk about this. I feel it should be a very open relationship. On the other hand, if I feel really strongly about something, for example if I really believe a scene doesn't work and the author thinks it does, then we will tussle back and forth a bit. But it's very infrequently that I just say flat out, "It should be this way just because it should. Because I say so." That's not the way I work. At all.

What are the worst mistakes that you see in manuscripts that land on your desk written by first-time authors?

The worst mistakes? I think writing a story that they perceive as saleable that they're not truly invested in. "Legal thrillers are selling; I should write a legal thriller. I have some law experience." Or, God forbid, "I don't have any law experience; I know, I'll write a legal thriller." Or, "I'm fumbling my way through this, but it seems like its hot and I'm going to write it." And it doesn't work. It just doesn't work. I've have seen authors write a book that they love that's really from the heart. Maybe it doesn't sell this year. But if they're truly in this business for the long haul, if they truly have the desire to write, they'll stick with it. And that manuscript they wrote three years ago can suddenly be exactly what I'm looking for now. So writing to the perceived market is a negative, although, authors do have to keep in mind what is selling. I mean, I'm not going to kid you and say write anything that you want and eventually you'll sell it. Absolutely, not. But if you're only writing because you think it's a cool, hip thing to be writing right now, believe me it shows. It's almost as if that's written in huge red letters across the manuscript.

There has been a lot of talk in the press about how all the recent mergers in the publishing industry will negatively affect the authors, reduce the number of books on the shelves and many other terrible things. Have the fears been justified or not?

Not really, I don't think. I mean it's absolutely true that the fact that these mergers are taking place has changed the marketplace. Penguin Putnam, where I worked, has a different atmosphere now than when I was there. But I think a shakeout of sorts would have happened naturally even if these mergers hadn't taken place. What happened was publishers got on the same bandwagon. Let's take the mystery area as an example. I think many publishers realized that publishing mysteries was a smart thing, there was a market out there, there was a readership, if they tapped into that readership they could make some money. Everyone jumped on the bandwagon and suddenly you had mysteries coming out your ears. Frankly, maybe not all of them were that well-written. Some of them were based on sort of silly scenarios, and there were too many books glutting the marketplace. There's got to be a natural pullback. Publishing is cyclical, especially within the subgenres. You get too many books out there, you're going to get some backlash. You're going to
"Another good route to go is the Internet. Creating a website is not a horrendous undertaking. Find a friend to help you, if you're not tech-minded and can't afford to hire someone. If you can have your own website as a place where people can discover your book and discover who you are and get them excited, I think that's a real plus."
get readers who are disgusted and saying, "I'm never going to read this author again, this was a stupid book" etc. I think what we've had is a tightening and a focusing of the list. What I think happened all at the same time was the mergers were taking place, forcing many editors to look at their personal lists and say, "Who am I ready to go to the mat for? Who's maybe not selling well, but is a fabulous writer and I want to really support in house? Who is really selling well and who do we want to get on the bestseller list?" It's really forced everybody to be very critical about shelf space, in general. I think everybody has to be aware that, although reading is absolutely something that many people enjoy doing, books are in competition with movies, computers, video games, you name it. There is something else that people can spend their money on. I think it's also simply an economic situation, in the sense that everyone has been forced to be more critical and has had to buy more selectively than they have before. For the authors I think it's not quite as easy as it was in the past, when you sent out letters to everybody and one hit. You have to focus and you have to really know what it is your writing, and what you envision it to be when it's a finished book. Because I think that improves their chances of getting published.

What can a new author do to help assist you with your marketing efforts? Do you like them to go on tours, do you like them to do promotional items? What should they do, especially if they have a limited budget?

I think tours are grossly overrated. A lot of the bookstores now have budgets that they have to work with. Going in there and sitting and signing some copies and doing that kind of stuff -- you know, if you are a newcomer to the game let me tell you it's not like you're going to have a line of twenty people long waiting for you. I think on a general basis, think regional -- anything that an author can do on a regional basis is great. Here in New York City, if I was an aspiring author I'd make a point of getting to know the local bookstore owners. "Hi, My name is Blank; I'd love to sign some copies for you." If there is a reading that they can set up, perhaps most especially in conjunction with other authors, I think that's a real plus. Tap into the area where you are. Use that as your base. Some authors, especially newer authors, like to send out postcards of their covers and, as you get a good mailing list down, it's a good visual way to get the booksellers excited about your book without spending a ridiculous amount of money. Frankly, I think another good route to go is the Internet. Creating a website is not a horrendous undertaking. Find a friend to help you, if you're not tech-minded and can't afford to hire someone. If you can afford it, it's only around $20 - $25 dollars a month to have your URL and everything. You can exchange links with your publisher and sell books on your own website, whether it's through Amazon.com or another online bookseller. Exchange links with other authors in your genre. If you can have your own website as a place where people might discover your book and discover who you are and get them excited, I think that's a real plus. What it comes down to is, if you're one, two even three books out you're not probably making a whole heck of a lot of money and you shouldn't be overspending on promoting your book. Think in concentric circles, think close and then watch those ripples expand. Go to conferences, don't go overboard, but if there are some events in your area, by all means go. The networking is invaluable.

That's great advice. What kind of trends are you seeing in the mystery/thriller area these days? Or coming up in the future?

I think I'll take those two apart. You know, for so long in mysteries the emphasis was
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Blind Descent by Nevada Barr
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on the male sleuth, whether it was a P.I. or an amateur detective. Whatever the scenario was, it was mostly male. Then the pendulum swung completely to the other side, and suddenly we had females coming out of our ears everywhere and every way you looked. Now I feel like we're more middle of the road, and its exciting to see. I've signed up an author, she's previously published, but her sleuth is a Cuban-American, female P.I. I call Caroline's books sort of soft-medium boiled because they've got some edge, they've got some attitude. The author is Carolina Garcia Aguilera. There's a real vibrancy in her books. And the fact that we're able to incorporate people with different backgrounds in one way or the other. I'd love to see more African-American detectives or sleuths coming forward. I think there's an opportunity for other ethnic groups. I think that's something that all publishers are looking to tap into. Actually that's not just in the mystery area but in general fiction, as well. For mysteries I think that it's a sense of place that's coming through. Everyone's always been so concerned with "What's my gimmick, what's my scenario?" But I think sometimes you overlook the most obvious one, which is getting people excited about a place they've never been to. You know, sort of that armchair traveler thing. Like Nevada Barr. She sets her books in the most interesting places, whether it's in caves, or whether it's on an island. The next one's on Ellis island, the Statue of Liberty. If you're an armchair traveler, you never have to leave your chair. That's one way to do it. I think those are some things that are coming up in mysteries. Also, and more importantly, getting back to the male/female thing, is the fact that authors are writing what they know best. If it's a female writer who feels she can capture a male point of view in a really significant way, then she should do it. But do it and get excited about it. In terms of the thrillers (because I do think there very different between mysteries and thrillers) I'd have to say what I'm looking for (as opposed to what I'm not really finding) is something different. We've done the legal, we've done the medical, we've done the genetic thrillers. The pitches, thank God, for the Millennium are not as many as I'd thought they'd would be, because no one wants that. I mean, enough already! Many others had integrated that theme into their work in a more subtle way. Sometimes it's successful, sometimes it's not. I guess what I'd like to see are more of what I call "high-concept" books. I'm going to have to come up with an even more narrow definition. I'm not talking high-concept with something that's so scientific and techno. That's not what I mean by high-concept. I mean a book that takes something we've seen before but turns it on its ear. So that I think, "Wow, that's a different way of looking at the situation."

Can you give an example of what you consider to be a high-concept?

I knew you were going to ask that, because I've been struggling with this even when I talk with agents. We all agree that there's something out there and we're just not sure what that is.

Could it be something new you mean? Maybe a new type of hero?

It could be. I guess my feeling is it's more of a variation on something that's been out there. For example, take a medical thriller. How can you take that book and give it a new spin? When I hear the words "medical thriller" I usually think there's a doctor who's in some kind of situation. Either the doctor is fighting evil, or he/she is the villain. Take that a step forward from what's been done before, but don't be unrealistic about it. I think what were all grappling with is, frankly, actually the notion that we're entering a new millennium. Everyone had expectations that like, by the year 2000, we'd be flying to work or something. Twenty years ago the year 2000 seemed like a pretty shocking thing. We'd be living in this futuristic world.

We'd all be in latex bodysuits or something.

Exactly. We'd all have cures for all our diseases. And it would be such a different world. I think were all realizing that's really not going to be happening. But I think were all grappling with a more global concept of who we are. We are here in the USA, but economically, look at the impact Asia's had on us. I think maybe there is an element of that which can be introduced into the books that people are writing that will be a published over a year, two years from now in the new millennium. Financial thrillers are really tricky, they can be dull as dishwasher, but maybe there's an area there to tap. With the stock market skyrocketing high, shooting right upwards, then coming down. Maybe there is something there someone can write about. But not just a typical financial world, like someone's going to put the world into financial chaos and let's try to fix it. That works, but its not fresh. It doesn't feel exciting. I'd love to come up with a specific example for you. I'd love to say, "Oh, I read X recently and it was exactly what I was looking for," but I haven't.

Interesting. You'll know it when you see it.

I surely believe that. Part of it is just finding someone with the writing ability to just get totally jazzed about their idea. That comes through in manuscripts, believe me. Although part of you may say, "This seems a little far fetched," if you can present it in a convincing enough way then you'll sell it. And that's the whole trick.

What do you like to do when you're not editing, reading lots and lots of manuscripts.

(Laughs) Hmm... Oh, you mean that hour a week? I'm very much an outside person. We live on Long Island and I've got this wonderful book of walking trails. There's all these hidden parks that we never even knew about. My husband and I love to just roam around outside. I have a small green thumb. I don't do anything that's too extravagant. That keeps me busy. It's nice to not be looking at little words on pages. Just looking at hopefully flowers, but at least green leaves.

Is there anything else you'd like to see to our readers or authors?

I've said this since I started in publishing, because frankly it applies to the editor as much as it does the author.
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A Crooked Little House by Susan Rogers Cooper
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This has got to be a love relationship. I do think this is imperative. If you don't love what you're doing, if you're not invested 100% into writing, as I need to be into editing, you will never be a success as a writer. This life's too short to do something you don't love. It really is. There are a lot of pluses to my job. It's exciting. It's wonderful to discover new writers. I just love sitting down and getting a book that an author has pitched to me. It's exciting to read it, and think, "This is it. It's right here in front of me in black and white; people are going to love it." I mean there's no better sense of satisfaction I have than that. But you know what? There's a lot of hard work. Maybe something can go wrong. The cover isn't exactly the way they conceptualized it. Books don't ship to a store quite on time. You're not going to get rich real quick doing this. It's a long process. So I firmly believe that you've got to love it. Because if you don't, you'll dabble in it but you're probably not going to be successful, however you choose to define success. It's too rocky.
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It has too many ups and downs to do it, unless your ready for the long haul. I really do think that is the best piece of advice to aspiring writers. Think about it carefully. And if you really are committed and you really do love it, then go for it. You must be excited and enthusiastic about your work. Patience and persistence also help, certainly. Although having these qualities will not guarantee a sale, they can make a huge difference in your quality of life.

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