Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Paper Lantern Lit SPARKS Ideas In Book Development

I recently stumbled across the website for Paper Lantern Lit thanks to a tweet about M.E. Castle's recent sale.   That was the day I found out about book development companies.  I'd always heard of these literary brainstormers who are experts at weaving a plot, but hadn't given much thought to what a book development company does.  So, I figured there must be more of us out there who were in the dark about how this arm of publishing works, and went to the experts.  Lexa Hillyer and Lauren Oliver at Paper Lantern Lit were more than happy to answer some of GotYA's questions, and here they are!

First, please tell us how the whole process of being a book developer works.

LO: It all starts with an idea (what we call a “spark”). From there, we spend months growing and expanding the idea, and developing a full and functional outline for an entire book. We pass it back and forth. We write and rewrite it. Finally, we show it to our agent, Stephen Barbara, at Foundry Media. If he believes it is viable/saleable, we go ahead and begin the process of looking for the perfect writer to bring that story to life. That can take months in some cases.

LH: Once we find a writer…YAY!... we have him or her help us grow the proposal, revising and tweaking the plot outline and writing usually about the first 50 pages of the book. We work really closely with the writer at this point—it’s kind of our incubation period. We really see ourselves as developers of writers as well as developers of ideas. When we think the proposal is ready at last, we share it again with our agent and come up with a submission strategy from there.

What made the two of you decide to start a company based on generating ideas for novels?

LO: Both of us felt that we had lots of surplus creative energy that might be put to good use; and the idea of being able to explore all of our interests and ideas—however kooky or weird—really appealed to us. It has been great for my own writing, too. Generating ideas is like anything else: the more you practice it, the better you become.

LH: It’s demanding but so creatively fulfilling—and there’s always this sense of possibility, that there’s a new idea waiting around the corner.

In your opinion, why is there a need for book developers, and do you see this as an area poised for growth in publishing?

LH: Well certainly now more than ever it seems like publishers are open to alternative approaches to making books. As their lists grow tighter and more selective, it’s harder for editors to pursue books they are truly passionate about, while also juggling books that are high-earning super-commercial blockbusters. So we thought, hey, we’re two people who really understand what it takes to make great stories and develop strong, fresh prose that editors will fall in love with, but our experience also gives us a sense of what sells—so why can’t we offer editors both?

Do you take submissions from published authors as well as unpublished authors?

LO: Yes, we take submissions from published and unpublished, agented and unagented writers. We do have to be careful with writers who are currently under contract with other publishing houses, as we don’t want to disrupt any option clauses.

LH: Exactly. If you have representation and are interested in working with us, please have your agent contact us directly!

Does the author get her name on the book, or is this ghost writing?

LO: The author may, at our discretion, have his or her name on the book; if not, we work with the author to agree on a pen name. But it’s not ghost-writing. We want the author’s face on the book; we want the author to participate in marketing and promo for it.

LH: As I mentioned before, we want to develop our writers and help launch or strengthen their careers. It is in everyone’s best interest if they love and take personal ownership of the books, and go out into the world to celebrate (aka tweet about) them!

Will the same author complete a series, or will there be multiple authors as a series progresses?

LO: It’s obviously our wish for a single author to work on an entire series. Voice is everything! However, we understand that in some cases, writers might ultimately want to branch off and do their own thing.

What benefit can you offer an editor at a publishing house that might put you ahead of the pack in the submissions process?

LO: Well, both Lexa and I have a very strong grounding and background in storytelling; we know how to generate commercial concepts and tightly woven stories. And we’re also deeply committed to working intensively with each writer, not just to grow his or her voice but also to really hone his/her understanding of writing in general. I think that leads to great books. Plus, we do all of the editorial whip-cracking when it comes to staying on deadline! J

LH: I was an editor for seven years, first at HarperCollins and then at Penguin. Lauren and I both have a lot of experience in the field and have lots of great editor friends, so we’re in the position to be a little more in touch with what people are into. Also we’re aware of the market but not slaves to it. We’d rather offer editors something fresh, that they haven’t seen before, than chase trends.

Is the submission process to editors the same as the traditional route that an agent takes, or do the editors get a look at the idea and outline of a project before you proceed with finding a writer? Do you know there is interest in the concept and storyline ahead of time?

LO: We never, ever submit outlines without a written proposal—and a writer—attached to them. That doesn’t even make sense! It’s like trying to grill ribs…without any of the meat on the bone! So far, the process has been roughly the same as what it would be for any writer; we generate a proposal (an outline and fifty or so pages of the book), and then our agent submits it to editors for consideration. Lexa and I definitely pay attention to what’s going on in the market but we don’t obsess over it. We make the stories that are interesting to us. But we love meeting with editors and hearing about their needs and wants because it might, in the future, inform some of our projects or influence the direction of some of our books.

LH: Mmmm. Grilled ribs. Thank you for the analogy, Lauren! Yes some of our ideas come directly from off-handed remarks made by editors, and in those cases we sometimes have very specific people in mind to submit to. In other cases, we want to surprise them, and our confidence in the idea comes from our intuition and experience, and the feedback from our agent. But of course, as everyone knows, there are no guarantees in this industry. In any creative pursuit, there’s always some risk involved—you have to just give it your all and trust in your passion and your hard work!

Do you have a specific publishing house in mind for your projects based on editor relationships and spots they are looking to fill in their lists? When coming up with ideas, do you base them on editor need and feedback?

LO: Well, again, we meet with editors partly to hear about what kind of things they’re looking for and where they think the market is going; all of that is helpful when it comes to shaking loose your creativity. But we have not yet tailored a project to a specific editor, no. We’re not averse to that, however; it just hasn’t happened that way. Lexa and I would still need to feel very connected to the book ourselves.

After you select a writer from his sample pages, how do you make sure he’s in love with the idea before presenting a contract for the project?

LO: Lexa and I think of ourselves as match-makers. If we have done our job correctly during the “audition” process, it means we have actually brought two things—writer and concept—into contact that were preordained and absolutely meant to be. It’s love at first sight, baby!

LH: Totally! We aren’t interested in forcing or foisting our books on people. We let them fall in love and then we seal the deal. We can always tell the depth of the writer’s excitement (or lack there of) from the quality of the audition. We’re not just looking for skill. We’re looking for the voice of a character. When we find that, the writer often feels just as elated as we are to have found their ideal character!

Can agented writers submit sample pages?

LO: Yes, definitely.

LH: As mentioned before, feel free to have your agent contact us directly.

In your experience, how do agents generally view book developing or book packaging? Overall, do you find agents agreeable to their clients’ wishes to pursue this avenue, or is there a drawback for an agent with this model?

LO: I can’t speak generally; agents are so different. But we work with agented writers, for sure; a lot of agents represent clients who may be very talented writers but just haven’t hit on a big idea yet. So I think they like us, because we give their writers a chance to find that “big idea.” If they don’t like us, they do a pretty good job of pretending to!

LH: The same goes for both writers and agents: we’re not interested in collaborating with people who aren’t committed or don’t like our approach. It’s fine if they don’t and we’ll happily go our separate ways! There are certainly plenty of different methods to making great books.

Do your YA ideas tend to fall in one genre more than others, for example, paranormal is still very hot, so do your ideas follow the market trends?

LH: Like I said, we don’t like to chase trends, but we are very aware of them, and if we happen to have a project that we think resonates nicely with a current market fixation, we will absolutely time our submission accordingly. But many of our ideas seem to float into our brains, or bubble up from our conversations and brainstorming sessions, more spontaneously than that. And we believe all of our projects should “have legs” regardless of what readers are currently buying. This puts us in the position to occasionally help define the market, rather than only follow it. After all, tastes and trends constantly evolve, as we all know.

To piggyback off of the last question, when submitting sample pages, does one genre stand out, such as urban fantasy, paranormal romance, or sci fi, due to the heavy world building? Do you look for writers with exceptional world building in addition to exceptional writing to contract for projects that fall into these genres, or would a contemporary submission that catches your attention with a great voice be equally considered for an urban fantasy idea?

LH: We are quite thorough and open-minded as we read the submissions. Of course, yes, if we see a writer has strong world-building skills we will be more likely to audition him or her for a project that involves a particularly unique world.

Our projects are pretty wide-ranging so there’s no point in trying to guess what we might be looking for. Sometimes if we stumble on a terrific writer but we don’t have a project that matches her style, we’ll ask for a new sample, and we’ll say, “Hey, we’re particularly hoping to see a sample with an action sequence,” or whatever, depending on what the project needs.

You should try to exhibit whatever YOUR best strengths are in your sample. Just like match-making, there’s no point in pretending to like outdoor sports if you’re really more of a city girl—you’ll just end up dating a mountain-climber when you’d really prefer to be sipping wine in your new stilettos with an i-banker.

What are the benefits for a debut author working with Paper Lantern versus going the traditional route of submitting projects through an agent?

LO: Well, we like to think of it as a paid MFA class. We work so intensively with our authors; we really turn people into better writers, and we’re proud of that. Also, there are lots of writers who have the talent and the ear for dialogue but really haven’t figured out structure and plot and concept. So we’ve done that for them. But, you know, it’s not for everyone. Some people love us; some people don’t. That’s okay, as long as all of our writers love us, which they do. 

LH: Also keep in mind that working pseudonymously with us does not prohibit you from also pursuing your own work under your own name. This means you kind of get TWO chances to launch a writing career instead of just one!

Does a debut novel by a Paper Lantern author have a better chance to be a break out novel, or buzz book?

LO: We certainly try and position our books very aggressively, at houses and with editors who will give the books 100% of their time and attention. So that definitely helps.

LH: Again, though there are no guarantees, we can certainly say that the projects we’ve sold so far have been acquired as lead titles, which means they will garner a lot of support. It means the publisher is invested in creating that buzz.

What rights do you retain? Does the author have any rights to the work? Are your books international, audio, and film rights actively marketed?

LO: Paper Lantern owns the copyright. However, we often grant our authors a percentage of all subsidiary rights (foreign, film, etc); since we work with a fabulous agency (Foundry Media) with an incredible record of foreign sales, this can add up quite quickly. We also often negotiate sales bonuses and incentives for our authors. It depends on the book, the project, and the deal, but of course, our goal is to be fair and competitive in terms of remuneration.

If a person was interested in becoming or working for a book development company, how would they go about doing that?

LO: Just get together some great ideas and try to get someone to write them for you! That’s pretty much the basic principle behind it. J

LH: Yup, it’s pretty straight-forward. I would add though that we were pretty strategic with our timing. We really paced ourselves and made sure we could do it before leaping in. We’ve set goals for upcoming years and have thought about our business model on a lot of levels. It helps to be really self-aware, and ready to roll with the punches, because it certainly involves some risk. You have to be willing to scratch a project that seemed promising but isn’t going anywhere. It’s good to have people you trust and respect to help judge the value and viability of your ideas. Also it just helps to know that you’ve got, like, more than one great idea ready, in case the first one doesn’t go quite as perfectly as you’d hoped! Finally, I’ll add that it’s a lot of work. You don’t just say, “Hey let’s do a book about kittens and crocodiles” and then start auditioning for it and then sell it. You end up doing intense editing along the way, and holding the fates of some incredible writers in your hands!

Just for fun!

Favorite flavor of ice cream?

LO: Chocolate fudge brownie frozen yogurt.

LH: Strawberry (with fresh strawbs, obviously). Sometimes with chocolate sprinkles.

Mexican, Italian, or other?

LO: Italian. Yummm, pasta.

LH: Italian, definitely.

If you could have dinner with any author ever, who would it be?

LO: Jeez, that’s a difficult question. Probably Agatha Christie, only because I would LOVE to know how in God’s name she plotted all of those mysteries! I can hardly keep track of three narrative threads at a time, much less seventeen…

LH: My two favorite Laurens: Lauren Oliver and Lauren Kate! They both have INCREDIBLE taste in food and wine, and always suggest the best restaurants. Plus they are pretty.

Thank you to Lauren and Lexa for answering our questions!  If interested in submitting to Paper Lantern Lit, please see their submission guidelines on their website.  Please leave us comments!


Té la mà Maria - Reus said...

very good blog, congratulations
regard from Reus Catalonia
thank you

Amanda Hannah said...

Great interview! Thanks guys :)

Mel said...

Awesone Interview!!!

Hmath said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hmath said...

Awesome interview! I'd never even thought about book development companies before this. Cool idea.

(sorry about the deleted comment before - I noticed a typo)

Krista Ashe said...

Great interview, Jamie!

And thank you Lexa and Lauren for being so great and answering our inquiring minds want and need to know questions! For Lauren, I also loved Before I Fall btw!!