Bleak House Books Editor Alison Janssen: Let Me Be Your Calliope

Alison Janssen

Alison is the editor of Bleak House Books. She joined the company in 2003, and has worked with each title the company has published since then, including three titles named as finalists in three categories of the 2007 Edgar Awards.

Alison graduated from Vassar College, where she studied theater. As a child, Alison read extensively over a wide variety of genres and styles. Some of her favorite authors include William Faulkner, Michel Faber, and Dr. Seuss.

Alison lives and works in Madison, Wisconsin. She travels often with Bleak House publisher Benjamin LeRoy to writing conferences. In her spare time, she enjoys knitting, performing with local theater groups, and playing roller derby.

Let me be your Calliope.

Want to play make-believe for a moment?

You’re a writer. You are sitting in a room, facing a blank screen (or a blank page, depending on your personal work preferences). You have an idea – a spark, a germ, a flash. You take a deep breath and jump in …

… and months – maybe years – later, you have a manuscript. It’s finished. It’s printed out, and the pages are all neatly squared and stacked and there’s a heavy glass paperweight on the title page, holding it against any rogue breezes. That pile of papers is beautiful. It’s … perfect.

No one will ever know just how much of yourself you’ve put into those pages. It’s difficult to understand (without having gone through the experience of writing a book of one’s own) just what you’ve gone through to complete this work. You’re proud (you should be), glad to be finished, and ready to get it out into the world.

Flash forward again (it’s such a handy tool in make-believe, being able to play with time like this) … you’ve found an agent, she’s shopped your ms around, and you’ve landed a deal. You’ve got a publication date (nine months from today) and you’ve got an editor.

And you wake up, check your email, and see that your editor has written you. She loves your ms, can’t wait to get it out to readers, can’t wait to concept covers with you, can’t wait to set you off on an author tour … and wants to talk about a few points where you may want to revisit your prose and tighten your plot. She mentions that passage in chapter twelve where your main character makes a rather uncharacteristic choice – what if he chose differently? Or, better, how can you build up his thought process in chapter eleven to better justify the choice when it comes?

Alright, what’s your first reaction?

You hate her a little bit, right? You’re kinda angry? You think she’s presumptuous and insolent and probably just plain wrong. First off, you’re probably old enough to be her … well, in any case, you’re miffed.

This is a scene that, as the meddling, nitpicky editor, I like to avoid. I’m not meddling for meddling’s sake. I’m not nitpicking because I don’t like you. The adversarial relationship that can develop between editor and author is, in my opinion, a great detriment to publishing. It does everyone a disservice.

I endeavor to be less adversary, and more friend, to my authors. I want to inspire them to do their best work. I want them to own their own ideas, and tell their own stories, but I’m not afraid to ask questions or point out sections that don’t work for me. I hope I can be a modern-day Calliope to their modern-day Homer.

I read a ms many, many times in preparation for its publication. I think about it in the shower, while I’m cooking mac’n’cheese, as I’m falling asleep at night. At any given moment, I’m working on several books at a time, in several different stages of production. Today, for instance, I’m evaluating two mss for possible future Bleak House lines, reviewing the proofreader’s suggested changes to our first Spring 2009 title, ruminating on the revised draft of one of our late Spring 2009 titles, awaiting completed ARCs for two others, and thinking about possible editorial feedback for our first Fall 2009 title. I live with the books we publish from submission through publication, just as the author lived with the ms from idea through execution. I won’t presume to hold a great knowledge of an author’s intentions, and I won’t make light of the time and effort put in to the ms before it got to me. But I do expect an author to work with me, and I’ve been incredibly fortunate in that regard in my time with Bleak House Books.

So do you have any questions? Want more specifics about what I do every day? What part of the editorial process would you like illuminated, clarified, or explained? I’m more than happy to be here (thanks, Lee!) and I’ll make every attempt to answer your questions.

16 replies
  1. l.c.mccabe
    l.c.mccabe says:


    Speaking of theatre and acting…my favorite reference book to inspire my writing was written specifically for actors. It is Michael Shurtleff’s “Audition: Everything an actor needs to know to get the part.”

    I adore that book and probably have bought it a dozen times over because I’ve lent it to so many people and never got it back.

    I decided a few years ago to either buy one for my friends when I recommend it or direct them to our library rather than being without my own copy for any length of time.

    My veneration for that book was the topic of my second ever blog post and if you want to read more of my thoughts you can find them here:

    Thanks for sharing your insights with us and – er- break a leg!


  2. alisonjanssen
    alisonjanssen says:

    Rosemary, thank you for your thoughts! And yes, I am always trumpeting the importance of my acting background to my editing work. I have been known to encourage writers to take an acting class — it’s astounding what you learn about objectives and tactics, and how that can apply to a well-rounded scene!

    Terry, the economy is certainly scary these days, but don’t let it get you down. I truly believe that books are eternal, and people will always crave stories. An author may not make a six-figure advance in this current climate, but with small(er) presses and diligence, an author can still get his/her story to readers.

    Kennac, I became an editor through a really roundabout, lucky turn of events. I graduated college and, like many, didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, so I moved home (well, near home, to Madison). I got a job at the local Barnes & Noble, and kinda avoided being a grownup for a little while. (Well, I still make a daily effort to avoid being a grownup … )

    Happily, I met Ben LeRoy at the Tuesday evening B&N writing group, which I started attending kindof on a lark. I’ve always loved reading, and I write occasionally, and I thought the writing group might be a good extracurricular activity for me. The writers in attendance would swap writing, and group-edit, like a workshop. Well Ben and I hit it off, and he noticed my editorial brilliance 🙂 . I started interning for Bleak House, and began to spend most of my time there.

    I also had three other jobs (nanny, natural pet food store manager, and bookseller), and was kindof losing my mind being pulled in so many directions. So one day Ben sat me down and said, “Alison, I need you here, and you’re going crazy with all your other jobs. Bleak House can’t pay you [Ben wasn’t paying himself at the time, either, it was all labor of love stuff], but if you quit your other jobs and work with me for a year, I promise we’ll make it work.”

    So, I quit my other jobs, borrowed some money from my mom, and worked with Ben for a year. And he was good to his word — within that year, we garnered some pretty impressive critical attention for our titles, and we attracted the attention of an investor who bought the company and brought it under the umbrella of Big Earth Publishing. I got a salary an health insurance (Eek! How grownup!), and now I can edit full time.

    As for me taking notes as I read through: Oh, yes. I tend to read a ms once just for a first impression, though I usually can’t make it through without at least writing some impressions down — on a separate piece of paper, usually. Then I’ll read again with a serious eye towards places that could be tightened, character motivation that could be clarified, repeated words, awkward phrasing, the whole shebang. I’ll either write out my notes in the margins of a hard copy, or use the Comment features in word. Then I’ll read it again to make sure my notes all make sense, then I’ll talk it over with the author.

  3. kennac
    kennac says:

    Great post, and thoughtful comments. Maybe someday I’ll get to the point where I’m ready for an editor, but I still have a lot to learn!

    I’m curious how you became an editor? Do you take notes as your read through an ms?

    Thanks, again, for sharing!

  4. Terry
    Terry says:

    Thanks, Allison — I didn’t really expect any different answers. And from what I’m hearing, the publishing industry is experiencing the same downturns as the rest of the economy, which makes breaking in even more difficult.

    And knowing “it’s not my fault” helps too.

  5. Rosemary Poole-Carter
    Rosemary Poole-Carter says:

    Alison, thank you for your interesting article and comments. Bleak House is such a great name for a publisher (and Bleak House is my favorite Dickens novel). You sound like a dream-come-true editor. Your approach reminds me of James McKinnon’s at Kunati Books, as James gentlely guided me toward rethinking certain passages. Editors like you save writers a lot of embarrassment.

    Your comment that “author’s voice trumps story, and that character realization perhaps even trumps author’s voice”, along with your theater experience, brought to my mind Brandilyn Collins’s book “Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist can Learn from Actors”–a very helpful guide to bringing characters to life. Most of all, for me, your article is a timely reminder to not get in a hurry in the writing and to let the story evolve further through the editing process. Many thanks.

  6. pabrown
    pabrown says:

    I too had a stand offish editor for my first book. I got tons of input from the copy editor but nada from the senior editor who was assigned my book. I’m with a new publisher and the editors there are very hands on. Yes, there’s always a moment when they want to change something when I think ‘No’ but my response is to step away from it for a minute, or an hour, and let the idea they put forward seep through my knee jerk rejection and almost always I find they are right. And it makes for a stronger, better story which is our joint goal. So I like a hand on editor.

  7. alisonjanssen
    alisonjanssen says:

    Hi, Kathleen! Thanks for commenting.

    I can give you a preview of Bleak House Books to come, yes!

    Bleak House has a fine, exciting season coming up in Spring 2009. Five titles in total:

    *Rogue Males: Conversations and Confrontations About the Writing Life*
    Craig McDonald
    This is super exciting for me, because it marks our first foray into non-fiction. Craig has gathered together a collection of his interviews, a stellar lineup of revered crime writers. It includes James Crumley, Elmore Leonard, Andrew Vachss, James Ellroy, and several others.

    Anthony Neil Smith
    This is the second installment in the saga of Billy Lafitte, first introduced in last year’s “Yellow Medicine.” Fast-paced, gritty, and satisfying as a good punch to the face (either giving or receiving, depending on your preference).

    *Bangkok Dragons, Cape Cod Tears*
    Randall Peffer
    Another in Randy’s incredibly atmospheric Cape Island Mystery series, this one brings back Tuki, the lovely drag queen of ten thousand mysteries last seen in “Provincetown Follies, Bangkok Blues.” Heartbreaking, lush, and surprising.

    Eric Stone
    The fourth Ray Sharp novel brings Ray and Lei Yeu to … yup, Shanghai! Exotic, relevant, thoughtful, and boasting a couple of mean Girl Scout-esque martial arts experts.

    *Uncage Me*
    ed. Jen Jordan
    A short story collection without a leash. Jen asked contributors to write whatever they wanted, and the results are startling, beautiful, terrible, and entertaining all at once. Includes stories from Gregg Hurwitz, Scott Phillips, Blake Crouch, Christa Faust, Brian Azzarello, and many others.

    I know quite a bit about our Fall 2009 line, too, but I’m keeping that one under wraps for now. A girl’s gotta keep some secrets. 🙂

  8. KathleenE
    KathleenE says:

    Hi Alison,
    Thanks so much for sharing. You mention “possible future Bleak House lines.” Are you able to give us any hint of what might be on the horizon for BH?


  9. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Bill’s latest book, Chasing Smoke (Bleak House Books), is wonderful. The guy can really write.

    Here are a few of the reviews:

    Bill Cameron’s tough and gritty character, Skin Kadash, knows how to reach out from the pages and pull a reader into the story. Hang on, this one’s a real emotional ride. –Lee Lofland, author of HOWDUNIT: POLICE PROCEDURE & INVESTIGATION, a 2008 Macavity nominee.

    CHASING SMOKE fulfills the promise of Lost Dog, combining the classic elements of a gripping mystery with a haunting story of human frailty, concealed corruption, and fatal passion. For my money, Bill Cameron is the rising star of crime fiction. –Craig Johnson, author of ANOTHER MAN’S MOCCASINS

    CHASING SMOKE is a tour-de-force, New Century Noir at its finest. Fans of Michael Connelly will relish Cameron’s colorful characters. Cameron writes mortality like no other. Watch this guy! –Julia Spencer-Fleming, Edgar finalist and author of I SHALL NOT WANT

  10. alisonjanssen
    alisonjanssen says:

    Bill Cameron is clearly a man of taste. 🙂

    Yes, it’s true, I do love bacon. And that is a cropped photo, exactly as suspected, from a certain Bouchercon nook.

    (Bill, if you hadn’t already suspected, is one of my Bleak House authors.)

  11. Bill Cameron
    Bill Cameron says:

    I would just like to say for the record that Alison is made out of win. Plus, she is properly reverent of bacon. Also, that picture looks like it was cropped from a certain nook shot.

  12. alisonjanssen
    alisonjanssen says:

    Joyce, thanks to your descriptions, I now have visions of a not-for-kids picture book entitled “Calliope: The Tale of the Annoying Stripper.” Ha.

    Anyway, back to reality. Bleak House looks for, chiefly, stories about people, choices, and consequences. We tend to prefer darker material, flawed characters, and a noir sensibility. Crime elements are almost always present in our books, and some have detectives/investigators — willing or otherwise.

    A shorthand description of what we like was invented by Ben (our publisher), and I really like it: If your ms were to be made into a movie, would it require a large special effects budget? If the answer is yes, then it’s probably not for us.

    You can read all our guidelines here:

  13. Joyce Tremel
    Joyce Tremel says:

    Alison, that’s actually good to hear. While it’s frustrating, at the same time it’s nice to know that not every rejection means that our writing sucks!

    And Calliope is my character’s real name. If I ever write a follow up to that book, I might bring her back just because she annoys my protagonist.

    What kinds of books are you looking for right now?

  14. alisonjanssen
    alisonjanssen says:

    Hi, Joyce and Terry! Thanks for commenting. Sorry it took me a bit to reply, I was trying to figure out registering and hadn’t yet had any coffee — not a good idea.

    Jocye, I love your Calliope. Is that her stage name, or were her parents extra-clever?

    Terry, you ask a great question, and I’m sorry to have to give it this kind of answer:it depends.

    Annoying, right? I’m sorry.

    But if I were forced to choose, gun-to-my-head, I’d say author’s voice trumps story, and that character realization perhaps even trumps author’s voice — but those two are really strongly linked, I find. In other words, I’d rather help reshape an ending that doesn’t work to tie up the loose ends than line by line edit something that doesn’t have a consistent voice. It’s much easier (and more rewarding) to work througha plot problem together, it’s much harder to help an author find his/her voice — that’s so personal that an editor may just get in the way.

    As for the difference between “almost” and “sold,” that’s not entirely dependent upon your manuscript. By which I mean that your ms is up against others under consideration for a limited number of slots — so even if you have story, voice, and skill down pat, there could be another ms on my desk that does, too, and which resonates with me just that slight bit more.

    It’s difficult to remember, I think, that each ms does not exist in a vacuum. I’ve got limits and constraints as to what I can publish: subject matter (for instance, Bleak House doesn’t do YA, even though I personally love the genre and read it outside of work), number of titles per season, stuff like that. So sometimes the difference between “almost” and “sold” is not anything an author could ever control.

    I’m sorry, that may sounds terribly depressing. I don’t mean to be discouraging!

  15. Terry
    Terry says:

    First, I would LOVE to be in that position. My editor with my first books, I think, was far too ‘hands-off’. It was a first book, and I’m sure it could have been stronger all around with someone who thought about it in the shower, over the stove and while driving her kids to soccer games. For my other publisher, it was a much more hands-on editor, and I enjoyed discussing some of the ‘why did he do this?’ questions she asked. But I’m back to the point where my agent is trying to find a home for my next book, which (of course) is stronger than those that preceded it, but it hasn’t resonated the right way with the right editor. If only it made it to the point where they’d take that chance that working together, we could make it ‘the best.’ And if only they’d all pick at the same reason for why it’s not perfect enough!

    So, I guess my question would be: How close to perfect does a manuscript have to be for that “sale” to happen? I know everything tangles together, but are you more influenced by the story, the author’s voice, or the author’s skill at the craft? What are the lines between “almost” and “sold”?

  16. Joyce Tremel
    Joyce Tremel says:

    I just wrote a nice intelligent comment and when I hit the submit button, it disappeared! I’ll try to remember what I said.

    Personally, I wouldn’t be upset if an editor pointed out what needed to be changed or fixed. I appreciate the feedback, even if I don’t always agree with it. Many times a comment will lead me to one of those “aha!” moments when I knew something was wrong with a certain scene, etc., but couldn’t figure out what it was.

    Btw, I have a minor character in the book I’m sending out now named Calliope. She’s a stripper and my protagonist calls her a “walking cliche.”

    Thanks for the look into your world, Alison.

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