Publisher Benjamin LeRoy: Importance of Introductions
Benjamin LeRoy is the founder of Bleak House Books, a publisher of crime and dark literary fiction headquartered in Madison, WI. He was recently featured in Publishers Weekly’s FIFTY UNDER FORTY series. The story can be read here. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (English and Philosophy), is endlessly fascinated by the history of baseball, and is currently at work on a novel, The Fringes, set in his spiritual home along the swamps and rivers of northern Florida.
There are approximately 538 things about the publishing industry that thrill me to no end. At the top of that list – above the black tie parties in fashionable libraries, huge endorsement deals, and the millions of dollars in personal wealth – is the feeling of deep personal satisfaction I get when I read a manuscript from a first time author and know, right away, that we have to publish the damn thing.
The weird part about it? I usually can tell by the time I’m done reading the first paragraph.
I say this to illustrate two points:
(1) Books and words still mean something to people. There are still plenty of folks in this industry that live and die by the excitement that comes with reading perfectly strung together sentences. The novel is still holy ground to me. It is not simply a product or a commodity or a value-added good. It is spiritual.
(2) An author’s job is to write something undeniably great from Word One. There are no excuses. There is no wait-and-see policy for things that cross my desk. Either the book has it from the opening Once Upon a Time or it doesn’t. And in seven years of reading submissions I’ve learned that if I don’t get moved on page one, I’m not going to get moved on page one hundred.
Too much more analysis of the first point is only going to sound pretentious and self-serving so I’ll keep it neatly boxed. All you need to know is that I love words and books. My right hand at Bleak House Books, Deputy Sheriff Editor Alison Janssen, shares the same passion. We don’t publish repackaged episodes of CSI. We don’t follow the hot trends. We look for books that capture the human experience in a meaningful way that doesn’t rely on car chases or elaborate kidnapping plots. Forget the special effects. I want to be effected.
So how do I know when that book is dropped on my desk? That’s a good question and one that I have tried answering for years with varying degrees of success. Here are some of the discussion questions and answers that I explore when I’m speaking at writers conferences.
How much can you possibly know about a book after only reading the first paragraph or two?
We get approximately ten submissions a day from aspiring writers and hopeful agents. As the days turn to weeks turn to months the pile grows tall if it doesn’t get tended to on a regular basis. You can do the math. Because we make our money selling the books we’ve published, and not by the volume of our slushpile, we’ve learned to put efficiencies in place to keep the machine moving at a steady clip.
As soon as I see awkward prose on page one, I reject a book. You wouldn’t trust a clumsy surgeon with a scalpel. I don’t trust authors who aren’t in complete control of their environment. Sloppy work is sloppy work. Doesn’t matter the profession, I don’t want it. See the first paragraph for how much words mean to me.
Well you edit books, don’t you? It’s your job to fix sloppy work to make it as good as possible.
I know there are a few misconceptions floating around about what exactly an editor at a publishing house does, and I think I came up with something a few months ago to make it all make sense. Here’s that thing.
An editor is like a Building Inspector. An author is like a general contractor. The author’s job is to make the best possible use out of the tools accumulated and experience gained to build a sturdy, up to code building. When the author is done with the construction and the clean up, the inspector is brought in to check the big things-is the foundation level? Does the plumbing work the way it’s supposed to? The electricity? After the inspection is over the author receives a checklist of things that need to be fixed before the structure is ready for occupancy. The building inspector doesn’t pound nails or rework the wiring, that’s the contractor’s job.
Too many authors get the checklist of major problems and think if they hurry and throw a new coat of paint over the walls, nobody will notice that the building is still crooked. Often what we see in the slushpile are buildings that are better off condemned. And, more often than not, the people put in charge of the repairs are either too lazy or too unskilled to fix the trouble spots.
With as many books that agents and publishers see on a daily basis from both published and unpublished authors it’s your job to make sure that your novel is the best damn book you can write before you send it off. Nobody in the slushpile will receive special consideration. There will be no chance to say, “But, if I could just …” What’s on paper is the only argument an author gets to make. We receive over two thousand submissions a year. We publish somewhere between 15-20 books, and most of those are from authors that have a history-have proven that they can successfully perform surgery and build skyscrapers that won’t crumble in a stiff wind.
I hope the stuff above has been helpful. Like I said, sometimes it’s hard to articulate the challenges faced by writers when it comes to publishing. But I want you to know that there are publishers waiting for your best stuff. Is it hard to get published? Yeah. I’m not going to lie to you. But anything worth anything is a challenge. The discovery that comes along the road is maybe as important as anything else and you shouldn’t try to skip to the head of the line. Anyway, that’s what I’m thinking. If anybody has questions, I’ll be around all day.
Benjamin LeRoy, Publisher
Bleak House Books
* Bleak House Books published fifteen titles last year. Out of the fifteen, three were nominated for 2008 Edgar Awards. Congratulations to Bleak House Books and its authors, Reed Farrel Coleman for Soul Patch (Best Novel), Craig McDonald for Head Games (Best First Novel), and “Blue Note” by Stuart M. Kaminsky from the Chicago Blues collection (Best Short Story).
I didn’t know Mary had another book out! Great – I’ll order it right away.
As an author myself, I know what it’s like to get all sorts of reactions to my books. I often wonder if people are reading the same book. But I guess for every person there is an opinion.
Here’s mine. Mary Logue is a beautiful writer. I am in awe of her command of language, and her command of story. Of the depth of her characters and the way she can capture a moment that lingers with me long after.
She has an important voice.
Yes, I can see why she might have thrown the high school grammar book out. Picasso learned to draw classically, but then he found his voice and that was what lifted him above the others.
Kids, don’t try this at home.
Mary Logue is a fraud. And for any self-respecting publisher to promote her writing is not saying much about the publisher. I cannot believe there aren’t better stories being submitted to your shop. I started reading “Point No Point,” to see if Logue was really as good as you said. What stopped me after the first chapter or so was the bad writing. Sentence structure was less than high school caliber. I tossed it in the corner without finishing the book. Don’t waste my time. If this author is an example of what your company is looking for, I will be forever grateful that you didn’t get past the third sentence of my inquiry letter. I suspect it was just too intelligent for you to accept. Darlene Cox
Oh – the book I’m talking about by Mary Logue, is MAIDEN ROCK.
Bleak House also publishes the Claire Watkins series by Mary Logue. Talk about quality! Mary’s character is a sheriff’s deputy in Pepin County, Wisconsin. If you can get your hands on all the books in the series, you’ll never want to leave. It’s that good.
Thank you everybody for your kind words. I’ll keep peaking in to this thread if you have any questions in the coming days or weeks. And I’ll probably pop my head into other threads, too.
Keep writing. Take care.
Ben is one of the smartest guys I know.
The only thing that would make him smarter is to buy all of his books from me.
Whew, after reading all of this I am breathless. Excellent article.
All I can say is: I hope when my book is finished, people will see I’ve put my heart, soul, and plenty of blood, sweat, and tears into it.
Wow, Ben. Somehow I think there’ll be a lot of cutting, pasting, and saving of your post.
I wholeheartedly agree that a writer should feel what he/she’s writing.
My characters tell my story, and I’m pleased they allow me to tag along for the journey. The only drawback to getting so close to these folks is that you start to care for them. And when they hurt, so do I. Why? Because I’ve been there.
By the way. Thank you so much for being here today. You’re welcome anytime, my friend. Don’t wait for an invitation. You let us know when you have something to say and we’ll find a spot for you.
Here’s the opening to John Galligan’s THE BLOOD KNOT (Bleak House 2005)–
“There are two types of rabies: mad rabies and dumb rabies. The labels are perfectly descriptive. You snap, unprovoked, at everything, or you drool at nothing, or you do them in sequence, like entree and dessert. It all depends on the mechanism chosen by the Rhabdo virus to effect what will become, either way, your total cerebral derangement and horrible death.”
Other favorite authors include J.D. Salinger (Franny and Zooey), Raymond Carver, Kerouac, and plenty of non-fiction.
D. Swords asked–
Have you ever found that you might read something about which another professional raves, and find yourself asking, “What’s the big deal?”
Hell yes. That happens all the time. I’ve had a few occasions with the ol’ clench toothed smile and, “Yeah, yup, that certainly is a book. Look at that! It’s got a cover and everything.” I lose two days off my life each time it happens. Way I figure it, I’ve got about four months left.
Hey everybody. Sorry I ducked out for as long as I did. But I think I’m finally ready to tackle this beast. I’m going to warn you ahead of time that this might ramble a bit but I’ll try to keep the thing on track. Seriously, this is going to be all over the place and I’ll probably be looking for the non-existent EDIT button later on, but for now we’ll just go with it.
Clair asked earlier “What would make a book stand out as NOT being a knock-off of a well-known writer, even if they share certain elements?”
The thing that makes a book stand out to me is whether or not I can see the author’s guts on the page. I need to know that the author suffered to write the damn thing. For whatever reason, my brain is programmed in such a way that I don’t read fiction to “escape,” I read it to get a better understanding of the human condition. If I’m aware, for even a split second, that a character is not real, the book and the author have lost me.
I’m the asshole that sits next to you in the movie theater and says, “Yeah right! That would NEVER happen!” when the good guy survives the twenty foot fall, popping up to slay the villain in heroic fashion. The same thing happens to me with crime novels and books in general. As soon as a character happens into a remarkable string of coincidences to solve a problem and be the hero, I have to call “bullshit.”
I feel the train tilting. Lean with me to get this thing moving toward the next stop on the line.
At last count, I’ve met somewhere between fifty thousand and fifty million aspiring authors, wannabe writers, and people who’ve “made it” it into the realm of published authors. You can tell a lot about the long-term prospects of a scribe by listening to the first thirty seconds of his pitch/synopsis.
All too frequently I find I’m sitting with the guy who is a big CSI fan, the guy who owns the Law and Order box set, the guy who can quote every line from the Godfather trilogy with startling accuracy, and the guy who …works in the accounts receivable department at Sears. Writing, to him, is a thin escape to fantasy world where he can make up the details without ever understanding the emotional load his protagonist carries, because to him the protagonist is interchangeable with the mannequin on the sales floor—a vehicle for new fashions with no heart or brain of its own. A blank slate with no real potential for forward progress.
(Are there no sentences that I write that don’t mirror my own inability to answer Clair’s question?)
A book written by Mr. Sears is going to be all flash and no substance. There’ll be gadgets and new technologies. Close calls and near misses. Probably somebody is going to have sex along the way. Maybe a witty one liner will be delivered. But inevitably there’ll be something missing—a real human being for me to care about.
I’m fond of saying (and God knows this may be more of my pretentious bullshit) that a writer’s true mission is to exist in two worlds at once. There is the real world. And then there is the world he is trying to make real. Your protagonist should carry a burden that you feel in your back. It shouldn’t go away when you shut down the computer. It shouldn’t disappear when you go to sleep. Your brain should be constantly working for two. It’s not sufficient to think about your character, you need to think for him.
The downside? It’s heavy and sometimes it hurts. There’s a constant buzz in your brain. And, if you’re not careful, it might suffocate you.
I’m guessing at this point I’ve probably lost a few people with all of this overdramatic theorizing about what makes a great novel. But I’m also fairly certain there are a few people nodding along that either suspect there is some truth in it, or know for certain how true it is.
I should also note that the Artist as Sufferer school of thought is no guarantee to make a million bucks. Plenty of people have struggled and fought with themselves, produced a beautiful book, and nary an eyebrow was raised. And there are people who—by my one man estimation crew—have written paper thin escapist tales and made a bajillion dollars doing it. What the hell do I know?
I’ll tell you what I know.
I think it’s a goddamn crime that Kenny G. has sold more records than Charlie Parker. I’m saddened that a soulless hack can water down the formula until it’s barely recognizable and can serve the diluted concoction to a thirsty populace that doesn’t know what it’s missing. But I’m also hopeful that when this planet implodes under the weight of disposable pop culture the Kenny G.s of the world will slide through the plumbing while Charlie Parker, by the vastness of his influence, will refuse to fit in the drain.
Parker was 34 when he died of pneumonia and a bleeding ulcer. According to the story, the coroner mistakenly estimated that the deceased was between 50-60 years old. Almost as though Parker piled up the years like he was living for two.
If you’ll allow me one more bit of speculation (I’m sure I’ve used up my allotted amount), I’d like to say that Parker was playing from his gut and you can hear it in the notes he plays and the way he plays them. The music is simply one more form of handing emotion from one person to another.
Other jazz musicians followed behind Parker. Some took out machetes and pushed through more underbrush into the unknown. Others picked up his saxophone (figuratively) and hoped that they’d be able to play the same notes on the same sax and that nobody would know the difference.
I think I’ve managed to lose any semblance of coherence (and if I haven’t yet, I’m certainly forging ahead with my own machete) so I’m going to stop here by summing up that it’s possible to explore the same world as Chandler and still write a compelling novel if the material is genuine.
John Galligan, one of my favorite authors, often says that writing a mystery is like playing a jazz standard. The structure and familiar notes are there for everybody, but the real test comes with the improve. Who am I to disagree?
* Note * I did not proofread this. If you catch a mistake, please do not report it to the building inspector. Your nickel bribe is in the mail.
Thank you for your time. This is truly a great site.
Excellent analogy on the construction. We used to call it a punch list when I did remodels.
Do you have any favorite books of examples of first paragraphs that really struck out to you ? Who are some of your super favorite authors ?
Very good article, Ben. Very interesting.
After having sought the meaning of that elusive “something special” for which agents and editors look, would it be accurate for me to conclude that “it” really is different from person to person? One editor’s junk is another’s treasure?
Have you ever found that you might read something about which another professional raves, and find yourself asking, “What’s the big deal?”
If the answer to the above questions are “yes,” then perhaps “it” has no definition for all of us.
It’s going to take me a second, but I’m very much looking forward to answering Clair’s question. And, I might even say something controversial while I do it.
Stay tuned …
Just my two cents, but if a story “starts to get good on page 20” then to me that’s a clear sign that pages 1-19 need to be brutally hacked off the beginning.
Since you publish crime fiction, I’m guessing you see a few books that are… similar in style to the crime noir of folks like Chandler and Hammett. Do you find that novels in that style are usually just derivative or have you found new authors that can pull off what Chandler and Hammett did?
What would make a book stand out as NOT being a knock-off of a well-known writer, even if they share certain elements?
Thanks! And thanks for the post, too. I learn so much around this place. Gives me lots to think about.
We take submissions directly from authors. We haven’t picked a book out of the slush pile since 2006, but it happens and we are ALWAYS looking for it to happen again. In our history we’ve published four novels that came to us over the transom.
All of our submission guidelines can be found at http://www.bleakhousebooks.com/submissions.htm
Ben – I’ve received a couple of emails asking if you take submissions directly from writers, or do you prefer to work only with agents? Would you please address this question? Inquiring minds are standing by at the mailbox waiting to drop their packages.
I’m going to be on my lunch break and saddled with a bit more free time. Do people have general questions about publishing that they want answered? There really are no dumb questions. However, I can’t guarantee that you won’t receive a dumb answer.
Wonderful post! As a writer, yes, it makes me groan at the difficulty of this, of my MG mystery needing to be the ABSOLUTE BEST that shows up on an agent or editor’s desk.
But as a freelance editor, I want to tell all my clients to read your post. This isn’t an easy job. It takes rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, and then there’s still luck involved.
We gotta love it to do it. 🙂
Great column. When I wrote my first mystery, I spent hours in the bookstore, just reading the first paragraphs of every book on the shelf, in hopes of being able to absorb the subtleties of what it takes to hook a reader. I wanted to make sure an editor didn’t put my book down. Glad to know my instincts weren’t too far off.
And I love, love, love the whole contractor/building inspector analogy. I just gave a talk yesterday on writing, and was trying to answer a question from someone about what a freelance editor (AKA book doctor) might do for a writer who was “almost there,” and the difference between that and someone who calls his/herself one, but is in reality only a freelance copy editor. (None of which should be confused with a so-called book doctor, the sort who are out only to get your money.) Now I can point out the difference in a way that most anyone can grasp. Real freelance editors are much like a pre-building inspector. Freelance copy editors are the sort who might come in and hammer a nail or two down for you, but otherwise have no experience or say in what is wrong with the entire building. Shady book doctors are the guys who come in and ignore the bad foundation, pour concrete that will dissolve after the first rain, take your money and leave.
There are also misconceptions about the following things:
(1) black tie parties in fashionable libraries
(2) huge endorsement deals
(3) publishers enjoying millions of dollars in personal wealth
Then again, what should any of us expect? The whole business is built on skillfully telling made up stories for money.
I’m glad the contractor analogy makes sense to people other than me. It seemed like a fairly good illustration at the time.
Great blog, Ben, I think you hit the proverbial nail on the head, keeping with the building contractor analogy. I think the two biggest misconceptions in the industry are that it’s the editors job to fix the thing, and that ‘if you’d only read until page 20, it really gets good. Oh, and that only people who know someone in publishing ever get published.
Ben, it doesn’t sound pretentious at all! I know exactly what you mean.
I don’t know how many authors have made promises of a pickup in later chapters, either. But however many have done it, it’s too many. It astounds (and disappoints) me when people claim that writing a book is sooooo important to them, but then they’re willing to send it out already wounded with no real chance, as though the rejection hadn’t already written itself.
As far as YA, at some point I’d still like to do that. Unfortunately (I suppose it’s a good thing), it’s been so damn busy around these parts lately that I haven’t been able to develop the idea any further.
I have to confess that I’m a bit blind when it comes to any particular type of crime novel that we like. I can’t keep up with the way genres and sub-genres change, and as a result I gravitate more towards the characters. Even then, what I’m most sensitive to is the character’s “essence”–not so much what they do as much as who they are. I’m afraid it’s another one of those places where either I’m horribly inarticulate OR it can’t really be described in words. (I know that sounds pretentious, and for that, you have my sincerest apology).
I’m in total agreement with you that a murder does NOT have to occur on the first page. I enjoy the use of language enough that a truly skilled author could probably keep me reading his/her grocery list as long as it was done right. I like the sounds words make. I like the feel of pronouncing things. That’s a hook for me.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I don’t know how many writers have talked about their books picking up after the first few chapters, and not realizing that’s a problem.
Are you still looking for the YA material you mentioned at Crime Bake?
Is there a particular type of crime fiction that interests you the most (ie procedural, PI, etc)? Ex-cop, martial arts instructor? Oh, wait, that’s my book–never mind…
I have to say that when I read a book, I don’t give it more than a page or two to pull me in. I don’t think a writer has to start with a murder on the first page, but there should definitely be something there that indicates the conflict to come.
Off now to check my own first paragraph…
I can do naught but agree with you Benjamin. In fact take your first paragraph a step further. With my “reader hat” on, rather than my writer hat, when I look for a book to read, perchance to buy, I want that first paragraph to promise me a ripping good yarn.
For an ‘almost’ paragraph, I will read the first page, but that’s it.
Appreciate your candor.