Sunday, February 8, 2009
Spotlight Interview: Marcela Landres
Marcela Landres, Author, Book Editor/Writing Teacher & Consultant/Motivational Speaker
Before starting her own business as a freelance editorial consultant, both guiding aspiring writers through the publishing process and helping them develop winning career strategies, Marcela Landres worked for seven years as an acquisitions editor for Simon & Schuster.
During her tenure at S&S, in which she was one of the scant few Latino editors in major book publishing, Ms. Landres acquired and edited the likes of best-selling authors Karen Rauch Carter and Dora Levy Mossanen, as well as oversaw the award-winning Spanish language division Libros en Español.
She’s on the Literature Panel for the New York State Council on the Arts; a judge for the Beyond Margins Award for PEN, the Latino Book Awards, and The Scholastic Art & Writing Award; and a member of the Women's Media Group, New York Women in Communications, and Las Comadres.
In addition to her consulting business, Landres has authored the book, “How Editors Think: The Real Reason They Rejected You” and runs a popular workshop called “How to Write a Knockout Book Proposal,” speaks before such organizations as The Learning Annex, Columbia University, the National Writers Union and the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture, and publishes Latinidad, a newsletter for Latino writers.
Please check out her Web site at:
And her Yahoo group at:
And feel free to contact her at:
Here is my exclusive newsletter interview with Ms. Landres:
Mike: What was your childhood like? Were you born to be in book publishing?
Landres: No, far from it. I grew up the daughter of Ecuadorian immigrants in the projects of Long Island City, Queens in New York City. My dad was a fireman and my mom was a schoolteacher, and neither of them were readers. In fact, we didn’t have any books in our home while I was growing up.
Mike: So, where did your love of books come from?
Landres: When you’re the child of a schoolteacher you must be a straight-A student—that’s the expectation—and my mother went about that by teaching me how to read at a very young age. I don’t think her intention was to make me a book lover, but learning to read very early certainly struck something inside me.
Plus, we lived across the street from a small public library and by the time I was 10 I was coming home with stacks of books. I started reading books written by authors whose last names began with the letter “A” and worked my way from there.
In addition, my father is an old-school Latino, so my sisters and I couldn’t date until we were 18. We couldn’t go to parties. We couldn’t throw parties. We couldn’t go to friends’ houses and play. We lead very sheltered lives. All I had was TV and books, and, although I watched a lot of TV, I was mostly a book nerd—and proud of it. Books like Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby and Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn—these were my first best friends. Writers were my heroes because their stories opened up my otherwise circumscribed world.
I had no desire to hang out on the streets with the other kids. I was a loner and painfully shy. My mother used to snatch books out of my hands in the summer, and order me to go outside. And she’d come into my room at nighttime, when I was supposed to be asleep, and order me to stop reading by moonlight. Needless to say, it didn’t work!
Mike: Did you study publishing or literature in college?
Landres: Not right away. Originally, I was on the pre-med track, because I was supposed to become the first doctor in my family. But that ended once I got to organic chemistry lab. I quickly switched to English Lit and never looked back.
Mike: What was your route to Simon & Schuster?
Landres: I’d done some book publishing internships while in college. But I’d heard that magazines promoted faster and paid more, so I gave magazines a chance and worked for The American Lawyer for a year-and-a-half as the assistant to the editor and publisher. But my heart wasn’t in magazines. I didn’t love them nearly as much as I did books. So I left there to join Simon & Schuster.
Mike: What was your job at S&S exactly?
Landres: My main function was to read proposals and manuscripts and to separate them into two piles: “reject” and “pursue.” The fact is I put almost all of them into the rejection pile. The very few I didn’t I did my best to put under contract.
In essence, I was the gateway to a book being published.
I did very little reading in the office. Most of it was done at home, on the weekends, or on the subway ride to and from work. In fact, my decision to accept or reject something was often made on the subway.
Mike: Did you read unrepresented submissions?
Landres: Yes, but that made me very unusual among my editing colleagues. I was very open and accepting of those submissions, mostly because I became an editor to help Latino writers get published and most Latino writers didn’t have agents. The reason for that is, most agents aren’t Latino, and to ask them to find Latino writers is an exercise in futility.
Mike: How many manuscripts would you receive daily?
Landres: From around a half-dozen to dozens.
Mike: And how many of those would you publish in a good year?
Landres: On average, around 15.
Mike: Wow! So the numbers are pretty bad?
Landres: Yes, it’s a very low percentage. The odds are heavily against you.
Mike: So, what do you suggest to writers to increase the numbers in their favor?
Landres: It’s all about your reputation and your Rolodex. Who you know is your Rolodex. Who knows you is your reputation. The person that once said, “It’s all about who you know,” was half-right. The two combined make your platform. And platform is what’s most in demand in book publishing these days.
Most editors and most agents are not primarily looking for talented writers. What we’re looking for are people with a strong platform. Look at Dr. Phil. He had a best-selling weight-loss book, yet he’s hardly a great writer, hardly a fitness expert, and hardly looks like someone who should be writing about weight loss. But he has a great platform. He’s a friend of Oprah and has a top-rated TV show. He’s a perfect example of platform meaning much more than writing talent.
Mike: What are the five best pieces of advice for aspiring writers to build a strong platform?
Landres: 1) Spend no more than 50 percent of your time being the best writer you can be and no less than 50 percent of your time learning the business of publishing. Although writing can be a hobby, a vocation, a calling, a form of artistic expression, if you expect to be published, that means you expect to be paid, so at the end of the day writing is a job. Writers who treat writing as a job have a much better chance of being successful.
2) Attend writing conferences. Specifically, choose conferences that focus on the genre in which you write. In other words, if you write horror, go to a horror writers conference. It’s a wonderful way to not only meet successful horror writers, but also to network with agents and editors who specialize in horror.
3) Get your short pieces (e.g. poems, short stories, and essays) published in literary journals, magazines, newspapers, and reputable Web sites before seeking to publish a book-length work. It’s very difficult to get a book-length work published if you haven’t had short pieces published first. You need to start developing a readership that extends well beyond your mom, best friend, and significant other.
4) Make new friends. Most unpublished writers make the mistake of only hanging out with other unpublished writers. Hanging out with other unpublished writers all the time won’t get you very far in your writing career. I’m not suggesting that you get rid of all your old friends. Keep and cherish your old friends, as you’ll need them on the way up, as well as on the way down. But you should carefully seek out new friends who are successfully published writers, and try to make them your mentors.
5) Read the author bios printed on book covers. Notice how bios invariably list highlights of a writer’s platform. How do you think they got that book deal in the first place?
Mike: What do you think of self-publishing?
Landres: I sing the praises of self-publishing. For the right writer and right kind of book, it’s been a time-proven method of launching a successful traditional writing career. All kinds of writers have done it, though it’s worked best for authors of commercial women’s fiction. African-American writers in particular have benefited from self-publishing.
E. Lynn Harris started out self-publishing and is now a huge best-selling author at Random House. Zane, a best-selling erotica author published by Simon & Schuster, also began as a self-published author. James Redfield self-published The Celestine Prophecy before it became a huge mainstream hit. And Karen E. Quinones Miller and M.J. Rose are also examples of best-selling authors who built their platforms via self-publishing. If all these people can do it, so can you.
Mike: But aren’t a lot of self-published books just plain horrible?
Landres: Sure. But most of the stuff published by traditional publishing houses is crap. So why should self-publishing be different?
Mike: Do you write yourself?
Landres: No. Just for my newsletter and Web site, though I wouldn’t even call that writing. I’m an educator, not a writer. But I’m unusual among editors that way. In my experience, most editors are repressed writers.
Mike: What do you do in your consulting business?
Landres: I work one-on-one with writers, editing their manuscript or critiquing their proposals. I tell them what’s wrong and how to fix it. But that’s just part of what I do. The other part is educating them about the business of publishing, which is as important as the craft of writing. About half of my clients have agents, and half don’t. Some write fiction, some write non-fiction. About 40% are Latino, which means 60% are not. But the one thing they pretty much all have in common is they’ve gotten really nice rejection letters from publishing companies telling them their writing or book idea is good but needs polishing. That’s where I step in. I teach them craft, and then empower them to make informed choices in their writing careers.
Mike: Could you recommend a Web site for writers other than your own?
Landres: Yes, it’s called Backspace—The Writers Place, at:
Mike: Any book recommendations?
Landres: Two, actually. First, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Getting Published by Sheree Bykofsky & Jennifer Bayse Sander. The greatest value of this book is that it includes a real live book proposal that resulted in a book deal. And the other is Publicize Your Book! An Insider’s Guide to Getting Your Book the Attention It Deserves by Jacqueline Deval. It’s a fabulous book. In fact, let me read you these first two sentences:
“The reality of book publishing is that there are too few resources to support every book. This means that some books will get publicity campaigns and budgets, while others will go without.”
That’s exactly right. This goes contrary to what most authors believe. They simply assume that their publishing company will automatically spend money promoting their book just because they published it. The reality is that’s not always the case.
Mike: Who are some of your heroes in the literary world?
Landres: Oh, god, I have so many. Toni Morrison. Terry McMillan. Charles Dickens. Annie Dillard. And a Dominican-American writer named Angie Cruz, who grew up in Washington Heights.
Mike: What inspires you?
Landres: People’s stories, either reading them or hearing them. I love storytellers.
Mike: Do you have a favorite quote?
Landres: I have a motto I live by:
If you are in a position to help someone, it is your honor and your obligation to do so.
I believe that knowledge is power only when shared. I tell my clients and everyone who attends my workshops that now that I’ve shared my knowledge with them, they better get off their butt and do something with it. I think it’s my duty to crush unrealistic expectations and replace them with achievable goals.
Mike: Any lasting thoughts?
Landres: Yes. Always remember that, whether you are published or not, we all have stories to tell, and we’re the only ones who are qualified to tell them. All of us are storytellers. Some of us simply have a greater need to share our stories and attract an audience.