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).