An Interview with Editor Michelle Howry
Michelle Howry will be one of the many great featured editors at our 2014 Agents and Editors Conference. Michelle is a senior editor at Simon & Schuster/Touchstone. Learn more about Michelle and what she represents by visiting our Featured Editors page and reading the Q&A below.
How would you describe your personal approach to working with a writer/client?
Michelle Howry: It’s really tailored to the individual author or project. Some authors like to send me chapters as they go along, (this probably works better for nonfiction, which is what I work on). Others like to go away, hunker down, and write the whole thing before they share anything with me. Sometimes our working style is dictated by the schedule – if we’re on a tight schedule, I might insist that we edit as we go along! In the end, I work with the author to craft a plan that works for each book and each situation.
For every author, there’s a great deal of trust involved in the editing process, and I try not to take that lightly. My job is to guide, to prod, to nudge, to question. Their job is to write, and while I can help answer questions and give advice, they are the ones who have to do the hard work of getting those ideas down on paper. So I want to do whatever I can to help them – I try to be honest in my feedback, to be available when they have questions or get stuck, and to know when it is best to just step out-of-the-way and let a writer work!
You often hear that it’s the first ten pages – or even the first page – that sells a story. Is there something particular that you look for in those first few pages?
MH: Since I work mostly on nonfiction, I’m usually reading a proposal rather than a finished manuscript when I’m making an acquisition decision. But I think what I’m really looking for right up front in that proposal is a sense of the author’s expertise and passion. That can mean different things depending on what kind of book it is. I acquired a book called The Girls of Atomic City several years ago, which tells the story of a secret military installation built in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to help enrich uranium for the atomic bomb during WWII. The author, Denise Kiernan, was a journalist, not a historian, and at first one might have thought it would take someone with a history background (or a scientific background) to tell that story right. But Denise built her own expertise – she interviewed dozens of women who had worked at Oak Ridge, she scoured the National Archives for forgotten photos and stories, and she even became well versed in the intricacies of nuclear fission – so that she was able to tell a rich, convincing story about these women and their remarkable accomplishments. I don’t think that a historian could have captured the human element of that book nearly as well as Denise did, and it was because of her passion for the topic and her drive to tell the story right.
Of course, if you do have some expertise in whatever you are pitching (an advanced degree on the topic you’re discussing, you’ve published books on the subject, etc..), that should go front and center in your proposal, too. And if you’re writing, say, a health book, you’re probably going to be someone who has some advanced training in that area, like an M.D. or a nutritionist. But that’s not the only kind of expertise that could work in that category — maybe you regained your health following some particular regimen (for example, the Paleo diet) and then you built a career training, cooking, speaking, and teaching others about it, like my author Nell Stephenson did with her book, Paleoista. Her expertise is a result of her hard-won wisdom in this field, and then she built up an audience through her social media outreach that was excited to hear more from her. There are so many more ways a prospective author can build her audience and her credentials these days.
If you could give writers one piece of advice, what would it be?
MH: The work doesn’t end when you turn in your manuscript-writing your book is only the beginning. I love authors who are excited to market and sell themselves and their ideas.
Tell us about a project you took on, even though it wasn’t like projects you usually take on, because there was something special or unique about it that you couldn’t say no to. Or, tell us about an exciting or proud moment in your career as an editor or agent.
MH: I have a book coming out this fall called Champagne Supernovas – it’s a look back at the changing face of fashion in the 1990s, as told through the biographies of three visionary, larger-than-life characters: Marc Jacobs, Kate Moss, and Alexander McQueen. I am not particularly obsessed by fashion, and before I started working on this book I probably couldn’t have picked Alexander McQueen out of a lineup. But the author persuaded me, through her great proposal and then through her wonderful chapters, that this was a larger, universal story of excess and hubris, of genius and heartbreak. Through her writing and the way she brought each of these unique personalities to life on the page, she made me care about each of them in a way I didn’t think was possible. That’s what a great nonfiction proposal should do – open up a new world to the reader.
On the flip side, I’m incredibly susceptible to what I call “autobiographical” publishing – in other words, acquiring a book that seems to mirror the life stage I’m at in a particular time. When I was pregnant, the number of pregnancy/ parenting books on my list swelled along with my stomach. Now that I have a three-year old, I recently acquired a book called How Toddlers Thrive. Also, I’ve been known to be unduly influenced by the books I’m working on. I’m now editing a new book from the Forks Over Knives team, and I’m trying to eat a plant-based diet (though my resolve may falter when faced with some Texas BBQ during my time in Austin!).