Recently I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and befriending Brian Geffen, editor at Penguin Random House’s children’s division, called Philomel. He is a smart, friendly, wonderful person and was kind enough to answer some questions for BookHive. Here’s how that conversation went down:
Tallie: How long have you been in publishing? How long have you worked for Philomel/Penguin?
Brian: I’ve worked in publishing since July 2012, and I’ve worked for Philomel for the vast majority of that time, just over four years.
Tallie: What drew you to editing in the first place?
Brian: From a very early age, I was enamored with writing and storytelling , and I’ve always loved the creative process, the way imagination and craft come together to form this amazing result. Then in college, I interned at Scholastic for a summer, in their Book Clubs division rather than Trade Publishing, which gave me my first taste of the industry. That was a particularly special experience because, like millions of others, my love of reading largely came to be after I first read the Harry Potter series, so it was a wonderful to work at the publisher who first launched the series that had a huge impact on my childhood (and adulthood!).
Later on, my longtime love of creative writing led me to writing a novel of my own, which has since gone into a drawer and will probably never see the light of day again! But it became very clear to me that my love of writing, reading, craft, and storytelling meant that a career in publishing was something I needed to pursue. But that was a conclusion that was late in coming! Unlike most of my colleagues, I didn’t major in English in college, but the idea slowly built up inside of me the year or two before I started pursuing full-time jobs in publishing.
Tallie: Tell us a little bit about your process. What’s your favorite part of editing? What’s the most tedious?
Brian: When approaching a new project, I tend to start with higher-level topics like characterization, plot, setting, and tension/stakes–these are the critical aspects that must be strong before moving on to the fine-tuning part of the process. If I can borrow a metaphor from my boss, editing is like making a stew, first you need to have the essential ingredients. The first step is always an editorial letter, which can vary in length (usually 5-10 pages) to provide the author with feedback on these aspects, to ask questions that provoke critical thinking, and hopefully generate solutions and ways of maintaining high stakes from start to finish.
The next step, to continue the stew metaphor, involves reducing the stew until it’s as delicious as it can possibly be! Anyone can put together the essential ingredients, but what separates a good stew from a great stew can often be the small touches and garnishes. So after the higher-level issues are complete, it’s on to scene work–whether that means tweaking, cutting, or re-ordering to whittle the story down to its most essential and strong components–like reducing a stew. Finally, I finish with line editing–first-time authors are often surprised by how hands-on editors can be at this stage, but it’s all in the pursuit of creating the best books possible.
My favorite part of editing, without question, is reading a revision that I think an author has nailed–it means the author is more than just a writer, she is also someone who can take feedback and use it to bring out the best in her work. It also means my feedback was useful to the author and that I conveyed what I was trying to say effectively, which can be a very difficult task.
The most tedious part of editing really doesn’t have to do with the editing (which I guess is kind of cheating!), but between emails and meetings, it can be hard to actually carve out a chunk of time at the office to focus solely on editing. The result is that I do much if not most of my editing at home, after work.
Tallie: Do you get to choose which projects you take on, or are they selected for you? If you get to pick, what sort of things do you look for in a new manuscript?
Brian: I mostly get to choose my projects, but there are times when editors leave to take on new positions at different companies, in which case I might pick up a departed editor’s project. In choosing my own projects, first it needs to be a subject or genre I’m interested in (i.e. fantasy, thrillers, action/adventure, among others) and, for the most part, it needs to be fast-paced, with high stakes, and have that page-turning quality. My tastes lean more commercial so I wouldn’t go for a literary voice most of the time, but narrative voice is still by far and away my #1 priority. And yet it’s such a subjective aspect of writing. If I don’t feel that connection with the storytelling, the point of view, I don’t feel the need to keep reading.
Tallie: What is your relationship like with the authors and literary agents you deal with? Do you follow up with them after you’ve finished their book, or are there too many submissions for that?
Brian: I love working with authors and agents, and I try to always be open and honest while still being respectful. Receiving a ten-page editorial letter can be quite difficult, even for a seasoned writer, so I make sure I’m providing honest feedback while also trying to craft that feedback in a useful yet sensitive manner. Beyond the editing process, I try to involve my authors in as much of the overall publishing process as I can–copywriting, jacket design, marketing and publicity. I strive to be a resource to my authors and agents well beyond the editorial aspect of a book. To me, an editor is the champion of a book within a publishing house and thus wears many hats beyond just the editorial one.
Of course, we always keep our authors and agents involved in every aspect of the publishing process, well after publication! And I love creative types and have been fortunate to work with some amazing authors who I count as friends.
Tallie: Do you find time to read for pleasure? I know this is an impossible question, but if you had to pick ONE favorite book, what would it be?
Brian: I don’t know if I find time, but I make time! I think it’s important to both stay on the pulse and read other middle-grade and YA books beyond the ones I work on, but it’s also important to read other books, including adult books, for pleasure to keep the creative juices flowing.
If I had to choose one favorite book–which is like asking me to choose my favorite child!–I would say The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan. It’s the first book of The Wheel of Time fantasy epic, which spans 14 very long books, but I absolutely love the world Jordan has created. I think it’s the most brilliant piece of fantasy ever written.
Tallie: What new YA or middle grade book should we be looking out for in the coming season?
Brian: I will, of course, give a shout out to one of the books I edited. I primarily edit fiction, but when an eye-opening book of nonfiction comes along, I cannot pass it up. Strong Inside: The True Story of How Perry Wallace Broke College Basketball’s Color Line by Andrew Maraniss comes out on December 20th, and it’s about the first African American to play college basketball in the formerly all-white Southeastern Conference. Perry Wallace is an amazing civil rights leader and trailblazer whose story has largely gone untold–I think of him as the Jackie Robinson of college basketball. It’s actually a middle-grade adaption of Andrew’s New York Times bestselling, award-winning adult book. It’s a timely story despite the fact that it goes back nearly fifty years. It’s also great for sports fans and non-sports fans alike!
Another book that I’ve had the pleasure to read early is called Gilded Cage by Vic James. It’s the first book in a YA fantasy series set in a dystopian modern-day Britain where magically gifted aristocrats rule and commoners are doomed to serve a ten-year period of indentured servitude. It’s a debut and I think it’s absolutely brilliant . . . and potentially the next big, Hunger Games-esque phenomenon. It’s that good.
Giant thanks to Brian for his time and insightful answers!
And of course, the writing prompt for this week is: “On the top of that hill…”
Brian Geffen is an associate editor at Philomel Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, who edits both middle-grade and young adult books.
BookHive does beta reader editorial research for authors with Fiction (all kinds), YA/Middle Grade & Memoir manuscripts.
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Tallie Gabriel is an actor, writer, and BookHive social media maven. She’s a member of InViolet Theatre and works with BEDLAM Theatre in NYC.
She currently lives in Astoria and at the Strand Bookstore.