So You Wanna be a Writer…Listen to Don

(Part 2 of our interview with Don D'Auria, Acquisitions editor at Leisure Books)

Lisa Hoffman and Charles Atkins

Published July 20, 2006


Charlie writes:

Last week Lisa and I stumbled onto an interview with publishing insider, Don D’Auria, an acquisitions editor for Leisure Books. He’s the guy who can give the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ that will turn a hopeful author’s book into a published novel…or not. He’s been doing this for years, and on a monthly basis will take five or six manuscripts, or previously published hardcovers and gets them published as mass market paperbacks.

Since starting these columns with Lisa, I’ve become aware of how many of our readers—and people in general—have an interest in writing. It seems that just about everyone has a started novel on their computer, in a drawer or in their head. What follows are excerpts from our interview with Don that contain critical insights that are true for both novice and experienced writers.

"Don," Lisa asks, "you said that you’ll read manuscripts from authors who don’t have agents. Isn’t that unusual?"

"It is," he admits, "I know there are a lot of publishing houses that won’t. When I worked at Bantam a number of years ago they would not look at anything that was not sent by and agent. That was officially our policy here at Leisure when I started. But I’d been hearing about so many good projects and good authors, who at that point were having a tough time getting an agent that I began to deal directly with the author."

He then goes on to explain, "When I started here they were starting up a horror line, and no publisher was doing that. So no agent was willing to touch a horror manuscript. They had it in their heads that horror didn’t sell so they wouldn’t represent it. I’d be calling up agents and asking, ‘do you have any horror?’ and they’d say, ‘no, I don’t touch that. It doesn’t sell’. It took a while for the word to get out that there was publisher who wanted to buy horror and that maybe they should pick up a couple horror authors. With the thrillers that wasn’t so much of an issue, because as a genre they’ve been popular for a number of years, and there are a lot of agents who represent these authors. So roughly half of what I publish comes from authors who don’t have agents."

"So how many people," I ask, "help you slog through all of the manuscripts you get?"

"We have editorial assistants who give things the first look to make certain they’re in one of our genres [for Don this is horror, thrillers and historic fiction (westerns)]. I have periodically a first reader who will help me look over some of the manuscripts, but that’s basically it. Everything else is me."

"What size bag does your mail come in?" I ask, having seen my agent’s daily mail arrive in multiple Santa Claus size sacks.

"It actually comes in baskets."

"How many a day?"

"A few."

"How big are the baskets? Bread Basket? Laundry Basket?"

"Laundry. It’s an endless amount of stuff that comes in," he says.

"How many books do you go through?" Lisa asks.

"Boy, at least a couple a day, but I bring a number home at night. But remember that a lot of what comes in is not a complete manuscript, but could be a proposal or a couple chapters. A lot of times I can tell by reading the first couple chapters that this doesn’t have the quality it takes. So it’s not like I read every page of every manuscript."

"How far do you go into a book," I ask, "before you know if it’s a thumb’s up or down?"

"There are some that are great right up to the end, and then something happens at the end that needs work. In which case I’d usually try to make an offer on the book and work with the author on revising the ending. If something is really amateurishly written, you can tell within five pages. Different manuscripts don’t make the cut for various reasons, like if the timing is off and things aren’t moving along, or if the character development isn’t there, it takes time to see that."

Lisa then shares, how we have many readers that have an interest in getting published. "If you were giving a seminar to would-be writers," she asks, "what are the things that enhance your chances of getting published?"

"Professionalism is very important. Every house has guidelines for submission. So before sending a query or manuscript get a copy of these and follow them. If the publisher has a website you can get them that way, or just call up and the assistants send them to you. Then general professional standards, the manuscripts need to be typed, double spaced, standard margins, that kind of thing. Don’t try to be gimmicky. State clearly what the book is and let the writing speak for itself. A lot of times writers will shoot themselves in the foot. They’ll think, ‘my book’s not right for this house’ and they won’t send it in. Let the editors decide that. Stick with it. Send it in, and if the editor says no on that one, send them the next. I have a lot of authors where I’ve rejected one book and then bought the next one."

"Boy," I comment, "that ‘stick with it’ piece is so important. I know so many good writers who get discouraged with the first few rejection letter that they give up."

"So many times," Don says, "an author may send something to an agent and it may not be what that agent, or editor, specializes in. If an author checks his Literary Marketplace, and they will generally list all the agents and the editors and what they specialize in. So many times if an author sends something, it may be very good, but it may just be the kind of thing they don’t represent or publish, and so you get a rejection. You’re not being rejected because of the quality but because you picked the wrong agent or the wrong house. So many times it’s a question of timing, of things that are out of an author’s control. They might have a great book at just the wrong time. For a long time after September 11th we wouldn’t touch any book that had anything to do with terrorism or buildings going up in flames; it was too painful."

He then adds further insight into the importance of persistence, "I can’t tell you how many of my authors, where I’ve published a number of their books and they’re very successful, will tell me that ‘Oh, that first book I wrote, that’s sitting in a drawer. It’s never going anywhere’."

I chuckle, as I think about my own 700 page action-adventure-mystery-thriller that must never ever see the day of light.

I then ask him if he has a favorite book that he’s published—hoping of course that he’ll say it’s mine. Don thinks about this and comes back with a favorite a horror-writer named Richard Laymon.

"He was an American author," he explains, "who had initial success and then got published rather poorly, until it got to the point where he had nothing to do with any American houses. He was a bestseller in England. I’d known his work and had read his work and was thrilled to meet him at a convention. I was a fan of his work but it was completely unavailable in the United States, all of his books had gone out of print here. I talked with him for a bit, and it took a few meetings and conversations to convince him that I wasn’t trying to ruin his career, and that I liked his work and wanted ot make it available in the States. We brought his work back into print, and we even got him onto bestseller lists. I remember him telling me that he was thrilled when he went into a Waldenbooks and for the first time he could see his work on the shelves. He’d never been England, so while his books were on the bestseller lists there, he’d never seen them on the shelves. It was such a good feeling to get him some recognition in the U.S.. Sadly, it wasn’t long after that that he passed away from a heart attack."

"The right book to the right editor at the right time. Separating out this was not the right book for this person, versus it being a criticism of the writing."

"Have you always liked thrillers," Lisa asks, "or is it an acquired taste?"

"Since I was a kid. That’s one of the reasons I’ve stayed her so long and had such a good time. I’m reading books that I’ve always liked, and dealing with authors I’ve admired since I was a kid, and they’re paying me to do it. That’s pretty good."