Brian Farrey is the acquisitions editor for Flux, the young adult imprint of Llewellyn Worldwide. Prior to this role, Brian was a senior publicist at Flux. A writer, too, Brian recently earned an MFA from Hamline University.
What was your journey to becoming an editor?
Brian: Years and years and years of reading. No, really. There’s something to be said for having education and empirical experience but I think an editor’s greatest asset is everything absorbed from the intake of massive quantities of books.
My particular path was sort of accidental. My background (and bachelors degree) is in communications. When I first started working for Llewellyn Worldwide (Flux’s parent company), it was in the capacity of a publicist. I helped to launch the first publicity efforts for Flux and I worked closely with my predecessor, Andrew Karre, who really shaped Flux’s direction. But being a writer at heart, I’d always considered a career in editing. There was a point, though, when I wasn’t sure I could be an astute editor because I was afraid I’d try to impose my own writing proclivities on another writer. It was when I went back to school to get my MFA in creative writing that I realized it was possible for me to have an editor’s eye and give direction without forcing a writer to do things how I would do them. My experience in the MFA program helped me contextualize a lot of what I’d come to learn about the craft just from reading. It gave me a lot more respect for the art and honed my ability to see those diamonds in the rough.
After working on the editorial board of my school’s literary journal, I felt a lot more comfortable with my skills so when Andrew announced he was leaving, I applied for the job. So that’s my slightly skewed journey.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
Brian: Absolutely the best thing is working with the authors. I don’t feel enough is said about the author/editor relationship and what a collaboration it really is. I have friends outside “the biz” who conjure contrary images in their minds of red-pen wielding editors flogging defenseless writers within an inch of their keyboards or standoff-ish, vain writers refusing to change a single word of their precious baby. The reality is far, far sweeter. The authors I’ve worked with understand that an editor’s primary interest is in making the book as good as it can be and the editors I know simply won’t take on a project they’re not passionate about. This combination invites a collaborative relationship and when you’ve got too people sharing ideas and on the same page with where a manuscript needs to go, there’s little more exciting.
Tell us about Flux. What is unique that's in the works for you?
Brian: It would have been easy to start a new young adult imprint and default to tried and true methods to establish ourselves. But my predecessor made sure that Flux made its mark by bucking the trends a bit and experimenting, taking more risks than most upstarts might. 2009’s an especially exciting year in terms of the ways we’re branching out. We’ve got some really exciting new voices who I feel will get readers talking. In July, we’re publishing our first “hybrid” graphic novel—part prose, part graphic novel. The fall sees the release of BLACK IS FOR BEGINNINGS, a continuation of our extremely popular BLUE IS FOR NIGHTMARES series and Flux’s first full-blown graphic novel.
What are your editorial sensibilities -- e.g. when do you say to yourself -- Wow! This is a book that I need to acquire?
Brian: I’ve tried answering this question a dozen different times and I get a dozen different answers with each attempt. To be specific and vague in one fell swoop, I can say this: I look for emotional honesty. That might mean something very different to different people. For me, it means connecting on an intuitive level to the protagonist(s) and really getting what they’re saying. I find this works whether what I’m reading is comedic or dramatic, real or surreal. My emotional honesty is, by necessity, going to differ from yours. For me, it most often manifests itself in voice. To that end, I naturally gravitate towards character-driven works (but I’m a sucker for a clever plot as well).
One question on everyone's mind: the economy. How do you see the long term effect on publishing in general and your house in specific?
Brian: You’re not tossing me any softballs, are you?
Brian: Like our colleagues at other houses, Flux has taken a few lumps in regards to the economy and what’s happening across the board in publishing. Publishing has faced similar challenges before. What many people outside the industry don’t know is that the current accepted practice—that all books sold to bookstores are returnable to the publishers—was a response to the Great Depression. Now, there are those who think this is a wildly outdated practice and some of publishing’s current woes can be traced back to it but wherever you stand on the matter, I still think it demonstrates the industry’s resilience and willingness to take on new challenges. I, personally, don’t have any solutions. I’ll leave that to people with stronger business minds than my own. In many ways, I’m watching with everyone else to see what the response will be. I see some short term effects—we’ve seen a rise in e-book sales which may be linked to the hard times—but I still think it’s too early to predict what sort of long term effects are in store. The recent mass layoffs in the industry were a bandage meant to stave off the river of blood. The wound is still fresh; hard to say if it’s helping.
If you weren't an editor, what would you be?
Brian: This is where I sense the interview has somehow perverted into some sort of psychological evaluation. But I’ll play along. Given a magic wand with which to impose upon myself any successful career, and said magic wand refuses to grant me a successful career as an editor, I would most want to try my hand at being a professional writer. How so? I don’t know. Maybe a travel writer. Or a novelist. Something that would keep my mind stimulated to the point where I have no choice but to write in order to process all the burgeoning thoughts.
Failing that, I would love to work with Muppets. No, really. I gave serious thoughts to learning puppetry way back in the day.
How does your experience as a publicist influence, aid, and support your new role as acquisitions editor? How have digital tools changed and influenced book publicity? Any examples you can call out of authors who are particularly skillful with taking advantage of new media?
Brian: I’m actually surprised at how much my communications background is relevant in my new position. Just as I used to pitch books to journalists, I have to sell books to my editorial board and doing so with a publicist’s eye has been very helpful. What always gets me first is the writing and many of my colleagues respond on that base level as well. But I also need to be able to talk about a book’s sales potential: what marketing opportunities are there, how an author’s platform could be influential, how similar books on the market perform (you know…the boring stuff). Just like how a publicist will monitor the news and current events to find ways to link their book to a story, an editor is constantly keeping an eye on what’s out there, watching trends (which you hope you spot and jump on before they pass; sadly, by the time most make themselves known, it’s too late).
There are a couple ways to look at how digital tools have reshaped book publicity. In one regard, e-mail has made it easier for publicists to reach a broader range of venues. Easier to query, easier way to deliver requested materials. In other regards, enterprising authors have a new outlet for reaching potential readers. Personally, I’m skeptical about the advent of book trailers and their correlation to sales but the internet remains the hot new way to promote yourself…the trick, as always, is finding a way to stand out.
I think one of the best internet marketers I know is Amy King (aka A.S. King, author of THE DUST OF 100 DOGS). Amy really gets how to use the internet to sell herself. She didn’t just throw up a blog and expect the world to beat a path to her door. She knows how to network. She’s the sort of shameless self-promoter who knows that she will always be the best advocate for her own work and she’s not afraid to meet new people and try new things in the role of that advocate. She does it exceptionally well in cyberspace and in person. What do they call it when they jab a pipe into a maple tree to drain the sap out? That’s what I want to do to her so I can share her amazing ability to balance her online marketing skills with her personal marketing skills (of note: if I did that to Amy, it would be in a kind and humane way).
You are also a writer yourself, and recently completed an MFA program. Within the 2k9 group, there are people who have done MFA programs and others who haven't -- much like the larger world of writers, I imagine. What were some of the benefits and advantages of working on your writing through an MFA program? What were some of the best things you gained through your program? Would you recommend pursuing one -- and what about for someone who has published a first book?
Brian: I guess the first thing I have to say about anyone considering an MFA program is to really consider why you want to go. Some people tend to think it’s the fast/easy way to publication but I do know several authors with published books who’ve gone for their MFA. They studied to gain a deeper understanding of the craft, which I think is the best reason. It’s not for everyone. It’s a lot of work and extremely challenging but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.
One of the things the MFA program did for me was open my eyes. It was a SERIOUS wake-up call, a sort of shock-and-awe approach to learning how to write. I was blessed to work with some really great writers who fed me a diet of fantastic works that I might not otherwise have sought out. Being exposed to all these different approaches and techniques to writing was perhaps the greatest benefit I got. It not only exposed me to new possibilities but also forced me to consider how I might explore those possibilities in my own writing. Depending on the program you choose (and I would urge anyone considering a program to investigate as many as possible and apply to a program that best suits you), it can be a wonderful place to experiment without fear of failure and really explore what you’re capable of.
Thank you, Brian, for taking the time to answer our tough questions!