Tom Colgan is an Executive Editor at Penguin USA, and has worked in the publishing industry for 25 years.
During which time he has edited some of the biggest selling authors in the world, and is now one of the most respected names in the entire industry.
Founded in 1935 by Sir Allen Lane, Penguin built their reputation by publishing inexpensive paperbacks, with an initial series of just ten titles.
Now known as The Original Ten, first editions have become scarce and consequently much sought after.
Throughout the subsequent years they have acquired and merged with many fellow competitors, and have recently celebrated their 75th year of publishing.
So working in the editorial department of this Big Six publishing powerhouse is an extremely demanding job. Especially in light of the fact that Tom Colgan has now been reading submissions for the last quarter of a century.
His particular areas of interest are General Fiction, Mysteries, Thrillers, and Military Fiction. He is also keen on well written Non-Fiction.
Tom is based in New York City, but continues to travel to conferences across the US.
He has also recently joined the Twitter revolution. So make sure to follow him by clicking the button at the end of this interview.
What books from your childhood initiated your early love for reading?
There were a number of books that I remember fondly. The very first book that I read from cover to cover was actually a collection of Peanuts cartoons. I don’t know if that counts. Still without a doubt the first book that actually transported me to another world and showed me the magic of reading was Johnny Tremain. It’s a classic young adult book about a adolescent boy in Revolutionary Boston who is at the center of events during the war. It’s amazing!
Can you remember any instance of reading a book later on in which you found yourself inadvertently editing words from a sentence to improve the reading experience?
One of the great downsides of my job is that I so rarely get the chance to read for fun. When I do, I can’t remember ever thinking “The word ‘phenomenal’ would work better here than the word ‘terrific.’ ” However, I do sometimes think of ways to change the plot or a better use for a specific character.
When did you first develop an ambition to be part of the publishing industry? And did you set your sights on one particular role?
Although I loved to read from fairly early in grammar school on, I never thought much about the process of producing books. It was only in college that I got involved working on the yearbook, the literary magazine and the humor magazine. That was the first time that I started thinking, “Hey this could be a fun way to make a living.”
After graduation a friend got a job in the marketing department of Berkley and she told me about an opening in their operations department, those are the people who handle inventory and fulfillment. I applied, but, fortunately, I was directed to a different position as the assistant to the publisher. That was a MUCH better fit for me. It was only while I worked in that position that I realized I wanted to be an editor. I hadn’t really thought that specifically about my career before then.
You have been part of the industry for a quarter of a century now, and have watched numerous publishing houses perish, what lessons did yourselves at Penguin learn during these years?
Good writing sells. That’s been true from Daniel DeFoe to Danielle Steele.
What aspects of the current publishing industry have improved from your early years? And which areas do you feel have suffered in the midst of the new technology?
Oh my gosh, so much has changed that it’s hard to remember what it was like in the mid ‘80’s. Obviously, the computer has changed everything. In 1985 there were no electronic submissions, no email(!), lots of whiteout use. If you wanted sales figures for a book you had to submit a form to the operations department and they would get the information back to you in less than a day!
Going home on weekends with a bag full of submissions was torture. I remember weighing my bag one weekend and it weighed 18 pounds. It would have made for a great workout, but I only carry my bag on my right shoulder so I risked ending up looking lopsided.
The only thing that I regret about the current environment is lack of design in ebooks. That is a completely underrated aspect of a book’s appeal.
Approximately how many manuscripts have you read during your publishing career?
Thousands? Tens of thousands? I really don’t know.
What was your first acquisation as an editor? And what changes did you work on with the author before publication?
I’m sorry, but I don’t remember my first acquisition. Kind of ruins the romance of publishing, doesn’t it?
Could you describe your daily duties and responsibilities as an Executive Editor?
I’m the in-house advocate for my books and my authors from the day that we first buy them until the day the author takes the rights back. During the day, I deal with any number of issues, from participating in a cover conference, to presenting the book to the sales department, to answering questions from agent or author, to anything else that comes up. The thing that surprises most people is that the one thing I almost never do at work is read. Actual editing is best left for after hours or weekends. There’s just no time during the day to sit down and concentrate on plot and characters.
Can you tell us a little more about the authors you have worked with, and how their approach to collaborating with an editor differs?
I don’t want to talk about specific authors. It’s not doctor/patient privilege or lawyer/client, but I’m uncomfortable speaking about details. I will say that the level of collaboration varies from author to author. In some instances, you’re dealing with an author who is writing book #10 of a successful series. In many of those cases, the author knows more about what makes the books work than you do. On the other hand, sometime you’re working with someone who needs real help with the plot or characters or dialogue. In those cases, it’s a real treat to discuss the book with the author. It’s like I have my very own readers’ group.
When did you last read an unsolicited manuscript that you made an offer on?
About a year ago.
Do you still prefer hard copy submissions?
No. I absolutely prefer electronic submissions. I believe that all of my colleagues feel the same, but I haven’t really polled them.
What correspondence do you prefer to use when you reject a submission?
I usually send an email with a general (not generic) reason for rejection. In very rare cases, I will be more specific, but I’m very leery of giving an author the impression that I’m asking them to change their book. That shouldn’t happen until there’s money on the table.
Why do you feel a writer should seek publication with a tradtional publisher, and ignore the temptation to self-publish?
I don’t think all writers should seek publication with a traditional publisher. Some are clearly going to benefit from self-publishing either because their writing isn’t what a traditional publisher is looking for or they are master marketers. However, there are clear advantages to accessing the talent of a traditional publisher. Art, promotion, publicity, editorial—they are all working to make your book the best it can be.
Of course, self-published authors will say that they hire very good people to do that work for them, and that’s certainly true. Many of my former colleagues are now working freelance. However, by the very nature of what they are doing, they are going to give the author what he or she wants. A traditional publisher will give your book what it needs. We’re not always right, but when it comes to designing a cover that sells, I’ll take our art directors over me and almost all of my authors.
What advice would you offer (i) those seeking publication? and (ii) those wishing to work in publishing itself?
If you’re seeking publication, you need to sit down and write the best book that you can in the area that you find most compelling. DON’T WORRY ABOUT THE MARKET. Chasing the market is the worst mistake an author can make. Write a good, authentic book and the market will come to you.
If you want to work in publishing, don’t make any typos on your resume.
If you could pick one author from history to write your biography, who would it be? And why?
That’s a really good question. Maybe Hemingway, it would be a nice break for him to write about a milquetoast for once.