Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Publisher Interview: Evelyn Fazio on WestSide Books

Evelyn Fazio has 28 years of publishing experience and has worked at Simon & Schuster/Prentice-Hall, Random House, Marshall Cavendish, and M.E. Sharpe. A former Vice President of E-Content Acquisitions for Baker & Taylor, she has also been a full-time literary agent and has co-authored seven nonfiction books.

Ms. Fazio became publisher of WestSide Books in 2006, and she is also publisher of the Everbind Anthology series. Learn more about WestSide Books.

What kind of young reader were you?

I was omnivorous. I read everything and anything, starting with Golden Books, to the usual library books, to comic books and even cereal boxes if there was nothing else around.

I also haunted the local bookstore's kid’s section and was always asking my mother for new books.

I'm still haunting bookstores, so I guess some things never change, except my independent bookstore is gone, and there's a huge Barnes & Noble not far away at one of the malls.

What inspired you to make children's-YA literature your career focus?

That's a good question. I've actually worked in a lot of different areas of publishing, from professional books for teachers (because I taught high school for two years), to college textbooks, to library series for middle grade kids, to multi-volume library reference works for high schools.

As for the YA literature focus, I always liked and read fiction, but hadn't worked with YA fiction before. When the opportunity arose to help start WestSide as publisher, I began reading as many of the award-winning and best-selling YA novels I could get, and I absolutely fell in love with the books.

How about children's-YA publishing more specifically?

The thing that pulled me in so deeply into YA literature was that the books are so good.

The writing is strong, and the plots are focused and tight. They have to get to the point to keep the reader's interest. There are a lot of distractions in the world that can pull YA readers away from novels. So these books have to be really good and keep them turning the pages.

Working with YA fiction for teenagers allows me to read a large number of really well written books (a lot better than adult fiction sometimes) and to help make them even better.

The other thing that makes it so great is the authors. They're wonderful to work with, really smart, and appreciative of the work that goes into editing their novels. What more could a publisher want?

What does a publisher do?

A publisher does a lot of things.

First is to have a clear concept of what a list will look like, what kinds of books belong on it. That's the great advantage of starting up a company and forming a new list. It's a clean slate, and it's an opportunity to create something unique. It's really fun.

There's also a lot of communication that has to take place, both inside the house and with the outside world, to make sure that everyone understands what the house is doing, what kinds of books will be published here.

Next comes the look and feel of the logo, the catalog, and the website. It all has to work and fit together. A publisher also has to ensure that the right books are published, books that fit the concept of what the company intends to do, and fit with the overall goals of the company.

That means looking at a lot of queries from agents and writers, then deciding which novels will fit conceptually. Then, once the potential books are identified, it involves reading a lot of material, from the synopsis and writing sample to the full manuscript.

That's important because if the plot doesn't make sense or the writing isn't strong enough, the book isn't going to hold our readers' attention.

It's up to the publisher to set the tone for the whole line or company, to keep the quality of the books at the highest possible level, and then make sure that the whole package works together.

Every piece of cover art, every line of catalog or jacket or Web copy all has to be exactly right.

Then there are the many other pieces that have to fit together, and all the coordination with marketing and sales, and the production aspects of getting the books out in the best shape possible.

What are the job's challenges?

See the previous paragraph.

But seriously, the first and foremost challenge is finding the right manuscripts.

Next comes reading and then buying the ones we decide we want.

There's competition among houses, and we have to convince the writer and the agent, if there is one, that we’re the right house for the book.

And then there's editing each novel, and keeping everything on schedule.

I'm a hands-on publisher, and since we’re a small house, I edit the novels myself, which I really enjoy. You'd be surprised how real these characters start to become after a while.

What are its rewards?

The rewards are numerous.

First, helping to shape a good book into an even better one is very satisfying. And finding a great cover illustration—the right one—is a challenge. But when it happens, it's really gratifying.

The illustrators are also wonderful to work with, and many of them read the novels before they start working on a cover illustration.

It's also really rewarding when the author is pleased with the editing, the design, the cover and all the other pieces, especially when we have to come up with a new title for a novel. That can be a long process, but once we get there, it's a great feeling.

It'll also be fantastic when the books come out and are well received in the market, when people tell us that they like the line and enjoy reading the books. That's very rewarding, too.

What was the inspiration behind WestSide Books?

The inspiration was a successful list that was started in our sister company. Once management saw that the other new list was working, the decision was made to venture into YA fiction.

What is the house's philosophy?

It's to publish great, edgy, realistic books for teenagers, ones that will reflect the world that they live in.

We want to publish books about regular teenagers, like kids we all know, who are going through challenges in their lives, dealing with things like family issues, divorce, abuse, alcoholism, racism, poverty, date rape, teen suicide, and all the other teen issues they deal with every day.

But even though the books focus on serious issues, they're full of life and humor, and they're fun, and touching.

What attracted you to the company?

I love the challenge of a start-up, especially when it's something different and new.

When I met the senior managers and heard about what they wanted to do, I had a feeling we'd all work well together. I saw that there'd be a great synergy with other parts of the organization, especially with our sister company, Everbind Books, which is a 30-year old, successful company that sells pre-binds into English classes in all 50 states via their own sales force.

It's important to get YA books into schools, and this company has the know-how and the people make it happen.

What makes WestSide special, different from other houses?

We have a very specific focus and target audience, and we are working strictly on realistic books for and about teenagers.

We're not going to publish chick lit, fantasy or sci fi, and we're not planning to publish series.

We also want to publish books that will interest teenage boys and resonate with them as readers because we keep hearing that the reason they don't read is that there aren't enough good books that interest them. We want to help do something about that.

Will you be taking submissions from agents, from writers directly, or both?

Definitely both.

Over the course of your career what are the most significant changes you've seen in the field of publishing books for young readers?

I think the biggest change is that the category of YA exists. This is a relatively recent development. They used to either be children's books or adult.

The other big change is that the books are getting edgier all the time. That wasn't always the case, but sensibilities change over time.

What do you do outside of the publishing world?

Oh, that's a big question. I go to the theater a lot and love movies, concerts, and of course, I read!

I enjoy doing a lot of the great things that are available in NYC, and go in frequently because it's so close.

I have a lot of good friends all over the place, so I spend time trying to see everyone and keep in contact.

I also have a big extended Italian family (I have over 30 first cousins), and I like sports like baseball and football, and go to local games when I can. (I don't play, though, because I've injured my knees and ankles too many times.)

And one of the greatest advantages of working in publishing for a long time is the people you get to work with, including both colleagues and authors. These are smart, articulate and funny people, and they're great company.

Many of them have become lifelong friends, and I'm very fortunate to have so many. The people you get to work with are one of the best things about working in publishing.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

I have thousands of books in my home, and my dining room has an entire wall of books, from the floor to the ceiling.

The space was probably designed to hold a breakfront or some other piece of furniture, but I had a wall-size bookcase built in to the spot. I have at least six large bookcases, many built in, and I wish there were room for a few more!

There are also stacks of manuscripts that move between the office and home, as I read them.

I have to use binder clips to hold them, though, instead of rubber bands, because otherwise my cat uses them as dental floss, and it's hard to concentrate with that twanging sound of the rubber band stretching.

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