I’m excited to be doing something different this month, and that’s talking to people who are doing interesting new things in the book publishing business.
We all know that book publishing is going through a time of tremendous change, as are all media industries: newspapers and magazines, movies, television. As digitalization and mobility change how content is produced and delivered, long-standing business models are being blown up, re-imagined, and torn apart again as the reinvention cycle becomes more and more compressed.
On top of that, a lot of people are re-evaluating what it means to have a fulfilling and meaningful life, particularly when it comes to work. Technology is making it possible for more people to rethink their jobs or to reshape their careers entirely, whether it’s working from home or an entirely different part of the country, or finding an audience or a market that would’ve been unthinkable ten years ago without the kind of resources that were out of the average person’s reach.
It might be a good time to contemplate a radical change in your own life.
In December, I’m going to talk to people who are doing just that, pursuing their interests on their terms, and I hope you’ll be inspired by their stories to think about making your life more creative, more satisfying or more fun.
I’m starting this series with a look at Paper Lantern Lit, a literary development company founded by Lexa Hillyer and Lauren Oliver. Now granted, I’m new to the publishing business, but what they’re doing seemed sort of novel to me: coming up with ideas for stories, then finding the right author to bring the story to life, with their guidance. They’re able to use the storytelling skills and instincts they developed while working as editors at major New York City publishing houses—and Lauren’s own experience as a bestselling author—to nurture young writers and bring these story ideas to life.
Elizabeth Miles (whose name has appeared in this blog once or twice—heck, three times, if you’re counting) is one of PLL’s authors. I am a big fan of her YA novel FURY and was intrigued when I learned of the PLL connection. Elizabeth kindly approached Lexa about talking to me about PLL, and answers some questions herself about being a PLL author.
With the publishing industry undergoing revolutionary change, people are looking for new ways to do business, ways that make sense and bridge the best of what’s new with what’s working now. Paper Lantern Lit certainly has a lot of people in the industry talking. As a matter of fact, they were just interviewed by Business Week, which you can read here.
What gave you the idea to start PLL? For a lot of people, it comes with a change in life circumstances—starting a family, needing to move to a new location, finding a work/life balance—which in and of itself is a characteristic of the way the business world is changing. Was this the case for you? Or was it the lure of entrepreneurship?
LEXA: The idea for PLL came about organically between myself and my business partner, author Lauren Oliver. We’d been friends for awhile and used to work together at Penguin as editors. The company really emerged from our mutual desire to do something even more creative and challenging with our lives. We both felt we had a special talent for formulating and plotting good stories, and recognized a need for those skills in the publishing landscape. We wanted to build a company that would allow us to do just that, all day long, on our own terms, in the hope of providing a valuable service both to writers and to publishers. To be honest, I’m not sure either of us truly thought of ourselves as entrepreneurs, until we got started. As our vision for the company grew, so did our sense of what we could truly accomplish on our own. It was exhilarating. It still is!
How did you come up with the model for PLL? Is it because you guys are story machines? To be clear, PLL comes up with the ideas for the story and finds the writer who will be the best match, correct? Can you talk a little about that process—how do you come up with the ideas for your books? How do you decide which ones to pursue?
Such great questions! Yes, you are correct in that our focus is generating ideas (or “sparks”) and expanding them into detailed plot outlines, while searching the world for the most impressive, poignant, engaging, fresh writers who are in need of direction, in need of a home—in a need of the right project! We really do like to think of ourselves as matchmakers. We aren’t just looking to “hire” an author. We’re looking to pair a voice with a spark, and ignite a perfect union between the two! And yes, our model really evolved out of what made most sense according to what we can offer the world, and we try our best to keep our model clear and simple. We know that when it comes to ideas, there can be a lot of anxiety and warring over ownership. But our belief is that there truly are infinite good ideas, and the magic comes in how you execute them. So our attitude is inherently not one of possessiveness. Our approach demands passion and hard work, instead, to make sure each project gets the attention it needs at all stages of the process. Ultimately, there are some sparks that fizzle out before they see the light of day, and that’s perfectly fine. We have to treat each project on its own terms and we rarely have to decide which ones to pursue and which to drop—if you listen, the story will tell you what it needs. Sometimes it needs to go into hiding for awhile. Sometimes it has its own momentum and you just have to keep up!
Oh and to answer your question about how we come up with the ideas, that’s fairly organic, too. We do have one or two brainstorming sessions per year, where we bring in ideas, images, and concepts that excite or intrigue us—we throw the ideas into a mixing pot and see what happens. Usually some great things emerge. But we also try to let our lives be open to constant inspiration. Sometimes it’s an article in the paper or a conversation with a friend or a piece of art that sparks our imaginations. As a creative company, we put a high premium on structuring our own work weeks so that there’s always room to have those spontaneous moments of inspiration.
Can you tell us a little how PLL differs from a book packager?
Yes, you’ll notice we call ourselves literary developers, rather than packagers. While the distinction may seem subtle, it’s incredibly important to us. We consider it one of our greatest values to nurture new talent, and so we are not simply using writers to churn out a final product, as with some other packagers—we’re more process-oriented than that. We’re really aiming to help cultivate and develop our writers’ voices. Both Lauren and I have MFAs in creative writing, and we generally give notes and feedback to our writers on a weekly basis. We truly provide an editorial “home” for these authors while they hone their craft and get their professional careers off the ground.
PLL seems to offer a wonderful start for authors: the ability to work on their storytelling skills with professionals in the business. You’ve described it as “a paid MFA” but it seems like more than that to me, sort of MFA + real-world experience. Could this be one model for the future, a step in-between trying to do it all on your own and traditional publishing? (For writers with the right mix of talent and willingness to work hard?) Or, if this question makes more sense: where do you see PLL on the publishing spectrum?
Yes, I absolutely see PLL as just that—a bridge between academia and industry. In school, the premium is on creating the best sentence, the most fully-rounded character, the best prose you can have. Rarely is there a major focus on finishing a book. Rarely is there a bare-bones approach to the craft of plotting. And even more rare are the discussions about what’s relevant to readers now. That’s all stuff one must learn slowly in the real world, the hard way. So that’s where PLL comes in. We bring that market awareness and industry savvy, in addition to the attention to prose, character and individualized voices.
I find there’s sometimes a lot of fear in academia when it comes to the publishing industry. Writers are terrified of signing contracts and are told horror stories about losing all control over their work. But mostly when you look around at the publishing world, it’s a lot less scary than that. Yes, there are risks, and rights that must be negotiated, and so on. But ultimately it’s a business transaction among people who all just want to make some kind of living doing what they love. So, it’s important to me to get that message across.
Can you talk about what’s next for PLL?
Well, that’s up in the air! We have a relationship with Fox 2000, a film studio we greatly admire for their love of books. So of course we’re very hopeful that there will be developments on the west coast for us sometime soon. And we’re constantly meeting with other young companies we admire, and exploring how we can adopt to the constantly shifting publishing landscape. We want to be diverse and dynamic—we never want to become bored or complacent. We love collaborating with others, and we may launch a charitable portion of the company next year—stay tuned for details on that! Ultimately, though, our emphasis will always be on quality over quantity, and our focus will always be on creating wonderful content and great relationships.
Elizabeth, would it be possible to talk about what it’s like to work with PLL? Can you step us through the process for FURY? As the writer, are you given a general idea for the story [the plot] and it’s up to you to develop the characters, setting, sub-plots and the rest of the story magic?
Once I was “matched” with my story (it was clear from the beginning that I was “auditioning” for PLL’s horror/paranormal project), I received an outline for Book One from Lauren and Lexa. We spoke about my wanting to set the book in Maine — having gone to college in Boston, and now living in Portland, Maine, I’m very familiar with the “New England aesthetic” and I wanted to explore that in Fury. Working off the outline, I sent a few chapters a week to Lexa, my PLL editor. She responded with helpful notes, and I revised in larger chunks. The character development, sense of place, and general tone/voice of the book are all very much mine...I like your term “story magic.” I had some raw talent and working with PLL helped me — a first-time fiction writer — learn quickly about both the craft and the industry. For Book Two (Envy, which comes out next year), the process was similar but there was a bit more collaboration in terms of establishing background, plot points, and the general direction of the story.
What interested you in working with PLL?
I’m a journalist by day, and I studied non-fiction writing in college. But I’ve always loved reading fiction and I’ve always wondered about what it would take to have me strike out in that direction. Certainly the fact that Lauren and I are old friends helped nudge me along...but more than that, I think I was looking for a new challenge, a new outlet for my creativity, and a chance to connect with an entirely different type of reader. However, as a workaholic with precisely zero idea of how the publishing world worked, I would never have taken the plunge were it not for the support and safety net of the PLL model. I found Lauren and Lexa to be both professional and approachable, and while navigating the financial aspect of things can be tricky (especially when working with friends!), I feel like they’ve been both up-front and fair from the beginning.
What happens next for you as a writer? Do you have a five-year plan? Do you see yourself continuing with PLL or striking out on your own, or a mix?
What happens next for me as a writer...Well, I’m writing about campaign finance for next week’s paper, and groundfishing permits for the week after that; I’ll start working on Book Three of the Fury series soon — oh, wait, you’re talking more long-term? Ha. I have a lot on my plate and it’s hard for me to think that far ahead. That said, the easy answer to “Will I write more fiction?” is: Yes, I believe I will. I’m not sure how or when, under what auspices, whether it will be for young adults, adults, kids, aliens...But I’ve caught the bug now. And, what Lauren and Lexa say about PLL being akin to an MFA bootcamp isn’t far off. I feel like I have a solid foundation on which to build. Overall, I feel very fortunate to have had this experience.
Visit PLL’s website and see their lovely logo
Visit Elizabeth’s website
Visit PLL’s website for The Fury series
GIVEAWAY: Leave a comment below by December 19th and be entered to win a signed ARC of Lauren Oliver’s LIESL & PO which I snagged totally by happenstance at BEA in May.