Tuesday, February 22, 2011

S - Interview with Covenant Communications Senior Editor, Kirk L. Shaw

Kirk L. Shaw is senior editor for Covenant Communications. He has also done work for Boston publisher David R. Godine, Northwestern University Press, and the scientific journal Western North American Naturalist. During his career, he has produced and edited fiction (in most genres), memoirs, historical, art, gardening, gift, technical, scientific, scholarly, creative nonfiction, and other nonfiction. He enjoys writing short stories and especially relishes reading speculative fiction, historical and suspense novels, young adult, post-apocalyptic, and dystopia novels. He is looking for good suspense, historical, romance, adventure, and other fiction.

Deirdra: What made you decide a career in the literary world?

Kirk: I love books. Always have. Always will. For me, going into publishing was something that hit me as I was seriously preparing for law school. It's like those couples who know each other their whole lives, are best friends, and finally realize, "Why haven't we gotten together before now. It just makes sense." That's how it hit me. Books have always been there for me--have fueled the story of my life--why shouldn't I jump right in? I've never looked back.

Deirdra: If someone wanted to become an editor for a publisher what kind of education would they need and what advice would you give them?

Kirk: It really depends on a person's interest. Publishing/editing is a vast, multidisciplinary field. My main interest is in fiction, even though I read and edit a lot of nonfiction, too. I would break down the main categories of publishing and editing into these:

1. Trade fiction/nonfiction publishing: This comprises your NYT bestsellers and most of what you find in your local Barnes & Noble.
2. Textbook and educational publishing: This is a vast field and is constantly expanding with new technological applications and content generation.
3. Scholarly publishing: Different from textbook/educational in many ways, this publishing includes university press work and is focused more on creating books to contribute to humanity and knowledge as a whole, even if the subject is esoteric. This field also includes the lucrative journal market.
4. Corporate communications and publishing: This branch can be higher paying than the other fields at times. It focuses a lot on marketing, branding, interdepartmental communication. Creating the "voice" for a company. Like in textbook publishing, there are a lot of jobs here, and I would wager a bet that most editors find their homes here.

I would recommend a potential editor try to get internships in his or her interest as early as late high school and early college/university and continue to work with publishing-related internships for their entire university education. Again, you could major in myriad degrees and still be an editor: medicine, law, business, languages, history . . . Sometimes universities will have outlets to gain more editing experience: writing fellowships, editorial minors, etc. I'd also recommend picking up some electronic publishing classes if at all possible. That is one direction publishing is headed toward, and it's infinitely useful to have experience in HTML, typesetting (primary InDesign, these days), Dreamweaver, Microsoft Office (and electronic editing), etc.

Something to bear in mind is that the first two of those four categories are primarily based out of New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and L.A. (with limited options elsewhere), whereas the other two have options all over. Also, editing is very auspicious for freelance work.

Deirdra: How many manuscripts on average do you receive each year?

Kirk: Somewhere in the ballpark of one to two thousand.

Deirdra: How many new books do you publish each year?

Kirk: We publish about 30 to 35 fiction titles a year, with an additional 15-20 nonfiction titles, and a number of children's books and derivative projects.

Deirdra: On average how many new authors do you take on as clients each year?

Kirk: This is a guess, but I'd say around a dozen. But that doesn't mean we publish them all in the same year they're accepted. Usually it's one to two years from acceptance that a book is published by a new author in our market.

Deirdra: Is there a specific genre your company is looking for?

Kirk: We're looking for good fiction and nonfiction in a variety of genres and topics.

Deirdra: Is there any genre that is flooded or not in high demand for publication?

Kirk: Young adult and middle-grade, to the tenth degree (in our market, at least). That doesn't mean we don't still do it; it just forces us to be selective. We're actually doing an amazing new MG series by Julie Wright and Kevin Wasden, fully illustrated, and sci-fi to boot. Check out Hazzardous Universe this March. (I'm done with my shameless plug.)

Deirdra: What is the worst mistake authors make on a query letter?

Kirk: It happens before the query letter is ever written. Many authors don't do their research on whether a publisher would be remotely interested in the topic of their book. Authors need to take the time to read books from the prospective publisher--or at the very least read their catalog--and know whether the publisher is a good fit for them. I definitely don't want to see a book on Zen or the New York Giants submitted to me. It's just a waste of time and postage.

Deirdra: Do you prefer to find your authors through query letters, live pitches or as references from other authors or agents?

Kirk: All of the above. I personally have had my best luck through pitches/networking and from referrals from authors.

Deirdra: What advice would you have to someone aspiring to become an author?

Kirk: Write what you love and are passionate about--not what you think is the latest trend or will be the next trend (unless you're passionate about that trend). I've seen too many people think they're getting into writing for the money. It's not about the money. If authors wanted to make money, they'd get into stocks trading, business, medicine, technology. If they want to write amazing stories, then they're in the right industry.

Deirdra: What advice would you have to someone aspiring to become an editor?

Kirk: In addition to what I said earlier, I would tell new editors to focus on building long-term, enjoyable professional relationships with authors and agents. Those two groups of people are your compatriots in the book-making business, and you want to treat them like gold. Learn to negotiate revisions, contracts, etc., with fairness and win-win compromise, and what you will end up with is a group of highly talented people who enjoy working with you and who will bend over backwards to make some amazing books. There are a gazillion other things I could recommend, but they all stem from this primary focus.

Deirdra: What is the best time of year to query a publisher?

Kirk: April Fool's Day. By far.

Deirdra: What? Are you serious?

Kirk: Absolutely serious about April Fool's Day. ;)

Deirdra: What’s the best part of your job?

Kirk: I enjoy people, and working with authors and their creative stories is very rewarding. I get to read stories for a living and brainstorm with some of the greatest minds I have the privilege to know. Who could ask for more?

Deirdra: What advice do you have for authors who will be doing a live pitch to an agent or editor this year?

Kirk: Enjoy yourself. Stay calm. Wear those lucky zebra-print high heels if it helps. If the agent/editor has read a sample before the pitch, come prepared to talk about it and answer questions. If he/she hasn't, then come prepared to give a concise, short pitch of the project, talk about the "hook" or unique marketing slant for the book, and be sure to talk a little bit about your relevant background--what might help you sell this series (you used to be a spelunker, and your book takes place in a cave). Above all. Above all. Don't be defensive if the agent/editor gives you advice on your story. In pitches I do with authors, I want to make the most of their time with me, and so after we cover the basics, I give them feedback on their writing, recommend possible revisions (usually with the concept or overall story or plot), and possibly talk about other projects they're interested in writing (to help them prioritize what sounds like the most promising story to take on next). Very rarely I have had one or two authors who are rude and defensive even for the most tactful suggestions. Don't be this way--especially since it's entirely up to you what you decide on any revisions. Be polite even if the editor's/agent's advice is appalling to the heart and soul of your story. One final piece of advice is to take advantage of the window of opportunity--get your story in to the editor as soon as possible if it's requested. Reference the pitch session on your cover letter and bring up something about you that the agent would remember (I'm the author with the zebra-print high heels).

Deirdra: What is something that not everyone knows about you?

Kirk: I'm big into music--almost majored in vocal performance. I like to sing opera, classic rock, Latin, you name it. I also play the trumpet, piano, and guitar.

Deirdra: When you’re not at the office how do you enjoy spending your time?

Kirk: I enjoy reading, especially speculative fiction but definitely not exclusively. I love spending time with my kids, building Legos, playing games. I watch a few spy TV shows. I serve in the community. I enjoy gaming. I like trying new restaurants, and I've been on a sushi kick this past year; also have always loved barbecue, especially the Tennesse dry-rub variety. I enjoy traveling.

Deirdra: Any final words or advice you would like to share?
Kirk: Good luck to everyone out there who's trying to get published. Remember, it's worth taking the time and money to get published well rather than running down to Kinko's just to have a printed work with your name on it.

Thank you so much, Kirk. Its great to get an inside look into all the hard work you do.


  1. Great interview, and fun to get to know Kirk a little better.

  2. Lots of good advice to take away from that interview. Thanks for posting it.

  3. Thank you for the interview. Lots of good information. Enjoyed it.

  4. Fantastic interview. Who knew he could sing and play those instruments? Maybe he could be our entertainment at our conference. :)

    Great advice. Thanks for posting this interview.

  5. I hope all editors are as happy as Kirk! Great interview, Deirdra, and thanks to Kirk for helpful instruction and guidance.

  6. Excellent information. Great interview!

  7. Excellent, informative interview. And I LOVE your beautiful blog site! Wow! What a wonderful design!

  8. Thanks for the advice. I've been a little nervous about my first pitch session. This helps a lot!

  9. Great interview and may I brag a bit? Kirk is MY editor. I love working with him.

  10. One day Kirk is going to be MY editor, too! *crossing fingers* I didn't know there were so many directions to go with editing. I also thought it was cool about his passion for music. Maybe I have more in common with him than originally thought. Thanks to both of you for sharing.

  11. Deirdra, thank you so much for interviewing Kirk! *hugs*

    ~Elizabeth :)

  12. I liked this so well I tweeted and facebooked it. Thanks for sharing all this information with us Kirk and Diedre.

  13. It was wonderful to know what a publisher (especially THIS one) is looking for--especially in a pitch session! It also helped to get to know a little about him as a "person" so it doesn't seem so scary. I was very interested in the volume (w/ actual numbers) of submissions and acceptances they receive a year.

  14. What a fantastic interview, Deirdre! This is great advice and info from Kirk, and it will be great to hear from him at the ANWA Conference in Phoenix next month. What a cool guy.
    I think I'll post a link to this on my blog!

  15. Awesome interview, Deirdre! Thanks to both of you. I'll be pitching to Kirk this weekend and found this interview SO helpful. :)


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