Transcript: An Interview with Kat Brzozowski

This is a lightly edited transcript of an interview between Mignon Fogarty and Kat Brzozowski for the Grammar Girl podcast. Listen here.

Mignon Fogarty: Grammar Girl here. I'm Mignon Fogarty, and you can think of me as your friendly guide to the English language. Writing, history, rules, and cool stuff. Today, I have some of that cool stuff because I'm talking here with Kat Brzozowski. Kat is a senior editor at Swoon Reads, which is an imprint of Macmillan. She's written some great segments about fiction writing for the podcast before, like how to craft a strong voice, how to write great dialogue, and how to write dual points of view.

Mignon Fogarty: So, I thought in honor of National Novel Writing Month, it'd be fun to bring her on the show this year, to talk about the behind-the-scenes activities at a publishing house. Like, the different types of editing that can happen, and how ready a book really needs to be, to be acquired.

Mignon Fogarty: Thanks for being here today, Kat.

Kat Brzozowski: Thank you so much for having me.

Mignon Fogarty: You bet!

Mignon Fogarty: First, why don't you tell our listeners a little bit about the company you work for, Swoon Reads?

Kat Brzozowski: Yeah. What I love about Swoon Reads is it's a place where people can upload their YA manuscript, and we choose manuscripts to publish based on the feedback from other readers and writers on our site. So, anyone can go on and make and account, and start reading right away for free. There's hundreds of manuscripts you can read, across all genres of YA, from romance, to mystery, to horror, to thrillers. There's really something for everybody.

Kat Brzozowski: We pick the best ones to publish, based on what the readers on the site love, and what people at our company love as well. We publish them, usually, in hardcover. They're published like another Macmillan book, but with the added bonus of having real readers chiming in, and saying what they love.

Mignon Fogarty: Oh, that's -

Kat Brzozowski: So, it has a lot of user participation, which we adore. We get to find out what readers like about the book, and we even use that as part of our editorial process.

Mignon Fogarty: Oh, that's really cool. So, is it all YA?

Kat Brzozowski: It's all YA. It's everything, every kind of YA you could dream up. We have werewolf books, we have enemies to lovers, we have great capers, stuff that's really scary. Any genre of YA, we publish it.

Mignon Fogarty: Okay. Does anything ever come through agents, or is it all through your website?

Kat Brzozowski: Everything is submitted to Swoon Reads. Sometimes the author will have an agent when they've submitted, but everything comes as a submission through the Swoon Reads website.

Mignon Fogarty: Okay. Do the reader comments, or up votes, or things like that, determine which books you look at, or decide to acquire?

Kat Brzozowski: Definitely. We take that all into account when we look at books to acquire. We also have readers in-house that will guide us to what they love. We have people reading every day, hundreds of manuscripts over the course of the year, and telling us what they love from all different departments. It could be someone in subsidiary rights, it could be a publicity assistant, or a designer, also telling us what they love. We look at all of that, and really getting input from all sources, people who love YA that work here, and people all over the world who read on the site.

Mignon Fogarty: Oh, neat. I didn't know all that. About how many books are submitted each year then? About how many do you actually publish?

Kat Brzozowski: So, I think at this point, there are about 600 manuscripts on the site, which is great. It might be a few shy of that, but I think it's around 600. Then, we've published a range. I think last year, we had about 25 come out.

Kat Brzozowski: We have a lot of books coming out every year, across all genres. Of course, we have authors we've worked with that came through Swoon Reads, but we've acquired their next book afterwards. You don't have to put a second or third book on the site. Once you're a Swoon Reads author, it goes through a more traditional acquisition process.

Mignon Fogarty: Oh, okay. That makes sense. So, given that November is National Novel Writing Month, I imagine you see a lot of new submissions in December from writers who are excited to have a completed manuscript in hand, for the first time. I know I'd be excited if I had that.

Kat Brzozowski: Definitely.

Mignon Fogarty: Is there a number one problem you see in submissions? The one thing that keeps a lot of writers from making it to the next step?

Kat Brzozowski: Yeah, one thing I see a lot in submissions that, I wouldn't say is a problem ... One thing that I love about our site, is we take things that need, sometimes, some editorial love, sometimes a lot of editorial love, and really pour that time into it. One thing in noticed when I start reading, is a lot of times you're told a lot about the character up front.

Kat Brzozowski: I always look for books where they're really diving into action, and the character is really wanting something from page one, and you're able to learn about them through what they want and how they're going to get it. Really establishing that sense of agency and personal motivation. Rather than books that start with, you know, telling a lot about who the character is.

Mignon Fogarty: Mm-hmm.

Kat Brzozowski: That's one thing.

Kat Brzozowski: I think, also, there are books where there's great characters, great voice, and great dialogue, but not a lot happens. We always look for something where there's also a great plot.

Kat Brzozowski: Again, that's something that we work with our writers on. We have a lot of flexibility to fall in love with one thing about a manuscript, and then really be able to bring the other elements up to that level.

Mignon Fogarty: Okay. I'm wondering, how does an author know when a book is ready to submit? You've got this manuscript in hand, and you've been working on it so long, sometimes it's hard to see, yourself, and even maybe your close friends, and your mom loves it. How do you really know when it's ready?

Kat Brzozowski: Yeah, that's a great question. I think, for me, I always think, as a writer, you should ask, is there anything more that you know to do with it? If you put it away for a while and come back it, with a new sense of what it could be. One thing I also love about our site is that we've had people submit things, get a lot of feedback from readers, because readers can leave comments both in the manuscript, in line, and also as comments. Then, resubmit and have their revised version get published by Swoon. That's one thing I love, it's a way to have a critique group anywhere, virtually. People become really close, and have their own off-shoot critique groups as well.

Kat Brzozowski: I think when you reach the point where you're just changing a word here or there, or revising to revise, it's time to let it go, and let our readers fall in love with it.

Mignon Fogarty: Can you revise the manuscript once you've uploaded it? Say, you find a typo or something, or do you have to submit an entirely new manuscript? Then, when you do, is it connected to that old one in some way?

Kat Brzozowski: You have to submit an entirely new manuscript, and it's a new entry. It's essentially a new manuscript. We know our manuscripts so well on our site, and we spend so much time, that we always know, oh, this book is back. We really loved it, and sometimes those will be at the top of our lists to look at. Things like typos, and grammatical errors, those happen all the time. That's not something that would keep us from taking a book on. I think those are really easy to spot, and kind of fun.

Kat Brzozowski: I'm sure you hear from people who get published books and think, how could there ever be a typo in here? It happens even in published books, so that's not something we really worry about.

Kat Brzozowski: Yeah, you can always take the manuscript down, and put a revised version. We've had people where, the one that got selected was the third, fourth, fifth manuscript they submitted to Swoon Reads. They just had to find that perfect story.

Mignon Fogarty: Nice. How do typos get into published books? I kind of know, because I know there were some typos in my books, but I get asked this question all the time. How, how does that possibly happen?

Kat Brzozowski: I think it's just, you know, basic human error. There's always people looking at it, there's copy editors, there's proofreaders, but I think there's stuff that your eye just skips over, even if you read it a lot of times.

Kat Brzozowski: Sometimes it's because the book was done quickly, which is not usually our preference. Sometimes it'll be, you know, if you produce a book in a couple months, that it's more likely to have typos. Sometimes it's just, you know, even if you have three or four sets of eyes on something, you can just skip over certain things. Your brain fills in the letters, and you just end up with typos.

Mignon Fogarty: Right.

Kat Brzozowski: We can always fix them in reprints. I think my friends from home who don't really know what I do will be like, "I saw a typo! You didn't edit it." I'm like, oh, that's not what my job is, but thank you.

Mignon Fogarty: So, say you fall ... Well, actually let's talk about that for a minute. People do think that's your job, but it's not. What are the different types of editing that happen in a manuscript along the way? What is your job, and when does that catching the typos happen?

Kat Brzozowski: Yeah. I think of myself as more of a content editor when I describe myself, to differentiate from a copy editor or a proofreader. What we do is really make the story the best it can be, and we pass it on to somebody else to catch all the grammatical errors, and spelling errors. There's a lot of different types of editing. Every editor's process is really different. There's not a uniform way to do it.

Kat Brzozowski: So, the first step I would say most people do is they read the manuscript, and they type up editorial notes into an editorial letter. They might leave their notes in Track Changes in Word, depending on what their style is. You're looking for big picture things, like voice, character, plot, dialogue. Things like that, that are really big picture.

Kat Brzozowski: When you've got that sorted out, which can take a round, or a few rounds, I love line editing. That's really what my passion is. So, going in and really saying, you know, can this sentence be revised? Why is this character doing this here? Looking at things like dialogue tags, a lot of authors want to use things like "exclaimed," or "laughed," or "shouted." Sometimes just a good, "he said," "she said" works just as well.

Kat Brzozowski: Then, sometimes there will be an additional authenticity read, if there's a character from a background that the author would like a perspective of someone from that background, which is something we do a lot of at Swoon Reads, try to get another set of eyes on it as well, for authenticity.

Kat Brzozowski: Yeah, there's all those different kinds of editing. Then, it gets passed on to somebody who our production editors hire, copy editors, and proofreaders. They do all of the catching of spelling and errors. I mean, I definitely fix them in the manuscript when I see them, but I don't spend a lot of time thinking about if the commas are right, since that is not my forte.

Mignon Fogarty: Haha, right. OK. Well, we’re going to take a quick break for our sponsor, but when we come back, we’ll talk about what happens when an editor falls in love with a manuscript on the Swoon Reads platform, some advice Kat has for authors who are dealing with being edited for the first time, and how to come up with that one important sentence to describe your novel. We’ll be right back.

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Mignon Fogarty: You've described it a little bit, but say you do fall in love with a manuscript on your platform, and then you decide to acquire it. Then, what happens next? Does it depend, based on what the problems are with the manuscript, or is there more of a set process?

Kat Brzozowski: It sort of depends. I mean, a lot of it has to do, too, with how the author likes to work. Sometimes, I'll send big picture notes, or have a phone call, and then the author will take it from there. Some authors want or need more direction, more specifics. A lot of it is based on the author's style. Some people love to work over email, some people really need to get on the phone to hash things out. Sometimes, you can do it in person, which is really rare, but that's a nice gift and always feels really special when it happens. Like, old-fashioned days of publishing, people used to have long lunches and things were a little bit more fun.

Kat Brzozowski: Yeah, I think, basically, people start with big picture notes, because it doesn't really makes sense to give line notes on whole chapters that would change. Like I said, I'm a big line editor, so I think I really have to resist the urge to be fiddling with sentences in scenes that might go away.

Kat Brzozowski: I also love when my authors have a nice sense of how to fix things themselves. I would say, you know, this character needs work, needs to go in a different direction. I love when my authors say, you know, "I already know how I'm going to fix that." Some authors are like that, and some authors want more specific direction. I try to tailor it around what the author's strengths are. It also depends if it's their first book, or their eighth book, how much direction they're going to want and need, and how much they want you to problem solve with them versus go away and fix it themselves.

Mignon Fogarty: Mm-hmm. I've heard some writers struggle with getting significant feedback. You know, this character needs to be completely different, or that character, we don't actually need him, he needs to go.

Mignon Fogarty: What advice can you give to authors who maybe are getting this extreme or significant feedback, and are struggling with it? I know they shouldn't take it personally, but what else advice can you give to help them get through that part of the process?

Kat Brzozowski: I always think about wondering why that change matters to you, and really try to think of it from a more emotional level. We have this a lot with titles, especially, and things like book covers. People have an emotional or visceral reaction or attachment, especially to a specific book title. I think the question is always, sort of, why does that matter to you? How can what you care about be incorporated in another way in the book?

Kat Brzozowski: With things like a big character going away, I think the question is always, why? Why is that being in the book important to you? How can, if the character really does need to go away, how can those traits be infused in another character? A lot of times, we'll have way too many side characters. We say, what if you combine these eight people into three? They could have more than one personality trait, which is a great concept for a side character, anyway.

Kat Brzozowski: I also think it's really important to be able to pushback politely and respectfully to your editor, and explain why something matters to you, why you've made a certain decision. I really like working with authors who I'm able to have that dialogue with. I think you don't always need to just change things because your editor says to change it, I think you can ask them why, and try to provide solutions that can make a happy compromise for everybody.

Mignon Fogarty: Yeah. Do you have any books you've worked on that you're especially excited about, that are coming out soon, that you just can't wait to see?

Kat Brzozowski: Yeah, I'm really excited. We have a debut coming from an author named Prerna Pickett that's called, "If You Only Knew," which I love because people on the site said it was similar to the movie "Step Up," with Channing Tatum, which I love.

Mignon Fogarty: I love that movie, yeah.

Kat Brzozowski: It has ... Yeah, it's so great. It has people, one from one side of the tracks, one from the other. Then, the main character is the daughter of a prosecutor who put the other main character away in jail for some gang activity. Now, that guy is out, and he's trying to be on the straight and narrow. It starts off with him and his friends, vandalizing the prosecutor's car. He has to come back and fix the damage. So, it's just really powerful. I think it's great, it has characters from marginalized backgrounds, which I love. It just has a really hot, graffiti artist guy and this girl who has her own secrets as well. So, I love that.

Kat Brzozowski: I'm also looking ...

Mignon Fogarty: What was that called again?

Kat Brzozowski: That's called "If You Only Knew," by Prerna Pickett.

Mignon Fogarty: Okay.

Kat Brzozowski: We also have one coming out in January called "Rogue Princess" by B.R. Myers, which they compared to a little bit like "Cinder" by Marissa Meyer, which I'm really excited about. That's a great fantasy.

Kat Brzozowski: We have a follow-up to a book we called "Beware of the Night." The sequel is called "Defy the Sun," and that's by Jessika Fleck. It's really great, it's set in this little bit dystopian fantasy world that's vaguely Mediterranean. These two classes of people, one that live above, and one that live below. One worships the sun, and one worships the night. This one is really interesting, because she wrote the first book in single POV, and the second one is in dual POV, which is interesting. I like when people break format in that way.

Kat Brzozowski: All that stuff is going to come out in Winter 2020, so between January and March of next year.

Mignon Fogarty: Oh, neat. Looking forward, thinking about what's going to show up on your platform, are there any genres that are really hot right now, or a kind of story that you'd be especially excited if it showed up in your Inbox?

Kat Brzozowski: Yeah, we're always looking for stuff that's high concept, so stuff that's really easy to pitch in terms of saying, this is similar to this other project. Always great when it has a movie or a television comparison, where you can kind ... Like I said, with "Step Up." You can say, this is for people who love "Step Up," or people who love the show "Sirens," or whatever it is. That's always great.

Kat Brzozowski: We're also actively always looking for more books with characters from marginalized backgrounds, and by authors from marginalized backgrounds, both of those. Whether their own voices, or if they're not, I think we would really love to publish more authors from marginalized backgrounds at Swoon. We need to get them submitted to us so that we can publish them.

Kat Brzozowski: One author we work with, Claire Kann, is really wonderful. Her first book, "Let's Talk About Love," came out a couple years ago, and has an asexual, black main character. It's just a wonderful, contemporary story, tons of voice. She had a follow-up, which came out this summer, called "If It Makes You Happy" that's the black "Gilmore Girls."

Mignon Fogarty: Hm.

Kat Brzozowski: I absolutely love it. It's all the small-town things you need, it has a great love triangle, queer characters, which is wonderful.

Kat Brzozowski: We'd love to find more authors that can deliver that wonderful, diverse story. We'd love to have more of that on our site, because that's something we're all really excited about, and something that readers really love as well, and want more of.

Mignon Fogarty: This is one thing I've bumped up against. I'll describe something, and I'll compare it to a book that's older, like you just said, "Gilmore Girls," which is older even though people still watch it. I'll say something, "Oh, it's like this show." Someone will go, "How about something that wasn't 20 years ago, Mignon?" You know, how important is it to have it be something that was published in the last couple years, when you're making those comparisons?

Kat Brzozowski: I think it's different if you're comparing it to a book, versus comparing it to a movie or TV show. Also, different if you're saying it's like something, versus for fans of. If people say, this is like ... I'm going to come up with something really wacky, like "Fault in Our Stars" meets "Star Wars," or something. I'm sure somebody has done this. It works because you're giving a high concept pitch, so you know it's going to be, I guess, sick lit in space. It doesn't work as well if you say, this book is for fans of something either really old, like a "Harry Potter," or something really popular, also like "Harry Potter." The fans of "Harry Potter" are every person who knows how to read, so it doesn't really limit in terms of who we think we're going to sell the book to, it doesn't help us determine an audience.

Kat Brzozowski: When it's something like a big movie, something that everybody knows, like "Stand By Me," or "Minority Report," or a show like "Gilmore Girls," or "Cheers," or something that has that universal acknowledgement of what the thing is, I think it works as a high concept pitch.

Mignon Fogarty: Oh, that's great. That's super helpful. Okay. I imagine, some people would think, well, I want to say it's like "Harry Potter," because that was a big hit. I want them to think mine is going to be a big hit. That really doesn't work because it's too broad.

Kat Brzozowski: Yeah, it's too broad. I think it also, you know ... We love authors who are currently reading YA, and who know what's out there, in the YA marketplace. I love when people reference stuff that's more popular.

Kat Brzozowski: At the same time, you have to reference stuff that we'll have heard of. Although I've talked to people who were like, "Oh, I've never read 'Lord of the Flies,'" but when someone compares something to "Lord of the Flies," they at least know from the culture, what that will be like, even without having read it.

Mignon Fogarty: Great. How do you want people to find you? What's the best way, if people have follow-up questions, or they want to submit a manuscript? How should people go about doing that?

Kat Brzozowski: Yeah. You can visit Swoon Reads, we're at SwoonReads.com. We also have a great Twitter, and a great Instagram. Those are both wonderful places if you want to ask questions. We have really active followings there, and we're always looking for questions.

Kat Brzozowski: We also have a wonderful blog on the Swoon Reads site, that you can always ask questions in the comments. We do a lot of Ask Me Anything posts, we talk a lot about behind-the-scenes in publishing. Everything from jacket design, you can actually vote on covers. We put up cover directions, and the users get to pick which cover direction they like the best. We sometimes ask for title ideas. We had a user name one of our books, which is sort of a "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" book, called "When Life Gives You Demons," and that was a user's name, which is such a great pun that we never would have come up with. You can participate that way. I'd say definitely check out our blog. We do a lot of stuff for NaNoWriMo. It's packed with things from our authors. Tips, writing prompts. Let me say writing prompts again.

Kat Brzozowski: It's packed with advice from our authors. There's tips, there's writing prompts, there's a lot of inspiration to keep you going through November. We hope that come December, and throughout the year, we'll be able to see people's manuscripts on our site. We love having new things to read all the time.

Mignon Fogarty: Wonderful. Thanks so much. That was Kat Brzozowski, from Swoon Reads.

Kat Brzozowski: Thank you very much for having me.