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Exclusive Interview: Renowned Editor and Author Patricia Leavy, Ph.D.

Author and Editor, Dr. Patricia Leavy
Author and Editor, Dr. Patricia Leavy
Photo contributed by Patricia Leavy, Ph.D.

Patricia Leavy, PhD is an internationally known author (formerly Associate Professor of Sociology, Founding Director of Gender Studies and Chairperson of Sociology & Criminology at Stonehill College). She has published a dozen non-fiction books including the best-seller Method Meets Art: Arts-Based Research Practice, and Essentials of Transdisciplinary Research: Using Problem-Centered Methodologies and Fiction as Research Practice. She has also published two novels, the award-nominated American Circumstance and Sense Publisher’s top-selling title, Low-Fat Love. She is the editor for four book series with Oxford University Press and Sense Publishers. Frequently called on by the media, she has appeared on national television, radio, is regularly quoted by the news media, publishes op-eds and is a blogger for The Huffington Post. She frequently makes presentations and keynote addresses at universities as well as national and international conferences. The New England Sociological Association named her the “2010 New England Sociologist of the Year” and she has recently been nominated for a Lifetime Achievement Award by the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry and a Special Achievement Award by the American Creativity Association.

1. You edit four different book series. Describe those series.

I started with Oxford University Press and the Understanding Qualitative Research series. It is a part of a larger series called Understanding Research and there are three series within that umbrella. The qualitative line, which I edit, has books about different qualitative research methods that social researchers use, like interviewing. It’s a large series with several books already out, about 20 or so signed and hopefully more to be signed. It’s a teaching series intended for college and grad students as well as researchers. I also edit three series for Sense Publishers. The Social Fictions series publishes books written by scholars and informed by research and teaching but the books are written entirely in literary forms. We publish novels, short story collections and plays. It’s an outgrowth of the arts-based research movement which is when researchers in any field use the arts in their research. It makes research more accessible to the public. Anyone can read these books but they offer a lot to think about. This series means a lot to me because there was nothing like it before we started. I was recently nominated for a Special Achievement Award for the series, by the American Creativity Association, which is a huge honor for all of us working on the series and really highlights how unique what we’re doing is. Next came the Teaching Gender and then Teaching Race & Ethnicity series. The books address any aspect of gender and sexuality or race and & ethnicity, respectively.

2. How does a series start?

Well, in the case of the Oxford series they came to me. The series was already conceived as one wing of this three-line series, although there was certainly room for me to bring myself to it in terms of suggesting topics and authors and the like. Oxford is as prestigious as it gets so when they come knocking on your door, you answer. Typically though I build something from the ground up, that is how the series with Sense came to be. It started with the Social Fictions series. I had this idea which at the time may have seemed crazy to any publisher, it was just an unheard of thing and very tough to get someone to take a chance on. I also had written my own novel, Low-Fat Love, which I envisioned in the series so it was a big pitch to get a publisher to sign both the series and my book. I was really looking for someone creative, innovative and who was open to a real partnership or collaboration. I wanted to be involved in every aspect of the series and I knew it would be a big investment of my time and creative energy. I was so fortunate to partner with Sense. They are the ideal publisher for this kind of work and I get on wonderfully with everyone there. It worked out so well that when I was ready to start building more series I took the Teaching Gender and then later the Teaching Race & Ethnicity series to them and they did not hesitate. If you’re asking where those ideas came from, really I just saw a need and I’m a sociologist by training and deeply committed to social justice so these were the topics I gravitated towards. I’d like to help publish books that do some good in the world.

3. If you take your four series together as an overall body of work, what 3 words describe the mission?

Creativity, social justice, and education

4. How do you describe your job of putting together a series of books?

Well, of course you need a theme or something that binds the series together and then you start thinking about must-haves given the theme. But I really don’t try to create parameters because I’m open to new ideas and pushing the boundaries. I’ve used this analogy before but I sort of think of it the way a fashion designer might think of putting a runway show together. A fashion show might have a couple of highly artistic avant-garde pieces that grab attention and push the bounds, but they are art more than wearable fashion. They may get a lot of attention but they’re not intended to sell oodles. Then you have your ready-to-wear pieces, those are pieces lots of people can see fitting into their wardrobe as is. They may have elements of the innovative, avant-garde pieces, but they’re for every day. Classics, like a little black dress are always important. Book series are the same; you need the classics and you need to push the bounds and expand the field. When I think about the books I think about the individual projects—I want to support authors with something worthwhile to say and those who write creatively. But I also think about the series as a whole and how each of the pieces has a role to play in the larger collection. To publish highly creative or intellectual work that may have a small audience you need some books with larger audiences. Then it works, through balance.

5. When you’re deciding to sign a book are you thinking about quality, the message, the originality or sales and the bottom line?

All of it. I understand that when I make a decision I am playing with real money that the publishers I work with have to invest. I take that responsibility very seriously. But my interest is in putting out creative and socially justice minded work, creating a space for new voices and new modes of storytelling. That’s why I am in it. I think the fashion design metaphor in the last question addresses the balance I try to find. Here’s another metaphor. A composer and songwriter I admire once described herself through the metaphor of being a winemaker. She said she thinks of herself as a small to medium vineyard and the smaller vineyards don’t earn as much as those who make screw top wine for the “big box” stores but she doesn’t make screw top wine. Ultimately I feel the same way. The quality of the work, the creativity, the importance of telling the story, the social justice messages and educational value, all of that comes first. Of course in order to be able to publish high quality work and new voices, one must be quite mindful of the business side of it all. I do consider myself a business person and a creative person.

6. Are you involved with design decisions and how the series look?

The Oxford series was already established when I was brought on board so I wasn’t involved much with those decisions but yes, for my work with Sense, but it’s different for each series. For the Social Fictions series, which is all fiction including novels, I felt it was important that each book has a unique identity and that each author can realize his or her vision. For my other two series with Sense I thought all of the books should have the same color cover and same typeface and coloring on the cover to brand each series and tie the books together. I spent quite a lot of time thinking about color choices. You’d be amazed how much can go into it. As a part of that process, once I had narrowed down my ideas, I asked a couple of authors for feedback.

7. You’re a very prolific author but does being a series editor interfere with your own writing?

It’s a really tricky balance and one that I am still trying to strike. As an author I spend a lot of time on my own writing but it doesn’t end there, I have to promote my books too which involves a lot of time both at home and travelling. So there’s a lot to manage with that and all the series, especially as the series grow and my own body of work grows. It’s a constant challenge. My close friends, writing buddies and Mark [her husband] really help me stay focused and get back on course when I need it so that my own writing doesn’t suffer. My writing time has become sort of sacred to me and I’m not willing to compromise on my own work. Writing is a rigorous process.

8. How do you see your relationship with authors?

I see myself in the role of facilitator really. I am trying to help authors realize their vision and do so in a way that it is most likely to find an audience. I’m that outside perspective that gives a point of view that the author himself or herself may not have but I’m not a true outsider because I am also invested in the book’s success. It’s a unique position. Because I admire authors so much it’s really a privilege.

9. How do you see your relationship with the publishers you work with?

As collaborations. It’s sort of like we’re all athletes on the same team or members of an orchestra. We have the same goals but we all have our own roles although of course we need to work together. We bring different things to the table. When it works well, there is beautiful music. I am very blessed to work with great publishers. I am also in the position sort of in between the publisher and the author so I need to advocate on the author’s behalf, on behalf of their work. But of course I am always keeping the big picture of the series in mind. Authors look at the small picture of their own project and publishers look at the big picture from a business point of view. I am always keeping an eye on both the big picture and the tiniest of details.

10. What is the biggest mistake potential authors make?

Not following instructions or being familiar with the series they are sending their work too. I’m always amazed how many authors don’t even look at a series website and learn about the mission of the series and what titles have been published before emailing. Also, if an editor asks for a proposal form to be filled out or asks for a certain number of pages to be sent, many shoot themselves in the foot by failing to following those instructions. They may not realize but by doing so they cost the series editor more of his or her time and thus make it far less likely they will want to work with you. It’s such a competitive field, writing, and so it’s really important to put your best foot forward. So do your homework, follow instructions and think about the impression you’re making on an editor who is likely overloaded with proposals.

11. Do you have a worst horror story with an author?

The typical horror stories, if you can call them that, are when an author tries to pull their book after you’ve invested in it or they never deliver the book or they deliver a book proposal or manuscript that is totally different from what they promised. But one of the worst incidents was with an author who was eager to get a book contract and then became impossible once we made an offer. Of course as an author myself I think that artists have to advocate for themselves. But there is a way of doing things. This author was making outrageous demands, totally out of touch with reality, and worse than that, her tone was astoundingly offensive. It made us want to dig our feet in the sand and so we did. We didn’t budge on anything and she turned down our offer, much to our relief. At that point we didn’t want to work with her.

12. Best compliment from one of your authors.

The best compliment is the one that is implied from all of the authors I work with, it’s that they want to work with me. I am so honored and humbled that so many authors want to be a part of what I am building and that they trust me with their work. That’s the best compliment of all.

13. Strangest pitch from an author.

I wouldn’t call this strange per se, but it does stand out. One author submitted a book that was essentially erotica. It was actually a very sophisticated and well done book and if I could have published it I may have. I will say it’s probably the only manuscript I read in full even though I knew I couldn’t publish it.

14. Do you know right away when you get a proposal or manuscript?

Yes. The books leap out at me and I trust my gut. It’s very instinctive. The publishers I work with have put their faith in my abilities and in turn, I bet on people and projects I believe in.

15. Do current events impact the kinds of books you’re looking for?

Sure. There are some books that are timeless or somewhat timeless, but then there are others that just have to be written at a particular moment because of what is happening somewhere in the world. It was very much this way after the murder of Trayvon Martin and verdict acquitting George Zimmerman. So many people were in such pain. It felt like the legacy of racism woven into the fabric of America was as alive as ever. It was a teaching moment. At that time I had just started signing books to the Teaching Race & Ethnicity series and it seemed to me that the first book would have to be about Trayvon Martin, but not just that person or case per se, but rather we would use this horrible incident as a vehicle to explore race in this country. So the book that will be launching that series is a wonderful collection being co-edited by several scholars who study race. It’s the clearest example of current events impacting series development. I think the example also illustrates the importance and vitality of what we in publishing can do and quite frankly, have an ethical and moral responsibility to try and do. How we respond to, write about, chronicle and analyze what is going on in the world and what matters to people.

16. Toughest decision as an editor.

I rejected the manuscript of an author that I admire enormously, who in fact I feel is the pioneer of the field I write in. I was so excited and honored when I received his submission and I actually loved the book. I couldn’t put it down. However, I didn’t think I would be able to sell it. He submitted it to a series that is marketed mostly to an academic market and I thought his book was better suited to a trade market. As much as I would have loved to publish his book, and in fact it would have been a career highlight for me personally, I couldn’t in good faith ask my publishing partner to invest funds in a project with little hope of earning them back. Equally, I didn’t want the author to be disappointed and I felt he could do better by his book elsewhere. That was very tough though and caused some sleeplessness.

17. The most fun part of being a series editor.

Acceptance emails. Helping to make people’s dreams come true is indescribable. As an author myself who has dealt with oodles of rejections over the years I know how they feel and sometimes the excitement you get back is palpable. It’s especially joyful signing someone to their first book contract.

18. The worst part of being a series editor.

Rejection emails. I take people’s feelings seriously and I know what an author’s work means to them. It’s not easy, albeit necessary.

19. What’s your advice to authors?

Well, I have two bits of advice. First, promote your own work. You can’t rely on publishers, publicists or anyone to do it all for you. No one will ever care about your work as much as you and no one will ever be better positioned to help market it. Second, don’t take the opinions of others whether it’s rejections from editors and publishers or reviews of your published work so seriously. I know from my own experience that this can be really difficult but it’s vitally important. At the end of the day an editor is really just a person and only has his or her opinion which is often based on a host of considerations that aren’t all about your work. For example, I once rejected a fantastic book by an author I greatly admire only because it would have directly competed with another book in the series at the time. It wasn’t an evaluation of her work. And even when it is evaluation of the work, that’s only the opinion of one person. Authors need to develop their own relationship with their work that isn’t dependent on anything external whether it’s reviews, popular opinion or sales.

20. Any plans for more series?

I’m pretty busy as it is! [laughs] I’m certainly open to new ideas down the line and I would be happy to expand my relationships with the publishers I work with. But for now my focus is on growing the existing series, helping our authors successfully launch their books and making sure I have enough time for my own writing.

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