Zibby discusses BLANK with editor Carmen Johnson

Zibby discusses BLANK with editor Carmen Johnson

Next up in our celebration of BLANK is a special episode with Zibby’s editor, Carmen Johnson. After discussing the publishing process (what are editors looking for? How do they evaluate pitch letters and manuscripts? What is the editorial process like?), Carmen offers a behind-the-scenes look at her role as an editor at Amazon Publishing. Then, she and Zibby discuss their ongoing author-editor relationship, reflecting on their collaborative work with BLANK, and sharing their excitement as they embark on their next project, Zibby’s new novel, OVERHEARD!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Carmen. Thanks so much for coming on "Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books" to discuss the book that you yourself edited, Blank by Zibby Owens.

Carmen Johnson: I'm so excited to be here, Zibby. This is so great. I feel very honored to be on your show.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I feel like this show has led me to you, so this is perfect. Without the show, we would not be talking, so of course, you should come on. I wanted to introduce you to listeners and also find out for real, when I first sent you the Bookends proposal -- Joe sent it to you, Joe Veltre at Gersh. When you got the proposal and then I sent a little addendum to it, tell me why you were attracted to Bookends, which is what got us to Blank. Did you have any big reservations? Tell me about that time first.

Carmen: When you get a submission in as an editor, you think about, what is it about it that stands out, that is unique? What will make readers be really drawn to it? I thought your story was just so vulnerable and raw and honest. I felt like a lot of readers would be able to relate to it. It always starts with the content and the writing and what the story is about. That's how we make our decisions. I felt like that story was so universal and so great. Then it was just an added bonus that you're Zibby Owens and that you're so good at connecting writers and readers. You've built this amazing community. At the end of the day, it was about your incredible story and you being so vulnerable on the page. A lot of memoirs, you get in, and it just feels like a glossy version of what they want to write about. Yours felt like it went right to the heart of it. I also liked how you had books as such a big theme throughout the memoir. It felt unique in that way too. I felt like there would be other ways for readers to get into it and relate to it. I could just imagine them circling passages where you're talking about certain books that impacted your life and them really liking it. It was the content. It was such a great pitch. I'm so glad we published it together.

Zibby: Yes! Okay, excellent. What is your process at Little A for evaluating pitches? When you get something, does it go to you? Do you have a huge team? What is that like?

Carmen: We mainly work with agents. Agents will submit an email with a full manuscript. Sometimes it'll be a proposal. For fiction, it's usually a full manuscript. We read the query letters. I think query letters are great and important. Then decide which editor would be a great fit for this. Oftentimes, I'll look at it. I'll say, this sounds really great. Maybe this editor over here would be perfect for it based on their list, or I'll just read it myself, and I love it. We have a great team of editors here. Like I said before, at the end of the day, it's about you connecting as a human to what you're reading. If you feel like there is a spark, there's something there, then that would make you a good editor for it. There are times where I read something and -- I admire it. I think it's beautiful. I think it's great. I think the author is super talented. For whatever reason, it's not the best possible fit. That would just be a disservice for the author too. You want an editor who gets you as an author, who gets your vision, and is one hundred percent on board. I think at the end of the day, it's just about that reader connection that you have with content.

Zibby: How did you become an editor?

Carmen: After college, years ago, years ago, I moved out to New York and started working as an assistant for Carl Bernstein, who was writing a biography of Hillary Clinton. The book was published by Knopf. After my stint as sort of a research assistant, moved over to Knopf. I was there for about five years. Then I moved over to Amazon Publishing. I've been here at Amazon Publishing for -- I think we're in the double digits at this point, so a long time. It's been great. I love publishing because it is creative. You work with different types of people. Things are always changing. There's new books. Yet you have some structure. You have some structure. You have a team that you work with. I think it's such a privilege. I know you feel the same way given what you do. Such a privilege to just be working on books and talking to authors. My favorite thing is to get a proposal in or a project in and then be able to talk to the author a few days later and pick their brain. It's just such a gift. I love telling my kids that I work on books. They're always asking, "Mom, what's the new story you're working on?" It's just such an amazing career.

Zibby: I think that's one of the best parts too, with the kids. I'm like, "Oh, my gosh, look, this book just came." "What's it about?" Showing them potential covers. Now I have my publisher hat on, but showing potential covers and titles. "What do you guys think?" Then they see it. They're like, "Oh, my gosh, this is that book."

Carmen: I love sharing covers and titles with people that are outside the industry because those are the people we want to get. My daughter will often pick the best cover from a lineup. I love that.

Zibby: I will give her an internship. When it came to Blank, people are asking, how did that become a thing? It wasn't even totally written. What happened?

Carmen: Zibby, you have amazing ideas. You are so creative. We've talked probably every day in the last two years. I think that you go about your day picking up ideas. I think that you have such a great ear. I think you're always listening to dialogue and the way people are interacting with each other. You pull that into your fiction. With Blank, you and I just started brainstorming. What's the next idea? You couldn't write memoir after memoir after memoir, right? You wanted to go into fiction. This just felt like a natural progression where you're still writing about things that are very personal to you, clearly. You're writing about books. You're writing about publishing. You're writing about being a mom, relationships. It felt very much you, but the fiction version of it. I think you were inspired by living in LA and traveling and just the crazy world of book publishing, which sounds a little more glamorous in the book. It came from your idea and then you and I just going back and forth. One of the most interesting things about Blank was trying to balance that zany, crazy, fun aspect with it and the down-to-earth relationships of the story. At the end of the day, you just want readers to really connect to it. I think it was so fun balancing that out. I admired how you were just willing to go for it and take some risks and make it a really fun read for people. At the end of the day, people just want to be entertained. I feel like you get that as a writer so well. It must be because you're constantly reading.

Zibby: I am constantly reading, as are you. Were you worried at all, what if she can't do fiction?

Carmen: No, because I had read enough of what you'd written before. I thought maybe we would be working more on structure or the beginning, middle, and end. In terms of the actual writing of it, I knew that if you stayed within great characters and great dialogue, you've got it. You're born with it. I just think that you have that ear for dialogue and great characters. It was really a question of, what are those characters going to do and at what point? How do we get to the end? That's something that we figure out.

Zibby: Remember when I thought I was done, and it was only thirty thousand words? I was like, here you go.

Carmen: It's an interesting way of writing. I wonder if that's how you'll handle your next book. You write the skeleton of it, I feel like, and then we go in and add things. Whereas I think some other authors will maybe work a lot on that first act, and then they're like, okay, now I got to get through the middle and the end. You always had that complete picture. Then you went in and filled it out, which is really interesting. I think it's pretty unique, actually.

Zibby: I'm like, am I going to do this again? I don't know.

Carmen: You work so fast. I think maybe that first draft of it was so important for you just to get it on the page, get all your thoughts on the page. Then you could think, okay, how do I want to add more scenes here and there? It seemed to work for you. There's nothing wrong with a shorter book too.

Zibby: I know. I just signed our contract about two seconds ago. In the contract, it was seventy thousand words. I was like, seventy thousand? I thought it was sixty thousand. That changes everything.

Carmen: Ten thousand words. At the end of the day, there is no perfect word count. It's really what the story needs. I'm not going to be counting every word, but I do think that it's about making sure that the reader feels like they've got a satisfying ending or the character has been fully fleshed out. That will happen.

Zibby: Now we have our third project together, Overheard, which we just announced, which I'm so excited about. Although, maybe people listening to the podcast missed it on Instagram or my newsletter, in which case they should be following me on Instagram and getting my newsletter, but it's fine. Maybe they're hearing it now for the first time. The third book we're doing together is Overheard. We sat together with the sun uncomfortably streaming in our faces at the Amazon headquarters trying to finalize this idea. I feel like I just have to wait for these crazy things in my own life to happen, and then they have to become books.

Carmen: And one-word titles. That's your brand now, I think. We had a great spark of an idea of what it could be. I felt like the pitch of saying something that you didn't want broadcasted to your community, it's so relatable and so cringey. Then the added layer of having the celebrity component to it, I think it's really fun. It totally feels like something you're going to have a blast writing and I'm going to have a blast editing and reading. It just feels like a natural Zibby book. It feels like there's so much potential for many more books to come.

Zibby: Yay, I love hearing that. My biggest challenge so far is, I'm like, I hope this character doesn't sound too much like Pippa.

Carmen: We'll work on that together. There's going to be some similarities, of course. It's your voice. You're not going to change your voice one hundred percent. It's still sort of the same type of category book. She'll be in different situations. She's going to have different challenges. That will naturally help us figure out, how do we make sure that she feels different? She'll still be funny. There'll still be funny moments. That’ll be a plus anyway. It would be too weird to have a character that just felt completely out of left field. Then maybe there's other secondary characters where you want to try some other things with. I'm not too worried about it. It's a different story, different name, different hair color, maybe.

Zibby: So far, the hair color is the same, but I could change it. She could go get some highlights, and the whole book could change. The basic premise of Overheard is that a bookstore owner in LA, her conversation with her good friend gets picked up over the livestream at her son's football game. It's about her ex and his movie star paramour and what happens after that. I just finished the scene where the ex-husband introduces her to the kids.

Carmen: What's the hardest part of writing it, or the easiest?

Zibby: I have this crazy thing that happens to me when I write fiction, which I don't understand and I'm almost embarrassed to say. I always fall asleep. I don't fall asleep doing almost anything, ever. I keep going. I don't know what it is about it. I'm just so relaxed. I'm in it or whatever. I'm not bored, but I just get so sleepy. This has been my challenge.

Carmen: Stay awake while you're writing. Are you doing it right before bed? Is that what's going on?

Zibby: No. I've experimented with all different times. Deep down, I am very tired. It's like an exorcism or something. I write a little bit, and then I have to recover. Then I have to go back to it. I don't know. That happened also with Blank, but I thought it was just weird and quirky. Now it's happening again. I'm like, what the heck? The only other time it ever happened to me was when Kyle was converting. Every time we went to the rabbi studio and he started talking, I would fall asleep, which was also really embarrassing. Since then, those are the only times I ever nap. It's bizarre.

Carmen: Maybe you just need more sleep. Also, maybe you need to drink more coffee or have some more caffeine when you're writing. I think it was Lorrie Moore that said she always put her first cup of coffee on the page. That first morning cup where you're waking up, your brain is being activated, get that down on paper.

Zibby: It's true. I'm sort of chronically sleep deprived. I'll stay awake and get the rest done.

Carmen: That's so funny. That's a new one for me. The readers will not be falling asleep when they're reading it.

Zibby: No, it's really fun. Then I go back to it, and I was like, oh, my gosh, did I write that? Then I just pick up and keep going.

Carmen: That must be really fun to go back and reread what you've written and be charmed by it. That's a good sign.

Zibby: That's a good sign, I hope. Also, I'm having so much fun writing about the bookstore. Now that I own a bookstore, I have all this knowledge of that particular world. It's so fun to be able to share it. I'm having a lot of fun with that.

Carmen: Is there anything about owning a bookstore that just completely surprised you or you had no idea that bookstore owners were dealing with this other thing?

Zibby: Just the stress of inventory management and returns and literally packing boxes and receipts and figuring out when to return what. It's a finite amount of space in a bookstore. I just had a call for an hour with Sherri. She does the first pass of buying. Then we go through all the titles together. I'm like, where are we going to put all of these books? This is just April through August. We already have all the other books. If we don't pick books that sell, there's not going to be space for the new books. It's a puzzle.

Carmen: It's the glamorous side of owning a bookstore.

Zibby: Exactly. Now I get it. They're like, so-and-so bookstore took one copy of your book. I'll be like, one copy? It's actually a big deal when we take one copy because we've been debating taking a copy at all.

Carmen: That seems like a big job, the space and inventory and keeping track of everything. It sounds like the events have been amazing there. People love going there. Congratulations.

Zibby: It's really fun. I love it. How do you balance all the authors that you're editing? How many authors' books? I like to think I'm the only one. You make me feel that way, which is great. How many are you doing at the same time?

Carmen: I have the perfect amount. It's the perfect amount. I don't even know what number. They're all in different phases of their publishing life. Sometimes it's right when I'm getting the project in and I'm signing it. Sometimes it's in editing. Sometimes it's in production. They all are kind of in a cycle. What's so fun is that I get to work on projects that I'm really passionate about. I click with the author. It just all works. It's just fun to be able to work on books where I feel like I'm talking to my friend about what they're writing. I'm reading books that I would read for pleasure. It's a balance. It's good that all the books are in a different phase. It helps make things feel fresh too. In one phase, I'm thinking about a book cover. In another one, I'm thinking about a title. The other one, I'm thinking about, what do I want to offer? It keeps you on your toes too.

Zibby: Are you in charge of all of the acquisitions for Little A?

Carmen: I'm Associate Publisher at Amazon Publishing, so I help oversee the imprints there.

Zibby: All the imprints?

Carmen: There's another associate publisher. Her name is Gracie Doyle. She's fantastic. We both oversee. Then we have wonderful editorial directors for each imprint. Then we have a wonderful publisher as well. There's a team of people who discuss projects that we're going to acquire as a team together, along with marketing and with book publicity. I think you know being a publisher, there's a lot of stakeholders and a lot of opinions that can help shape the project to be as good as it can be. It's definitely a team effort. We rely on what we can do best. We want to, at the end of the day, make our authors really happy and do what's best for them in terms of growing their readership. We’re really thoughtful about the types of books that we sign up. It's what I was saying earlier. Is there going to be an emotional connection with the book? Are people going to love it? Are people going to tear through it? Regardless of if it's a romance or a mystery or book club fiction or nonfiction, at the end of the day, it's about that content and knowing whether we are the right publisher to get it out in front of as many readers as possible.

Zibby: I thought you only did Little A, that you were only in charge of that. Are you editing books that are on some of the other, Lake Union and stuff?

Carmen: Yeah. I personally edit some YA, which is great. I also work on Mindy's Book Studio, which is our imprint with Mindy Kaling. As editors at Amazon Publishing, we'll acquire across imprints. I think that's great because basically, an editor doesn't feel like they're only in one lane. If a project really speaks to them, they can acquire it for other imprints. The other thing to remember is that I think that at the end of the day, the readers are not so interested in the imprint that the book is being published under. They just want that fantastic cover and the hook and the author. It's sort of insider-y publishing.

Zibby: This is purely for me that I was asking this question. Nobody else will care at all.

Carmen: We're a very collaborative team. It's great. It feels very much like what you're doing in terms of your media company. Your focus is on the authors and making them feel like rockstars. I love that. I think that's similar with Amazon Publishing too. As you know, it's very author focused, which I think makes it unique and special.

Zibby: I have had the best time. I am quick to say that my starting my company is not because of my experience with you. In fact, I always say how loyal I am and how grateful I am that you took a chance on me to begin with. The power of the Amazon -- I know there's a lot of anti-Amazon feelings out there. I've come up against that a lot with different bookstores and all of that. At the end of the day, so to speak, we're all just trying to get books into readers' hands and help authors get the word out.

Carmen: There's so much competition right now for attention. There are so many different directions a reader could go or a person could go. To convince them to take six hours and read this book is a big ask. As editors and authors, we have to just make that as seamless as possible.

Zibby: Have you ever wanted to be an author?

Carmen: I'm really happy being an editor. Sometimes I'll get ideas. Then I usually just talk to authors about it and make sure that those ideas are in other places. Never say never, but right now, I'm just really happy feeling like I can be behind the scenes and work across a lot of different books. It's been really fun.

Zibby: Amazing. Where do you think our relationship is going to go, Carmen?

Carmen: We're going to keep talking. We're going to be in touch about your projects. I think we're going to learn with every project that we do together. I think we're just going to keep learning. You're going to continue to grow as an author and writer. You're going to figure out what you like to do and what you don't like to do. Maybe next time, you're not going to go on a crazy long tour. I don't know.

Zibby: I haven't even left yet, and you're already having me regret it.

Carmen: Go and do what you need to do. It's amazing. As a publisher, it's amazing to see you put so much attention and effort and just smart thinking into promoting the book and talking about the book and making sure that everyone knows about it. It's really great. You're doing it in a nice way. We're just going to keep growing editorially and creatively. We'll think about what the cover is going to look like. It's a journey. You sign a book contract. Then you have to write the project if you haven't already. Then you have to edit it. It goes into that production cycle. It's a journey. Then suddenly, it's a month before publication. You're like, oh, my god, where did the time go? It's fun. We're going to continue to learn.

Zibby: Awesome, and hopefully, continue to have fun.

Carmen: Yes.

Zibby: Thank you again. I feel like even though this timing -- I really wanted to be an author when I was nine. My novel is coming out. I'm forty-seven and a half. I wish it had happened sooner. This is one of those things where I'm like, but it wouldn't have, necessarily, been with you. I feel like there's something about --

Carmen: -- Aw.

Zibby: No, I mean it. You're the perfect editor to work with. You have all these ideas. I never feel like I'm doing this by myself, which I was feeling very much like before. Now I just feel so supported, like what you said, you were like -- my biggest fear, is it the same character? You're like, no, we're just going to figure it out. I'm like, great. Yeah, we're just going to figure it out. Thank you.

Carmen: It's so nice to hear that. Thank you so much for saying that. It's just been such a pleasure working with you too. I love your ideas and creativity. I can't do that. You are the author. You can come up with that. I can help you figure out how to publish it. That's my job. I got to stand out of the way sometimes too. Thank you for having me on. I feel like I need a glass of champagne or something in my hand.

Zibby: I know. Cheers. Thank you, Carmen. Thanks for everything. Here we go, another wild ride.

Carmen: Sounds good.

Zibby: Bye.

Carmen: Bye.

Zibby Owens, BLANK

BLANK by Zibby Owens

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