Giving authors their voice
Editor Blair Thornburgh shares the process of moving an author’s passion from the page to the public.
by BETHANY GUSTAFSON | Editor
Blair Thornburgh is an editor at Philadelphia-based publishing house Quirk Books, best known for its eclectic collection of works, such as Geekerella, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Blair wields mean coffee-making skills, a degree in medieval studies and a passion for bringing authors’ creations to life.
What does a week in your job look like?
“It really depends, since a lot of the work we do is in seasons. It depends on where I am in acquiring titles, or working on the content, versus helping market them once they’re out the editorial door. At any given time I’m probably doing one of each of those, so I’m in the process of bringing someone on board, finding someone to write a book, working on a manuscript, reviewing layouts, or coming up with a marketing copy and other things to get a book that’s about to be published out to readers.
“Today, for example, it’s been one of those days where I’m trying to find contributors for one project I want to do and talking with some agents, and then I’m pulling together a catalogue copy for a literary catalogue that’s going out. I also have on my desk what’s called a blad, which is a sample of a book that goes out. We do these for crafting or cookbooks so we’re not having to print out a full color advance copy, so I look over those and then send them out.”
“I try to think about the people who are going to get the books eventually, as well as the authors who really like working on books with all of their enthusiasm.”
How do you balance your work and stress with your personal life?
“I definitely try. It helps that I really enjoy the work, and I’m lucky that I like my whole list of things I’m doing and that I’m not working on something I don’t care about. I try to think about the people who are going to get the books eventually, as well as the authors who really like doing this and like working on books with all of their enthusiasm.
“I also try to be efficient with my time so things aren’t bleeding out into all hours of the day, and that I’m actually getting things done. The only work I bring home is reading, and even then it’s in a central location so I don’t spill on anything. Unless there’s super urgent deadlines, I’m good at keeping boundaries.”
What are your favorite and least favorite parts about the job?
“My favorite part is editing, because I like reading submissions, and I think it’s easy for me to tell very quickly if a piece is something I can work with. I like actually engaging with the text of the things on my list, and it’s rewarding since it’s a very active process and not always clear cut. It’s not most of the job, though, and there’s so many other ancillary things. I don’t think people appreciate that it’s not just making projects all the time. I also have to do all the copyrighting for the backs of books and catalogs.
“My least favorite part of the job is public speaking. There’s a lot of presentations, like I’ll get these acquisitions and then I’ll present it to the sales team, and then I put them up again. There’s other places, too, where I’ll go talk about the books, such as conferences. You kind of just have to grit your teeth and do it, and I think I’ve gotten better over time.”
Is there a favorite piece you’ve edited? What made it special?
“It’s tough to pick; it’s like choosing a favorite child. I really liked one of the first books I worked on, which was The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy by Sam Maggs. It’s a fun concept and the illustrations look awesome, but I feel it came at exactly the right time in this watershed movement for women in fandoms and geek culture. The author was just starting to build her platform, and now she’s a real voice in the community and the book sold well. Since it was such a success, I think it really gave me proof that this concept works and allowed me to do more books in this vein and for this younger teen girl audience. It’s most of what I’ve done since then.”
What is one failure story that stands out to you?
“There’s never been anything that was total garbage or did terribly, but I think in every project there’s going to be things that go wrong. I have a choose your own adventure-style book coming out next year that I thought was going to be a total nightmare, but so far it’s going okay. There’s standard hiccups, but there hasn’t been any moment so far where it’s like ‘Oh my god, we need to reroute everything’ or it’s 100 pages too long.
“I think that there’s a lot of things where the more you go along the more you begin to recognize those stages in the process where things get caught up or there’s freak outs or photographers are late. You’re always really racing against the clock, so I think whenever something goes wrong it’s because there isn’t enough time to get it done well. Because you’re the editor and sort of the project manager, this means you’re the one who has to do creative problem solving. A book might be a bunch of pages short, so you have to find a way to fill in the gaps and make it look more complete. I actually find it kind of exciting.”
Can you tell us your path from high school to where you are now?
“I liked to read, but I think everyone says that. In high school I wasn’t super literary — I maybe edited a literary magazine at some point. In college I was a medieval studies major, so I only took classes on the major authors. I didn’t take any creative writing courses either, but I did internships in publishing and journalism. During that time I was also writing books, so I was just trying to be tuned in to that. I started working at Quirk as an assistant about six months after I graduated, and have been here ever since.”
What drew you specifically to Quirk Books rather than another publishing house?
“I grew up in Philadelphia, so I’d always known about Quirk. I feel like I was just looking at their job page and there was an opening so I applied for it. I didn’t apply to a bunch of publishers. I give terrible career advice, don’t do what I did. That’s not to say I didn’t work hard, but you can be qualified for a job and get or not get it for any number of reasons. There was really just a period of throwing things at the wall and seeing what worked. I’m sure there’s still a Dropbox full of old, really bad cover letters of mine, but I’ve tried to repress that.”
If you weren’t in editing, where do you think you would be?
“I’m also a writer, so I feel like I’d be be writing, but not as well since I’ve learned so much just by doing book stuff all the time. Otherwise, I probably would’ve gone to grad school, which is such a boring answer, but people who major in medieval studies alone and don’t double major or do something practical usually end up getting their Ph.Ds and becoming professors. I would’ve been fine with that, but I don’t think I would have been thrilled with all the student debt.
“It’s a weird discrepancy between my background and what I do professionally, but it’s a good party trick and at least I get to talk about it.”
“There’s a responsibility that the book helps the reader find their place in the world and shows them how they can change it.”
What kind of trends are you seeing in literature nowadays?
“I feel like there’s been so much YA fantasy right now that soon we’re going to be tired of it. Since publishers usually get things anywhere from one and a half to five years out, by the time you get to some things on your list, people are tired of it. I think that’s what’s happened with a bunch of current YA stuff that started off as dystopian but was repackaged as fantasy as the trend shifted. I’d like to think that that’s spun out now and we’re starting to return to more contemporary things. I don’t think it’ll ever return to older-school Meg Cabot-type contemporary, but I think there’s a more concentrated effort to make books more socially aware. People forget that even though there are so many YA readers my age, in their twenties, these are books for teenagers. There doesn’t need to be a ‘message,’ but there’s a responsibility that the book helps the reader find their place in the world and shows them how they can change it.”
What do you wish you had known when you entered the job market?
“If I hadn’t gotten lucky and ended at at Quirk so quickly, I don’t think I would’ve been as persistent. I never had to be as methodical as I should have, and I wish I would’ve had more planning ability rather than just trying things out. As for specific job skills, I’d say I should’ve gotten started on work experience earlier. I would’ve worked more on collecting bullet points for my resume, which sounds crazy, but it’s what you have to do to prove yourself to other people. But everything managed to work out, and I love what I do.”
Thornburgh’s passion for stories and editing is clear in how she approaches her job, which has her entangled in all parts of the process. Although her path to Quirk was fairly smooth, she uses her own passion and enthusiasm as a writer to empathize with authors she works with on a daily basis. She’s fully aware of the amount of work it takes to write, and wants to help someone share stories they love.
It was great getting to see this passion first-hand. Most importantly, I learned that this enthusiasm doesn’t have to be dampened by work, but can be fueled by it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.