When Karen Thomas, executive editor at Grand Central Publishing, started in the book industry 16 years ago as an editorial assistant at Berkley, publishing was very different. “Editors had a lot more time to sit and edit, work with authors, shape and formulate ideas,” she admits. “When you used to see an editor with a door closed, it meant they were editing. Now, it's usually a meeting.”
Thomas, like other editors who acquire big-budget books and celebrity-driven titles, finds herself in endless meetings with personalities, managers and handlers—not to mention marketing and promotional staff. “Marketing and publicity is such a bigger part of book publishing than it used to be,” says Thomas, who recently edited new titles by street-lit pioneer Teri Woods and Video Vixen author Karrine Steffans. “When I first began in the industry, you knew if you put out a great book, readers would find it. Now when you acquire a title, you immediately think about how it's going to be promoted.” Thomas isn't complaining, though. “Readers have so many distractions and things fighting for their attention. It's our job to break through that noise,” she says.
The increased demands on an editor's time haven't changed Thomas's passion for book publishing. “My first day in publishing was January 29, 1992,” she remembers. “I answered an ad in the New York Times that required a love of books and basic administrative skills, so it sounded perfect.” Thomas credits her five and a half years at Berkely—where she eventually became an editor—with laying the foundation of her understanding of how the book business works and for cultivating a deep love of the editorial process. “I learned everything from how to do a character count to line editing, writing revision letters and dissecting a book,” she says, noting that at Berkley she worked on mysteries and a variety of mass market genres. “But most importantly,” Thomas says, “I learned to enjoy so many different types of books.”
When she landed her next position, at Kensington, Thomas set out to cultivate African-American writing talent. In 2000, she launched Dafina, the house's African-American imprint, which now publishes more than 60 titles annually. During her nine-year tenure at Kensington, Thomas estimates that she acquired hundreds of books and gave popular African-American novelists like Mary B. Morrison and Wahida Clark an opportunity to be published.
“What I really love about publishing is that it reflects the power of the written word,” she says. Thomas says she looks for books that speak to the human spirit—she edited Grace After Midnight, an affecting memoir by former drug dealer Felicia “Snoop” Pearson, an actor on the acclaimed HBO show The Wire. “It's amazing to see people put their life down on paper and then trust you with it. It's an awesome responsibility.”
Thomas believes that it's emotional, powerful books like Pearson's that stand the test of time. But she also knows that her biggest challenge is staying focused in an industry looking for the next big bestseller. “An editor can't get caught up in what people think is hot,” she says. “You have to publish things that you love. I fight every day not to get caught in the hype.”
After a year and a half in her current position at Grand Central Publishing, Thomas says she now has more time to analyze both the current publishing terrain and her buying decisions. “I don't have any mandate over my head,” she says. She acquires about 10 books a year, in a mix of genres, and says she doesn't have a preference as to nonfiction or fiction.
At 38, Thomas doesn't see doing anything else but publishing, and foresees a strong future for the book. “I don't feel like reading is on the decline,” she says. “People are being much more selective about what they will buy.” And selectivity, she says, isn't necessarily a bad thing. “We may be forced to go back to what book publishing used to be,” she explains. “If we start publishing fewer books, it will allow us to work so much more on individual titles.”