Interview by Beth Kephart
Dan Weiss’s professional career began — fabulously — as a comic book editor. Teen-oriented fiction and nonfiction followed fast on comic heels — time spent running Scholastic’s Teen Age Book club in the late ’70s, for example, and the packaging of books such as Sweet Dreams and Sweet Valley High. A sequence of teen series ensued (do you remember Vampire Diaries?), and during Weiss’s pivotal editorial years, his daughter’s wide-ranging reading habits served as a literary touchstone. He kindly answered our questions.
PP: How did your experience at SparkNotes shape the way you see the world of books, and, indeed, the world at large?
Weiss: SparkNotes was a logical extension of my years publishing for teens and being the parent of kids in this demographic. High school adds many new pressures, and SparkNotes was a great aid. As for shaping my professional experience, it became clear that digital publishing — multi-platform, multi-format and interactive, plus conventional print — were powerful ways for kids to acquire content. I saw quickly that digital media was Gen Y’s preferred medium and more importantly, that digital didn’t necessarily cannibalize print but can be a complement in certain categories.
When Publishers Weekly reported your move to St. Martin’s back in November 2009, you were quoted as saying that Gen Y readers are “strikingly different from previous ones, both in their consumption and creation of content and media.” I wondered if you might expand on that, and if your perceptions of this generation of readers have changed over the last few years.
My feelings about Gen Y haven’t changed much over the last two years. Speaking in great generalities, this generation wants content immediately available and accessible, on multiple platforms and devices, with social applications providing increased immersion. And this demo is quickly becoming a very fast consumer of e-books, probably due to the penetration of smart phones and tablets rather than dedicated devices. They still love great stories, valuable and timely information that’s presented in easy to digest form. They still see themselves as a unique group of people with unique challenges and strengths. As a publisher, I try to appeal to this demo by offering content that reflects and enhances their lives.
You have made Gen Y a primary, though not exclusive, focus. Have other houses or editors joined you in this quest to publish for Gen Y? Which books have you loved publishing, and why?
I can’t speak for other houses, though I hear anecdotally that “new adult” is catching on as a phrase to describe 20-something lit. I’ve really enjoyed publishing the adult Sweet Valley books, Sweet Valley Confidential and the e-serial, The Sweet Life. It’s great to re-visit old, beloved characters as adults for adult readers. I’ve also really enjoyed publishing Getting Naked by Harlan Cohen, a sequel to his bestseller, The Naked Roommate. It’s a terrific, straightforward and very smart dating book that can really help lots of young adults with their romantic lives.
Has it been easy for these Gen Y titles to find their readerships? Do they have to be marketed differently?
Finding a readership is tough; there’s no “new adult” shelf and finding anything online is a big challenge. However, we use digital media almost exclusively to find our readers and there are, fortunately, lots of blogs, sites and reviewers who seem to relate and will often promote our titles. But it is a challenge.
In that same PW story cited above, you spoke of your interest in working experimentally with several kinds of formats and different media. What “experimental” projects have emerged in the past few years that have excited you, and what have these books taught you about emerging media? What kinds of stories best live within what kinds of formats?
I’ve been publishing e-serials; these are series of novella-length episodes that are analogous to a season of TV. Think “The Good Wife” or “Melrose Place.” What’s been great is publishing weekly — and watching reader reactions as the serial unfolds. Sometimes we are delighted and sometimes chagrined. We’re also experimenting with ways of re-purposing the serials, for example, in paperback bindups, for those who prefer print. We see these as standalone works, as well as possibly sequels and prequels to existing works. The dramatic shape of serials is pretty tricky and we’ve learned a lot about what works, dramatically, and what doesn’t. We are still experimenting with categories. So far we’ve published historical romance, but we’ll publish YA, erotica and mystery over the next six months. I think Gen Y will enjoy reading serials — episodes are short, can be read on their smartphones or tablets on a bus or subway and have propulsive plots that will feel like TV.
What’s next? It’s a secret!