Book Maker: Interview with Editor Heidi Hess Saxton

Every soul has a story. When that story is told well, and infused in prayer and faith, it can change lives.

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By Carrie Gress

Heidi Hess Saxton is not a household name yet, but her influence in the women's Catholic book publishing field is significant and growing daily. She is the Acquisitions Editor at Ave Maria Press and the silent force behind a lot of the fun, inspiring, and beautiful books popping up on the market. In addition to her work at Ave Maria Press, Heidi is also a wife and mother, and maintains three blogs: Ask a Catholic Editor, Life on the Road Less Traveled, and Extraordinary Moms Network.

I spoke with Heidi about what makes a good book and how aspiring authors can direct their efforts to get published.

Gress: You have brought some incredible Catholic books to the life over the past five or six years. How did you get into the book editing business?

Hess Saxton: Every so often I get a question like this from a college student who wants to get into the publishing business. The truth is, I flunked out of college after one semester (it was an engineering school near New York City, and my new freedom kind of went to my head). A few weeks later, a serious car accident brought me up short, and got me thinking about what God wanted me to do with my life. As soon as I could walk again I enrolled at Bethany College of Missions in Minneapolis – and after graduation, I stayed on to work at the publishing house on campus, Bethany House Publishers. I started out in publicity, and soon found myself proofreading and doing copy editing through on-the-job training.

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I guess you could say that I got into editing the same way a lot of writers get into publishing … through trial and error, and suffering a lot of bumps along the way.

After two years at Bethany House Publishers, I moved to California to continue my education at Azusa Pacific University. It was during that time that I started exploring Catholicism – and one of the women in my RCIA class was a publishing consultant who helped me land my dream job as managing editor at Servant Publications, which was then an ecumenical publisher of books for both Protestants and Catholics. That was in 1995, and I’ve had the privilege of working on hundreds of books and several different publishing houses over the years. For me, it has always been about that original sense of mission, to share Jesus (or to enable others to share their testimony) with others.

Gress: What do you look for in a successful book?

Hess Saxton: That’s a great question. I look for authors who, like me, have a sense of mission – who are passionate about helping others encounter God. They are already using resources available to them – social media, speaking, writing, and teaching – to share that “life’s message.” Their story must be unique, and they must have an authentic, sustainable personal connection with their intended audience. Some call that “platform.”

Most of all, a book needs to connect with the reader, and meet a specific need. A great book will not just affirm what I already believe and do, but challenge my preconceptions about God and how he works in the lives of his children – all his children. Every soul has a story. When that story is told well, and infused in prayer and faith, it can change lives.

My very favorite kind of author to find is one that has internalized his or her “life’s message” to the point that he or she can articulate it well and is just starting to share it with others in verbal form. I love helping authors with that kind of potential to take their ministry to the next level by helping them craft that message in book form. I always want to catch an author who is ready to fly!

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Gress: Are there big differences between Catholic men and women as an audience that you keep in mind?

Hess Saxton: Although it can be dangerous to talk in overly broad terms, I’ve found that books written specifically for women that tend to do best are “relational” – they compel the reader to strengthen their ties not just with God, but with those around them. Loneliness and isolation are so prevalent in our society, people are hungry for spiritually healthy relationships. We feel so pressured and are under so much stress that we tend to gravitate toward “consumables,” messages that are easy to digest yet substantial enough to nourish. A good example is Kelly Wahlquist’s Walk in Her Sandals, a Scripture study that focuses on the last week in the life of Christ. She incorporates elements of fiction, historical perspective, and personal reflection to break open each Scripture passage. This year Ave Maria Press will be releasing a study on the early life of Christ, Gaze Upon Jesus.

The second type of book is not specifically for men, but for mixed audiences seeking to simply understand more about the faith, from a primarily intellectual approach. Bishop Barron’s Catholicism series falls in this category. These are for the “explorers” of the faith, who want to be able to defend and articulate the faith well. Not all these authors are men – your book The Marian Option would likely fall in this category. But the intended response is primarily a call to action, rather than (again, primarily) a call to connection. Does that make sense?

Gress: What are some of your favorite books that you have helped publish out of the bunch?

Hess Saxton: Years ago I worked with Thomas Nelson to repackage My Big Book of Catholic Bible Stories. The original had beautiful illustrations, but the text had been compiled by an evangelical author – and (perhaps understandably) didn’t work. I worked with the publisher to create a product for Catholic families, and it is still selling strong today. It’s a good example of the importance of connecting author and audience.

My work has given me a chance to meet some of my greatest heroes, including (in chronological order) Ruth Bell Graham, Elisabeth Elliot, and Pope Saint John Paul II. It has also helped me form long-lasting friendships with some remarkable writers whose books I helped “bring to the light.” Because editing is more of an art than a science, relationships with some projects and authors have developed more easily than others – but most days I really love what I do. And I still have my secret “wish list” of authors I want to work with one day! (*wink*)

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Gress: What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Hess Saxton: The book industry has changed a great deal in the past ten years – competition is fierce, and authors must have the ability to connect with his or her intended audience.

Networking with other authors and editors is vital. The Catholic Marketing Network Tradeshow (this year in Lancaster, PA) with the Catholic Writer’s Conference Live (hosted by the Catholic Writer’s Guild) is a great place to start. There is nothing like walking the tradeshow floor to get a sense of what has already been published, and what kinds of books each publisher sells.

Investing in writers’ conferences is a great way to develop your craft.  Read deeply in your genre, and network with other writers to find out what works and what doesn’t. Once you’ve identified a handful of publishers you’d like to work with, study their lines so you can articulate how your offering complements books that have already done well for them. Then take a deep breath, write an introductory letter to the acquisitions editor, and see what happens!  Once you have an editor express interest in your idea, it’s time to develop your proposal. This is the document you will create to “sell” your book idea to a publisher. It contains a description of the book, author bio, marketing information, chapter outline and writing sample, and other details. Your proposal should paint a clear and compelling picture of the book you want to write, why you are the person to write it, your intended audience, and how you can participate in the marketing process.

Writing and successfully launching a book is hard work! You may not succeed right out of the gate – but if you are passionate about your message, write well, and are already connecting to the intended audience, stick with it. You never know what doors God will open for you!

Carrie Gress