Monday, February 20, 2012

5 Questions* for Alessandra Balzer--Co-Publisher, Balzer+Bray

*As to said questions: 2/5 Serious; 2/5 Goofy; 1/5 both.

I "e-sat down" with the wonderful Alessandra Balzer to pick her brain about boutique imprints, insider YA series info, and juice cleanses. (But really...)

1. If you’ll allow me to stretch a metaphor beyond recognition: You’ve been co-captain (with Donna Bray) of the HarperCollins housed “boutique” imprint Balzer + Bray since it launched in 2009. First, can you tell us briefly what it means to be a boutique imprint? And then, might you elaborate a bit on the basic ethos of the good people working at Balzer + Bray and also tell us what’s changed or surprised you in your three years at the helm (oh, there’s that metaphor again)?

A boutique imprint is a bit like an indie record label (if you’ll allow me to pretend to be cooler than I am). It’s almost like a small publisher within a larger publishing house. This means that we curate our own select list that reflects our editorial taste and sensibility, but still have the marketing support and distribution of a major publisher.

When Donna [Bray] and I first started the imprint, we assumed it would be just the two of us with an assistant. But before we knew it, we were six! Now we can’t imagine it any other way – one of the highlights of our week is team meeting.

2. A perusal of the Apocalypsies’ roster reveals six debut authors among us (including myself) who are publishing books with Balzer + Bray in 2012. (If I’ve counted correctly, math being decidedly not my strong suit. There could be even more.) What’s remarkable to me is the range of these YA novels—from paranormal romance to horror to contemporary thriller to character-driven coming-of-age. Can you talk a bit about B+B’s commitment to new voices in fiction and to the breadth of work you seek out? Any specific advice for new writers, YA/MG or children’s?

I know--clearly your group is full of brilliant writers! We do love to publish quite a range of projects. A strong, unique, authentic voice is a common thread among the books. We also try to find fresh stories to tell. Our favorite kinds of books are the perfect combination of literary and commercial: high concept ideas executed with great writing and literary novels with a “hook” that helps us to break them out of the pack.

My advice to new writers probably isn’t groundbreaking, but I would advise against writing to trends and to read absolutely everything they can in their category so they know what is already out there and how high the bar is set. Do your research. It’s inspiring.

3. Does Balzer + Bray have a proverbial water cooler (yes, I just wrote proverbial water cooler) or snack table, the office “hangout place,” and if so: what (other than books, authors, publishing trends) gets discussed there on an average day? Any cable programs you’re all obsessed with? Any bands or musicians that come up with frequency? Or exercise fads? Juice cleanses?

We tend to migrate in either Donna’s office or mine. Our group has some obsessions that we all share-and some individual ones too. We all wholeheartedly love Veronica Mars and vow to see it become a movie one day. We love Friday Night Lights--and can’t imagine that those actors are actually real people and not the characters they play. Downton Abbey is another passion-though we are split on season two.

You must have heard about our juice cleanse! We got a discount to try a Harper author’s cleanse here and so three of us did it. It was a pretty funny bonding experiment. This is quite ironic considering that our other “water cooler” is our beloved Burger Heaven across the street.

We have also instituted many team traditions, such as the annual B+B Holiday karaoke in which we belt out some Pat Benatar and drink Japanese beer with our pizza. Making personalized birthday cards has become somewhat of a competitive sport, involving mad design skills and wicked inside jokes.

Our team now: Jordan Brown is our resident music nerd. Sara Sargent is a tennis ringer. Kristin Rens could be a professional baker. Viana Siniscalchi keeps us honest. And Donna Bray knows everything.

4. What brought you to publishing? How early did you begin to pursue it as a career?

I was lucky enough to fall into this business right after college. I was desperate for a job and was considering the fields of publishing or advertising (now I shudder to think what would have happened if I had gone all Mad Men…). I hadn’t thought of children’s books only because I didn’t know any better. When I interviewed, the offers I got were either for accounting books or children’s books-so it was a pretty easy decision to make. My first job was as an editorial assistant at Harper Collins Children’s Books (I left two years later, and returned almost four years ago to launch the imprint). Here I was, working for the house that had published Charlotte’s Web, Julie of the Wolves, Where the Wild Things Are, and Frog and Toad! I felt so incredibly lucky to be in this business-and I still do today.

5. Can you give us any “secret scoop” (we’re a very trustworthy sort) about the forthcoming three-book middle grade series House of Secrets—co-authored by iconic Hollywood director and producer Chris Columbus and acclaimed young adult novelist Ned Vizzini—that you just signed to B+B a few weeks ago? What should we know about the Pagett kids? When can we expect the first book? What do you want to tell us that NO ONE ELSE knows?

If I told you, I’d have to kill you and I really like your book! But seriously, I am so incredibly excited about that series. I love working with Chris and Ned. They are such major talents, brilliant storytellers who are working seamlessly together. After the Oscar nominations were announced I wrote to congratulate Chris on the nods that The Help received. In his typical low-key way, he responded, saying that he had already returned to his office and couldn’t wait to get back to House of Secrets.


  1. That's a lovely interview--thank you both! An office with a music nerd, a nearly professional baker, and great books all around? Sounds like heaven!

    who must go back to grading papers now

  2. It's always interesting to get a peek behind the scenes of a publisher. Thanks for the interview!

  3. Awesome interview. It's so interesting to hear what it means to be a boutique imprint and hearing how Alessandra got into publishing.

  4. This is a great interview! I love your e-banter!

  5. Great interview! I particularly enjoy knowing the television their entire office watches and discusses (from FNL to Downton) - fantastic insight into their spirit but also aesthetic sensibilities! (doesn't hurt that I also enjoy - ok, obsess over - those shows!)