The following is an interview with Leah Wilson, Jennifer Canzoneri, and Heather Butterfield, the amazing staff members of Smart Pop Books, the pop culture imprint of independent publisher BenBella Books. For years, the Fanboy Comics staff has reviewed the various books published by Smart Pop, ranging from The Girl Who Was on Fire and Ender’s World to Beyond the Wall and Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World, and we have adored each and every title more and more. In this interview, Fanboy Comics Managing Editor Barbra Dillon chats with Wilson, Canzoneri, and Butterfield about the impetus for forming Smart Pop Books, how their involvement with the publishing company has changed throughout the years, which publications speak to the “fan” in them the most, and what readers can expect next!
Barbra J. Dillon, Fanboy Comics Managing Editor: For many years, the staff members of Fanboy Comics have been loyal and ardent fans of Smart Pop Books’ consistent line of pop culture-related titles. For our readers who may be unfamiliar, what is Smart Pop Books?
Jennifer Canzoneri: Well, Smart Pop is a line of smart, fresh, engaging, nonfiction titles on the best of pop culture TV, books, and film, with a particular focus on science fiction and fantasy and Young Adult Literature. Or, as I like telling people, you know when you love a book or TV show or movie, and you want to talk about a dozen different things about it, with other smart and interesting people? We do that! Instead of gathering around a couch or dinner table, we compile all of that intelligent insight into what we think are pretty awesome books.
BD: What is Smart Pop’s relation to BenBella Books, and how did the imprint come into being?
JC: We technically published a Smart Pop title—Taking the Red Pill—first, before any other book with the company. That was way back in 2003, and the parent company, BenBella Books, was publishing everything under one umbrella. We officially made Smart Pop into an imprint in 2010, and that just means we got to stick our very cool logo on the book, to brand the books in a more separate way.
BD: What enticed each of you to join the publishing company, and how has your involvement changed over the years?
JC: I celebrate my ninth anniversary with the company this week, actually! I decided about mid-way through college to switch my career plans from teaching to publishing. I can’t pinpoint exactly why, other than it seemed like a wonderful fit for me—a person who both loves reading and creating—but I feel quite lucky that I found such a fulfilling job straight out of college. During those nine years, I’ve worked almost exclusively in the marketing department, and marketing sure has evolved considerably throughout my time. (I could probably talk for days about that evolution!)
Heather Butterfield: Jennifer and I recently discovered that we had oddly similar, windy paths into the publishing field. I also started college with plans to become an English teacher, and switched partway through because I found the idea of helping to create books so appealing. I’ve always loved to read, so any job that requires I spend all day thinking about books is pretty much a dream come true! I’ve been with Smart Pop/BenBella for more than three years now (if you count intern time, just about five!), and recently switched to editing full-time from a position that was a mixture of marketing and editorial.
Leah Wilson: I started at BenBella as an intern eleven years ago, fresh out of college, right before we published our second season of books. It was the only internship I applied to, actually; I saw the cover for Seven Seasons of Buffy on the front page of the website and knew this was a place I wanted to be! Back then, when I was hired on full-time after the internship ended, there were only three of us, including our publisher. So, I’ve done just about everything we needed done, at some point, as we’ve grown—always editorial, but also some production and cover art direction and marketing . . . even some accounting, early on! But, working on Smart Pop titles has always been my favorite part, and when we decided to spin Smart Pop off as an imprint, I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to be involved with more.
BD: Everyone at Smart Pop with whom we have worked has been amazingly kind, generous, and extremely talented. Who are the additional members of your team, and how would you describe the creative process involved with maintaining such a successful enterprise?
JC: We have about 20 full-time employees at BenBella and most of them have worked on Smart Pop titles in some capacity. It might be easier to link to our staff page! Also, thank you for the nice words! We have a great boss at the helm (Glenn Yeffeth), who I think inspires and encourages us, and beyond that, we’ve got a team of incredibly hard-working people and an even bigger team of talented and inspired authors. All of that combines for a really wonderful work environment. It’s still work, don’t get me wrong! We look forward to Friday afternoons like everyone else, but there’s a lot of gratitude running through the company, I’d bet.
BD: How would you describe the process of selecting your upcoming titles, as well as the path for assigning the books’ writers and editors?
LW: That’s a tough question to answer—two tough questions—because it’s something that’s constantly evolving. (In fact, we’re right now in the process of trying to figure out what Smart Pop’s future titles should look like, and we’d love to hear your readers’ thoughts.) We get pitches from agents and direct from authors; we come up with a lot of ideas ourselves, sometimes growing out of author (and audience!) relationships we have from previous titles. We look for books we think are especially smart and compelling, but for which there’s also the kind and size of potential audience that convinces us a book makes financial sense (since we want to be able to do things like, say, pay our writers, and keep our jobs). These days part of what we have to consider is not just is this a great idea, but is this a great idea for a book. For instance: What makes an idea right for a book rather than a series of, say, blog posts? You can see more about submitting or contributing here and here, but keep in mind that’s in the process of changing!
BD: What have been some of your favorite, as well as the most popular, releases from your company?
JC: My personal favorite is Coffee at Luke’s, not necessarily because Gilmore Girls is my favorite TV show, but because the book was just so well done and made me even more interested in the source than when I started reading. That’s the sign of a great book. Though I will always have soft spots for A Friday Night Lights Companion and Neptune Noir. Also, it was so fun to see how well The Girl Who Was on Fire was received, after working hard on the book’s campaign.
HB: A Taste of True Blood will always hold a special place in my heart since it’s one of the first books I worked on at Smart Pop. Some other favorites: The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook (I love to bake and make fancy cocktails, and this book has great recipes for both interests.), Dragonwriter (I think it has some of the most beautiful, moving essays that we’ve published.), and The Girl Who Was on Fire (because Hunger Games!).
LW: I’m also very attached to The Girl Who Was on Fire, as well as to The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook (an earlier experiment in diverging from the usual Smart Pop model that I couldn’t be happier with). Finding Serenity and Serenity Found, our two anthologies on Firefly. The Psychology of Dexter—which I think hits the best balance, of all our Psychology of titles, of not just using the property to explain psychology, but using psychology to explain (and better appreciate) the property. (I could go on; we’ve published something like five-dozen Smart Pop titles at this point, and asking for favorites is a little like asking a parent to pick a favorite child.)
BD: While many of Smart Pop Books’ titles have analyzed and discussed fan-favorite televisions shows and films, your recent release, Fic, focused specifically on fanfiction and its impact on literature. What inspired you to dig deeper into this creative phenomenon?
LW: Fic was definitely a departure for us—an experiment, in a way, because (as you point out), we’ve almost always stuck to single-property books in the past. Though it has a single author officially—Anne Jamison, who pitched the book idea to us—it relies on multiple voices, which is a model we’re obviously familiar with. It also uses as specific examples television and film and books (like Buffy, Harry Potter, Supernatural, and yes, Twilight) that we’d worked with before; in that sense, the subject matter was right in our wheelhouse!
My first encounters with fanfiction were back in college—my younger sister had posted a Gundam Wing fic on Fanfiction.net and wanted me to read it—and though I’ve seen at a handful of proposals for books about fanfiction in the past decade, Anne’s was the one that really caught my attention. Her focus on fanfiction as literature felt fresh; her respect for fanfiction writers and readers, as well as the text itself, was something that was impressively lacking in media coverage around that time. (This was around the same time you couldn’t get away from stories about Fifty Shades of Grey.) Her insistence on the importance of community in fanfiction—and, relatedly, having multiple voices represented in the book—resonated for me. And, I just plain loved her writing voice, because it’s everything I hope for in anything Smart Pop: smart, funny, accessible, and immensely insightful.
BD: What do you feel makes your pop culture titles unique, and what do you hope that readers take away from your books?
JC: I think the variety and number of insights is such a unique part of the Smart Pop line. It may be easy to find one smart person talking about something new and interesting in regards to a great book, let’s say, but to find 20 people discussing 20 different topics, all in one place? It’s a wealth of information about the properties people deeply love. If anything, I think we want readers to put down our books feeling new and deeper feelings for these properties.
BD: The publishing industry has undergone quite a few changes over the years, given the move towards digital publishing. What are your thoughts on electronic and audio books and their presence in the industry?
LW: A lot of the larger publishers, I think, felt very threatened by e-books and audio books, because they’ve spent a lot of years investing in and building their printing and physical distribution capabilities. But, printing and physical distribution, while a key part of book publishing historically, has never felt like the core of what book publishing is. When people talk about having a passion for books, sometimes it’s the artifact itself (the weight of a book, the smell of the pages), but more often it’s the content—the ideas, the story, the way reading makes you think and feel. And, e-books and audio books don’t change that.
What the increasing popularity of those formats does mean (especially partnered with the accessibility of self-publishing in the e-book format in particular) is that publishers have to rethink what their value is, both to authors and to readers. Printing and distribution used to be a huge pull—because printing was expensive, and distribution required special relationships (though in-store distribution continues to require that). Now, things like being a trusted name that you can count on for quality content (for readers) and being valuable partners for editorial and marketing (for authors) are much more important.
BD: Are there any exciting updates regarding Smart Pop’s upcoming slate of books that you are able to share with our readers?
JC: We’re really excited about our fall release, The Art of Eating Through the Zombie Apocalypse. (We had a few samples at Comic-Con, and the response from those who stopped by our booth got us even more excited.) Click the link to sign up for updates and possible giveaways for that book! We also have some fun things planned for 2015, like our official Munchkin companion book, partnering with Steve Jackson Games, and an anthology on the Jack Reacher novels. Stay tuned for more information on both!
BD: Being that we focus on all things “geek” at Fanboy Comics, would you care to geek out with us about your favorite books and authors?
JC: Like so many people, I’m a pretty big Rainbow Rowell fan these days. Tana French has mastered the murder mystery. I need to get caught up on her series, so I can read her latest that’s out any day now. Also, I’m a huge Veronica Mars fan, so it’s been such a trip to see how the Kickstarter campaign refreshed the show and then expanded it into a book series and now an upcoming web series. The internet and new media has really made that property take off in new and awesome ways. As a long-time fan, it’s been downright fun to witness.
HB: I second Jennifer’s comments about Rainbow Rowell! I’m also so excited about the new Starz adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. I was a little worried about how it would go, since I liked the books so much, but the pilot episode was amaaaazing—they did such a good job with the casting, and the scenery is just gorgeous. I’m looking forward to seeing the series unfold.
BD: Lastly, what would you like to tell fans who want to learn more about your work with Smart Pop Books?
JC: Connect with us! Check out our website, our Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr pages, sign up for updates and free content (through our website’s home page), and feel free to send us messages via those social media platforms or directly through email. We love connecting with readers—it’s easily the best part of the job!—so don’t hesitate to say hello or ask any questions.