Making the Book: The Editor

When I was young, growing up in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, I had no idea that there were buildings (mostly in New York) filled with people committed to the creation of books. My hope is that today's youth not grow up with such ignorance, and I will do everything in my power to ensure that kids realize that they can grow up to work in the magical world of publishing. (Kids, I'll tell you now that the money is in writing, illustrating, agenting, and upper management.) 

I'm ten years in to my career in publishing, and I continue to love it. I love it so much that I've created a column on my blog--Making the Book--dedicated to the bookmaking process. So far, I've interviewed a writer, where the process begins, and an agent, who takes it to the next step. In last month's post, I erroneously ended the entry stating that the next person I was going to interview was the designer. What the? How long have I been doing this? (Answer: ten years--see above.) Apologies, dear reader, I got way ahead of myself. There are a lot of people who come before the designer in the bookmaking process, such as the editor. 

In my unbiased opinion, the editor is THE MOST IMPORTANT PERSON in the process, possibly the world. Every editor has his or her own list, and s/he must fill that list with books s/he is passionate about. So, if we're keeping track of the steps...

1. A writer crafts a manuscript, submits it for representation, and secures an agent. (I know, much easier said than done.)

2. The agent submits the manuscript to editors s/he thinks will like it.

3. If the editor falls for the manuscript, s/he will take steps to acquire it.

There's a lot of talk about "voice" in our business. "I signed up the writer because I loved the voice of his manuscript." "I absolutely adored the protagonist's voice, so I made an offer the same day I received the submission!" But if you're an aspiring writer looking to get an agent or sell your manuscript, being told by numerous agents and editors that they're on the hunt for something "voice-y" probably isn't super helpful. A strong voice is likely to get you in the door, but editors consider a lot of other things before they decide to move forward on a project. If you take a look at the "Add It to the List" entries on my site, you'll pick up on some of the reasons I acquire a book: voice, relationship with talent, talent's track record, strong hook for the education market, familiar concept with original spin. And it is true that editors review an author/illustrator's social media stats, though I'm less concerned about numbers and more interested in how the person represents him/herself. 

For this edition, I decided to mix things up a bit and instead of interviewing one editor, I reached out to multiple editors with the following: Name a project you recently acquired, and explain why you wanted it on your list. (The bolding is mine.)

"I recently acquired a picture book by Kirsten Hall called The Honeybee, which will be illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault. Kirsten’s verse is stunning—buzzy and humming and vibrant—but I was equally drawn to her timely subject. Honeybees have been all over the news recently: things like pesticides, stress, and a lack of biodiversity have contributed to their disappearance over the last decade. It’s hugely important that we protect our honeybees and show kids how crucial they are to our environment; this lovely book will be the perfect tool to do that. Plus, it’s a GREAT read aloud!" - Emma Ledbetter, associate editor

"A recent project I acquired is Molly and Pim and the Millions of Stars by Martine Murray. It is a middle grade novel that has been published in Australia and will come out here in Spring 2017. I was won over by Molly and her desire to be normal while having a mother whom she fiercely loves, but is unchangeably odd. That duality felt perfect for middle grade readers struggling with finding their place in the world, but the magical realism element offered a fresh approach on how to tackle those transitions. What do you do when your mother accidentally turns herself into a tree? What does it reveal about your complicated relationship with her? What does it reveal about who she is and about the person you'd ultimately like to be? Add to that Martine's lovely writing and it simply felt like a book that needed to be shared, so I bought it." - Julia Maguire, editor

"I most recently acquired books two and three in the Serafina series by Robert Beatty. I fell madly in love with Robert's debut novel, the spooky middle grade mystery Serafina and the Black Cloak [already a New York Times best seller], and was desperate for more books about Serafina. She is both strange and familiar: a wild girl who is perplexed by the "civilized" world, but also a lonely girl who aches for friendship and human connection just like we all do. I was also eager to edit more Serafina books because of the series' rich historical setting at Biltmore Estate. I'm a history geek and the mansion is described so vividly that I felt like I had been dropped into late 19th century North Carolina! I was blown away by how quickly Serafina became a hit and by the passion of the book's fans. It was clear that the author's work on the ground, spreading awareness among local families who deeply love the magical history of the Biltmore Estate, meant that there would be a big, built-in readership for more books in the Serafina series and that, based on the book's national success, this was a story and heroine that resonated with both adults and kids across the country." - Laura Schreiber, editor 

"My most recent acquisition was Fakespeare in the Park by Gabe Soria from Charlie Olsen at Inkwell. Gabe is a big fan of Regular Show, one of the Cartoon Network shows in our publishing program. He had seen several of our titles for Cartoon Network Books and was impressed by the quality of the writing, and he created the concept and an outline to solicit to us through his agent. I was impressed with the story, but even more so with Gabe’s nonchalance in approaching us about pitching a licensed project. We rarely get the opportunity to “acquire” licensed titles as the P&Ls for licensed publishing programs usually only support a writer-for-hire fee. The majority of the book concepts are developed in house and approved by the licensor and then we find the perfect writer to do the work of completing the manuscript. While licensed book publishing has long been treated like merch (a dirty word in the vocabulary of my publisher), I’m delighted to see that our Cartoon Network Books program is inspiring creativity in authors invested in a world where quality is available in a variety of media platforms, presenting cool new opportunities for great storytelling." - Karl Jones, associate editor

"The first book I acquired [Lisa's most recent acquisitions have yet to be announced] after starting at Little, Brown was Girl in the Blue Coat by the incredibly talented Monica Hesse. I was drawn in right from her agent's pitch as it was clear that this book was an original piece of WWII fiction from an exciting author. And I was blown away by the novel itself, which is intricately plotted and beautifully told, and that rare kind of story that stays with you long after you’ve turned the last page. But what really sold me was how immersive the reading experience was—how much I cared for the characters, how real they all felt, and how deeply drawn into the world and story I was (it punched me in the gut again and again). I read the entire manuscript in one sitting, and after pausing to process a bit, I immediately went back to read it again from the beginning. And that’s really what I look for in a new acquisition: a book that makes me feel deeply and won’t get out of my head, and the kind that I’m eager to spend years with, through the editorial and book making processes first and then being its fan and advocate years to come." - Lisa Yoskowitz, executive editor

"My most recent acquisition is 4 Wizards, a graphic novel collaboration between Nimona creator Noelle Stevenson and TV writer Todd Casey. I originally signed up Nimona based on sample chapters and a synopsis. But I’d already seen and loved Noelle’s art online, from her Broship of the Rings series and Hawkeye Initiative to her autobiographical mini-comics. In her work, she showed an astonishing talent for mixing subversive humor with emotional arrows to the heart, and the fact that Nimona provided a vehicle for that talent was all the convincing I needed. The mix of humor and heart is again on display in 4 Wizards, as are nuanced mentor-mentee relationships, and Noelle’s art style has developed a lot since the early pages of Nimona. It’s always a joy when I get to sign up the next project from a creator with whom I already work—totally unlike discovering a debut, but equally rewarding." - Andrew Harwell, editor

"Love, Triangle by Marcie Colleen, to be illustrated by Bob Shea is a story about a triangle and square who are best friends…until a dashing triangle comes between them. The concept for this picture book grabbed me from the moment I saw the title. It makes you laugh without reading a thing (though happily the text is also clever and funny). I love it when an author has an original idea for a play on words—that can still be appropriate for a younger age group, of course…" - Alessandra Balzer, publisher

"I recently acquired a picture book called I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie Levy, to be illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley. I acquired it because the Notorious R.B.G. is the bomb and because there is no major biographical picture book about her, which seems crazy to me! This needed to be remedied. Also, the book tells the story of Ruth’s life through the lens of her many disagreements, or dissents, which is such a smart angle—and I love the idea that it might encourage young girls and boys to speak up, too." - Kristin Ostby, senior editor

You get the sense in all of these answers that the editor fell in love with the writing first and foremost. But isn't it interesting to learn the other factors that influenced the decision to acquire? 


Making the Book: The Agent

Numerous people dedicate hours of their lives and bits of their souls to the creation and production of each and every book...and I plan to interview all of them in the order a book is produced. (It's going to be tricky.) A month ago, I crafted the first entry in my "Making the Book" series, focusing on the writer's experience. In this edition, I attempt to answer big questions like "What's a literary agent?" and "What does an agent actually do?" by interviewing, you guessed it, an agent, specifically the charming and smart John M. Cusick.

John Cusick moonlights in a jazz quartet once the sun sets.

John Cusick moonlights in a jazz quartet once the sun sets.

CT: I must begin by saying I love the books you send to me. Of the five submissions I've received from you, I bought two (Tommy Wallach's We All Looked Up and Christian McKay Heidicker's Cure for the Common Universe), made an offer on one (Rahul Kanakia's Enter Title Here, which ended up at Hyperion), and was devastated not to be able to make a play on another. Only one--also by Rahul--was a pass for me. Beyond that, Barnes & Noble had three novels you represent on their list of most anticipated YA novels of 2015. So, my question for you: How do you have such amazing taste?

JC: Wow, thank you! I wish there was some secret formula (I really do, because then I’d be RICH), but it really comes down to connecting with a project on a gut level. When I first read Last Year’s Mistake (Simon Pulse, June 2015), I wasn’t a particularly avid consumer of contemporary romance, but there was something in Gina Ciocca’s writing that struck me as so special. I still remember an early scene wherein two characters eat taffy on the beach— an image I just couldn’t get out of my head, Gina had drawn it so deftly and so simply. It’s that moment where a book pulls you in, either with a plot twist or choice detail, and you know something magical is happening. Whether or not that’s taste, I can’t really say.

I think part of finding great projects is tuning into really unique voices. I have a short attention span, so I always like something that really keeps me guessing, that feels *different*. Certainly with Rahul, Christian, and Tommy, I saw something in their writing that jumped off the page, whether it was a particular ear for character voices, a bent sense of humor, or wonderfully skewed view of the world. I think as readers we’re drawn to voices that feel unusual in this way, and I’m certainly drawn to the same as an agent.

You call out one of the more challenging aspects of our jobs. We're both regularly asked what we're looking for, right? And it always comes down to voice, which is a really vague and unsatisfying answer. So then I add all of these specifics (a YA novel that explores the affects of the wars in the Middle East, a picture book about being biracial, a middle grade novel with elements of Chinese folklore), but really, it's just voice. And then there have been plenty of books I've passed on that had amazing voices but no clear selling angle. Before I acquire a book, I have to convince my publisher and the sales and marketing teams that the book will sell. But you don't have that same pressure, do you? You ultimately decide what clients you take on. So beyond voice, what other factors are you considering when you're signing up projects? 

It’s interesting you say that, because I definitely have the publisher and sales force in mind when I submit a project, as well as the editor. That’s why I always want to send only the most polished and perfect manuscripts, as I know the editor has to turn around and sell them to the team in-house. It’s not enough for a manuscript to have clear potential— anyone must be able to read and see immediately the project is a winner, something special.

When I signed Courtney Alameda (whose debut Shutter released from Feiwel & Friends in February), it was on a ten-page sample at a conference. This is *extremely* rare in my experience, but it wasn’t just her amazing voice that sold me. At that same conference I met Courtney for a critique, and I could see immediately she was someone I wanted to work with. Firstly, she was a teen events coordinator for Barnes & Noble at the time, with a strong network of authors and industry professionals and a first-hand appreciation of author promotion. She was also passionate about her work. Shutter was far from the first manuscript she’d ever written; she’d been honing her craft for years before seeking representation, which told me she was both prolific and committed to improving. Finally, Courtney and I just hit it off personally. We talked for an hour about books, movies, video games (she’s a sci-fi nut like me), and I could tell she’d be easy and fun to work with. When I take on a new client, I’m looking for some combination of these qualities. Not just talent, but industry, commitment, marketability, and a personal rapport. 

Those are incredibly valuable traits for any artist trying to make it these days. And I absolutely agree with you--a personal rapport is essential. I also like to make any author I'm considering working with do a bent-arm hang. If you can't hold your body up for at least twenty seconds, I probably don't want to work with you.

One of the reasons I very much enjoy partnering with you on novels is that you're a talented editor. The manuscripts you send are, indeed, polished. I also work with agents who do little to no editing. Their sense is that the acquiring editor will have his/her own vision for the book. It's worth noting that you and I had differing opinions on the second half of We All Looked Up. So how do you strike that balance, between editing a novel and accounting for the would-be editor's point-of-view? How do you know when to stop editing before you submit a project?

This question really makes me stop and think, because when I’m editing, there’s no part of my brain saying “oh, I’ll leave this bit to the editor” or “I don’t want to mess with this section because the editor will want to put his spin on it.” Really what I’m trying to do is help the author create a strong foundation which will inspire the editor to build up. When I submit a project, the writing must be polished, the arcs cohesive, the conflicts compelling and layered—but all that is really a jumping-off point in the creation of a great book. Those are the basics. I also know that even if an editor *loves* the foundation the author has created, he might be inspired to totally tear up that foundation and rebuild almost entirely from scratch. But how can you ask an editor to have that kind of vision if you don’t give him a solid jumping off point?

I’ll also note that occasionally I send projects that are much rougher, because there seem to be a few directions the story could go, and I’m honestly not sure which is the strongest. When I submit such projects, I let the editor know I’m sending a manuscript in a rougher state, and why. In those instances, firming up the foundation might be a disservice to the author, when the editor may have a stronger vision for the book at this earlier stage. 

It's worth mentioning that you're also a very talented writer. [John is the author of Girl Parts and Cherry Money Baby.] I can only imagine how that side of John figures into all of this. Here's what I'm imagining: John reads a page from a submission. He starts yelling to an empty room. "What the--?! THAT'S how he decided to handle that scene? Ah, hell no. I totally would have done it differently. And by "differently," I mean "better." John pours four fingers of scotch and continues reading.

That is nearly dead-on accurate, though more often it’s me reading something amazing, crying “Why can’t *I* do that?” and then pouring four fingers of scotch.

I've half-joked at conferences that one way to get a book deal is to secure a job in publishing. (Two cases in point: you and me.) I'm guessing you became an agent for reasons other than selling your own manuscript. I know it has been years, but do you remember what those reasons were?

In college I worked as a permissions assistant for my school’s independent press, handling requests to reprint portions of our large poetry backlist. I was working on my first novel (the first of several that never saw the light of day), and I loved writing, but I was interested in the business, too. I loved the blend of artistic and professional, the mechanics of making a book—that sacred object I was studying—and how an idea transforms into a physical object you can discover, purchase, and enjoy.

I came to New York looking for a publishing job, but I fell into agenting somewhat by accident. After interviewing for editorial assistant positions around town, I answered an ad on Craigslist for what was essentially an agent’s assistant/dog-walker. I was literally the guy tripping down Broadway with two lattes, a phone to my ear, dry-cleaning over one shoulder, and a 100-pound American bull dog straining at the leash. But the agenting part—man, I fell in love with that almost immediately. I was a writerly wall-flower type as a kid, and here was a job that forced you to pick up the phone and get things done, to be social, outgoing, even forceful when necessary. It’s a job that requires you to think on your feet, where you survive by your wits and hustle alone. If it all sounds dramatic—it is! And even when the job’s a slog or thankless (and it certainly can be), it’s that unpredictability and excitement that keep me going. 

Gah! I love it! Anne Hathaway as John Cusick in The Agent Wears Ill-Fitting Suits!

Actually I always saw myself as more of a Ryan-Reynolds-in-The-Proposal type and oh wow I’m going to stop talking now…

Let's go with America Ferrera in Ugly Betty.

I, too, love that our jobs present something new every day. Each manuscript has its unique challenges, every author his/her own quirks. And the industry is always evolving. Speaking of quirky authors, do you have any stories you want to share with our readers, maybe of a particularly tough client? Or maybe some advice for writers letting them know what not to do? I have one: Be mindful of the language you use in your correspondence. I've received emails from writers I'm working with that are inappropriate/offensive. Not like dirty pics or crude jokes, but abrasive, where you get the sense that the writer thinks s/he is your boss (P.S. my actual boss doesn't speak to me that way). What's more maddening is when you hear from a co-worker that one of your writers has spoken down to him/her. That's just stupid. Your editor can do a lot to protect you and your image, but only if you contain your bad behavior.

I definitely receive plenty of nasty correspondence from authors I’ve rejected. Snide quips, digs, and sometimes outright threats. This to me seems like such a shame, because though I know it’s frustrating to be rejected, I always encourage authors to try me again…assuming they haven’t burned the bridge by calling me a know-nothing jerk who wouldn’t know a good book if it slapped him in the face etc etc. I wonder if these authors know that agents talk to one another. We especially like to share these nasty responses with our colleagues, partly for the entertainment value, and partly to say “Hey, watch out for this nut.”

The other gnarly author behavior that really gets to me is an unwillingness to work. I hate the word “lazy”— I think what often manifests itself as laziness is often anxiety, fear, or an ignorance of just how hard and long you have to work to make a book a success. However, I’ve met quite a few authors who aren’t willing to edit *at all*, and this really boggles my mind. I think things may be a bit different in the trade fiction world, but in kids books and young adult, I take it as a given an as-yet-unpublished writer will be willing to work with me— or at the very least his editor— to shape and reshape a book until it’s ready to go. The market is just too competitive not to, and those who are unwilling to roll up their sleeves get relegated to the recycling bin, in my experience.

Also, authors looking for agents: never ever ever under any circumstances cold call an agent. This is a major pet peeve of mine, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. Agents receive hundreds of queries a week, and our job is to service our clients, not spend twenty minutes on the phone hearing your pitch. The best way to get an agent’s attention is to follow his or her submission guidelines and submit great work. Don’t send cupcakes, don’t knock on our door, and don’t call. Okay, rant over.

This is FANTASTIC advice. (I do accept cupcakes.) You and I have been in the publishing industry for a while now, so we probably take some of our knowledge for granted. I can imagine it's a bit intimidating just getting started if you're an aspiring writer trying to figure out first steps. That get hate mail?! 

I can't let you go without asking what you're reading.

As ever my reading list is three books deep. I'm currently reading Leigh Bardugo's Shadow and Bone (I know, late to the party), Confessions of an Imaginary Friend by Michelle Cuevans, which comes out in September, and rereading my client Hannah Moskowitz's A History of Glitter and Blood, coming this August from Chronicle Books. These are definitely the sorts of books that make me slap my forehead and go "now why can't *I* write like that?"


We All Looked Up by Tommy Wallach came out in March 2015, received three starred reviews, and became a New York Times best seller. His next book, Thanks for the Trouble, comes out in February 2016. Christian McKay Heidicker's Cure for the Common Universe hits bookshelves in Summer 2016. All three books are represented by John Cusick.

Tune in soon for the next Making the Book featuring...the Designer.