I’ll admit it, starting with the first time I attended a writer’s conference, I was scared stupid by editors. Stupid, as in I once introduced myself to a Dial editor like this: “Er, I’m . . . well, um, Amy, and I write . . . stuff. Like romances.” I clearly remember the editor staring at me for a long few seconds before saying, “You write romances? Then what are you doing at a conference for children’s writers?”
I had no idea what she meant. I think it was Carol Lynch Williams who found me with my head in a trash can and explained that Romance is a specific genre—the bodice-ripping kind—and just because a YA novel has a romance in it doesn’t mean it’s a Romance.
Well. Anyway. Carol Williams has guided me through many such blunders, which was why I was shocked in 2004 or so when she agreed to help me host a SCBWI writer’s cruise. Then we later came up with the idea for an intensive editor’s retreat and invited Melanie Cecka from Bloomsbury (Jessica Day George was “discovered” here—woot, woot!).
I escorted Melanie around for three days, and yes, my heart was in my throat for the first day (and my head still in a trash can), but she was so “real” and delightful that I found myself thinking, “Hey, what’s going on here? Melanie isn’t some kind of Ice Queen with a blood-red pen. She’s human, and funny, and the last thing she wants to do is intimidate me.” Then I relaxed.
But even as cool as Melanie Cecka is, that weekend didn’t end with her giving me a book contract. What she gave me, however, was even better: Melanie recommended that I invite Joy Peskin to our next editor’s retreat. This was in March 2007, and Joy and I got along so well at that retreat that we probably haven’t missed a single week of emailing since then.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know what you’re thinking—I’d be thinking it, too—that I got all buddy-buddy with Joy so she’d buy my manuscript.
Well, here’s the thing: before Joy and I really got to be friends, I already knew she liked my manuscript because she had read the whole thing and emailed to tell me so (I still have the paragraph that says “I am LOVING Not in the Script” taped to my desk). Just knowing that Joy took my writing seriously helped me feel less leachy/intimidated/nervous with her.
But here’s the other (sad) thing: that novel wasn’t a good fit for Viking, and I knew the other project I was working on wouldn’t be a good fit either. But Joy and I kept talking anyway, and the more we talked, the less writing topics came up, and the more real world stuff took over. And soon I found that I had a new best friend.
And having a best friend is better than any book contract, no matter how many zeros are attached to it.
So Joy and I made a rule: we’ll never work together in an editor/author way. This makes things comfortable for the two of us to discuss my current projects, writing frustrations, or whatever. In all honesty, we rarely talk about writing or publishing, but I’ve of course asked her plenty of questions over the last three years, and her answers are always remarkably helpful. Joy tells me things I’ve never dared to ask other editors (for fear of looking like an idiot), and she’s opened my eyes to what it’s really like to be an editor. So mostly based on the questions I’ve asked Joy over the years, I hope the readers of this blog can also learn a few things from this two-part interview.
To begin Part One, here’s a bit more about Joy (that’s her Goddess-like picture at the top, by the way):
Joy Peskin is an executive editor at Penguin Group USA, where she has edited the New York Times bestseller Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson, After by Amy Efaw (winner of the Borders Original Voices Award), and Rikers High by Paul Volponi. Previously, she was an editor at Scholastic. In addition, Joy established and taught a therapeutic writing program at Streetwork, a drop-in center for homeless teenagers. She has also taught memoir and other forms of writing at Bayview Women’s Correctional Facility in New York City.
Amy Finnegan: Joy, before I got to know you, I thought an editor’s job was pretty much just reading and editing manuscripts all day. Now I know there’s a lot more to it. What other aspects of launching a book are you involved in?
Joy Peskin: I can understand why you would think that. I’m sure I thought the same thing before I became an editor. But reading and editing are only part of our jobs. In an ideal day, I spend about half the day editing and half the day doing other things. What are these “other things,” you ask? Well, a big part of my job is getting the folks I work with as excited about the books I have signed up, or want to sign up, as I am. First I have to get my boss, Viking’s amazing publisher, Regina Hayes, on board. So some days I’m in her office talking up a manuscript I want to acquire, or one I’m editing. If we’re discussing a manuscript that isn’t signed up yet, I have to be prepared to talk specifics with her: Who is the audience for this book? How much money do I think we should offer as an advance? How many units do I think we can get out in the first year? Sometimes we talk generally and sometimes I’ve already crunched the numbers in a P&L (profit and loss statement). If Regina shares my enthusiasm for a new project, I have to get the P&L signed off on by various people at Penguin, then negotiate the deal with the agent. Negotiations can take weeks and almost always include multiple emails and calls with the agent and several in-house conversations.
Once a book is signed up, my job as cheerleader has really just begun. We have several formal and informal meetings with the marketing and sales people starting about a year or more before the book is ever published. At these meetings, it’s up to me to convey my enthusiasm for each project so everyone else on the team can do his/her job. I want the marketing people to feel inspired about our books so they’ll come up with creative marketing plans. I want the sales people to walk away with ideas of ways to sell our books to the accounts (ie: What’s the hook? Who is the reader? Why does the bookseller need to support this title in a big way?).
You may think that a successful book just happens, but it doesn’t. So much planning and care and attention goes into each hit. And as the editor, that starts with me. Of course I have to edit the book, but if I edit it brilliantly but don’t do a good job selling it in-house, I haven’t done my job.
AF: When do you read new manuscripts?
JP: It depends. Schedule permitting, I like to do what I call a “clean read” at home. That’s when I read a manuscript but don’t allow myself to make any notes. I just take in the whole story, then think about it from a global perspective. What’s working? What could be improved? Usually I do the real editing, using “track changes” at work. That can take a week or two, working several hours a day. The letter takes about a day or two to write.
AF: Say an agent sends you a manuscript, and you fall in love with it. Can you elaborate a little more on the acquisition process?
First I try to get the green light from Regina. Or sometimes I may contact the agent to say something like, “I love this. I’m going to see if my publisher feels the same way.” Then if Regina thinks we should go for it, too, I do the paperwork (ie: P&L, which basically tells me how much we can afford to spend on the royalty advance based on our estimated first-year sales), get the necessary signatures (which can mean rerunning the P&L several times if it does not meet with our business manager’s approval—it’s her job to keep us realistic, and I always value her opinion), and make the opening offer to the agent. He or she then comes back to me to ask for what he or she wants (usually more money, higher royalties, different sub. rights, etc.). Then we negotiate back and forth, often for several rounds, until we’re both happy with the terms.
But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. Before I make the offer, it’s essential to find out if the author and I are on the same page (sorry, bad pun) about the manuscript. Because as much as I love a story, I’m always going to have some ideas for revisions. And if my ideas don’t match the author’s vision, I’m not the right editor for the project. So I’ll ask the agent to put me in touch with the author and we’ll chat. Hopefully we hit it off. If we do, I’ll proceed with the offer. If we don’t, as my mother would say, “It wasn’t meant to be.”
The author and I won’t talk again until the deal is done. The beauty of an agent is he or she does the dirty work so the author and I can have a purely editorial/artistic relationship.
Then there are times when a book goes to auction, but that’s a whole other story….
AF: What does “editing” mean anyway? What is your editor/author process with each acquired manuscript?
JP: Ideally I can start editing a manuscript pretty quickly after I sign it up. Nine times out of ten, I’ll do a mark-up (digitally, using “track changes”) and I’ll write an editorial letter. I really like the author to see my line notes so she can see both the lines I love (I’m a big fan of the smiley face to indicate this) and the parts I think need work. I often express my line notes in the form of questions, such as: “I’m having a hard time picturing this scene. What are the characters doing as they talk? What does the room look like? Which details of the setting would the characters notice?” Many authors have trouble with timeline, so I usually find myself asking questions like, “When did this scene take place? Give the reader cues re: passage of time.” I generally make several notes per page. Then I use the letter to address general issues. For instance, I commonly find myself asking the author what the main character’s journey is—what is she supposed to learn from the start of the book to the finish, how is she supposed to have grown and changed? I might also ask the author to rethink a few plot points, or develop some characters more fully, or flesh out the ending.
I never tell an author that she “must” make a certain change, but if I feel very strongly that something just isn’t working, I’ll sometimes ask the author to humor me and try the change. Worst case scenario: it doesn’t work and she can revert to the original, or—and this is ideal—she will come up with her own solution. If we really disagree on a certain point, we’ll hash it out. This happened when I was editing WINTERGIRLS. I was worried that including the main character, Lia’s, real weights would negatively impact readers. Laurie Halse Anderson felt strongly that in order for the book to be authentic, she had to use the actual numbers. We had a very productive conversation about this, and ultimately, the real weights went in the book. But Laurie made me feel heard and respected, and I was glad I had raised the issue. Her decision was the right one because WINTERGIRLS is her book.
In the end, an editor can never lose sight of this simple fact: The book belongs to the author. Her name is on the cover. It’s my job to help her make it the best book it can be and to that end, I want to give her all the notes and ideas that occur to me. But the final decision about how to handle various issues is always up to her. The editor is just the midwife; the author is the mother.
I usually go through several (I’d estimate 3-5) rounds of revisions on each manuscript. Throughout the process, the author and I email and talk on the phone. I always want to be sure I’m expressing my thoughts clearly, and I want the author to be able to bounce ideas off me.
Once the manuscript is final, I send it to copyediting. That happens one year before publication. Sounds like a long time, I know, but our selling season starts earlier and earlier and in order to get sales material in time, we have to keep to this schedule.
All right, readers, this is the end of Part One! Tune in next Wednesday for Part Two of this interview with Joy Peskin!