If you missed Part One of this interview, you can find it here:
And now, Part Two:
Amy Finnegan: What are your thoughts on the slush pile? Conference submissions? Agented submissions?
Joy Peskin: I hate to say it, but I’ve never acquired anything out of the slush pile. I think I’m in the minority, though. It definitely happens. However, agented submissions certainly have a better shot. I look at slush about four times a year, whereas I look at agented submissions as they come in. If the project comes from an agent I’m eager to work with, or one I do a lot of business with, or one who calls to say, “This is going to be big and it’s going to go quickly,” I look at it immediately—usually that same night. But not all agented submissions are urgent. For those, I depend on Viking’s amazing assistant editor, Leila Sales. Leila supports me and two other editors at Viking, and she works on her own projects, too. Leila is one of those people who I think is secretly a clone, because I have no idea how she handles all the work we give her with such apparent ease and equanimity. Anyway, when I get a non-rush submission, Leila looks at it first. She writes me a reader’s report (which contains a brief summary and then her opinion of the manuscript) and sometimes we discuss the project. The bulk of agented submissions, though, are passes, and Leila can generally tell right away if something isn’t right for me. When she and I are on the fence, though, I’ll read the manuscript myself and decide what to do. As for conference submissions, I haven’t been attending many conferences lately, but I do teach writing classes in New York City and I have signed up a few projects from students I have met. However, I am always discreet about this. I’d never ask a student to submit something to me in the middle of class in front of the other students. I always contact the student in whose work I am interested after the class has ended. I don’t want students who take classes with me to think I’m there to scout for projects. I’m primarily there to teach. If I sometimes find a project that’s right for me and right for Viking, that’s just a fringe benefit.
AF: What’s this “copy” you talk about writing?
JP: There are various types of copy an editor is responsible for writing. Catalog copy is the description of the book that goes in the catalog. This copy has to be geared toward the bookseller, not the consumer. The goal of catalog copy is for the person in charge of buying books for a specific store or major account or library or school system to think, “Wow, this sounds great! I must take multiple copies.” Sometimes the buyer is the owner of a small, independent bookstore; sometimes the buyer is in responsible for ordering for a big chain store like Barnes and Noble; sometimes the buyer is representing a school or library. But the person who reads the catalog is always an adult and not a child or a teen, so the copy should respect that. It shouldn’t be cutesy or coy. It should be clever and intriguing, but straightforward and sales-oriented. Flap copy is different. This copy will go on the flaps of the book and it’s written for the consumer, not the buyer. Picture book flap copy is often written to reflect the tone of the book. It’s generally short, simple, and playful. Flap copy in a YA novel can be tricky. It’s meant to intrigue the reader but not give too much away. It shouldn’t read like a book report. It should say just enough to pull the reader in, but not so much that the reader feels like, “I don’t need to buy this book or take it out of the library because I already know what’s going to happen.” Some editors make the mistake of thinking they can just write one round of copy and use it for both the flap and the catalog. But to do that is to do a disservice to the book. Copy should be tailored to its audience in order to do what it’s meant to do.
AF: There are a lot of Big Name authors and Big Deal contracts in the children’s market right now. What would you say to already published authors who are struggling to feel that their books are just as important, even without the added fame and riches?
JP: My message is this: Don’t believe the hype. Very few authors are overnight sensations. Most people pay their dues over time. Here I’m going to make an American Idol analogy because my dirty secret is that I love reality TV, and I am especially enjoying this season of Idol (and in my opinion, there’s just one person in this competition: Crystal Bowersox). Okay, so Idol creates the insta-celebrity, the insta-sensation. If you win Idol, or even come close, you could become a big star. But the vast majority of talented singers and musicians don’t go on Idol, they don’t win Idol, they make it the old-fashioned way—by working hard, by singing in little clubs for free, by gradually working their way up. The book business is very similar, in a way. There are certainly authors out there getting notoriety for receiving huge advances and loads of attention. And that’s nice. I’m not going to say I’d turn down a million dollar advance if someone offered it to me for, say, my portion of the emails you and I have written over the course of our friendship. But here’s the thing: Those big advances are, in my opinion, very dangerous. When a publisher pays you a big advance, that publisher is not only making an investment in you, it is taking a gamble. If your advance doesn’t earn out (and I suspect most big-ticket advances don’t), your book runs the risk of being viewed as a financial failure for the company even if it sells respectfully and even if it’s a critical success. The publisher can hype your book all it wants, it can try to push your book into every account in the country. But in the end, the public decides. You book may sell in (ie: sell into accounts), but will it sell through (ie: sell through the register, to the consumer), or will it come back to the publisher in the form of returns? Bottom line: A fat advance can make you feel great, it can pay the bills you have right now, it can make you the winner of American Idol: Publishing Edition, but it might be a short-term high and not the start of a long career. Do you remember all the winners of Idol? I don’t. That’s because some of them don’t stick around. Some of them weren’t very good investments for the record company. Some of them may not have had the talent to go the distance. My best advice for authors just starting out or those who are feeling overshadowed by the Big Names and Big Deals is this: In my experience, slow and steady wins the race. The most successful authors I know personally earned their status by producing consistently excellent books over time, by accepting reasonable but not bloated advances, and by showing they can connect with their audiences in a long-term, meaningful way.
AF: Why is it important to research the editor, or especially the publishing house you’re submitting to?
JP: This is a great question and a really important piece of the puzzle. Here I’m going to make a shopping analogy. I’m all about the analogies today. If you were looking for a formal dress to wear to your cousin’s wedding, you wouldn’t start at Old Navy. And if you were looking for some casual beach clothes, you wouldn’t hit the Better Dresses department of Macy’s. Right? You’d go to the stores that you thought you had the best selection in terms of what you were specifically looking for or else you’d find yourself wasting a huge amount of time. Apply the same reasoning to submitting your manuscript. It doesn’t make sense to send your 600-page fantasy novel to an editor who doesn’t like fantasy just as it doesn’t make sense to submit your sweet rhyming picture book manuscript to an editor who really only works on edgy YA. So before you start submitting, do your homework. Figure out which editors primarily work on which types of books. Figure out what the different imprints at the different publishing houses are known for. Some are more commercial, some are more literary. Some may be more geared toward traditional books, some may be more experimental. How am I supposed to do all of this? You may wonder. I’d wonder that, too. I’ve been an editor for 14 years and I don’t know all of this myself. That’s where a very important person comes into the equation: the agent. It’s the agent’s job to know all of this information. He or she studies recent submissions to keep aware of which editor has acquired which project. A good agent knows the imprints well, has good relationships with the various publishing houses, and knows how to get your submission into the best possible hands.
Now I bet you’re thinking, Hey, agents sound great. How do I get one? That’s a whole other answer, but doing this also requires a bit of homework. Agents also have preferences in terms of the types of projects they handle, so you’ll want to be sure you are sending your work to the agents who are the best matches for your style. There are also reputable and not-reputable agents out there. Big agencies like Writers House are reputable, and there are some very reputable small agencies, too. But there are also “agents” who will try to charge you money up front to represent you—these agents are not reputable. There are also some people who call themselves agents but they aren’t the real deal. Anyone can get a business card printed that says, “Jim Smith: Literary Agent.” One suggestion I have for finding a good agent is to look in the acknowledgments pages of books that are similar to yours. Most authors thank their agent. You can then contact the agent and say something like, “I noticed that you agented ________, which is similar to my book for [insert reason], so I thought you might be interested in representing me, too.”
AF: Any parting words of wisdom, or encouragement for writers hoping to get published?
JP: Never lose sight of your motivation for writing. Fame, fortune, the fantasy of running into the girls who were mean to you in eighth grade and introducing yourself as a wildly successful author: these are, in my opinion, not useful motivations. The only reason to write for children and teens, as I see it, is that you have something important to say to children and teens. Something special, something only you can say. And of course you also have to enjoy the process. An author recently told me that working on her revision was like pushing a boulder up a mountain. “It’s like that for all writers, though, isn’t it?” she asked me. It’s not. And when I heard her say this, I knew why her revision hadn’t come together as I had hoped it would. Reading it for me felt like writing it had for her—like a struggle. This isn’t to say that writing isn’t hard work. It is. When you’re really in a groove, I imagine writing feels like a runner’s high. You’re really pushing yourself but it feels fantastic. Time is flying by. You never want to stop.
I’ve been to conferences where I’ve heard editors say, “Don’t give up, your book will get published, just believe!” And that always annoys me because I think it’s patronizing. Not everyone who likes to write can be a published author. Not everyone who likes to sing can get a recording contract. That’s why you need to find people in your life to give you honest feedback. Take classes taught by teachers you trust and listen to what they tell you. Connect with a writers’ group filled with other authors you respect and listen to what they tell you, too. Work on your craft and get better. Have realistic expectations. In the words of my mom, “If it’s meant to be, it will be.”
Thank you SO much, Joy, for all the time you spent answering these questions!
Readers, here is an abbreviated list I put together of some recent books Joy Peskin has edited:
WINTERGIRLS by Laurie Halse Anderson: http://www.amazon.com/Wintergirls-Laurie-Halse-Anderson/dp/014241557X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1273625366&sr=1-1
LOOKS by Madeleine George: http://www.amazon.com/Looks-Madeleine-George/dp/0142414190/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1273625289&sr=1-1
FOR KEEPS by Natasha Friend: http://www.amazon.com/Keeps-Natasha-Friend/dp/0670011908/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1273625209&sr=1-1
THE DOLL SHOP DOWNSTAIRS by Yona Zeldis McDonough: http://www.amazon.com/Doll-Shop-Downstairs-Zeldis-McDonough/dp/067001091X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1273625071&sr=1-1
FOLLOW THE LINE by Laura Ljungkvist: http://www.amazon.com/Follow-Line-Laura-Ljungkvist/dp/0670060496/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1273625018&sr=8-1