There are a few occupational hazards to working in children’s book publishing. You can pretty much count on being told, “Oh, that sounds fun!” whenever you are asked what you do. But far worse is the determined glint that comes into people’s eyes as they say, “I have the greatest idea for a children’s book!” or, “I’ve written a children’s book—would you read it?” We asked editors about the strangest place they’ve been pitched a book, and have collected a number of their stories.
Wes Adams, executive editor, Farrar, Straus & Giroux Books for Young Readers During the cesarean section birth of my daughter, I sat perched on a stool, gloved and gowned, next to a chatty anesthesiologist. As the operation got underway she asked about my job. Once she heard, she didn't hesitate to pitch a picture-book idea at me. I still remember that it involved some multimedia musical tie-in and that it went on for a while. It was midnight and we had been in the hospital for 12 hours already, and I was too frazzled and freaked out to have the sense to shut her down.
Laura Godwin, v-p and publisher, Henry Holt Books for Young Readers I was at the opening of the Eric Carle Museum, standing in the rain with a few thousand other close friends, when I happened to mention the obscure little motel I was staying at, to a colleague who was standing next to me. When I got back to my motel a couple hours later, there was a manuscript waiting for me on my bedside table (not from the colleague, of course). Creepy!
Lori Benton, v-p and publisher, Harcourt Children's Books
The real question is where haven’t I been pitched a children’s book? It happens so very much. Everyone’s got a story to tell, everyone think it’s easy, and everyone wants to share it with you.
I’ve had the whole gamut of doctors: periodontist (who was pitching on behalf of his newly ex-girlfriend and made no secret of the fact that if he could assist her writing career, surely she would take him back), gynecologist (what was he thinking?!) and dermatologist.
Then there was the flight attendant. I’ve gotten very cagey about not admitting to strangers what I do. I was reading a manuscript on a plane and she asked me what I was reading, then asked me what I did, and I was forced to tell her. Whereupon she said, “Oh, I’ve been working on a manuscript! And it’s for kids!” It’s always “kind of like Harry Potter,” and in this case, she said it was better. She really pressed me so I had to hand over my business card (though I did think about handing over Michael Eisenberg’s card instead, because I happened to have it in my bag). She did send the manuscript to me, and I very politely rejected it.
Another memorable moment was having a manuscript pitched during my sister’s wedding rehearsal dinner—by the priest. It was my sister’s husband’s childhood priest, who had come from out of town to officiate at the wedding. My sister had seated me next to him—the ultimate payback—as well as the local priest. So there I am, sandwiched between two priests. I’m politely making conversation with them, and I’m thinking it’s totally harmless to admit what I do. But it turns out the priest has a manuscript for a picture book about death, and then the other priest chimes in and says, “It’s wonderful, you have to publish it!” I was hoping for divine intervention to get me out of it, but no.
David Allender, v-p and editorial director, Scholastic Book Clubs
My worst story was when a dental hygienist pitched me a book that her boyfriend had written. I was stuck in the chair with my mouth open, and she’s poking around with instruments, so it didn’t seem wise at that moment to tell her how awful the story of Herb the pigeon sounded. She kept insisting how cute it was. She said she’d send it, but thankfully never followed up. And I never went back.
Nancy Gallt, Nancy Gallt Literary Agency
My assistant is applying for graduate school at the University of California. She sent off her application and resume, and this guy responded by saying he’d look over her application, but in the meantime would she mind giving this manuscript to her boss.... I feel terrible. Now I have to string this guy along until she gets accepted or rejected.
Craig Virden, former president, Random House Books for Young Readers
I was being driven to LAX from my hotel by a limo driver. We got to talking and he asked me what I did, I told him I was in publishing, and it went from there. Maybe five miles from the entrance to the airport he pulled off the road into a back lot that was poorly lit. “Why are you stopping here?” I asked him. “I want you to take a look at something,” he said. It was a screenplay. “It’s really good, you’ve got to read it.” I wanted to say no, and kept trying to, then I finally said, “OK, you can send it to me at work.” It was really kind of scary. I could have been killed in a back lot of LAX and no one would have known.
Cindy Eagan, editorial director, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Many years ago, back in Boston, I was set up with a guy by a mutual friend. We went out on a few lunch dates, and I wasn’t really sure where it was going. He said to me, “Can I pitch you my manuscript? I’ve written a novel—it’s fiction but it’s semi-autobiographical.” I said sure. We got together for one more lunch. He handed over this big novel. It was hundreds of pages. I took a look at the title page—it was called The Reluctant Womanizer! I passed his manuscript along and I never talked to him again.
Arthur A. Levine, v-p and editorial director, Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic
There was the time at a writers’ conference that a woman waited for me outside the room where pitch sessions had been arranged for those who had signed up in advance. So I’d just finished hearing pitches for two straight hours and this person comes up to me and says, “May I ask you a question?” And I say, “Sure.” So she launches into what is not a question, but an involved tale of something that is not really a book, but a game and a video and a DVD all rolled into one. I stop her and say, “Well, honestly it doesn’t sound like I’m the right editor for this project, since I’m really a literary guy at heart. I publish books.” And she says, “Well then, who should I send this to?” And I say, “Well, who are the children’s book publishers you most admire? Who have you seen that has been producing the kind of book plus multimedia package you’re describing?” And she says, “Oh, I don’t read! At least, I certainly don’t read children’s books!”
Simon Boughton, publisher, Roaring Brook Press
Anyone who’s had Lyme disease knows that it’s like a bad, protracted flu—aches, fever, fatigue; really nasty. A few years back my wife was ill with Lyme and we needed to find a babysitter in a hurry. We briefly employed a woman who went by the name of “Cha-Cha.” Her babysitting technique consisted of parking the kids in front of the television; then she’d park herself at the end of my wife’s bed and pitch children’s book ideas.
Another time, one of our sales reps was out running near the Golden Gate Bridge when he passed a dejected-looking man on a parapet. Thinking something might be wrong he turned around and went to talk over to talk to him. It turned out this man’s wife had left him and he was in some distress, but he eventually got down off the bridge and a conversation started. When it got to the point of “so, what do you do?” and the rep explained that he worked for a children’s publisher.... Well, you can guess the rest. (When the rep in question later told this story to an audience of editors, all simultaneously and without hesitation responded, “You should have pushed him!”)
Beverly Horowitz, v-p and publisher, Bantam Delacorte Dell Books for Young Readers
My mother was close with her brother. He’d been seriously ill and finally died. Everyone from our family, of course, was at the funeral. We went from the service to the cemetery, and when it was over and people were starting to head back to their cars, I was walking with my mother when a woman she knew came up. “I’m so sorry, I knew you were very close,” she said. Then she asked, “Is that your daughter, the one in publishing?” When my mother said yes, it was, she said, “I thought I’d see her here with you. That’s why I have with me the manuscript I have always wanted to give to her.” She took it out of her purse and handed it to me. I was totally taken aback. As she smiled at me I said, “Excuse me, I was just taking my mother to the car.” She held out an envelope. I said, “I don’t really think I can take it. I might lose it.” “No, you won’t,” she said. “You can fit it into your handbag.” At which point my mother said, “Just take it!” After she left I told my mother, “I usually empathize with aspiring writers, but for this one, even if it’s Proust, I’m going to reject it!”