Senior editor of Scholastic’s Arthur A. Levine Books imprint, Cheryl B. Klein steps into another publishing role this week with the release of Second Sight: An Editor’s Talks on Writing, Revising, and Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults. Largely composed of Klein’s presentations at writers’ conferences and other venues, the self-published paperback (released by her company, Asterisk Books), discusses such topics as devising terrific first lines, writing a strong picture-book manuscript, finding the emotional heart of a story, building characters, and bolstering plot. Klein talks about why and how her book came to be.
First, a bit about your original publishing persona. When and why did you decide to become an editor?
That story always starts with my grandfather, Philip Anthony Sadler. When I was growing up, he was a professor of children’s literature at what was then Central Missouri State University and he ran a children’s literature festival that I started attending when I was a baby. I grew up around authors and children’s books, and basically by the time I was in high school, I knew I wanted to be an editor.
Did you major in English at college?
Yes, I majored in English at Carleton College in Minnesota, and the summer after I graduated, in 2000, I went to the Denver Publishing Institute, where I met Susan Hirschman. She was so full of energy and was so inspiring—she really helped me connect to the publishing world. After I left Denver, I contacted her at Greenwillow and said I’d love to work for her. She told me she wasn’t hiring, but said that she knew that Arthur Levine was. So I interviewed with him, and he gave me a job as his editorial assistant in August 2000.
And you’ve been there ever since?
Yes. I feel lucky. Everything fell into place very quickly.
At what point did you develop an interest in speaking at writers’ conferences?
The first talk that’s included in my book I did in fall 2003. I really like thinking about the problems authors face. I believe it helps me to be a better editor if I think through what makes great characters, and why a plot may not be working. I feel that with each talk I set a challenge for myself as I try to define specific things—like what makes a great picture book. I’m always initially trying to answer those questions for myself as an editor rather than trying to explain them to others, but I found that ultimately my answers are useful to others as well.
What made you decide to collect your talks in Second Sight?
The story of the book really starts with the launch of my blog in January 2005, followed by my Web site the following November. Both helped me get an online audience, and after I started running the talks online, I was often asked when I was going to do a book, and I started thinking seriously about doing that in spring 2009.
Did you consider self-publishing from the beginning?
Yes. I read a great deal about self-publishing before I decided to do this. I knew what it required to make a high-quality book, and I thought that I had the platform to get it out there, thanks to the writers’ conferences, my Web site, and my blog. I was very curious to see how the self-publishing process worked. I also knew it would cost quite a bit of money.
How did you tackle the financing?
An artist friend told me about KickStarter.com, a Web site devoted to raising funds for creative projects. I investigated it and decided this would be a good way to see if the support and following I had online would translate into support for a physical book.
When my grandfather learned that I was doing fundraising for the book, he offered to pay to have it published. I told him that I really appreciated that, but that it was important to me to go through KickStarter to establish that there was an audience for the book. But I agreed to let him pay the design fees. He passed away in December 2009, and I dedicated Second Sight to him and to my grandmother, Carol Jean Devers Sadler, who also taught me to love literature.
Were you heartened by the response you received through KickStarter?
Very. On July 1, 2009, I posted on the site that I wanted to raise $2000 to print 500 copies of my book, then announced it also on my blog and on Twitter. KickStarter was newly launched, and mine was the earliest publishing project. I raised the money in nine days, and by September had raised $3200 and I ended up printing 2000 copies of Second Sight.
How did you decide on your title?
It refers to the service I try to provide for my authors—giving them a fresh view of their work, a “second sight” of it that might help them make it even better—and what I hope the book provides for all writers in turn.
Has anything surprised you about the publishing process in your new, simultaneous stint as author and editor?
I think most of the things I’ve discovered along the way I already knew intellectually, but I didn’t really appreciate them until I went through the process myself. Things like, shipping is really expensive. And there’s the nervousness of wondering: will anyone buy the book? When you work in-house, there are people there to share in everything: the risks, the joys, and even the nervousness. Here I was doing everything myself, which was very different.
Was it at all frightening to be both author and editor?
I wouldn’t say frightening. If anything, I’m more confident in my editorial skills than my writing skills. I thought I was being fairly ruthless in my decisions about what to include in the book. But in my first pass to the designer, what I turned in ended up being 400 pages long, and I quickly realized that that would be very expensive to publish. So I said, ‘I have to slice this baby down’—when you’re paying for every page you quickly go for the knife. So the book ended up being 320 pages, and I feel very good about how it came together.
Putting your editorial cap back on, what changes have you seen in the children’s book landscape in the past decade?
I’d say we’ve seen a huge shift of attention and money on children’s and young adult books, thanks in part to Harry Potter and Twilight, as adults discover how awesome these books can be. And there’s been a big change in the marketing of children’s books, with the rise of blogs, Twitter, and other new ways that authors can connect with other writers and with readers. Some of these changes have created a lot of anxiety among authors and publishing people.
In what way?
Well, from what I understand of the history of publishing, it’s an industry that’s always, always in a state of anxiety—but we always manage to stumble onward and produce good books anyway! We’re all trying to keep up with the changes in consumers’ book-buying habits, navigating e-reader and print, independents and libraries, the Internet and the chains, to see what new balance among formats and providers will eventually shake out. And then we have the stress of all these new things to do to support our books—blogging, Twittering, having Facebook pages—without any of the stress of the old things going away: getting good reviews, generating institutional support, selling the books reader by reader.
Of course a lot of these new things are also a lot of fun, especially in the way we can connect with other readers around the word, and in some ways, making and publishing a book has never been more interesting or offered so many cool possibilities for all involved. But then a multiplicity of possibilities can also lead to multiplying anxiety over which choice is the right one. My boss Arthur would remind me here that we all just need to focus on doing the job that we do well—whether it’s writing for authors, or editing for editors, or publicity for publicists—while keeping a careful eye on the rest.
Second Sight: An Editor’s Talks on Writing, Revising, and Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults by Cheryl B. Klein. Asterisk Books, $16.99 paper Mar. ISBN 978-0-615-42082-0