We asked children’s publishers to tell us things they learned about publishing earlier in their careers from industry veterans—advice that they still think about to this day.
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
When I first began working in publishing as an editorial assistant, I couldn’t have been more excited. I was hesitant about how welcoming the industry would be—I was, for some reason, under the impression The Devil Wears Prada also applied to children’s publishing—and had had a boss or two beforehand who weren’t great fits for me. And I was about to work for David Gale, an editor who had edited a few of my favorite books, who I’d been warned can be demanding. I was ready for the challenge, but I feared working for a short-tempered Miranda Priestly. Sorry, David.
Before I started, David had mailed me a package of books that I was to begin reading so I could jump right in—but they never came. I was nervous it would somehow be considered my fault. The email response I got from David read: “I’m so sorry that the package didn’t come. I should have overnighted the books so they could be tracked.”
I was immediately at ease and felt the situation was understood. I admire David, and in no small part because the entire time that I worked under him, nearly every single email contained a “please,” “thank you,” or other nicety, understanding, or appreciation. And I’ve taken this to heart. I learned that there is no reason not to be kind, and that we’re all people in the community, working hard to make the books we love to read.
V-p and copublisher
HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray
When I was an assistant editor, I asked my boss at the time, Brenda Bowen, then editor-in-chief at Henry Holt, at what point in an editor’s career she would confidently know where her next books were coming from. Brenda replied, in essence, “Never.” This chilled me to the bone—I figured at some point the scrambling had to end! But strangely, once I processed this unvarnished truth, it put me at peace.
I learned to accept uncertainty as normal, and even enjoy the improvisational, creative nature of acquiring books and building a list.
President and publisher
About 15 years ago, I was creative director at Scholastic, and we were about to launch a new series by a high-profile author. We went back and forth on the cover art, and when we finally landed on something—which turned out to not be the right choice—we were in a very long, stressful meeting about cover effects. Suddenly, the great, amazing, lovely, hysterical Craig Walker—a true mentor for me, who oversaw the paperback division until he passed away in 2007—shouted, “No one on the other side of the Hudson River gives a f*** about Spot UV!”
It was the first—and only—time I’d heard him shout.
And he was right.
V-p and publisher
Beach Lane Books
I was halfway through a very preliminary draft of one of the more difficult rejection letters I’d ever had to write in my career, to an author-illustrator I had published for years. The letter was filled with cryptic and/or brutal lines from my notes that I’d included as placeholders to remind me what points I needed to make—in a much softer way!—in my final draft.
You know where this is going. I have no idea how it happened, because I certainly hadn’t pressed “send” consciously, but suddenly the email was sent, in all its raw and brutal and disorganized glory.
The grand news is that the author-illustrator was ultimately a complete jewel about it, after a very long telephone conversation. And I was lucky enough to learn this lesson from my then–editorial assistant, Andrea Welch, who is now executive editor here with me at Beach Lane: “Never put the address into a difficult email until you’re done writing it!”
Associate publishing manager
Viking Children’s Books
I once heard Arthur Levine give a speech at the Children’s Book Council. He compared editing a book to being in a relationship, and said that the question you have to ask yourself before acquiring a project isn’t just, “Do I like this?” but rather: “Do I love this book so much that I will want it to be part of my life every day for two or three years or maybe even forever? Would I want to go to a party and introduce this book around to everybody there?”
This stuck with me because it was a funny analogy, and now it’s something I think about whenever I’m considering acquiring a manuscript: do I want to be in a committed relationship with this book, or is this just a crush?
Workman Children’s Group
I met Donald A. Wollheim, pioneering science fiction editor and founder of DAW Books, when I was young and discouraged about the future, and about my aspirations to become an author or filmmaker or astronaut. He talked about how his experience on the editorial side had so far been the most satisfying part of his career. He inspired me to explore the craft of being an editor, to consider what it would be like to help authors and their stories become their best. He exhorted me to aim high in my own publishing career. His encouragement meant a lot to a random kid who, I’m sure I thought at the time, didn’t look at all like the typical editor in his circles.
Senior v-p and publisher
I had the month of January off when I was a college student. Through an illogical confluence of things, I got a position at Bantam Books as an intern/editorial assistant for 30 days. There was no children’s or YA department. I was interested in publishing and took any editorial job I could get. I was excited to go to work at 666 Fifth Avenue, to head up to my desk not far from the editors on the 24th floor. When I told my friends, some would make crazy comments about how that was the devil’s address. I had no idea what that even meant until someone explained it to me! It made it all the more fun.
I was included in all types of meetings, such as editorial discussions at acquisition meetings, and I also was allowed to sit in on major planning meetings as the intern at the back of the room. This was during the years when Bantam was creating amazing, never-before-seen campaigns and selling huge numbers of paperback books, making bestsellers happen—indeed, changing the industry. I listened as publicity/marketing and editorial—no digital at that time—brainstormed the campaigns together, and generated more ideas than were needed or were even doable. Yet it was obvious that the innovation and exchanges were inspiring. Even the outlandish ideas were fascinating.
These intense sessions—sometimes shouting sessions!—helped me understand that one must never simply accept the status quo. Old ideas are not set in stone—do something no one has ever done before if you possibly can. Take initiative, and if you fail, try again. I watched that team of people gather and do this again and again. Phenomenal interactions and brilliant thinking. I hope I am still thinking that way each day—at work and in life.
Atheneum Books for Young Readers
People are often surprised to hear this, but I learned how to edit picture books from a creative director. Not only did the wonderful Martha Rago share her invaluable knowledge about how to help an artist tell a story visually in the best way possible but she showed me how important the collaboration between editorial and design is. Every time I work on a picture book, I use ideas and skills that I learned from her. Thank you, Martha!
Margaret K. McElderry Books
Back in the day, I heard two pieces of wisdom as a junior editor that stick with me to this day. The first: “Work will never love you back.” This was from Kate Jackson, editor-in-chief at HarperCollins, during a brown-bag lunch that she regularly held with the assistants. When she said that, something clicked—we can work hard and be fulfilled by our profession but ultimately, our job is a job, and it’s our responsibility as human beings to ensure we continue to grow outside the walls of our publishing houses and that we mindfully attend to our family and friends. And that will make us better editors and better people.
The second piece of wisdom that I often think about came from Brenda Bowen: “Your title isn’t your title. Your name is your title.” Or something to that effect. Junior editors can often be laser focused on moving up, getting that next promotion, feeling more “legitimate” with a more senior title, so it can be hard to see the forest through the trees. It’s more important to take care with your work, be thoughtful with your feedback to the editors you assist, be as great as you can be day to day, even if it’s something mundane like scanning pages or sending packages, than it is to fly as rapidly as possible up the title chart. People remember you and not your title, so conduct yourself professionally and politely, and take pride in your work.
Director of art and design
My first design job out of college was as an assistant at my former teacher Yolanda Cuomo’s studio in Chelsea. She is an amazing book designer who recently designed Pete Souza’s Obama photo book.
I learned loads about book design as her student and then more about being a professional while working at her studio.
The senior designer was out sick, so I was tasked to go to a colleague’s studio to print something on a big color printer; they were hard to come by in smaller studios in those days—the early 2000s! The project was a thick photography book with hundreds of photo files, and Yolanda asked me if I knew what to do. “Um, yeah... I think so,” I stuttered, because I wasn’t sure at all how to handle such a huge file and load it onto a zip disk.
“I don’t like the way you said that,” she said back to me. I didn’t even know how to get to the other studio, which was in the East Village. Of course I messed it up and got lost on the way to the other studio.
I think about that all the time now: “I don’t like how you said that.” It taught me to speak with confidence, ask more questions if I don’t understand something, and not be afraid to say that. It also made me appreciate my iPhone map, because I still get lost all the time!
When I was still an editorial intern, Nathalie Le Du, mentor extraordinaire, took the time to talk to me about my career. Our conversation was full of wonderful advice and insightful questions, but one thing in particular stood out to me. She told me to take risks. She told me to take on challenges that made me scared but excited, because I’d “inevitably rise to the occasion.”
Since then I’ve found a job I adore, where I can pursue and develop ideas that I’m passionate about. As I put her words into practice, I’m learning that there are multiple ways of rising to the occasion, all of them leading to personal and professional growth.
Sales director, Amazon and ANZ, Canada, Asia, Latin America
The Quarto Group
My first job was at Random House. This was something that I learned from Lester Del Rey, cofounder of Del Rey Books: “It’s the last reprint that’ll kill you.”