Talking Books

Finding a Publisher and Falling in Love: A Convivial Comparison

I gave this talk at the Iowa and Arizona SCBWI Fall Conferences in 2004. It's one of my favorite things I've ever written because it combines so many of my favorite things to think and talk about: books, writing, publishing, the psychology/process of love and relationships. . . . I had a wonderful time writing it, and I hope you like it too.
Note: I write presentations in outline form to keep them (and me) loose as I'm speaking, so some of the points below may be incomplete or the connections between them a little bumpy.

¨     Cheryl Klein, associate editor at Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic Inc.

¨     I talk fast, so if you can’t understand me, please raise your hand and I’ll try to slow down.

¨     Title of my talk today is “Finding a Publisher and Falling in Love: a Convivial Comparison.”

¨     Grew out of something I was thinking about a couple of years ago

¨     Writers can sometimes feel like they’re battling against the publishers, that publishing companies are this huge faceless mass out to reject everyone but the Madonnas of the world

¨     But in fact we editors are just people, readers, like you, looking to make connections just like you

¨     And that led me to the comparison I’m going to make today:

¨     The submissions process is like dating—an intensely personal endeavor where everyone is looking for the right match.

o       Editors are looking to find books they love

o       Writers are looking to find editors who can help their books be their best

o       There is a giant pool of all of us out there

o       And when it doesn’t work out, it can be the most depressing thing in the world.  

¨     But while not everyone is right for each other, that doesn’t mean there will never be anyone who’s right for you.

¨     And almost nothing is better than making that connection and finding that match.

¨     So I’m going to point out some of the ways these two processes are alike, and I think, hope, it can be a useful way for you to think about the business of writing and publishing.

o       After all, how many of you have published books? (Not many)

o       How many of you have been in love? (More)

§        So see, you’ve been through all this before! J

¨     So I’ll start now and we’ll see how it goes.

¨     Let’s suppose you’ve just written a new manuscript, and it’s time to step back and think about it not as a literary work, but as a book that’s going out into the world.

o       The dating analogy here—you know you’re ready to find a new significant other. What kind of person are you? What kind of person do you want to meet?

§        If you love books and classical music and Persian cats, you probably shouldn’t try to meet someone in a sports bar.

o       Same way with your book. So you might ask yourself:

§        Is your manuscript commercial? Literary? Somewhere in between? That is, if it were a book, would you expect to see it sold mostly in Wal-Mart or Barnes & Noble?

§        What are the manuscript’s strengths? What audiences might it appeal to?

§        What was your vision for the book, your goal in writing it? What response did you want to evoke in the reader? What did you hope to accomplish?

o       Once you’ve identified these things, you want to find a publisher—or more specifically, an editor—who reaches those audiences and wants their books to accomplish the same goals.

o       So you have to research publishers.

§        First you have to get the basic facts about whether they’re right for your book:  What size publisher do you want? Do they publish the kind of manuscript you’ve written?

·        In dating, this is like checking off the list:  Male, in my age bracket, financially independent, breathing.

·        Lots of ways to find out this information about publishers:  Literary Marketplace, SCBWI, publishers’ catalogs and websites

§        Then the nuances:  What kind of books does this editor like? Do their tastes and interests in writing—their style and personality as a publisher—coincide with yours?

§        By far the best way of finding this out is to look at the books themselves.

·        An editor would not have published a book if he or she didn’t love it. So if you love a book too, chances are you might have a similar outlook to that editor.

·        A true story:  A writer named Neil Connelly had just completed his first YA novel, St. Michael’s Scales. He didn’t know who he wanted to send it to, though, so he went to a bookstore, sat down in the YA section, and read the flap copy and first chapters of about 20 books. One of his favorites was When She Was Good, by Norma Fox Mazer—the very first book our imprint published. He sent us a query letter mentioning it, we asked to see the manuscript, and three years later, we published St. Michael’s Scales as well.

·        Writers often ask how they can find out which editors edited what books. SCBWI provides a list of editors and books on the website, under Publications -> SCBWI Publications -> Members “Click here for a complete list of publications” -> Edited by

o       Incidentally, I encourage you all to read as many new children’s/YA books as you can.

§        Good for you as a writer to read good books.

§        Keeps you au courant with what’s being published—you’re seeing what works and what doesn’t, and who publishes what kind of books

§        And if you can buy the books, that’s even better, because when publishers make money from established authors, we can buy manuscripts from new ones.

o       So, once you’ve done your research, you should have a list of four to eight publishers to whom you’d like to send query letters, with perhaps one or two favorites.

¨     In most cases—pretty much in all cases with unpublished writers—you are the pursuer and the publisher is the pursued.

¨     So it’s your job to introduce yourself and your book in a way that will be attractive to the pursued.

¨     In the dating world, this is known as a pick-up line. In publishing, it’s called the query letter.

o       What sets a yes apart from a no, in dating and in publishing?

§        Personality—Something interesting to say, that we haven’t heard five hundred times before;

§        Expression—said well,

·        Basically, it should sound like jacket or catalog copy for your book.

§        Interest in the other person—that emphasizes why the listener (the editor) is right for the speaker (the book).

§        And—it has to be said—a nice, clean outward appearance, with no copyediting errors and a self-addressed stamped envelope.

§        Do NOT emphasize numbers like word count 

·        Equivalent of taking your date out and reciting your ACT and IQ scores. Interesting, but only relevant if the rest of it works out.

§        It’s often helpful if you can compare your book to another book the editor might know—especially one of the editor’s books. It allows us to get a handle on it, and it shows you’ve done your research.

·        Last year the first novel I co-edited came out, Millicent Min, Girl Genius by Lisa Yee—the very funny story of an eleven-year-old child prodigy who has trouble making friends. In January I received a query letter from someone who said she loved Millicent, and because we’d published it she knew someone at our imprint had a sense of humor, and she’d written a funny picture book and would we take a look at it? You bet I would.

§        Now, queries don’t have to be exclusive—you can send out more than one at a time. But you should try to tailor each one to the editor to whom you’re sending it.

·        Nothing more off-putting than when I get a query letter addressed to Samantha McFerrin at Harcourt—which happens sometimes:  It’s sloppy on the writer’s part, and it’s not personal to me.

·        Do note it’s a simultaneous query, though.

o       Just like in relationships, you need to be honest with everyone involved.

§        I have some further query guidelines on a handout here.

o       When I talk to writers, they are often very nervous about the apparent rules of queries. How many pages? Should it be exclusive? Can I send it to more than one editor in a house?

§        The truth is, there are no rules, in love or in publishing. There are certainly time-honored forms you can follow that you are probably wise to follow, because they’ve mostly been proven to be useful and right.

§        But just like I’m not going to reject a really great guy because he has a little mustard on his shirt, I’m not going to throw out a fantastic query letter because it spills onto two pages.

§        Don’t worry about the rules. Worry about writing the best description of your book that you can.

¨     Digress for a moment upon agents

o       Can anyone guess what agents are in the dating scenario? (Matchmakers)

o       Agents are people who know a wide range of authors and a wide range of editors and do their best to bring the two together.

o       And if they make a successful match, they often assist in the formal details of contracting the marriage—negotiating the contract, checking royalties, etc.

o       Lots of people ask—Do I need an agent? This is a personal decision, not a universal one. It depends on the amount of time and energy you have to invest in looking for an editorial match and (hopefully) managing the business details of your publishing.

o       You approach an agent in much the same way as you approach an editor

¨     So you write the letter, you send it, and the agent or editor will respond with a yes or a no.

o       If it’s a no, it hurts a bit, but you’ve only invested a little time, so you get right back out there and try again.

o       If it’s a yes, congratulations! You are now dating. So you send in your manuscript and wait for a response.

¨     Waiting for the phone to ring

o       Use the time well. Write something else.

§        Keeps you from obsessing

§        And you’ll have something else to send if they ask to see more.

o       Checking in. If you haven’t heard back from the agent or editor within three to six months, depending upon the time they’ve told you to expect a response, write to follow up.

§        Dirty secret: Editors are often having at least twenty relationships at the same time. Books under contract, requested revisions, other manuscripts—we’d like to be exclusive, really, but we’re cheating on you right and left. So I’m afraid sometimes we get behind on our responses.

§        You deserve to be treated well, though—you wouldn’t want to date someone who never calls you back. So if X amount of time has passed and you haven’t heard a thing, write and check in.

§        Some authors tell us “If you haven’t responded by this date, I’m withdrawing the manuscript and taking it to someone else.” In dating, this would be known as trying to make your significant other jealous, and just as in dating, that can work both ways. Some editors will try to get back to you sooner because they are jealous. And some editors think “Fine, take it somewhere else,” and will not respond. So use this strategy carefully. The good thing about it is, if you don’t get an answer by your date, you’re absolutely free to move on.

¨     So what’s going on at my end of the relationship? That is, what do editors want?

o       Now this is something authors ask us all the time, and I’m afraid we editors usually come up with frustrating generalities.

§        This is partly because we love a lot of things.

·        I like picture books, fantasies, mysteries, historical fiction, realistic fiction, nonfiction . . . just about everything you can name, and I’m always looking for all of it.

§        And partly because we don’t want to close any doors.

·        You never know what you might love:  All you can do is look.

§        Ursula Nordstrom, the legendary editor at Harper Children’s Books, had a great quote about this—she said “I never want to forget that if Lewis Carroll had asked me whether or not he should bother writing about a little girl named Alice who fell asleep and dreamed that she had a lot of adventures down a rabbit hole, it would not have sounded awfully tempting to any editor.”

§        Or to sound the dating theme again:  If someone asked you before you met your significant other, “What kind of person are you looking for?”, would you have described the exact person you’re with now?

·        For instance, if you asked me that question, I would not have said “A Chinese-American corporate lawyer from Queens who really likes Dungeons and Dragons,” which pretty much describes my last boyfriend.

·         And if you pitched that guy to me as a possible date, I might have been, “Ehhh, not so much.”

·        But if you said “I know a really sweet, funny, smart guy who likes to read and is taller than you are”—well, there we go!

o       It’s all in the soul of the thing—its style and execution.

o       And that just goes to show—while we editors often can’t describe exactly what we’re looking for, we can tell you about the qualities of the books we love—the things they all share. 

o       So when I read your manuscript, I am looking for three things.

§        Truth, particularly emotional truth. Real people, real situations, real emotions.

·        “Real” meaning “It’s believable that these characters would act and speak in these ways according to the setting and relationships in which they move within in the novel.”

·        “Real” meaning also “recognizable”—even if it’s not a situation I as a reader have ever been in personally, I recognize the feelings and actions as something that happens within the range of human experience.

·        The Slightly True Story of Cedar B. Hartley by Martine Murray

·        Going to read you a brief excerpt. Cedar is a twelve-year-old girl who’s training to be an acrobat, and Kite is a boy who’s training with her. Caramella is her best friend.

When I got home from training with Kite at his house, Caramella wanted to hear everything. I know Caramella is my friend, because when we talk it makes me feel that what I saw and felt and said in any kind of situation means something.

“Was Kite pleased that you wanted to keep training?”

“I dunno. He didn’t say. You know what he’s like, he doesn’t say how he feels.”

“Well, couldn’t you tell?” (It becomes a girl’s job to read a boy’s unexpressed feelings in other ways. Girls get good at looking for signs.)

“No. Maybe.”

“Did you get that funny feeling?” (The funny feeling is when you like someone and your tummy goes all empty and pounding and words bury down blunt inside and suddenly erupt out your mouth all wrong, like a spew, so you go red in the face, because it matters a great deal that you make a good impression.)

“At first I did, but after a while I felt normal.”

“So, you’ve got a crush on him, haven’t you?”

“He put his hand on my shoulder,” I said, faintly sidestepping the question, because I wanted to draw it out, make it last, like eating an ice cream slowly.

“You have got a crush. I can tell.” She folded her arms triumphantly, as if she’d just won a game of Fish.

·        Now, I am not a twelve-year-old acrobat in Australia, but this sounds exactly like the conversations my girlfriends and I have about the guys we’re interested in—we go into every little detail of our interaction with the guy, we have this code language for specific emotions, we know everyone’s past romantic histories, the whole thing

·        The author has captured not only the conversation, the way girls talk, but the emotions involved just perfectly. My favorite line from that excerpt is probably “when we talk it makes me feel that what I saw and felt and said in any kind of situation means something,” because that’s the way my friends make me feel, and I was so enthralled when I read that because Martine Murray put words to that feeling. Wonderful book.

§        It also demonstrates the second thing I’m looking for:  Good writing

·        Shows, not tells

o       Editors harp on the show-not-tell thing because as readers we want to have the same emotional experience as the characters, to see what they see and feel what they feel through the whole journey of the novel or picture book.

o       I am extremely wary of the word “feel” in a manuscript, as in “Cheryl felt extremely wary.” If you’re having to tell me what your character is feeling, that makes me suspicious that I’m not feeling it too.

o       Specificity of language:  This sounds obvious, but it actually comes up a lot. Good writing doesn’t use generalizations, but rather very specific words and phrases to create a voice or evoke the effect the author intends. Look back at that description of the funny feeling:  How would the passage be different if Martine had used the phrase “words can’t come out” instead of “words bury down blunt inside”? or “go out of your mouth” instead of “erupt out of your mouth”? Or if she’d left out the similes like “like a spew,” or later, “like eating an ice cream slowly”? It’s those specific choices Martine made that give Cedar such an interesting and lively voice. Speaking of which . . .

·        Good writing also means the voice of the book is interesting and appropriate for the character, if it’s first person, or for the situation and audience, if it’s third person or nonfiction.

·        Millicent Min, Girl Genius by Lisa Yee

I have been accused of being anal retentive, an overachiever, and a compulsive perfectionist, like those are bad things. My disposition probably has a lot to do with the fact that I am technically a genius. Unfortunately, this label seems to precede me wherever I go. . . . As I emptied the contents of my locker into my briefcase earlier in the day, I had been optimistic that someone might ask me to sign their yearbook. In anticipation of this, I had drafted a truly original inscription—one that would showcase my sense of humor, something I have had little chance to share with my fellow students. I would start with Quantum materiae materietur marmota monax si marmota monax materiam posit materiari? Which, translated from Latin, means “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” And then, here’s the really funny part, I’d close with Vah! Denuone Latine loquebar? Me ineptum; Interdum modo elabitur. In English, that’s “Oh! Was I speaking Latin again? Silly me. Sometimes it just sort of slips out.” I would then finish with a flourish, “Signed, Millicent L. Min.”

·        Arthur met Lisa at an SCBWI conference in Florida in 1997, and we worked with her for a total of six years on this book. It was her first novel, no agent, and we did a lot of work on the plot and pacing. (It’s a good story, so if we have time you should ask me about it during the Q&A.)

·        But what stayed the same that whole time was this wonderful voice. Listen to Millicent’s vocabulary and diction:  big words; long, complex sentences; formal tone. Millicent the character isn’t being pretentious; she genuinely thinks that Latin inscription is funny. You get her whole character from those two paragraphs, and even though Millicent tells us she’s a genius, the way she tells us actually shows us it’s true.

·        Won the 2003 Sid Fleischman Award for Humor from the SCBWI

§        Third thing I’m looking for:  What is new, or feels new. The thing I haven’t seen before.

·        The Hickory Chair by Lisa Rowe Fraustino, illustrated by Benny Andrews

o       Story of a young boy whose grandmother dies, and he inherits her beloved hickory chair—the kind of story you’ve heard before

o       But the boy is blind, so the story is told entirely through details only a blind person could perceive—sounds, smells, the feel of surfaces—even the illustrations themselves are textured.

o       And rather than passing on the chair in her will, the grandmother hides little notes in the objects she wants each family member to inherit—a treasure hunt.

o       The blindness and the treasure hunt are what I call hooks—things that set this book apart from every other grandmother-dies story on the market. The hooks make it fresh, and the truth of the love between the boy and his grandmother makes it real.

§        I usually write flap copy by making a list of all the hooks in the book, then weaving those into a readable and interesting whole. A good strategy for query letters too.

·        Digression on art for a moment: We look for artists whose work looks like nobody else’s. There are a lot of artists who seem to be working “in the style of” Mary GrandPré or “in the style of” Tiphanie Beeke, but we love artists who, when you look at their work, you think “That’s Benny Andrews, because nobody else has that style and artistic personality.”

o       If a manuscript works for me, it is actually very much like falling in love, where I just want to spend all my time with this book and ignore all my responsibilities and everything else going on in my life because I’m so enthralled by it.

§        Last year I had a mad passionate affair with an adult novel called The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger—I read it on my lunch breaks, I rushed home from work to be with it, and once we stayed in bed together all weekend.

o       I love finding books like that.

¨     So we’ve been dating for a while—a few weeks or months. I’ve read your work. Now comes the crucial time—will we make a commitment?

¨     Now of course there are a number of factors involved, but it all starts with whether I’ve had the experience I just described:  Do I love this?

¨     If it’s a yes, we’ll go on and get married:  That is, we’ll sign a contract for the manuscript, edit it and publish it, and hopefully have lots of beautiful books together.

¨     But when I’m looking at a manuscript, far more often than not, I don’t love it. And then it is time to break up. You will likely hear one of two things at this point:

o       “It’s not you, it’s me,” or in editorspeak, “not right for our list at this time.”

§        This means the manuscript could be fine, but it may not be the editor’s taste. Or it may be a bad time for the editor to publish that particular kind of book—she’s just published another book with similar subject matter, for example.

·        In this case, you just need to go on and find an editor it is right for.

·        Do not ask the editor who’s rejecting the book to recommend someone. The editor’s job is only to know his or her own taste, not everyone else’s. You would not ask your ex-boyfriend to recommend a friend you might date now.

§        However, “not right for our list at this time” can also mean:

o       “It’s not working”—in the editor’s opinion, there’s something wrong with the manuscript.

§        Sometimes the editor will tell you why. Listen carefully to what he or she says. Does the editor seem to “get” your manuscript—that is, does the editor understand what you were trying to do in your story?

·        If yes, and if the criticism is useful in accomplishing what you were trying to do, then you should follow it and revise the manuscript.

·        If no, then you should still take a hard look at the manuscript, because obviously the editor wasn’t approaching your book in the way you expected your readers to approach it. How might this have happened? Did anyone in your writing group have the same reaction as the editor?

§        Often the editor will not tell you what isn’t working, and then you can go crazy trying to figure it out.

·        Just as in a real breakup, try not to obsess over it. Grieve a little, talk to your friends about it, eat chocolate, but then move on. There are other publishers in the sea.

·        At the same time you should keep in mind that good fiction and good writing do tend to operate according to certain principles. I’m not going to go into them here, but a few are suggested on the handout with the quotations and recommended reading.

·        Remember that both dating and getting published take time. It’s not something you can expect to happen instantaneously, and if it does, if it’s too easy, it’s often not something that’s good for the long term.

o       And speaking of time, it’s probably been at least a month since you focused on the manuscript . . . which means it’s a great opportunity to reread it with as critical an eye as you can and make any revisions you think necessary.

o       I encourage you to use that emotion you’re feeling from the reject to make your manuscript stronger—the grief, the pain, the anger, whatever it is—give that to your characters when something goes wrong for them, and see what happens.

§        There’s a line in Emily Dickinson:  “I like a look of agony / because I know it’s true.” Another way to put it is “Everyone’s pain is real.” Nobody fakes unhappiness.

§        So when I see honest pain in a manuscript—or, in a relationship, when someone I love trusts me enough not to pretend everything is okay all the time, but tells me what they’re feeling, and I do the same for them—then I know we’re at the truth. And that’s terrifying and hard, but it’s also wonderful.

o       So you use your pain. You revise the manuscript. And then you send it out again, and keep the faith.

¨     I’ve been talking here about the methods of getting published and getting married—the how. But after a breakup, particularly, it’s a good time to step back and ask why—why we want to be published, why we want to fall in love.

o       Of course there are many reasons, most of them excellent ones.

§        Though I have to say, if you’re looking for financial security in love or in children’s books, you need to rethink your strategy.

o       But there’s also a dangerous trap that you have to watch out for.

o       I think many people seek to get published—or get married—for recognition and affirmation: out of all the people or manuscripts in the whole world, someone has chosen me, my thoughts, my self. And that provides affirmation that I am good, whole, and worthy.

§        If I may be permitted a brief social digression, I think this is often why people (particularly women my age) are so desperate to get married, and why so many marriages end in divorce:  The entire meaning of one’s life is focused upon getting that recognition, not the actual rewards of the relationship:  the pleasures of getting to know someone and being known the same way; the companionship, the small things, building a life together.

§        And it can be the same way with publishing. Writers can sometimes focus so much on getting published, on those rules I mentioned earlier, “what the market wants,” or what the latest “trends” are that they get distracted from the truly important thing.

o       And that is the writing. Telling your truth.

§        Telling yourself the story you’ve always wanted to hear, the story you’ve never read anywhere else, the one that scares you with the pleasure of writing it.

§        Being as honest as you can—creating a reality, the artist’s highest aim—except you have the pleasure of a reality you create from the ground up.

§        The joy of the work—it is hard work, but when you can find that just-right word, that perfect plot twist—there are very few greater pleasures.

o       That does not mean what you write will be good.

o       That does not mean what you write will be published.

§        But you will have the story you always wanted. You will have preserved a little bit of yourself forever in the world.

§        You will have a true thing.

o       And then you look for people who respond to that truth:  the truth of what you’ve written in publishing; the truth of who you are in love.

¨     E. B. White, the author of Charlotte’s Web, once wrote “All I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.”

¨     And I think that’s truly what it’s all about:  the way writing, or love, or a good book can open you to know and experience and indeed love more of the world. I’m in this business to bring books that offer that opening to readers. You’re in this business to create them. And if we’re right for each other, I hope we have the chance to do that together.

¨     Thank you!

¨     Questions?


All material (c) 2005-2008 by Cheryl Klein. Questions, comments, and conversation welcomed at chavela_que at yahoo dot com.