Monday, 2 May 2005

No More Mrs Slushpile

Rachel Wade of Hodder
Editor Rachel Wade explains to the SCBWI Professional Series in London how the editor-author relationship is slowly changing as publishers close down their slush piles. Published in the Spring 2005 edition of Words & Pictures, the journal of SCBWI, British Isles Region. The SCBWI professional series is a series of talks by professionals in the children's publishing industry given to small groups of SCBWI members. Please refer to the SCBWI British Isles website for more information

So here is why Rachel Wade (and a gazillion other children’s editors) no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts: Of the 3,000 that landed on Hodder’s slush pile in the past two years, only two made it to print. That means she and other Hodder editors have had to plough through 2,998 manuscripts before finding these nuggets. Which, really, in the bustling world of children’s book publishing, is not a very good use of time.

“Most major publishers are not reading unsolicited manuscripts now,” Rachel told the small group of SCBWI members who came to hear her speak last March at one of SCBWI’s ‘professional series’ events. “We (Hodder) were getting 1,500 manuscripts a year and the sheer amount of time it took to read them purposefully did not pay off.”

Rachel is Senior Editor of Hodder Children’s Books. Her youthful demeanour – she is 27 – is belied by years of experience and a redoubtable knowledge of the publishing industry. Indeed, this year, she was awarded Highly Commended honours by the Branford Boase Award for editing Fish by first time author Lauren Matthews, a journey story about a family of aid-workers fleeing drought and war, all the while toting a fish whose shaky grip on survival echoes their own.

Rachel’s advice is to find an agent. “The truth is that the agency is the first place to go. If you do get taken by an agent you will get read by editors!”

Smaller lists, bigger sales

Not only are editors no longer reading their slush piles, they are taking on less writers overall, says Rachel. “Over the last two or three years, Hodder has decreased its list. I don’t think any publishers ever pubolished anything they didn’t think was good, but we are taking more of the cream. And I think that is the case throughout the industry.”

The upshot is that “you have to find the publisher that’s looking for the sort of book you’re writing.”

This may sound like bad news to the unpublished author, but Rachel insists that there is a silver lining to this cloud. “We may have a smaller list but we are selling more books,” she says. “So the people who are getting published are setting up a lifetime of sales and getting their books into children’s hands.”

Being more selective has its benefits. “Author care and communication has improved,” Rachel says. “If I am thinking of taking on a new author, I can absolutely keep in touch at every stage of the process. From an editor’s perspective, I would certainly prefer to take on fewer authors and publish them more sucessfully.”

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter has changed everything. “Harry Potter has done a lot to raise the profile of children’s books,” she says. “There is more review space in the broadsheets; more children’s book awards; and bigger advances.”

The author-editor relationship

If getting read is the newbie writer’s first hurdle, finding an editor who loves your book is the second. “Part of the battle,” says Rachel, “is finding an editor who is partial to your writing. Getting an editor to love your work is the biggest part of the battle because what the editor does is become an advocate of your work with the publishing company.”

This is what “fitting the list” really means, that frustrating phrase so many of us see in the rejection letters that come our way. If your book fits into the list, it means the editor “loves it and has transmitted that enthusiasm to others,” Rachel explains.

First, says Rachel, there is an editorial meeting at which the editor waxes lyrical about his or her find. And then there is the acquisition meeting, at which the editor has to convince the sales force and marketing people that this great book has commercial possibilities. “At this stage, this is not only about loving the book but about whether the others think the book will stand out in a crowd,” says Rachel.

The perils of retail

The final stage is completely out of the editor’s hands. It’s all about selling – whether the retail outlets can persuade the public to buy your book. The bad news is that the big book chains have been centralising the ordering of books, which means that there are one or two people deciding for the chain store which books children will read all over the country, according to Rachel.

The good news is that technology is such that jackets and titles look terrific – which is “absolutely vital” to sales. “There is a lot of innovation in this area with cover finishes using gold and foil such as the Artemus Fowl and Molly Moon books.” But at the end of the day, there is only so much glitter one can add to a book cover to entice young readers.

Authors and editors also enjoy a better relationship. “The relationship between author and editor is crucial in that editors are the ones who can champion the book throughout its development,” says Rachel. “A shared passion for the book and writing is fundamental. And everything else will follow from there.”

What do editors want to read? “The question has no answer,” says Rachel, “because if I knew what I wanted I would have asked someone to write it for me.” Certainly, the ‘high concept’ books are the easiest to sell. There are “special” authors too, like David Almond – who won both the Carnegie medal and Whitbread award for his debut novel Skellig – who don’t fit into the mould.

Is originality what everyone is looking for? Not entirely, says Rachel. “Originality is something we have been looking for but there are an awful lot of books out there that are not original. When you think about Harry Potter and the plot and character’s similarities to other books, you realise that for a 10 year old, originality is meaningless because a child has no experience of originality.”

What do other people have to say? Rachel has this advice for writers who have finished their YA manuscripts: “Give your manuscript to as many 10- to 12-year-old kids as you can find – they will be outspoken which can be painful but good for the book.” Hodder runs a children’s reading group from a secondary school in London, to get immediate feedback about a title at manuscript level. They have been surprised and delighted by the candid and honest criticism from the teenagers.

No unsolicited manuscripts

We can expect no change to the no unsolicited manuscripts policy at Hodder Children’s Books. But at the end of the talk, Rachel willingly handed out her business card out to the writers in attendance.

Rachel may not accept unsolicited manuscripts, but she says she would read submissions from people who attended the Professional Series event. If you enclose a letter and three chapters of the book, she promises to read it (No query letters please – these are an American idea and add an extra layer of administration). So wannabe authors take note: even if Hodder says no unsolicited manuscripts, Rachel reads all manuscripts addressed directly to her and marked “SCBWI Member”.

But do her a favour. When you finish your manuscript, put it away for a time, to give yourself some distance from it. Then, when you next retrieve it, make sure you get a small army of people to critique it – an army not limited to your best friend and closest relatives who would have nothing but praise. And then grow some thick skin – you’re going to need it to survive the coming assault on your book by editors and agents to whom your masterpiece is just one amongst hundreds.

And then, if having endured the slings and arrows of outrageous critiquing, you still want to submit your manuscript to a publisher, Rachel says, “Consider this: it is really important not to forget that you have something that the editors don’t have, that the publisher wants and needs, and that the public would go to great lengths to buy. You are an author.”

So, there is hope yet folks. Until, that is, she actually gets round to reading those chapters.

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