Monday 15 June 2015

We are Liars. And Editors are Just Readers

By  Candy Gourlay

Here's a report from the AFCC's first retreat for writers and illustrators on Bintan Island in Indonesia, which I attended as a mentor.

'I hope this retreat will help you to get to the truth within the lie,' Sarah Odedina told a roomful of writers and illustrators at a retreat in Indonesia last week. 'I think all good literature has message and meaning. But the message and meaning is hidden in the story.'

Sara speaking at the Retreat. From my comic sketchbook.
View more of my notes on my author site

It was an interesting beginning to her talk on publishing. I don't think I'm making crazy generalisations when I say that, while there are exciting developments in children's publishing in Asia, many educators and parents in the region still regard reading and books as educational tools.

Many educators and parents still regard reading and books as educational tools

It was a constant refrain from publishers, writers, illustrators, and teachers I met last week at the Asian Festival for Children's Content that followed the retreat in Singapore. Far too many educators and parents in this region believe that reading for pleasure -- comics, funny books, books with farts in them, magic, fantasy -- should take a back seat to moral and other lessons.

The job of the editor, Sarah said, is to help authors get the story from inside their heads into books. Never mind the moral lessons. Focus on the story.

'Children are our future. Literature can give them confidence about being part of the world around them,' she said. ' Literacy is not just about being able to read the words on the page but being able to decipher the meaning of a story. The message of a story can be immense but expressed in the lightest way.'

Retreat members and faculty in Singapore before boarding the ferry to Bintan, Indonesia

It was the first retreat ever organised by the Asian Festival of Children's Content. It was as diverse a group as I've ever seen - twenty-six people representing Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia, Canada, Macau, India, the United States, England, Australia and Portugal, ranging from beginners at the craft of children's books to experienced, multi-published authors.

Held at an Indonesian resort just an hour's ferry ride from Singapore, the retreat was led by mentors that included Sarah, illustrator Catarina Sobral and writer-agent Andrea Pasion-Flores and me. Here's the view from one of the lecture rooms, just to make you jealous:

Banyan Tree Resort, Bintan

I remember meeting Sarah Odedina more than five years ago at a talk at the Bologna Children's Book Fair. I'm sure she doesn't remember me as I was one of the cowering unpublished then.

Witch Child by Celia Rees
At the time she was editorial director of Bloomsbury Children's Books and famously part of the Harry Potter publishing team.

In those days I had no idea about her Harry Potter connection. What thrilled me was the fact that Sarah had edited Witch Child by Celia Rees. A gazillion writers discover the audience they want to write for through books like How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff and The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness and Witch Child was one of those breakthrough novels. I would count it as one of the books that spurred me to write for young people.

More recently Sarah was editorial director of Hot Key books where she published Carnegie winning Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner before moving to One World, where she's overseeing its Young Adult and children's publishing.

Sarah's retreat presentation ranged from tips for aspiring authors to a thorough explanation of genres in children's books.


  • Complement don't mimic a publisher's list. Don't look at the publisher's list and say they published Harry Potter therefore they will want another magical boarding school book. Research publishers, try to get a real sense of what they publish. "What publisher publishes the kind of work you want to be associated with?"
  • Smaller publishers vs big publishers? Big publishers have clout in distribution and marketing terms but small publishers will be far more flexible.
  • Get an Agent. Literary agents have their foot in the door. Publishers will look at submissions from literary agents first on the basis that they have already been filtered from the vast sea of manuscripts.
  • Be Professional. Follow the stated guidelines. If the publisher's website says send the outline and the first three chapters, that is what you do. Don't say, 'I showed it to my grandchildren and they loved it.' Include any practical information that reveals your seriousness and professionalism (eg. you've been a member of a critique group for several years, you are a paying member of a respected organisation like the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators).
  • Sorry, reading submissions takes time. Send material ... then be prepared to wait. Don't expect an immediate response. Sometimes it could take many weeks. Don't badger the publisher, don't call every week - wait maybe three months before following up. "We can't cope with feeling that we are keeping people in suspense."
  • Know your genre. It's not enough to write a story and say that it's for a ten year old. Go into a bookshop and see what is being sold on the shelves, and how they are being categorised. "Read, read, read. Become familiar with publishing in the children's book world ... children of a certain age can take information in a particular way."
  • Think of how you present yourself to the public. Websites. Social Media. Look at how others do it and note when things are done well. Do you have another persona incompatible with your children's work? Create a strong presence.
  • Take part in the conversation. The children's book world is very conversation driven. Get involved. It would be a terrible mistake to only go out on social media when you're selling books. "On Twitter I have not chosen for you to sell me something. I am there to talk to you."
"The process of getting published involves different levels of commitment at different points of the journey," Sarah says.

Choosing a book involves a team. Commissioning editors will commit first. Then the sales team must commit, having decided that yes, they can sell this book. "Every step of the way, it's about faith. It's about trust. There's no golden rule."

Every step of the way, it's about faith. It's about trust. There's no golden rule

If you'd like to submit to Sarah. Here's what she says about her acquiring philosophy:
  • I am looking at books as a reader.
  • I read everything that comes in.
  • I am looking for a good relationship with an author. 
  • It's about not losing faith, it's about us doing our best for you. Like a close friendship, your relationship with your editor/publisher should be guarded.
  • I like plot-driven books
  • I acquire really simply. If I like it, I will take it to the sales team.

So there you have it. As authors we must be skilful liars, our essential truths concealed in our fiction. Meanwhile editors are just readers who must like our lies in order to publish them.

Candy Gourlay's latest book is Shine, an atmospheric ghost story whose heroine is a hidden away girl who lives her life on the Internet. Nominated for the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize 2015. @candygourlay


  1. Interesting article about a great editor - I remember seeing Sarah O in conversation with Celia Rees at SCBWI three or four years ago. Inspiring!

  2. Thank you for the update on Sarah O, Candy...
    but 'cowering unpublished'?

    1. Heh. Sorry. A good example of unedited purple prose!

    2. To be fair though that's exactly how I felt. Others may feel differently.

  3. Thank you, Candy & Sarah. Enlightening as always.

  4. "Work on one thing at a time until you are finished.'
    Such great advice.
    (of course knowing when you've hit 'finished' is always tricky)

    1. Great advice but the reality is we are all doing a million things at the same time.

  5. Great article! Excellent advice! And I love this insight: "The job of the editor is to help authors get the story from inside their heads into books. Never mind the moral lessons. Focus on the story." Too true!

  6. This is wonderful. I'd stupidly forgotten that you were blogging about Sarah and have been madly looking for information about her move to Oneworld. Thanks!


Comments are the heart and soul of the Slushpile community, thank you! We may periodically turn on comments approval when trolls appear.

Share buttons bottom