First, an apology. I meant to write Part II of this saga much closer on the heels of Part I, but little pesky things kept getting in the way—you know, like finishing my Masters thesis (also in children’s literature, but will return to this in a later post!).
So, when last we left off, I had just signed with Sarah Davies and Polly Nolan of Greenhouse. Then, there was a brief time of feeling like I had accomplished my goal. After all, someone had decided that someone else might decide that my writing was worth publishing!
Of course, that feeling didn’t last long, and soon I was back to fretting about whether or not ETHAN would sell.
During our interview, Polly and Sarah had given me several large-scale suggestions for the manuscript, so my next step was to carry out those edits.
Then it was time to send ETHAN out in the world. Sarah sent it out to the US first, in early March. (I’m restricting this post to just the US submission process—more on the UK process soon!) She warned me that it might take a while to hear back, but I was extremely lucky in that several editors read ETHAN very quickly and let Sarah know that they were planning on taking it to their Acquisitions team. Once editors started to come back to us with these responses, Sarah was able to nudge the others on the submission list.
Oh, what, you ask, is Acquisitions? If you don’t yet know, steel yourself.
Once an editor decides that your writing is worth publishing, she/he has to convince a team of their colleagues (sales/marketing/publicity etc.) to think so, too. Editors used to have more autonomy in the acquisitions process, but these days, they have to be able to make a strong case for the commercial viability of your manuscript. Really, I find it best just not to think about this part of publishing if you want to keep your fingernails. So put it out of your mind, if you can…
Ultimately, we ended up with offers from five US editors representing four houses. I spoke with all the offering editors on the phone. And every one of them seemed funny, smart, kind and very passionate and insightful about ETHAN. Which made my choice none too easy. I could have imagined myself having a blast working with any of them, actually.
But there are a ton of other things to consider when deciding on an offer. Are you being offered a one-book or a multi-book deal? Is your editor proposing to bring your book out in hardback first, or straight to paperback? Are they asking for world rights/World English Language rights/American rights? Do they already have ideas for how to market your book? What kinds of resources do they have to promote your book? And, of course, what kind of advance are you being offered? What does the royalty structure look like? Will you be offered additional compensation if your book wins an award? Etc. etc.
When considering my offers, I had to weigh short-term gain (i.e. can I get an advance in time to pay my grad school tuition, because that would be super!) against what I felt would be the long-term benefits of working with each editor/house (i.e. what is going to help my book—and future books—reach the most readers over the longest period of time?).
Each of the editors brought a different set of strengths to the table. Some belonged to Big Five houses, which have bigger budgets and more visibility, but also more titles and authors to juggle—while some belonged to independent houses—which might not have the same kind of deep pockets, but which curate smaller lists and can perhaps devote more attention to each author. They all also had different ideas for the best direction in which to take ETHAN. I could tell some of them had put a ton of thought into this already, while others had more to say about why it already stood out to them.
Talking to all these editors felt a bit like speed dating. Except instead of asking: “do you want kids?” “can you cook?” and “do you now or have you ever thought it was acceptable to wear sandals with socks?” you’re asking: “why are you the best editor for this book?” “what kind of relationship do you build with your authors?” and “is your handwriting legible? Because I get migraines.”
Ultimately, editorial vision was the most important aspect in my decision, because even in our current era of corporate publishing and branded fiction, I still believe that the best way to sell a book is to…write a really good book. While the money a publisher is willing to invest in your book (and advances are definitely investments) is of course important—both for your fiscal security and as a show of confidence in your work—it doesn’t matter as much as what you and your editor are able to create together. Because the books that stick around the longest—particularly, I think, in middle grade—are not the ones that publishers throw the most money at (though that doesn’t hurt…). They’re the ones that readers love. And that’s what my primary goal was: creating a book kids would love.
When I spoke with Alyson Day at HarperCollins, I felt an immediate personal connection. If we had been speed-dating, I would definitely have marked her down as a match. (And yes, I know no one speed dates anymore, but I was off the market by the time Tinder came around so the analogy stands).
Aly talked me through her thoughts on the book, and what she felt needed to change. It was more work than I was expecting I would need to do, which at first made me a little wary. But then Aly said something I will always remember: “This book is a great book already, but I want to make it into a classic.” And I suddenly realized that Aly was the kind of editor who was going to push me to be the best writer I could be. And it was that realization, more than anything else, that made my mind up.
Throughout my school years, I often felt like people underestimated me (my high school guidance counselor actually cried when I got into Pomona College because she was so shocked). Whether because I was a girl, because I have a high voice, because I got sent to the principal’s office for wearing tank tops (“your shoulders will distract the boys!”), or because I just wasn’t putting in much effort, I’m not sure. Probably a combination. But not many teachers truly pushed me to be the best student I could be (though a HUGE thank you to those that did), and I think it was because they didn’t actually expect very much from me.
In sophomore year of college, I got a C- on a paper I wrote on Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. I went to the professor in tears and sobbed that I had never gotten such a low grade before. She told me she gave me the grade because she knew I could do much better and told me to rewrite the paper. I was dubious. I didn’t know if I could write at the level she thought I could. But I gave it all I had. The revised paper got an A, and, even though my professor averaged the grades to make a B, it was the best grade I’ve ever gotten. “Oh!” I thought. “This is what it feels like to know you actually did your best on something. This is what it’s like to be truly proud of your hard work.” I soon asked that professor to be my advisor.
All of which is to say that: I like working with people who won’t let me settle for anything less than my best work. I’ve always wondered what I might have accomplished if I had worked a little harder in school, if my teachers had pushed me a little bit more. And I don’t want to wonder that about anything else. After speaking to Aly, I felt that, if I had a classic in me to write, she would pull it out. Ultimately, that’s why I accepted her offer and how I found my publishing home at HarperCollins.
And if it turns out I don’t have a classic in me, well, it won’t be for lack of trying!
Now, back to work...