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Robin Friedman : author and journalist

Catherine Frank, Editor

Viking Children’s Books (2004)

Catherine Frank has a degree in English language and literature from the University of Virginia. She ended up with Viking through a "side door." She had set up an interview with human resources, and (luckily) the day that she was there, an editorial assistant position was created for Frederick Warne, the imprint that publishes Beatrix Potter’s books. So she began at Warne, which happens to fall under the umbrella of Viking.

Over time, she began to work less on Warne projects and more on Viking projects. There was a time when she was assisting two Viking editors with their projects and also working heavily with Warne. She still works on Warne, but is primarily a Viking editor.

Viking is NOT currently accepting unsolicited manuscripts.

How many books does Viking publish every year and what kind of books are they?

Viking publishes between 50 and 60 books a year. Formats range from picture books, easy-to-reads, chapter books, young adult novels, and nonfiction titles. A board book might make it onto the list every few years or so.

How many do you edit per year?

I edit about nine titles a year.

What have you edited recently?

My most recently published project is a young adult novel, THE NEW RULES OF HIGH SCHOOL, by Blake Nelson.

Were any manuscripts you edited from the “slush pile”?

No, but I have signed up three projects from "personal slush," that is, slush that happens to be addressed to me and therefore ends up in my office. All of those are slated to be published in the next two years.

Is the slush pile an actual pile? Where is it? How many manuscripts are in it?

The general Viking slush used to be an actual pile. It’s now stored on bookshelves, though not necessarily in any particular order. The bookshelves are located in a hallway. The number of manuscripts has decreased steadily since our moratorium was put into place 2 years ago. There are probably about 150 manuscripts there right now, which is a remarkably low number.

What percentage of manuscripts from the slush pile do you estimate get published?

Someone here estimated once that 1 out of every 5,000 manuscripts gets published from slush. It happens, but the odds aren’t promising.

Why does so much NOT get published?

Unfortunately, there are just a lot of people out there who think it’s easy to write a children’s book. They prove over and over again that it isn’t. Familiar or unoriginal stories and use of stock characters are also routine problems.

How long does it take Viking to read a manuscript?

The reading time for the slush pile is approximately six months. But every editor has a different response time, depending on what the manuscript is and who it’s from. Right now, it takes me about three months to respond to my general mail.

Describe a typical day at work. Be specific!

The first thing I do every day is check emails and sort my mail. After that, what I do differs every day. Today, I sent a set of proofs out to be checked by a translator, read some circulating memos from our sales reps, attended a production meeting, researched a working title for an upcoming project (I wanted to make sure the title hasn’t been used before), searched for an illustrator for a picture book I recently signed up, drafted a contract request, read a picture book manuscript, met with our summer intern, checked a pass of our upcoming catalog, discussed a problematic manuscript with some editors, tracked down a missing payment for an author, and reminded a couple of authors by email of upcoming deadlines…and it’s only 3 p.m. Some days I really do spend significant time reading manuscripts. This isn’t one of them.

Do you usually read manuscripts at work or at home in the evenings and on weekends?

I do try to read as much as I can in the office — I find it’s a better setting for me. But novels do tend to find their way into my bag and my home, especially if it’s a story I’m really enjoying.

What kinds of books do you like to work on?

Young adult novels, first and foremost. But picture books run a strong second.

What was your favorite book as a child?

My mother read to me every night long after I could read myself. Some classic favorites were MARY POPPINS, THE SECRET GARDEN, and A. A. Milne’s poetry.

Do you have any favorites now?

Well, who doesn’t love OLIVIA? And it might seem disingenuous, but I was excited for the fifth HARRY POTTER too. Aside from those, I think Susie Morgenstern is a magical writer and Jack Gantos is brillian — truthful, and brilliant.

Is it every editor's dream to discover the next Laurie Halse Anderson?

It’s my goal every day I sit down at my desk.

What must a manuscript have to get your attention?

A first sentence that makes me react — whether it’s with laughter, curiosity, anything as long as I experience some kind of emotion. Following that, personality, which is another way of saying "a strong voice," which is another way of saying "an identity." I want a manuscript that is clear about what it’s trying to do.

Do you read manuscripts all the way through or do you read just the first page? First chapter? First paragraph?

Even if I don’t have that great reaction to the first sentence, I do read through the first page of most manuscripts.

Describe the acquisition process. Let's say you found a manuscript you want to acquire. What happens next? Be specific!

I either submit the manuscript for an editorial meeting with my fellow Viking editors and publisher, or show it directly to my publisher. If I get an "okay," then I start working out the financials. If I can make a deal that’s financially viable, I can make an offer on the project. (I usually have contact with an author long before I bring a manuscript to an editorial meeting, though. Typically I write to express my interest in a story or to request some revisions. An author usually knows if I’m bringing her work to a meeting.)

Do you think “celebrity books” are on the rise? Why?

I’m hoping they’ve plateaued for now, and will eventually lose steam. We live in a celebrity-crazed culture, and celebrity-name recognition translates easily into sales.

Do you ever love a book that you have to turn down? Why?

I’ve seen projects that are really worthy, but just not right for a hardcover trade imprint. Other than that, no.

Do you read manuscripts addressed to you or do you have an assistant?

I read all of my own mail.

When you make an offer to an author, do you expect the author to negotiate the terms or to accept the offer on the spot?

I always expect negotiations, but some authors are comfortable and accept offers on the spot — that’s always a wonderful surprise. And of course it makes the whole process move along that much faster.

Are offers made by telephone or email?

Usually by phone.

Which parts of a publishing contract is the publisher most flexible about?

Most points are negotiable, within reason.

How often do you send "personal rejection letters" versus "form rejection letters"?

If I’m interested in seeing a different manuscript from someone because I like her writing, or I think there’s potential in a story and want to make revision suggestions, then I write a personal rejection. Specifically, I probably send a personally written letter for 1 out of every 75 manuscripts.

What is the approximate print run of a picture book these days? A novel?

It varies, but picture book print runs are between 10,000 and 12,000 and novels begin at about 8,000.

Is it true that most books lose money for the publisher if they don't sell out their first printing? Why?

Yes. Profit margins are very tight, and the first printing has to cover production costs plus any advances on royalties. We have to recover what we’ve already paid out to authors and illustrators before the book becomes profitable for us. Typically that doesn’t happen until after the first printing.

How long can the average picture book be expected to stay in print these days? The average novel?

I’m really not sure.

Is it true that today's books stay in print less time than yesterday's books?

Yes, that probably is true — but the market is far more crowded today.

Is it true that editors have little time to "edit" these days? Is it true that they are looking for manuscripts that are more "finished"?

No, and no.

How has the field changed since you've been an editor?

I was lucky enough to begin working when everyone could still get jobs, either through the Radcliffe course or on their own like me. I know my starting position would never be created today–there just isn’t the money available for the salary. So, the competition to break into this field has increased almost exponentially. I’ve also seen the focus on the business side come to the forefront. It was already happening when I was hired, but the "bottom line" is increasingly, relentlessly, the focus, which changes the kinds of books we’re able to publish. It also makes it much harder to break out a first-time author with no track record.

How has Harry Potter changed the field?

More kids are reading and excited about bookstores and libraries. Kids know there are books after Harry, and I think they’re finding them. And if an adult picks up a YA book, all the better!

The only negative aspect is the increase in Harry imitators and poorly written fantasy that crosses my desk.

Have big chain stores, like Barnes & Noble, changed the field? How?

Yes. The influence of larger chains, particularly B and N, affect everything from how we approach cover design to marketing decisions. Chains are the major portion of our sales these days, so we have to give them a certain amount of consideration. It’s not necessarily a good thing, it’s just dealing with reality. But it doesn’t mean independents and libraries aren’t valuable to us.

Have Internet sites such as Amazon.com changed things?

I’m on Amazon daily, and I use it as a research tool primarily. I’ve often wondered "what did they do before Amazon?" It’s an excellent tool for looking up ISBNs, an author’s other works, or just reading lists and looking at general trends and reactions.

Do you think these changes are for the better or worst?

Any business needs to adapt and change with the times, and I’m not sure that the changes can be qualified as either bad or good. As long as it continues to be possible to publish worthwhile, exciting, quality books — and so far I’m still able to do that, in my opinion — then the changes are just something to adapt to.