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Robin Friedman : author and journalist

Courtenay Lewis, Editor

Philomel Books (2003)

Courtenay Lewis has a bachelor’s degree in English with a concentration in creative writing from Hollins University in Virginia. She also has a minor in computer science. Hollins has a mandatory internship program during the month of January, where students obtain and complete 4-week internships for college credit. During her senior year, Courtenay lived in New York and interned at Philomel. The editor who supervised her caught strep throat and was out for over two weeks of Courtenay’s short internship experience. Because the editor was gone and Philomel is so small, Courtenay was thrown head-first into the editorial experience, dealing with authors, agents, manuscripts, appointments, contracts...She was extremely overwhelmed. (One day she even cried in the bathroom!)

The summer after college, Courtenay was a live-in nanny for three very young children, and was all set up to do a year-long internship at Highlights for Children, when Patricia Gauch, editorial director at Philomel, called and said they were creating a new position at the imprint and wanted her to consider it! Knowing it was the chance of a lifetime - not only to get her foot in the door of one of the biggest and best publishing houses in New York, but to work with Patti and such talented authors and illustrators - Courtenay packed her bags and moved to the big city! She started as an editorial assistant and is now an editor.

Courtenay has been at Philomel for over three years and couldn't love it more. It's a "dream job," she says, and feels very fortunate in the way it came to her.

Philomel does NOT accept unsolicited manuscripts at the current moment. Query letters of one page or less can be sent to Philomel Books, 345 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014.

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

Philomel publishes between 25-30 books a year, including picture books, early readers, middle-grade novels, and YA novels. We do historical fiction, adventure, fantasy, contemporary fiction...We focus on books with cultural, historical, or literary merit, and are always looking for "voice." We are interested in the story that attempts the new, that sees a situation in a different way, or takes a step beyond the boundaries of what has been done before. We typically stay away from "concept books," rhyming texts, or books that lack a story, though any good writing is considered seriously.

How many do you edit per year?

I edit one or two books on my own and 8-12 books behind Patti. I also edit or rewrite foreign texts for our market, look for buy-ins, and work on ancillary editorial projects.

What have you edited recently?

MALKA by Miriam Pressler. I am working on many things at the moment, including a picture book about Chinatown and one about Luxembourg Gardens. I have been editing a full-length novel by Joy Cowley and have other projects I'm hoping to acquire.

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

Not this time, but Philomel has published things from the slush, and one of my first “finds” here was a slush manuscript. The author now has a multi-book contract. He gave me a hug when I met him.

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

Oh, yes, it's an actual pile. It's in my office, taking up an entire bookshelf. I like to think of it as a "stack," but it's sometimes a pile - a messy one at that - depending on how busy or disorganized I am. There are probably 400+ manuscripts in our slush pile at any given time. Plus, individual editors keep their own slush piles of requested manuscripts or slush addressed specifically to them.

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

Gosh, about 1% or less, I would imagine.

Why does so much NOT get published?

I hate to say it, but much of it isn't good enough. Sometimes people don't take the time to research what an imprint is looking for and send the wrong type of story. Philomel doesn't do original board books, for instance, and we get hundreds of queries or manuscripts for those. Also, since we only publish 25-30 books a year, and 20 of those books are repeat authors, one or two buy-ins, one or two agented manuscripts...it has to be really, really impressive for us to take a chance on an unknown author.

How long does it take Philomel to read a manuscript?

To read it or get to it? Reading it shouldn't take long. But getting to it is another story. Sometimes things sit untouched for more than 9 months. It depends on whether we have an intern, how heavy the list is, and the season as well.

Describe a typical day at work. Be specific!

I get to work, answer emails for at least half an hour. Then I almost always have mechanicals to circulate, so I have to read through, make changes, approve copyediting, etc. I have various meetings to go to. I return calls. Write flap copy, catalog copy, title information sheets. I approve posters, bookmarks, other circulating sales material. I open mail if we don't have an intern. I work on manuscripts that I hope to acquire, editing, suggesting changes. I often spend a great deal of time writing rejection letters to people who I want to encourage or those I feel would benefit from constructive criticism. I read. And read. And read. I look for illustrators, jacket artists...I prepare if we have a conference coming up, or a launch or sales meeting. I attend national conferences.

Because Philomel is so small, I am also responsible for logging in and sending out every review we get to authors and illustrators with a congratulatory note. I order all contract copies for authors, illustrators, and agents; I handle all check requests for the department; I send out all foreign editions of our titles; I stock and organize the bookroom; I keep up the backlist files, our stock watch, author orders, book donations, packets for editorial meetings, and do the entire catalog mailing four times a year! So there is a lot of administrative work, which is greatly reduced by interns, but my first priority is reading, acquiring, editing, and circlulating materials. The other stuff is in-between. But this helps explain the answer to the previous question.

Oh, and somewhere in there I eat lunch and call my mother if I can.

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

At home. Especially deadline-sensitive things.

What kinds of books do you like to work on?

I love contemporary novels. I love anything with good voice. I also like simple picture books with beautiful art. Anything with beautiful art, actually.

What was your favorite book as a child?

ELOISE was my favorite (I have it memorized). I could look at Richard Scarry for hours. I also loved Ramona Quimby and Ellen Tebbits. I adored BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA and once read it four times in one year.

Do you have any favorites now?

I love OLIVIA, of course. And Lane Smith’s books. As far as novels, SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson really broke ground for me. I thought: Wow.

Is it every editor's dream to discover the next Sharon Creech or Avi?

Sure, everyone wants to discover a star. Or discover a true and lasting writer.

What must a manuscript have to get your attention?

Voice voice voice. And child appeal.

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

Truly, it depends. I'll read it through if it grabs me. If it loses me on the first page, there has to be some reason I continue, like the author is well-published or I really admire the subject matter.

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

Read it. Revise it with author if necessary. Bring it to editorial meeting and get feedback. If it's a picture book, imagine or match illustrations. Get it approved by the heads of editorial. Offer agent/author a contract based on estimate and/or projected success.

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

They are, but I think they'll quickly fall again. The lasting books are those that leave you with something, not those that attract you with a name. If they can do both, great, but the others will quickly fade.

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

Yes. Just not enough room. Or limited sales appeal, even if the story is worthy.

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

I read everything addressed to me. Interns read/file/reject the rest.

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

Completely depends on the circumstances. I wouldn't be surprised if an author wanted to negotiate.

Are offers made by telephone or email?

Usually telephone. Agents sometimes work by email.

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

Usually a compromise can be reached in any area, if reasonable.

How often do you send “personal rejection letters” versus “form rejection letters”?

Anytime I want to encourage an author I send a personal letter.

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

Print run of a picture book is anywhere between 7,500 and 15,000, depending on the book. Novels between 6,000 and 12,500. Of course there are the books we publish 150,000 copies of.

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

The book needs to earn out its advance to make money. We put a lot up front sometimes, and we want to make that back. Reprints typically cost much less so it's easier to make money on those.

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

Average — 3-5 years is good.

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

I'm not sure. There are SO many more books now, things have to really break ground to stick around.

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”?

I work for some of the most traditional editors in the field, who believe editing is why we're here, the most important aspect of publishing. So, no, I don't think that's true for us; if we can make it good, we'll put the energy into it. We'd rather spend a lot of time producing a quality book than a little time producing a lesser one.

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

Not terribly much. I've been in the industry a little over 3 years.

How has Harry Potter changed the field?

Do you know how many letters include the words “this is the next Harry Potter”? But truthfully, it's been a wonderful wave in publishing, more children are reading, all genres getting more attention as a result. And all writers thinking they can make millions on the next children's book.

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

Well, a lot of the specialty stores can't buy what they used to because of the competition, which is sad as well as damaging to us, as children's books are often specialty items, especially the trade books. But we can have bigger and better displays and advertising at Barnes and Noble and Borders, which is good for us, and the convenience of ordering and searching online has brought many books attention they wouldn't otherwise get.

Have Internet sites such as Amazon.com changed things?

Same as above. But the Listmania! and Recommendation features help spotlight books that wouldn't otherwise be noticed.

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

Mostly better. More accessibility to good literature is never a bad thing.