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Robin Friedman : author and journalist

Emily Mitchell, Editor and Contracts Manager

Charlesbridge Trade Division (2007)

Emily earned an A.B. in English and American literature and language cum laude from Harvard University (say that three times fast) and an Ed.M. in secondary English education from Syracuse University.

She was supposed to become a high school English teacher, but by the time she finished her master’s program, she was already burned out by teaching. She fell into publishing by accident – answered an ad in THE NEW YORK TIMES from a placement agency – which led her to her first job in the industry at a literary agency specializing in children’s books.

After two and a half years there, Emily and her husband moved to Boston, where she got a stop-gap job at an educational packager. A few months later, Charlesbridge was looking for an assistant editor, and a New York-based editor-friend recommended Emily to the then-senior editor here. The rest is history.

Charlesbridge accepts unsolicited manuscripts, though they do ask they be exclusive submissions. They should be sent to Submissions Editor, Charlesbridge Publishing, 85 Main Street, Watertown, MA 02472.

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

Between 25 and 35; that has increased in the last few years.

How many do you edit per year?

Between six and eight; that’ll likely go up in the next few years.

What have you edited recently?

On our Fall 2006 list, I edited LITTLE LOST BAT (Sandra Markle/Alan Marks) and AGGIE AND BEN (Lori Ries/Frank Dormer). On the Spring 2007 list, I edited PRINCESS JUSTINA ALBERTINA (Ellen Dee Davidson/Michael Chesworth),VINNIE AND ABRAHAM (Dawn FitzGerald/Catherine Stock), I MUST GO DOWN TO THE BEACH AGAIN (Karen Jo Shapiro/Judy Love), FIONA’S LUCK (Teresa Bateman/Kelly Murphy), and FIX IT, SAM (Lori Ries/Sue Rama).

Were any manuscripts you edited from the slush pile?

Many of my manuscripts came out of slush. On the Spring 2007 list, two of my five came from slush (though both authors had been published elsewhere).

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

Our monthly slush pile usually fills two or three plastic U.S. Mail bins and contains about 200 manuscripts per month. It sits (they sit) under or near our intern’s cubicle. Each editor also receives a certain amount of “personal slush”; mine averages about 12-20 manuscripts a month and lives in a drawer of my file cabinet.

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

Less than 1%.

Why does so much NOT get published?

Um, because it is bad. Seriously. Most of the unsolicited manuscripts we receive are just not fit for publication: poor writing (style and/or mechanics), flawed or no understanding of the market, treacly and/or preachy tone, etc. There are a handful of “good but not great” manuscripts that are either too close to books already on the market, contain some fatal flaw that mars an otherwise decent manuscript (e.g., great topic, but adult tone; or fabulous voice, but plot has logic flaws), or just aren’t a good fit for Charlesbridge (but could work elsewhere).

How long does it take Charlesbridge to read a manuscript?

Hmmm – the whole company? Official policy is to respond to slush within three months. My personal timeframe is more like four to six weeks: I try to stay just a month behind. That’s to respond, of course – reading a picture book manuscript usually takes me about five minutes.

Describe a typical day at work. Be specific!

Let’s see. Arrive, go through inboxes (tangible and electronic) for about an hour. Have a meeting (production meeting, team meeting, contracts meeting, meeting with boss) for another hour. Do contract stuff and small editorial tasks for another hour or two. Eat lunch. Possibly have another meeting; otherwise try to work on some more editorial stuff for the rest of the day (edits/revision letters, reviewing type galleys, reviewing sketches or art, responding to author submissions, etc.). Once a month I try to spend a day writing rejection letters (what I used to call “Breakin’ Hearts on Fridays,” until I stopped working Fridays). I can usually do between 12 and 18 rejections in a day; more than that is just too draining.

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

Sometimes I do. I try not to take work home, but because I’m only in the office three days a week, it’s sometimes hard to keep up with my reading during my in-office time (which tends to be full of meetings, contract stuff, and projects that are already signed up).

What kinds of books do you like to work on?

Now there’s a potentially loaded question. I like working on all my books, and they’re all different: I might be doing a 48-page book on the history of the Roman alphabet one day, a 200-page coming-of-age novel (cough, cough) the next, and a 32-page picture book about a crafty Irish girl the day after that. I’m excited to work more on longer books, now that Charlesbridge is expanding its list to include chapter books and middle-grade books.

What was your favorite book as a child?

THE WESTING GAME by Ellen Raskin and SUPERFUDGE by Judy Blume. I don’t remember being much of a picture book reader (I’m pretty sure I was reading easy-to-reads in kindergarten), but I did have a fondness for CLIFFORD THE BIG RED DOG by Norman Bridwell and CURIOUS GEORGE by Margret and H.A. Rey.

Do you have any favorites now?

Tons. I am a huge Mo Willems fan (as is my daughter); I also love CLICK CLACK MOO by Doreen Cronin and cannot wait for PRINCESS JUSTINA ALBERTINA (see above) to come out. On the novel side, I love E.L. Konigsburg and Sharon Creech, and I adored John Green’s AN ABUNDANCE OF KATHERINES. I am also a fan of a few current series: Lemony Snicket, Princess Diaries, Louise Rennison, etc. I work part-time at my local library in addition to my Charlesbridge job, so I always get first dibs on the latest and greatest (and no late fines!).

Is it every editor’s dream to discover the next J.K. Rowling?

Well, DUH. But who knows – maybe I already have!

What must a manuscript have to get your attention?

Hmm. I like funny, especially dry funny. I like authority, especially in nonfiction – an author who clearly knows what he or she is talking about. I love to find a manuscript where the voice is spot-on right from the start. I do not particularly go for rhyme, “grandma traps” (those intergenerational love fests that appeal to grownups, not kids), or fantasy.

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

I always read the first page. Whether I read more than that depends on how good the first page is. For picture books, I’m likely to read the whole thing just to give the story the benefit of the doubt, but for novels, I can usually tell whether a manuscript interests me by the first three or four pages.

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

If I like a manuscript, I show it to my boss for her opinion. If she likes it, we send it to The Acquisition Board (our president, VP, editorial director, executive editor, art director, and publicity manager), who read and comment on it. If Acq Board (or “Ack Board,” as I like to say – Ack!) likes it, I write up an official proposal, with advance and royalty terms, justification for publication, selling points, competition, and a P&L.

If everyone signs off on the proposal, then I get to make an offer. If the author accepts the offer, then I send the author a contract. Once the contract is signed, the book officially goes on a list, an ISBN is issued, and I start working on the manuscript. That’s the ideal process, at any rate.

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

It sure seems that way, doesn’t it? I think we may be reaching the peak, though. After the early success of Jamie Lee Curtis and John Lithgow (both of whom can actually write), there were a whole bunch of bandwagon acquisitions. I would like to think we’re at the bottom of the barrel now and that enough people are fed up with the whole big hype/low quality problem that most celebrity books have.

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

Sadly, yes. This happened just the other day: I had a manuscript up for acquisition that I loved and that my colleagues loved, but in the end, we felt it just wasn’t quite “there” enough. We have precious few spots on our list, so every acquisition is a big deal.

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

Hee hee. An assistant! Perhaps my daughter would care to help me open envelopes?... No, I read everything that comes to me.

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

I expect the author to jump up and down with glee, to say, “Thank you! Thank you!” and sleep on it for a day or two before coming back with questions or negotiating points. If authors accept right away, great! – but I’m not offended by negotiation.

Are offers made by telephone or email?

I think I’m supposed to make them by phone because it’s more personal, but I always make them by email so I have a written record of what I offered. I find that most of my authors are happy no matter how the news comes.

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

In a typical month, I might send two or three “personal form letters” (i.e., I fill in the author’s name, address, and manuscript title, and that’s it) and a dozen “personal rejection letters” (i.e., I do all of the above and add a sentence or two about the manuscript itself). Of course, once I’ve sent one PFL, the author usually sends another manuscript, which means they pretty much automatically graduate to PRL status at that point, whether their stuff is good or not. It’s just because I’m so nice. : )

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

Charlesbridge publishes many of our books simultaneously in hardcover and paperback, especially titles that appeal to the teacher market (teachers have no money and often have to stock their own classroom libraries, so they tend to buy in paperback or not at all). Our print runs aren’t huge, but they’re appropriate for our needs and our buyers: typically under 10,000 in hardcover, and around 10,000 in paperback.

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

I’ve never heard that axiom, believe it or not. When we write P&Ls (profit & loss statements) for books we’re proposing to acquire, we try to estimate sales for the first few years and calculate the expected return on our investment within that time frame. We do have sales benchmarks we like our books to reach in the first year, but they aren’t hard and fast rules.

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

Yeesh, I couldn’t speculate on an industry level – maybe three to four years if it doesn’t take off? Charlesbridge had long been one of the few publishers who never put its books out of print. It’s only in the last couple years that we’ve been forced to put some of our low-selling titles out of print, and those tend to be older books (from the late 1990s, usually). We try to keep every book available in some edition as long as possible.

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

I couldn’t tell you the average lifespan of a book in the 1970s or 1980s. Presumably, there were just as many forgettable books published then as now, but my impression is that publishers were more willing to let a book take a while to find an audience twenty or thirty years ago.

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”?

It’s true it’s harder to sign up a manuscript that needs a lot of work. The publisher is investing a lot into every book it acquires (advance money, marketing money, staff time), and most higher-ups don’t want to make that kind of commitment to a book that’s on shaky editorial ground at the outset. For me, since half (well, it’s only supposed to be a third) of my time is taken up managing contracts, I have to be extra vigilant about the manuscripts I do choose to work on. That doesn’t always mean I only acquire “finished” books (indeed, I’ve probably spent a lot of back-and-forth editorial time on revisions with the author before the manuscript makes it to Ack Board), but it does mean I almost never have time for long heart-to-heart phone calls or boozy editorial lunches with my authors. I work almost exclusively via email, which helps me manage my time in the office.

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

There seems to have been a demographic shift in the books published over the last five years: not as many picture books (or not as many that get a lot of attention), but a whole new slew of upper-middle-grade and YA. I assume that’s following population trends. The rise of blogs and Internet communities has also meant huge changes: not only can authors do tons of self-promotion without shelling out for a physical tour, but they can also make contact with others in the field (librarians, editors, other authors, reviewers, etc.), who can be valuable resources. I think it’s incredible that muckety-mucks like Roger Sutton and Nina Lindsay have their own blogs, offering any Joe Schmoe a peek into the inner sanctum of children’s literature.

How has Harry Potter changed the field?

The rest of the industry (and the rest of the world, for that matter) pays attention to us now. That’s both good and bad, since it means more people are aware of great children’s books, but it also means more people think they can write their own children’s books. Most of them cannot.

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

I’ve seen too many great independent bookstores in my area close not to believe the chains have had an impact on book sales. The benefit of chains is volume: if they like your book, they’ll make a big buy nationwide. The downside, of course, is market domination, and often, an under-educated workforce. Full disclosure: I once worked at a B&N outside of Syracuse. Most of my coworkers were book people, but not all – and we had little control over which sections we covered. (I had travel books, which was fine, and little gift books, which was not fine. Lo, how I hate little gift books. Impossible to shelve.)

Have Internet sites such as Amazon.com changed things?

Amazon and its ilk make book-buying easier: their inventories are huge and varied, so most people can find any book they need and have it delivered quickly. That’s not good news for smaller, indie bookstores, of course, that have to trade on their excellent customer service to stay afloat. I will confess that I am more likely to buy books from Amazon or Powell’s than I am to make a trip to the physical bookstore, partly for cost and partly for convenience (shopping + Munchkin = disaster).

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

Both. For booksellers, the changes are mostly bad, though the growing popularity and awareness of children’s books does mean more informed customers. For readers and book-buyers, the changes are more good than bad: more variety, more availability, more cost savings, but a loss of great hand-sellers who know how to find the right book for the right person.