Jennifer Wingertzahn, Editor
Clarion Books (2004)
Jennifer Wingertzahn graduated from Fordham University with an English degree. Her first job in publishing was assisting three editors in the HarperCollins College Textbook Division, which she knew wasn’t quite the right fit for her. She was more interested in the children’s books division, so she applied for a job and became an editorial assistant there. She then moved over to Random House Children’s Books, where she worked in the Doubleday and Delacorte imprints. She’s now an editor with Clarion.
Clarion accepts unsolicited manuscripts addressed to (1) a specific editor or (2) the Editorial Department. The address is Clarion Books, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10003.
How many books does Clarion publish every year and what kind of books are they?
We publish about 50 hardcover books a year for readers ages 1 to 18, and our focus is on high-quality literature for children and young adults. That includes humor, fantasy, contemporary, historical, and literary, character-driven fiction; narrative nonfiction; and poetry. We don’t publish series or genre fiction.
How many do you edit per year?
I editor about 8 to 12 books a year.
What have you edited recently?
Some books I’ve worked on recently are MY MOM AND OTHER MYSTERIES OF THE UNIVERSE by Gina Willner-Pardo; ANGRY DRAGON by Thierry Robberecht, illustrated by Philippe Goossens; ZOO SCHOOL by Laurie Miller Hornik; A FIRE ENGINE for Ruthie by Leslia Newman, illustrated by Cyd Moore.
Were any manuscripts you edited from the “slush pile”?
Laurie Miller Hornik’s first manuscript, THE SECRETS OF MS. SNICKLE’S CLASS, did come in as an unsolicited submission (aka: the ‘slush pile’). And I have two other books forthcoming that I found that way.
Is the slush pile an actual pile? Where is it?
I keep my unsolicited submissions on one shelf of a bookshelf in my office. I keep the materials for each of the books I’m editing on other shelves of that same bookshelf, so in theory it’s not that big a leap to make it from one shelf to the other.
What percentage of manuscripts from the slush pile do you estimate get published?
A very small percentage, which is why we always remember the ones we found that way. It makes for a great anecdote, and I think it’s also a real credit to the author that their writing truly stood out from the crowd.
Why does so much NOT get published?
For all the professional writers out there that do their homework to submit to the right house or editor, there are many others who don’t. Most submissions simply aren’t the right match for our list. Once those are taken out of the mix, there can still be any number of reasons a manuscript may not be right for us. Most commonly we may already have a book with similar subject matter on our list, the concept may not seem strong enough to support an entire book, or the story, theme, or writing style simply may not be to our taste. It’s all subjective.
How long does it take Clarion to read a manuscript?
It varies with each editor. I try to respond to people in 8 to 12 weeks. But sometimes it takes me longer than that, unfortunately.
Do you usually read manuscripts at work or at home in the evenings and on weekends?
Yes, yes, and yes. A typical day begins with me reading a manuscript on the train on the way to work and ends with me reading again on the way home. It’s unusual to be able to read much during the day, as we’re going to meetings, writing letters, writing copy for jackets and catalogs, sending e-mails, talking on the phone, etc., for most of the day. I’ve read manuscripts on planes, trains, subways, buses, in my home, at the homes of family members, at friends’ homes, in cafes and museums, and at gardens, parks, and beaches.
What kinds of books do you like to work on?
I like to work on any book that excites me, transports me, affects me, and sticks with me. It’s the kind of book I can take away something new from each time I read it. An editor has to read a manuscript so many times before it becomes a book, that if I can see something I never saw before or make a connection I never made before each time I reread it, I know a young reader will be able to do the same. And, as a result, that book will become a child’s favorite. To create a book like that is every editor’s goal, I think.
What was your favorite book as a child?
Some of my favorites were the FROG and TOAD books by Arnold Lobel, Beverly Cleary’s RAMONA books, THE SNOWY DAY by Ezra Jack Keats, and the HALF MAGIC books by Edward Eager.
Do you have any favorites now?
In the last few years some of my favorites have been ZAZOO by Richard Mosher, OFFICER BUCKLE AND GLORIA, by Peggy Rathman, THE LIFE AND DEATH OF ADOLF HITLER by James Cross Giblin, NIGHT FLYING by Rita Murphy, and THE STRAY DOG by Marc Simont. And there are many others.
Is it every editor's dream to discover the next J.K. Rowling?
I think it’s every editor’s dream to help a talented author or artist reach as wide an audience as possible in the hope that the story he/she tells will connect with a child and enrich that child’s experience. That’s what I think J.K. Rowling and her editor and publisher did for many children and what I hope do, too.
What must a manuscript have to get your attention?
A mastery of language and a talent for using it effectively, a distinct voice, strong characterization, and a compelling plot. But any one of these things in a manuscript will grab my attention.
Do you read manuscripts all the way through or do you read just the first page? First chapter? First paragraph?
I read until I don’t want to read anymore. If it doesn’t appeal to me, I’m not the right editor for it.
Describe the acquisition process. Let's say you found a manuscript you want to acquire. What happens next? Be specific!
I share the manuscript with my publisher and we discuss it. If we both feel it’s right for the Clarion list, I make an offer to the author.
Do you ever love a book that you have to turn down? Why?
I haven’t had to turn down a book I loved, thank goodness. There have been times when my publisher or another colleague have pointed out aspects of a promising manuscript that I may not have seen and I have ultimately turned it down as a result, so I appreciate their honesty and foresight. But finding a book you love is a rare thing and I feel supported to acquire those books.
Do you read manuscripts addressed to you or do you have an assistant?
I read everything that’s addressed to me. I don’t have an assistant.
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 ask an author or illustrator to take the time they need to make a decision and get back to me as soon as they can. For a first-time author or illustrator, however, there often isn’t a lot of room in our standard contract for negotiation.
Are offers made by telephone or email?
How often do you send “personal rejection letters” versus “form rejection letters”?
If a manuscript has one or more of the components that get my attention (see above), but isn’t right for us for some other reason, I’ll write a more specific rejection letter in the hope of seeing something else from that author.
Is it true that most books lose money for the publisher if they don't sell out their first printing? Why?
Publishing is a guessing game. The number of books in the first printing is usually what we hope to sell in the first year, so if we don’t sell out the first printing, we’ve guessed incorrectly and that affects our budget.
Is it true that today's books stay in print less time than yesterday's books?
I think it depends on the publisher and publishing philosophy. At Clarion our list is made up of books we feel can stand the test of time, so we want them to stay in print for as long as possible.
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 that we have less time to edit, but that’s why we’re here: to edit. I wouldn’t want my entire job to be about the meetings and the catalog copy and the emails. I’m an editor because I want to edit books, so I’m always willing to make time for that.
How has the field changed since you've been an editor?
Since I’ve been an editor, the economy has fluctuated and the children’s book market has fluctuated with it. The book retail market has changed. Board books have been ‘hot,’ picture books have been ‘hot,’ and novels have been ‘hot.’ What I’ve learned is that it’s all cyclical and everything seems to come back around again.
Have big chain stores, like Barnes & Noble, changed the field? How?
Dramatically. There are fewer buyers for the stores, because so many of the stores are chains, and that means there aren’t as many different opinions about the books. But I think things will change again, whether it will be by way of independent bookstores, online retailers, or even an innovative new medium we don’t even know about yet. Ultimately the reader is our customer, and I believe there are still many different readers out there and that they want a wide variety of books.