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Robin Friedman : author and journalist

Margery Cuyler, Editorial Director

Cavendish Children's Books (2003)

Margery Cuyler graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 1970. She has a vast amount of experience in the field - and is one of the well-known "names" in children’s books. She has headed several children’s departments, including those at Holiday House, Henry Holt & Company, Golden Books, and Winslow Press.

When Winslow declared bankruptcy, she decided to focus mainly on writing her own books and doing freelance editorial work. Judith Whipple, the editorial director of trade books at Marshall Cavendish, however, called and asked if she’d be interested in an editor-at-large position at Cavendish. Judith explained that she’d started the list several years before and it was poised for expansion. This was a lucky break for Margery, as despite the freelance editorial work she was doing, she missed the challenge of shaping a list in a more significant way. Marshall Cavendish is in Tarrytown, NY, which is two hours from Princeton, NJ, where Margery lives. Judith explained that Margery only needed to go to the office a few times a month.

Ironically, after she started working at Cavendish, Judith announced six months later that she wanted to retire, and the company then asked if Margery would step into her shoes as editorial director. Margery agreed, as long as she could work from home several days a week.

Cavendish accepts unsolicited novels; no picture books, though, even though they publish many. Send them to Margery Cuyler, Cavendish Children's Books, 99 White Plains Road, Tarrytown, NY 10591.

How many books does Cavendish publish each year and what kind of books are they?

Cavendish publishes between 20 and 25 hardcovers each year and reissues about 8 books from the backlist in a paperback format. Most are picture books and novels but there is some nonfiction too.

How many do you edit per year?

All of them.

What have you edited recently?

Our 2003 titles include LITTLE OLD BIG BEARD AND BIG YOUNG LITTLE BEARD by Remy Charlip, LITTLE TUMBO by Steven Salerno, ALL IN ONE HOUR by Susan Stevens Crummel, PUMPKIN DAY! by Nancy Elizabeth Wallace, DANCING GRANNY by Elizabeth Winthrop, BUFFALO by Beverly Brodsky, THE SEVENTH KNOT by Kathleen Karr, and WAITING FOR JUNE by Joyce Sweeney.

Were any of the manuscripts that you edited from the slush pile?

Most came from agents or from authors I had worked with previously but we have several books coming up that were plucked from the slush pile.

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

The slush pile is made up of piles of manuscripts that arrive at our office each week. There are two boxes set aside for each month, and we average about 300 manuscripts a month.

What percentage of manuscripts from the slush pile get published?

I’d estimate about 10%.

Why does so much NOT get published?

Most of what is submitted is either mediocre, unsaleable because of subject matter or redundancy, or better suited to the list of a different house (i.e., mass-market).

How long does it take Cavendish to read a manuscript?

Three to four months. I meet with my assistant and marketing manager once a month for several hours, and we read, read, read. We also do a certain amount of independent reading.

Describe a typical day at work. Be specific!

Since I go to the office only two days a week, I pack a lot into those two days:

At least one day a month, an author or illustrator comes to Tarrytown to work intensively with our art director and myself on a dummy, first proofs, or whatever’s aesthetically pertinent to the book. This usually takes up most of the day.

When working at home, I tend to mostly edit in the mornings, then read proofs or manuscripts in the afternoons.

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

Mostly at home except for one intensive monthly session at the office and four nights in Tarrytown.

What was your favorite book as a child?

I had many, but one was WIND IN THE WILLOWS.

Do you have any favorites now?

Every book that I edit!

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

Truthfully, I don’t think about this. I just focus on helping the author make his/her book the best it can be, then hope that CHILDREN find it and like it.

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

I read picture books all the way through. I can usually tell if a novel’s going to work for Cavendish or not from the first two chapters. If it seems promising, I set it aside and read all of it when I have a spare moment.

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

I copy and distribute the manuscript to our CEO, VP of marketing, marketing manager, and my assistant. Each manuscript is accompanied with a proposal from me on why I think it should be published. Once a month we have an editorial meeting to discuss the projects. Everyone puts in his/her two cents and we make a decision. After that I help prepare a P and L (profit and loss statement) and we issue the contract.

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

Yes, because celebrity books can mean big business. On the other hand, they cost a fortune to acquire, suck up a lot of staff time, and possibly do not contribute much of a profit in the long run because the advances and promo budget are bloated. I’ve usually worked for small or medium-sized firms (Walker and Company, Holiday House, Henry Holt, Winslow, and Cavendish), where celebrity books are not usually featured.

Have you ever loved a book that you’ve had to turn down? Why?

This rarely happens, although at Golden Books, where I had a two-year stint as associate publisher of their trade program, I constantly had to turn down books I loved because they weren’t appropriate for mass-market.

What must a manuscript have to get your attention?

Voice, voice, voice, and I also like manuscripts that will appeal to kids. This sounds strange, but during the last 30 years, there have been an awful lot of books published that are not really all that kid-friendly.

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

I have an assistant who opens all my mail and passes along whatever manuscripts I should read right away (from authors on our backlist, etc.)

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

It totally depends on the situation. I can’t give a general answer.

Are offers made by telephone or email?

Both, again depending on the situation.

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

I can’t give a quick answer to this, as the contract is 18 pages long! In general, though, Cavendish is both fair and flexible.

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

I send out about 10 personal rejection letters a week. Sometimes I put a P.S. on a form rejection letter. That’s about the best I can do, since there’s just not enough time in the week to do more.

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

Marshall Cavendish has several sister companies in Asia that are high-quality printers, so we can afford to do fairly small print runs and reprint quickly. Our average print run for a picture book is 7,500 and for a novel 4,000.

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

You print what you hope to sell in your first printing, and all of your financial projections are based on this. So if you don’t sell out your first printing, you’re not only stuck with unsold inventory, but also an unearned author’s advance and unrecouped production and promotion costs. It’s a tough business.

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

Cavendish makes every effort to keep its books in print as long as possible, probably longer than the larger houses. But an industry average is probably about three years for a picture book and two years for a novel. A lot of times the hardcover goes out when a paperback edition comes out.

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


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

I think all editors are suckers for books that they believe in, and if it winds up they have to spend more time editing than anticipated, they’ll give the time to the book. In my case, I find the time to give each book as much editing as it needs.

Has the field changed since you’ve been an editor?

YES! Publishing decisions are driven by the bottom line since most children’s trade lists are now owned by international corporations. Publishing is much more of a business than it used to be; no longer a cottage industry. This means that books on esoteric subjects are much less likely to be published. Also, the chains and independent bookstores have become an important channel through which to sell books, and therefore books are directed to the consumer now as well as to the librarian.

How has Harry Potter changed the field?

Fantasy as a genre expanded, and publishing companies began to take their children’s lists more seriously! Also, Harry Potter moved boys toward more books, especially fantasy and science fiction.

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

They have definitely had a huge influence; as a result, books are more child-friendly and gorgeous. I’ve welcomed this trend, although I also think content has suffered. The packaging of a book seems to sometimes overwhelm the content and there are fewer story-driven picture books. Also, subject matter isn’t as diverse. We see holiday stories, sibling rivalry stories, monster stories, etc., over and over and over.

Have Internet sites such as Amazon.com changed things?

Yes, in a good way, as Internet sites provide another venue for selling books. However, I don’t subscribe to Amazon’s practice of characterizing new books as used books, as publishers don’t have to pay royalties on "used" books. This is bad for authors.

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

Good in that more people than ever are buying children’s books and making reading hour a cornerstone of family life. Bad in that there’s not enough diversity in the subject matter of children’s books and also very little risk-taking. I’d welcome more innovation, less conservatism in the choice of books published. I also think it’s critical that as publishers, we continue to introduce new talent to the field, however, that’s harder when the chains favor the old talent that already has a track record.