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Robin Friedman : author and journalist

Rebecca Davis, Senior Editor

Greenwillow Books (2006)

As of March 2006, Rebecca Davis is no longer with Greenwillow Books, but her interview is still here for informational purposes.

Rebecca Davis received a bachelor’s degree from Tufts University in Russian language and literature. She then worked in protective services for elderly people who were being abused or neglected for a couple of years until she decided she desperately needed a more uplifting job. She thought she might like to try scholarly publishing because then she would always be learning something, but the first job she was offered was with a children's books agent in New York. She grabbed it and quickly fell in love with children's books. She wanted to be involved in creating the books so she moved to editorial.

She worked at HarperCollins for two years, Simon & Schuster for six, Orchard for one, and has been a senior editor at Greenwillow for five and a half years.

Greenwillow Books is CLOSED to unsolicited submissions right now.

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

We publish approximately 40 hardcover books a year covering a wide age range from young picture books to middle grade and young adult fiction. We also publish some poetry and a little nonfiction (if it's a fresh, unusual treatment of a subject and/or written in an exciting, narrative style like fiction).

How many do you edit per year?

I edit approximately 10 to 12 titles a year but the number varies.

What have you edited recently?

Novels I've edited recently include NORTH by Donna Jo Napoli, THE FEVERBIRD'S CLAW by Jane Kurtz, SHAPER by Jessie Haas, and UNDINE by Penni Russon. Picture books include DAYS TO CELEBRATE: A Full Year of Poetry, People, Holidays, History, Fascinating Facts, and More written and edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins, illustrated by Stephen Alcorn; BEETLE MCGRADY EATS BUGS! by Megan McDonald, illustrated by Jane Manning; and ON THIS SPOT by Susan E. Goodman, illustrated by Lee Christiansen.

Were any manuscripts you edited from the slush pile?

I've found a handful of manuscripts in the unsolicited mail over the years. They tend to be few and far between but it's always especially exciting to discover one.

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

At the moment, we are closed to unsolicited manuscripts, so there is no pile.

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

Maybe 1% or less.

Why does so much NOT get published?

I hate to say it, but, sadly, a lot of the manuscripts we receive are not well-written enough. I think many people think it's easy to write a children's book, especially a picture book, because they are so short, when in fact it's one of the hardest things to write, and the shorter the manuscript, the harder it can be. Also we receive many manuscripts that are too similar to books already on the market.

How long does it take Greenwillow to read a manuscript?

I generally respond to manuscripts within two to three months, but response time can vary.

Describe a typical day at work. Be specific!

Every day is different. I usually begin by reading and responding to e-mail (there's always lots!). And throughout the day there are e-mails and telephone calls and impromptu meetings with other editors, designers, and copy editors. All the interruptions make it difficult to edit a novel or longer project in the office, so I will sometimes take a precious work-at-home day so that I can concentrate solely on a long manuscript. But I do edit picture books in the office, search for illustrators, review sketches with designers, write and/or call illustrators with our comments on sketches, review copy edited manuscripts and send them to authors, review any of the many stages of a book - galleys, mechanicals, proofs, blues, bound galleys, etc.

Greenwillow is unusual because we circulate picture book dummies to all of the editorial staff. Each editor edits his/her own books and makes the final decisions about them, so it is no way editing-by-group, but we all comment on the dummies and read first drafts of novels. It's an ideal way to work, because we benefit from each other's insights, experience, and points of view, while still having editorial autonomy, and we all feel as if we have contributed something to each of the books on the list. So I may also review a dummy, proof stage, or manuscript that another editor is working on. I may run a profit-and-loss statement for a project I want to sign up, fill out paperwork for signing up a project, request a contract, or negotiate a contract with an author, illustrator, or agent. I may work on any of the various marketing copy we need to write, such as flap copy. I may read a draft of flap copy that I wrote last week and rewrite it. I may participate in a meeting to discuss a potential jacket artist, jacket sketch or jacket design for one of our books or to discuss projects we may want to acquire or a production meeting to discuss the progress of each book and whether it's on schedule. I may write a letter to an author rejecting a submission or responding with some comments on a promising manuscript in the hope that the author may want to revise it. Sometimes I'm even able to squeeze in some submission reading time, but mostly I read on my commute or at home. And there are no doubt many other things I'm forgetting to mention at the moment.

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

Usually during my commute or at home.

What kinds of books do you like to work on?

I love both picture books and middle grade/young adult fiction - and love switching back and forth between the two since they are so different. I like nonfiction only if it's really unusual. I enjoy a wide variety of genres - contemporary stories, fantasy, adventure, historical fiction, mystery, etc.

What was your favorite book as a child?

I can't pick one because there were so many of them. I can still recite the entire text of FORTUNATELY by Remy Charlip from memory. I adored MADELINE and WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. I loved the ANNE OF GREEN GABLES series, the LITTLE HOUSE series, and read every single horse book Walter Farley wrote. I treasured MY FRIEND FLICKA, MISTY OF CHINCOTEAGUE, the RAMONA books, and so much more. For many years I slept with my arm wrapped around a book instead of a doll, until I became worried that I might roll over and hurt the book (it had never happened) and so began to set whatever book I was reading on the floor by the head of my bed instead.

Do you have any favorites now?

Again, there are so many, it's hard to pick. I adore the Bubba and Beau picture books, HOLES by Louis Sachar, RABBLE STARKEY by Lois Lowry, EVA by Peter Dickinson, and so many Greenwillow books I couldn't begin to name them.

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

I think certainly it's every editor's dream to discover the next book that will be so madly successful and that will entrance such vast numbers of children.

What must a manuscript have to get your attention?

A strong narrative voice, lovely writing, honesty, and emotional intensity all will grab my attention. A unique, memorable character can be irresistible. I look for character-driven rather than plot-driven stories. And I like it when a character grows in the course of the story, when the tale isn't just a series of events but one of those events that have a significant, memorable impact on a character.

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

It varies tremendously. Sometimes I can tell in the first few paragraphs or first page that a manuscript isn't going to work for me; sometimes I read a few pages or chapters; and sometimes I read the whole manuscript.

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

I give copies of the manuscript to our publisher, Virginia Duncan, our executive editor, Steve Geck, and our assistant editor, Martha Mihalick. The three of us discuss the manuscript together and if we are all enthusiastic, I request costs and fill out paperwork for signing up the manuscript. Sometimes I will also give a copy of the manuscript to someone in the HarperCollins paperback group to see if they want to support the idea of a paperback from the beginning. If the other Greenwillow editors have concerns, I may decide to ask the author for a revision or I may agree with their points and decide that we shouldn't sign up the manuscript after all; sometimes I share manuscripts that I have concerns about myself to find out if the other editors have the same response and to discuss whether we should ask for a revision. Once I've finished the acquisition paperwork, the project will go to the HarperCollins acquisition meeting for signatures and final approval.

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

Certainly in recent years more and more celebrity-written children's books have been published. I think this is largely because they sell. We are a celebrity-obsessed society and if people see a celebrity's name on a book, they are more likely to buy it. Also, celebrities find it easy to get on all sorts of talk shows; they get tremendous media attention for their books, which helps the books sell in great numbers. If only dedicated children's book writers could get that kind of media exposure! Since Greenwillow Books is a literary imprint we don't seek and have not published celebrity books.

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

Occasionally. Most often this is because it is too similar to another book on our list.

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

Our assistant editor reads and reports on some of the manuscripts addressed to me, but even then I read at least part of every manuscript she's read. And I read the vast majority of the manuscripts myself.

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 expect an author to consider the offer carefully and to negotiate if there are any terms that concern him/her.

Are offers made by telephone or email?

We never make offers by email. Offers are made by telephone or fax. I usually prefer to make an offer by telephone because I enjoy telling an author that we want to publish his/her work. But I always suggest that the author take whatever time s/he needs to consider the offer before responding to it.

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

It varies tremendously on the situation. Some parts of the contract are boilerplate and are not negotiable at all; in other places there is room for compromise.

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

There was a time when I wrote personal rejection letters for almost everything I received, but it just took too much time and I was taking ridiculously long to respond. We simply receive too many manuscripts to write so many personal rejection letters. Now I send a personal rejection letter if the writing in a manuscript shows promise.

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

It varies tremendously based on sales expectations, the sales of an author/illustrator's previous books, the sales of comparable books on our list, etc.

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

Again, it varies. If we have large expectations for a book and print a lot of copies, we may not need to sell out the first printing before we start making a profit. But if the print run is small, we may need to sell the whole run to begin making money. We try to base advances, print runs, etc., on our expectations, but it's not a science and there are always surprises.

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

This, too, varies enormously. Some books stay in print for a decade or more, others may go out of print in two or three years.

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

I think books are staying in print for shorter amounts of time than they used to, say, twenty years ago. But we are also publishing far, far more children's books than we were then.

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 think editors still want to edit, and by and large, make sure that they do in spite of the many demands on their time. I spend as much time editing projects today as I did ten years ago.

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

It's changed in many ways. More books are being published and there's much more competition in the marketplace. In recent years some children's books have sold in remarkable numbers, which has brought some of the bestseller mentality of adult publishing into the children's field. It has also attracted some adult writers who previously wouldn't have written for children because of the small advances and/or because it wouldn't have occurred to them. Chains and warehouse stores and online booksellers have all changed the marketplace in different ways. And now the baby boomers' children are older and there are fewer young children, so picture book sales have dropped recently and publishers are more eager for middle grade and young adult fiction.

How has Harry Potter changed the field?

It has brought more attention to children's books. It has shown how well a children's book can sell, so publishers are sometimes willing to risk larger advances and more marketing money on books that they think may have similarly large sales potential.

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

When chain stores were a smaller portion of the marketplace and independent stores a larger portion, there were a wider variety of buyers bringing in books and booksellers handselling books that appealed to their own individual tastes. Now there are fewer buyers. Before, if one bookseller didn't take on a certain book, another would, if one didn't champion a certain book, another would - a wider variety of titles would do well and fewer of them would do exceptionally well. Now, if a chain store doesn't buy in a title, a lot of potential sales are lost, and if a chain store champions a title, it has greater sales potential, so we see a few books selling at much greater levels.

Have Internet sites such as Amazon.com changed things?

Their greatest impact is probably that they have made used book sales a much larger factor in the market than ever before. This can be wonderful if you are looking for an old, adored out-of-print title. But authors, illustrators, and publishers don't receive any money from used book sales and to the extent that used books are now competing with new books, it shrinks our market. You can now get "used" copies of even recently published books online.

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

Like everything else in this field, it varies. Some changes, such as the greater attention children's books are receiving and the establishment of a NEW YORK TIMES bestseller list for children's books, are great. Other changes, such as the greater competition, make it harder to publish certain sorts of books, especially quieter stories. Still other changes, such as the age group of the population bulge, are natural, ever-changing, and have always been a factor in the market. The important thing is that we are still seeking out and publishing lots of wonderful, high-quality books for children.