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Robin Friedman : author and journalist

Reka Simonsen, Editor

Henry Holt and Company (2004)

Reka Simonsen graduated from Hunter College with a dual degree in English and art. While in school, she worked at Books of Wonder and as an assistant to several textbook editors at what was then HarperCollins College Publishing, and is now Addison Wesley Longman. After several years of working on textbooks and coffee table books, she finally found a job in children's publishing, which is what she'd wanted all along. She's been an editor at Holt for five years.

Holt accepts unsolicited manuscripts addressed to Submissions Editor, Books for Young Readers, Henry Holt and Company, 115 West 18th Street, New York NY 10011. Complete submission guidelines can be found at www.henryholtchildrensbooks.com.

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

We publish about 70 books a year on two lists, spring and fall. We publish picture books, early chapter books, middle grade and YA novels, and nonfiction for various ages. We do not publish board books or novelty books.

How many do you edit per year?

I edit about 20 books a year.

What have you edited recently?

Recently I've edited THE HOLLOW KINGDOM Trilogy by Clare B. Dunkle, THE TRUTH ABOUT SPARROWS by Marian Hale, ONE DARK AND DREADFUL NIGHT by Randy Cecil, and MRS. CHICKEN AND THE HUNGRY CROCODILE by Won-Ldy Paye and Margaret Lippert, illustrated by Julie Paschkis.

Were any manuscripts you edited from the slush pile?

I've signed up quite a lot of things from the slush pile, including THE HOLLOW KINGDOM Trilogy by Clare B. Dunkle, THE UGLY PRINCESS AND THE WISE FOOL by Margaret Gray, and an upcoming chapter book series that I'm really excited about, written by Greg Trine and starring a young superhero named Melvin Beederman.

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

The slush pile is actually many, many piles, and it's quite real. Every week we get at least 100 manuscripts, and these days the number is more like 150, not including those unsolicited submissions that are sent to each of us personally.

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

I'd say a very small percentage. I've had relatively good luck finding things in slush, but even so, in the past five years I've only signed up about a dozen things out of the thousands that I've seen.

Why does so much NOT get published?

It's brutal but true: most manuscripts do not get published because they're not good enough.

How long does it take Holt to read a manuscript?

Our official turnaround time is 3-4 months.

Describe a typical day at work. Be specific!

In a typical day I will talk to or email several authors and illustrators about projects that are in various stages of completion, read a few sets of picture book mechanicals, review an artist's dummy or two, write flap or catalogue copy, prepare forms for contracts or acquisitions, go to a meeting of one kind or another, field dozens of urgent phone calls and emails about all kinds of book-related topics that I hadn't planned on having to deal with that day, try to figure out scheduling for a number of new or overly tardy projects, look sadly at my slush pile and longingly at my alumni needs-to-be-read pile, wonder where on earth my desk is under all that paper, and give it all up to go home in time to sleep before starting the whole thing over the next day.

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

I try to do as much reading as possible at work because it's important to me to keep my home life separate to some degree. So I do read short manuscripts and, if I can steal the time, occasionally long ones at the office - I'll come in early so I can have some quiet time before the bustle of the day begins. And when I need to, I take an at-home work day to read.

What kinds of books do you like to work on?

I edit books for all ages, but my favorite things to work on are what I call upper middle-grade novels - books for well-read, bright kids that are 11-13 or so but are not necessarily interested in reading about YA topics. I like original coming-of-age stories, fantasy (but it must be very well done and completely original!), smart humor, and anything that's good enough to keep me interested through the many rounds of reading/editing that a book must go through.

What was your favorite book as a child?

I could name hundreds. . . My favorite picture books included BLUEBERRIES FOR SAL by Robert McClosky, MILLIONS OF CATS by Wanda Gag, LION by William Pene du Bois, the DORRIE THE LITTLE WITCH series by Patricia Coombs, WHISTLE FOR WILLIE by Ezra Jack Keats, and SYLVESTER AND THE MAGIC PEBBLE by William Steig. Novels included THE GOOD MASTER by Kate Seredy, THE PERILOUS GARD by Elizabeth Marie Pope, the NANCY DREW series by Carolyn Keene, HARRIET THE SPY by Louise Fitzhugh, all of Eleanor Estes' books, and anything by Nina Bawden and Penelope Lively.

Do you have any favorites now?

I adore Diana Wynne Jones, and Jonathan Stroud's BARTIMAEUS books have been a delight.

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

Of course. Need you ask?

What must a manuscript have to get your attention?

A fresh voice, terrific characters, wonderful language, intelligence. . . .

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

I read as much as is needed to give me a sense of the writing and the story, so the range can be huge. Most of the time I can tell within a couple of pages, though.

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

There certainly are a lot of them, and have been for several years now, but I can't tell if the numbers are still increasing. I don't think there's a single answer to "why," but there are a number of factors, such as our culture's obsession with celebrities, the very tough picture book market of the past few years, drastically reduced sales to the school and library market due to cuts in educational funding, publishing companies being owned by multi-media corporations rather than traditional book folk, and the fact that kids (and adults too) now spend far more time with TVs and computers, etc., than with books.

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

Occasionally, but luckily not very often. When I do have to turn something down it's generally because the acquisitions committee doesn't think it can sell well enough, or else because it is too similar to something else on our list.

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

I do have a part-time assistant who sometimes does first reads, but I will at least read part of everything that comes to me.

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 assume that an author will think about the offer and perhaps ask questions, but as I always make the fairest offer I can up front, I don't expect there to be much in the way of negotiation.

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

Most publishers use a boilerplate and tailor it as needed so that everyone is comfortable with the terms. I suppose the most flexible area is generally subsidiary rights (such as film, merchandise, etc.), since many agents and some authors are interested in pursuing these on their own.

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

For general slush I use the department form reject letters. For slush addressed to me I use my own personal form reject letter. I only send "real" letters to authors or agents that I already work with, or when something is promising but not quite there yet, in which case I send an "editorial reject" - a letter explaining what I liked and what I felt wasn't working, and offering to look at the manuscript again if the author cares to revise.

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

Generally the first printing of a picture book is around 7,500 and the first printing of a novel is around 5,000 or 6,000, but of course there are lots of exceptions.

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

Yes, because we base our budget for each book and for the year overall on selling through that first printing.

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

I can't speak for other companies, but Holt tries to acquire books that we think will become strong backlist sellers as well as (hopefully) successes in their first year. We've had pretty good luck with this, so we are generally able to keep books in print for quite a long time, often for five years at least.

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

I think so. There are thousands more children's books printed each year now than there were, say, a decade ago, and the number of people buying books has not gone up proportionally.

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”?

No one ever has as much time in the office to edit as they'd like, which is why so many people work at home on evenings and weekends. But I can't imagine any good editor would do less editing as a result. I certainly am not looking for manuscripts that are more "finished" — I work with a lot of first-time authors and really enjoy the editing process, even though it is often much more exhaustive and exhausting with new writers than with experienced ones.

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

The poor picture book market of late has made it much harder to publish them successfully, so I've had to turn down things that I could have signed up four or five years ago because we just didn't feel that there was a large enough audience. Library and school funding seems to get slashed more every year, which means that institutional sales are down for most publishers and so they have to find new markets for their books - chain stores, bin stores like Costco, etc. - and of course this affects what they are publishing.

How has Harry Potter changed the field?

There are at least two big wonderful things that have happened as a result of Harry: kids are reading novels — long novels and hardcovers at that — which bookstores just couldn't sell until Harry came along — and Harry has made it possible to publish fantasy again. Fantasy was huge in the 80s and 90s, and then came a period where hardcore realism was the thing and you couldn't publish a fantasy novel to save your life. On the minus side, everyone in the world now has a fantasy novel to submit, and most of them are dreadful.

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

The chains have a huge influence on publishing, to the point where at some big companies it is B&N rather than the publisher who approves or vetoes jacket designs and influences the acquisition of series. Chains determine which books are available to the general public and they try to choose what will appeal to the most people across the country, so of course their selections tend toward the commercial and the tried-and-true, rather than toward things that are quieter or newer or more risky. As a small company that still survives mostly on institutional sales rather than on big chain store sales, Holt is not that dependent on B&N and so we are able to publish more original things, or things that are high quality but may have a narrower audience.

Have Internet sites such as Amazon.com changed things?

First B&N and then Amazon.com — the poor independents really have had a horrible couple of decades. Other than their impact on independent stores, though, Internet sites don't seem to have changed publishing very much. They carry everything, so publishers haven't needed to tailor their lists to suit Amazon.com et al, and they haven't made much of a difference in sales, at least for us. But they certainly are a handy reference tool!

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

On a personal level I hate the mall-ization of the book world and try to support independents whenever possible. But publishers can't battle windmills. All we can do is create the best books possible and try our hardest to get them into the hands of the kids for whom they are intended.