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Robin Friedman : author and journalist

Samantha McFerrin, Editor

Harcourt Children’s Books (2004)

Samantha McFerrin graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a bachelor’s degree in English and an emphasis in journalism and film. In May 2003, she decided to move from San Francisco, where she was working as an assistant editor with Chronicle Books, to New York. She wanted to become part of the traditional New York children's book publishing community. Working as a children's book editor with Harcourt has been a dream come true.

Harcourt only accepts manuscripts sent by agents. Samantha is no longer able to accept unsolicited manuscripts at her New York address except from writers and illustrators she meets at conferences.

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

Harcourt publishes 170 to 180 titles per year, which includes picture books, novels, and paperbacks.

How many do you edit per year?

Since I've only been at Harcourt since July, I can't give you a firm answer yet.

What have you edited recently?

In regards to my work with Harcourt, I've only just begun. However, during my time with Chronicle I edited this year's Pura Belpre Award winner Just a Minute: A Trickster Tale and Counting Book, written and illustrated by Yuyi Morales; Rhinos Who Play Baseball, written and illustrated by Julie Mammano; and The Girl Who Named Pluto: And the Stories of Other Extraordinary Young People in Science, written by Marc McCutcheon, illustrated by Jon Cannell.

Were any manuscripts you edited from the slush pile?

Only one that I can think of came completely unsolicited and in the form of a query letter (it was a chapter book). Most of the manuscripts that come to me are from writers that I've met at conferences.

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

Since we only accept manuscripts from agents, we don't really have a slush pile.

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

I can't give you an exact estimate. The chances are slim, but it's not impossible.

Why does so much NOT get published?

People don't take time to develop their craft and research publishing houses. Not to mention that the competition is stiff!

How long does it take Harcourt to read a manuscript?

That changes from editor to editor, but I feel it's fair to give a house at least a couple of months to respond.

Describe a typical day at work. Be specific!

In the morning I check emails. Then I read lots of manuscripts, write lots of letters, both reject manuscripts, and work at developing manuscripts. I research illustrators. I'll often make an offer to an author/illustrator, or his/her agent, and then start the contract process. I also prepare for board meetings. No two days are the same.

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

Right now I read them at work mainly, but as my list (and work load) grows I'll probably start reading many of them at home and on the subway.

What kinds of books do you like to work on?

I love working on picture books because of the illustration. But I also really like working on middle-grade and YA fiction. Non-fiction can also be enjoyable if it's done right.

What was your favorite book as a child?

My favorite picture book was GOODNIGHT MOON. But also this little paperback book filled with photos of kittens (which is weird because I'm totally allergic to cats now!). I also liked a book called SAM'S SANDWICH. It's about this guy who builds the biggest sandwich in the world. He needs a crane to add the top piece of bread, for example.

My favorite chapter books were CHARLOTTE'S WEB and LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE, but I also loved Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary. I was a huge Ramona fan.

Do you have any favorites now?

Yes, far too many to list here. At the moment, I'm quiet smitten with FRIDA by Johan Winter, illustrated by Ana Juan, FLIPPED by Wendelin Van Draanen, and Christopher Paul Curtis' books.

Is it every editor's dream to discover the next Han Nolan?

It's certainly mine! I adored BORN BLUE.

What must a manuscript have to get your attention?

I look for heart, story, and really fresh, wonderful writing.

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

It depends. I try to read everything all the way through, but if it's really not getting my attention, I'll often put it down after the first page (picture books) or first three chapters (novels).

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

If I find a project that I love, I share it with the rest of the Harcourt editorial group at an acquisition meeting. If there's a lot of enthusiasm for the project, I'll then work with the publisher and editorial director to come up with an offer. After terms are agreed upon, I'll request a contract.

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

I'd say they've already risen, and think it's because we live in a celebrity-centric culture.

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

Yes. If I love a project but no one else does, I sit down and go over the group's feedback and usually decide to let it go.

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

I read them.

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?

That's a case-by-case issue.

Are offers made by telephone or email?

I really like to call authors/illustrators with the good news, but I usually e-mail the official offer.

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

Author copies.

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

Right now, maybe fifty-fifty.

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

That's really difficult to say. It depends so much on the book, season, warehouse space, reprint timing, etc.

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

That's really something that changes from book to book, but we certainly do our best to publish books that make a profit during the first printing.

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

This is a case-by-case issue, too. We have a strong backlist, so often times they can stay in print for many years.

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

That doesn't seem to be the case for Harcourt. We work hard to build up our backlist.

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”?

That's not necessarily true. I think it differs from editor to editor. "Finished" manuscripts are great, but sometimes I'll work with an author on a manuscript for some time if there's something in it that appeals to my imagination.

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

I've been an editor for about four years, so, no, not drastically. But I can say that the picture book market has become much softer nowadays.

How has Harry Potter changed the field?

I think the series has made many children more excited about reading.

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

There are many ways to look at this question. One aspect is that there used to be many different outlets in which to sell a book. They've narrowed that somewhat.

Have Internet sites such as Amazon.com changed things?

I'm not sure exactly how they've effected the industry overall, but they've made it easier for me to do editorial research!

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

As long as good books for children are still being made, I think we'll be all right one way or another.