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Robin Friedman : author and journalist

Steve Meltzer, Managing Editor

Dutton Children's Books (2003)

Steve Meltzer attended school in Utica, NY, in the late 1970s/early 1980s. From there, he moved to New York City. He started his publishing career in 1985, working for Macmillan Book Clubs. He then joined Franklin Watts/Orchard Books in 1987.

In 1991, he joined Penguin in the operations department, and soon moved to the sales department as educational sales manager for the children’s group. He served on the board of directors for the Educational Paperback Association during that time. He decided that what he really wanted to do was edit books, and joined Dutton as managing editor in the late 1990s.

Dutton does NOT accept unsolicited manuscripts, but they do accept query letters. Send query letters to Queries Editor, Dutton Children’s Books, 345 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014.

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

Dutton publishes around 110 books a year. We publish picture books and novels that range from the preschool years to age 17, with some younger merchandise novelties in the Winnie-the-Pooh program.

How many do you edit per year?

I could be working on as many as 15 books at any given time, but I publish around 5 to 7 books a year.

What have you edited recently?

This week I am working on a longer picture book called "2030" by Amy Zuckerman and James Daly. It is nonfiction about a day-in-the-life of an ordinary kid in the year 2030.

Were any manuscripts you edited from the slush pile?

No, but Dutton has published books from the "slush pile."

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

Yes, it is an actual pile. It is kept in a big wire basket and managed by the queries editor. Most editors and assistants go through the pile once every two weeks during a "slush lunch" and answer each and every letter. We probably have 200 in the pile at any given slush lunch. I usually request additional information from one or two writers after each lunch - either a summary or a manuscript.

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

Less than 1 percent.

Why does so much NOT get published?

Everyone has a story to tell and that is a wonderful thing, but that does not mean that every book can be published. There are many reasons - too varied to mention in this small a space. But this should not discourage people. I have a 15-year-old friend who recently wrote a novel. I told her that she should be very proud. The real accomplishment is the writing, not the publishing. I told her to keep writing and reading - that is what makes a writer a better writer.

How long does it take Dutton to read a manuscript?

It can vary depending on the manuscript and the editor, but please allow several months as the outside date.

Describe a typical day at work. Be specific!

As managing editor, I wear two hats and so I split my days between the business side of the editorial group and actual editing. I usually use the mornings for correspondence with authors via letter and email. In the later part of the morning, I read emails and manuscripts, and in the afternoon, I might attend an editorial meeting to discuss manuscripts I feel are promising. I will also use the afternoon for line editing and reviewing sketches from illustrators. I also spend a good amount of time discussing projects with the design, production, marketing, and sales department. Bookmaking is a collaborative process that involves many people.

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

At home, much to the chagrin of my wife and daughter. I also read and edit on the NYC subway. I find it very soothing.

What kinds of books do you like to work on?

All sorts. I like a good story.

What was your favorite book as a child?

Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina.

Do you have any favorites now?

Two of my current favorites are Handel: Who Knew What he Likedby M.T. Anderson, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes — a great biography and so appealing to kids. Anything by Eva Ibbotson. She is so funny and is a master of first pages — she grabs you right away.

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

Every editor loves to publish great writing that is also commercially successful.

What must a manuscript have to get your attention?

Well-written. The characters must be fully developed. It should also be a subject that speaks to children.

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

For picture books - all the way through. I usually ask for the first three chapters of a novel. I always read the entire three chapters.

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

I will bring it to an editorial meeting and it would be discussed. One of three things could happen…

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

There will always be room for celebrity books since they are a good way of generating revenue for a company. But most companies will only publish good stories - whether the author is famous or not.

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

Sometimes there are stories that you love but will not sell - at least not in the quantities needed to publish a book. There was one manuscript that I thought was beautiful and I remember telling it to my daughter as a bedtime story. She made me repeat the story night after night.

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

I read every manuscript addressed to me if I requested the manuscript. My assistant also reads many of these manuscripts.

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?

It depends on the author.

Are offers made by telephone or email?

Usually by telephone and confirmed by email or letter.

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

It depends on the book. If the author has a concern about the terms, it is always possible to discuss their concerns. Most times consensus can be reached.

How often do you send "personal rejection letters" versus "form rejection letters"?

If I requested the manuscript, I will always send a personal letter.

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

Picture book — 6,000 to 10,000 copies. Novel — 5,000 to 6,000 copies.

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

I don’t believe it is that bad. But there are lots of start-up costs that don’t repeat on a reprint, so, yes, it is advantageous for a book to reprint.

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

The average hardcover stays in print for three years.

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

I think so. Children’s publishing is more like adult publishing these days - more books and a shorter shelf life. There are so many choices.

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”?

Editors want the best possible book. They would prefer a "finished" book, but they are willing to go the extra mile to nurture a developing talent.

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

YA has grown. When I was a sales rep, you could not sell young adult literature… now it is the hottest segment.

How has Harry Potter changed the field?

Huge changes. There is a New York Times Children’s Bestseller List because of Harry. There are many more middle-grade and YA readers because of Harry. There are also bigger book deals because of Harry.

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

It makes it easier to have a unified marketing approach - to get the word out on a big book. But it is not good to have all your eggs in one basket. That is why the independents are so important.

Have Internet sites such as Amazon.com changed things?

Web retailers accomplish many things… a guaranteed retail outlet, easier consumer purchases, and a great resource for researching other books.

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

If more kids are reading, then these changes are for the better. That’s the prize… kids reading.