Susan Kochan, Senior Editor
G.P. Putnam's Sons, Penguin Group USA (2003)
Susan Kochan has a degree in elementary education from the University of Vermont.
Putnam accepts unsolicited manuscripts — full manuscripts for picture books and query letters with a short synopsis and three sample chapters for fiction. Send to Manuscript Editor, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 345 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014.
How many books does Putnam publish every year and what kind of books are they?
We publish about 45 trade hardcovers per year, from very young picture books through young adult novels. We do some board books but they are almost all board book editions of picture books that have been very successful.
How many do you edit per year?
What have you edited recently?
In 2003, HOMESPUN SARAH, THE TRAIN THEY CALL THE CITY OF NEW ORLEANS, FALLING FOR RAPUNZEL, OH NO, GOTTA GO! Coming in 2004, THE WORLD ACCORDING TO HUMPHREY, WHEN IT'S THE LAST DAY OF SCHOOL, A VERY HAIRY SCARY STORY, I WANNA IGUANA.
Were any manuscripts you edited from the slush pile?
Many. A few of the repeat authors I work with first came from the slush pile — Verla Kay, Susan Middleton Elya, Lynne Jonell.
Is the slush pile an actual pile? Where is it? How many manuscripts are in it?
Putnam's slush pile, which is made up of unsolicited picture book manuscripts that come without an editor's name and those directed toward Nancy Paulsen and Margaret Frith, would be about six feet tall if the four piles were combined into one stack. It's in our hallway, on top of a shelf. My slush pile, unsolicited manuscripts addressed to me, is about one foot tall and sits in a box on my windowsill. We circ queries weekly so they don't pile up in one place.
What percentage of manuscripts from the slush pile do you estimate get published?
I would guess less than 1%.
Why does so much NOT get published?
Most of the submissions we get are either horribly amateurish or not what we publish. Many people think it's easy to write for kids and try to get published without learning anything about the craft or the industry.
How long does it take Putnam to read a manuscript?
We try for two months, but sometimes it's longer.
Describe a typical day at work. Be specific!
First, I check email and voicemail and answer things that are timely or quick; check any new materials that have come from production (galleys, proofs, blues, all passes of picture books and novels); check on things that were left hanging the day before; do a few things on my to-do list (in no particular order: write copy; gather sales info; edit; respond to manuscripts; send reviews, galleys, proofs, color copies, ads, marketing pieces, etc., to authors an illustrator; discuss a manuscript with my department; meet with the publisher or art director; request a contract or check; research and illustrator; call an agent, author, illustrator; look over sketches or final art; write to an illustrator; find materials/info for sub rights, contracts, marketing, sales, publicity, etc.; have lunch; go to meetings (weekly: publisher and art director updates; bimonthly: department, jacket, and marketing/editorial/sales; seasonally: launch, marketing, post-launch, sales conference run-through, video taping; more on the to-do list.
Do you usually read manuscripts at work or at home in the evenings and on weekends?
Novels at home, picture books in the office.
What kinds of books do you like to work on?
Books that are totally original and clever and keep me interested throughout lots of rounds of editing and proofing.
What was your favorite book as a child?
Ones that always come to mind when I'm asked that question are the ENCYCLOPEDIA BROWN books and THE ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS.
Do you have any favorites now?
Captain Corelli's MANDOLIN, ABOUT A BOY.
Is it every editor's dream to discover the next Laurie Halse Anderson?
What must a manuscript have to get your attention?
A strong voice, clever plot, engaging character.
Do you read manuscripts all the way through or do you read just the first page? First chapter? First paragraph?
Picture books I read all the way through. I will do that with most novels as well, but some I only read halfway and then skim.
Describe the acquisition process. Let's say you found a manuscript you want to acquire. What happens next? Be specific!
I would copy it for the other editors in my department and our publisher, Nancy Paulsen, and then we'd discuss it. At that point, a decision is usually made. Sometimes the discussion would lead me to ask for a revision, but usually I'll get an answer.
Do you think “celebrity books” are on the rise? Why?
Getting published is a popular vanity project and celebrities have seen books by other famous people getting attention, so they want to do it too. Publishers know celebrities can get attention, so they'll take chances.
Do you ever love a book that you have to turn down? Why?
I've had to turn down things I've loved because they wouldn't sell enough in the market of that time and because others didn't see what I saw in them.
Do you read manuscripts addressed to you or do you have an assistant?
I read them. I don't have an assistant.
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 never know what an author will do. I hope there won't be a lot of back and forth but I want the author to understand the offer and let me know if they have concerns.
Are offers made by telephone or email?
Which parts of a publishing contract is the publisher most flexible about?
It depends on the situation (first-time author, established author, award-winning author).
How often do you send “personal rejection letters” versus “form rejection letters”?
I used to send many more personal rejection letters than I am able to now. Now I only have time to send them if I have a relationship with an author or if I think there is great potential.
What is the approximate print run of a picture book these days? A novel?
Picture book — 8,000-10,000; novel — 5,000-6,000.
Is it true that most books lose money for the publisher if they don't sell out their first printing? Why?
All of the pre-press and production costs are accounted for in the first printing, which is a huge investment. Once you account for all of the costs involved in running a publishing company (office space, salaries, etc.) as well as the production of a book, the cost per title is huge. If the book doesn't sell, you never get that back.
How long can the average picture book be expected to stay in print these days? The average novel?
That varies a great deal depending on reviews, sales, the author's promotion abilities. Books that come out to wishy-washy reviews and low sales might only be around for two years. If they get great reviews and make it onto recommended lists (through ALA, state award master lists, school district/library reading lists) they can be in print for 20 years or more.
Is it true that today's books stay in print less time than yesterday's books?
I think the time frame has speeded up in recent years. Companies have less tolerance for large numbers of books sitting in their warehouses.
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 have less time for everything these days, but when we're excited about a manuscript we make the time to give it the attention it needs. I'd love for fantastic stories to turn up in perfect shape, yes, but I've never experienced that. I'll work on a manuscript for years if I see it evolving into something great.
How has the field changed since you've been an editor?
The industry has become more conservative as companies have had to adjust to corporate owners demanding double-digit growth. Technology has changed things tremendously — all of the office procedures are different now, and everything is expected to move more quickly.
How has Harry Potter changed the field?
He's brought much more attention to kids' books within the industry and general public, and inflated lots of expectations.
Have big chain stores, like Barnes & Noble, changed the field? How?
A wider variety of books are hand-sold by independent booksellers, and before superstores became so prominent, "smaller" books sometimes had a better chance to find their audience. Being on the picture book wall at B&N will get a book in front of lots of eyes, but that doesn't necessarily translate into success if the book isn't very special. Fabulous books that the superstores don't take right off the bat can still get out in large numbers and weasel their way onto that wall. Independents are still doing a great job of championing their favorites and can spread great word of mouth on a title they love.
Have Internet sites such as Amazon.com changed things?
It's much easier for me to do research on other publishers' books.
Do you think these changes are for the better or worse?
The industry is always evolving, so there are positives and negatives.