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Robin Friedman : author and journalist

Tara Weikum, Senior Editor

HarperCollins Children's Books (2004)

Tara Weikum graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English from Eastern Illinois University. After college, she attended the now-defunct Rice University Publishing Program in Houston to see if publishing was the right path for her. Having grown up in the Midwest, she wasn't quite ready to commit to the big move to New York City, so she moved to Chicago for a year where she worked for the American Library Association.

She finally made the jump to New York City when a friend found an apartment for her to share (one of the hardest things to do in New York!). She wasn't sure if she wanted to work in children's or adult books, so she interviewed for both, and accepted a position as an editorial assistant at Hyperion Books for Children/Disney Publishing, which sounded the most promising, as well as the most interesting.

After about three years, she was offered a position as an associate editor at HarperCollins, and has since been promoted to senior editor. She’s been at HarperCollins for about three years.

Tara is no longer able to accept any unsolicited submissions.

What have you edited recently?

I recently finished editing Joyce Carol Oates' second young adult novel FREAKY GREEN EYES, which will be published this fall, as well as SKELETON MAN by Joseph Bruchac. I've also been working on some great new YA novels by new authors, a new manuscript with Joe Bruchac, and some picture books illustrated by Lisa McCue and James Bernardin, to name a few. In addition, I work with my editorial director on Louise Rennison's novels, most recently DANCING IN MY NUDDY-PANTS.

How many of the books that you publish come from the slush pile?

I can't speak for anyone else at HarperCollins, but I have never published anything from the slush pile.

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

It's not really a "pile," at least not for me. The slush manuscripts are in a metal bin in my office. The amount of manuscripts at any given time varies. After I've attended a conference, or if my name has been mentioned in a newsletter, etc., I'm deluged with anywhere from 10-25 manuscripts a week, sometimes more. The rest of the time, I receive approximately 2-3 a week.

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

I do read manuscripts that are addressed to me and my editorial group gets together occasionally and we'll take turns reading manuscripts sent to all of us.

Describe a typical day. Be specific!

Every day is different, but the beginning of my morning is spent reading and answering email, and that continues throughout the day. The majority of our in-house correspondence is conducted via email because it's so quick. Some days I spend time reviewing sketches or final art for picture books, then going over them with the designer. Large chunks of time are spent reviewing various passes of manuscripts and printouts of designed picture books (called mechanicals) in different stages that route back and forth between the editor, copy editor, and designer. I call or write authors and illustrators to discuss the status and progress of various projects. We have three publishing seasons a year, so we also need to prepare for those seasons by writing catalog copy and presentations, and compiling information about each project for our sales, marketing, and publicity departments. In addition, there are various meetings to attend, phone calls and emails to return, and sometimes, in between everything else, a bit of time to read a manuscript or do some editing.

Do you usually read manuscripts during business hours or at home in the evenings and on weekends?

With manuscripts that I've acquired and am working on, I sometimes take work-at-home days so I can give them my undivided attention. As you can see from my description of a typical day, it's difficult to devote a lot of time to one sitting in the office because of the many interruptions. However, there always comes a time when I must shut my door, and ignore my email and phone to read and edit a manuscript. Many, many manuscripts also travel home with me after work and on weekends.

What kinds of books do you like to work on?

I would have to say that my first passion is for young adult novels — contemporary, edgy, and humorous. I also like funny middle-grade novels and mysteries. With picture books, I prefer clever, fun stories that have more of an edge, and that tend to be more sophisticated. I'm not particularly interested in sentimental, "sweet" picture book manuscripts.

What was your favorite book as a child?

I distinctly remember Lillian Hoban's ARTHUR books, as well as the RAMONA books. My aunt also passed on to me the Bobbsey Twin and Trixie Belden books, which were great favorites.

Do you have any favorites now?

Too many to name, really. Many of the usual suspects. One picture book that will always be special to me is David Wiesner's TUESDAY. I first encountered it in a children's lit class in college. Looking back, I think that was the first glimmer of my future career. I absolutely adore Lois Lowry's novels, in particular THE GIVER and GATHERING BLUE.

What must a manuscript have to get your attention?

There are so many ways to answer this question. It must be well-written, engage me from the beginning, have believable, intriguing characters, and a promising plot.

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

As with everything, it depends on the manuscript. If the writing seems promising, I'll usually read a chapter or two to see where the plot is going before I make any decisions. Usually, however, it's clear within the first page or two if the writing isn't very strong.

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

If I've found something interesting, I'll ask my editorial director to take a look at it. If she agrees that it has potential (or if I feel very strongly about it), I take it to an editorial meeting which all the editorial directors attend. If it makes it through that meeting, then it goes to an acquisitions meeting, where various things such as sales potential, marketplace competition, etc., are discussed. If everyone agrees that we should publish it, an offer is made to the author or agent.

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 do expect a first-time author to accept the terms, but not necessarily on the spot. Everyone needs time to think about things before making a commitment. A lot of factors go into the terms of an offer, so they are very well-thought-out, and represent the most fair assessment we can make at the time. Experienced authors or agents will sometimes negotiate an offer, but they will likely have a track record of previous books on which to base that negotiation.

Are offers made by telephone or email?

I prefer to make offers via fax so that all the terms are presented in a clear manner, and no one is put on the spot to respond immediately. Once the offer is accepted, I like to call the author and congratulate them.

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

Every contract is different from the next, so it's impossible to generalize.

Do you ever turn down manuscripts from authors you have already published? Why?

Not very often, but it has happened. Usually the manuscript I've turned down is written in a different genre from the project I'm currently working on with the author, and either I don't feel it's as strong or that it's not right for our list.

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

If I've met the author at a conference or have personally requested their submission, I will always send a personal letter if I reject the manuscript. No one likes to send form letters, but because of time constraints, unfortunately, they are sometimes necessary.

What is the approximate print run of a picture book these days? A novel? Is it true that most books lose money if they don't sell out their first printing? Why?

Every book is different. I can't speak for the industry as a whole, but at HarperCollins we do our best to plan print runs so we do not lose money on a book.

How long can the average picture book be expected to stay in print these days? The average novel? Is it true that today's books stay in print less time than yesterday's books?

I can't really speak to an average for the industry because it varies so much from book to book for reasons I don't think anyone can really identify. I think it's harder for books to stay in print nowadays because there are so many more books being published, so therefore there is more competition. On the other hand, we're in a very exciting time for children's books, and we're getting more visibility - one example is the creation of a New York Times Bestseller List for children's books! And it's always in a publisher's (and author's) best interests to publish books that they think will backlist for years to come.

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”?

It may be true that editors have little time to edit at the office because our days are so filled with other activities related to publishing, which is why I find it easier to work from home sometimes. But I don't feel that editors are looking for more "finished" manuscripts. Of course, the amount of work a manuscript needs is always a consideration, especially for a first-time author, because the editor has no way of knowing how well that author can revise if they haven't worked together before. If the writing, the characters, the voice, and the story all show some signs of potential, I think it's always worth taking a chance, regardless of how "finished" the manuscript is.