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Robin Friedman : author and journalist

Victoria Wells Arms, Editorial Director (2004)

Victoria Wells Arms was an English major at Middlebury College in Vermont. She started at Bloomsbury three years ago as editorial director for children's books. Before that, she was an editor at G.P. Putnam's Sons and Dial Books for Young Readers.

Bloomsbury accepts unsolicited manuscripts addressed to Manuscript Reader, Bloomsbury Children's Books, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010.

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

We publish 40-50 original titles a year, for all ages from 0-18, including board books, picture books, chapter books, and novels. We also do about 10-15 paperback reprints a year.

How many do you edit per year?

Impossible to say - it was about half the list but we have grown so much this year, and with me being out on maternity leave, that percentage will shrink a bit this year.

What have you edited recently?

ENNA BURNING, by Shannon Hale, coming out fall 2004, is one of my favorites.

Were any manuscripts you edited from the "slush pile"?

Yes, including one of our bestsellers, THE FROG PRINCESS, by E.D. Baker.

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

It is many piles, it is huge, and I have no idea — maybe a thousand manuscripts in it.

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

Less than 1‰, but that's still a real number — we get thousands of submissions a year, and every year, we find one or two great things in it.

Why does so much NOT get published?

Many reasons: Because would-be authors repeat stories that have been told before, or the writing isn't good, or the story's too preachy, or just not right for our house style...

How long does it take Bloomsbury to read a manuscript?

In terms of turnaround, four to six months.

Describe a typical day at work. Be specific!

We all spend a lot of time on email and the phone communicating with authors, our colleagues in England, each other, our sales team and rights team. We brainstorm about titles and jackets, we have meetings to discuss manuscripts, deadlines, changes in books, authors' futures, contracts, and conferences. We almost never read in the office!

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

At home.

What kinds of books do you like to work on?

Books that have something new to say, that bring me to a new place and a new understanding of the world...

What was your favorite book as a child?


Do you have any favorites now?

I'm a big fan of HOLES, and Jerry Spinelli's books, and Peter Sis's picture books...

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

Well, depends what that editor's taste is - but in terms of success, of course! But not every editor likes fantasy, so I'm sure there are some who would have a hard time taking on the series. Every editor has personal taste, which is what allows her to really get behind her books and support them in the publishing house - the all-important first step toward any book's success.

What must a manuscript have to get your attention?

Real emotion or humor, an unusual story, a distinct and memorable voice...

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

Depends on the writing and where the manuscript came from. I can usually tell on the first page if I'm going to like the book.

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

I would share it with the other Bloomsbury editors both in the US and UK, then we would discuss it, and if we all agree we like it, we would share it with our marketing team, and then we would go for it. Sometimes this process takes a week, sometimes a month.

Do you think "celebrity books" are on the rise? Why?

Publishing a book for children seems to be just like starting your own line of clothing - something celebrities just must do. Many of us hope the good ones will rise to the top and everyone else will move on to other things.

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

Sometimes. It happens when the book is just too similar to something we have published or has been published elsewhere to much fanfare. Sometimes it is just too quiet to make it in the marketplace. Sometimes the author cannot seem to revise the manuscript in a way that makes it publishable, despite its having aspects that are appealing.

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

I have an assistant who tells me what comes in and we decide who will read what. Most of the slush is addressed to me and I couldn't possibly read it all.

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 always hope the author will think about the offer, but I try to offer what we truly believe the book will bear.

Are offers made by telephone or email?

By phone whenever possible.

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

Depends on the book, the author, and the deal in question. Many parts of a contract are part of our boilerplate, but we always try to find a middle ground where all parties are satisfied.

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

Whenever I can, or my assistant can, but usually not for slush. For all the authors I work with already, of course, I send the letters myself.

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

Varies from 5,000 to ten times that - every book is different.

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

Yes, because in general you base your budget for each book on what you think the first print run will be.

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

We aim for a couple of years minimum before we look to reduce stock. But it may be quite a bit longer than that before it's actually out of print. If the book continues to sell, however, the book will never go out of print. It all depends on what the turnover of and demand for the book is. The amazing Paula Danziger, for example, never had a book go out of print.

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

I think so - perhaps because there are so many more books being published and only so many buyers taking them home. Again, it all depends on how good the book is, and how much demand there is for it. As long as the book keeps selling, we'll keep printing more copies!

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"?

This probably depends on the publishing house. We certainly take the time to edit our books, but manuscripts that come in having been workshopped do stand out.

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

Books are getting more and more commercial as the bookstore chains grow in strength and the libraries and independent bookstores lose their buying power.

How has Harry Potter changed the field?

It's made fantasy a much more accessible part of the genre, allowed publishers to think big when it comes to publishing for children, and opened a door for British fiction for children to have a strong niche.

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

As above, their buying power makes for much more commercial publishing, and makes it difficult for quieter books and books from unknown authors to find a foothold. But they also allow a big book to be much bigger than it might ever have been before.

Have Internet sites such as Amazon.com changed things?

They hurt the independents, and again, make it less likely that a good but quiet book will be handsold. But they also make it possible for buyers who don't live anywhere near a good bookstore, or who can't get to a bookstore, get any book they might think of.

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

I think it goes both ways, and publishers must find ways to continue to publish the most creative and best books for children, no matter what means those books have of finding their market.