I’m so excited to be doing my first post for the From The Mixed Up Files website. When I was coming up with my topic, I was thinking about what readers might like to know, and it got me thinking about all the blog posts I devoured before I signed with my agent and sold my first book. I read everything I could find on the publishing industry, living vicariously through the authors, yes, but also trying to seek out any snippets of information that could help me be a better writer and move my career forward.
Reading, writing, repeat was the formula that ultimately got me a book deal, but one of the things I really loved — and still love — is reading authors interview their agents and/or editors. Having that insight to the process and relationship helped me understand a lot before I got the chance to step into those shoes myself.
So, for my first From The Mixed Up Files post, I thought I’d do just that — interview my editor, the lovely Sarah Jane Abbott with Simon & Schuster imprints Paula Wiseman Books and Beach Lane Books. I didn’t want to focus on the work we did together on my book, so I asked her about herself, her job, and aspects of her work that seem a bit of a mystery to us writers. I hope you enjoy her answers as much as I do…
Samantha: Sarah Jane, thank you so much for letting me interview you for this blog post! What made you want to be a children’s book editor and how did you get started?
Sarah Jane: I found my way to children’s books through a bit of random serendipity. I studied creative writing in college and knew I wanted to go into publishing, but thought I wanted to edit adult literary fiction. So I started applying for editorial assistant positions only in that category. After many months of no success, I had an informational interview with HR at S&S, who wisely advised me to cast my net wider. So I started applying for any open entry level publishing job I could find and ended up in children’s book publicity. At that point, I hadn’t read a picture book since I was a small child, but rediscovering the incredible artistry and literary talent in them made me want to work on them. So when a new position opened up with Paula Wiseman Books and Beach Lane Books, two imprints whose picture books I so admired, I jumped at the chance.
Samantha: Can you tell us about the work you do for the Paula Wiseman Books and Beach Lane imprints at Simon & Schuster?
Sarah Jane: I assist both imprints with administrative tasks, like routing contracts, processing invoices, and preparing sales materials. For Beach Lane, since they work remotely from California, I also get to be the in-house representative for the imprint and assist with tasks that have to be done in person like color correcting, which is the process of matching the digital scans of artwork to the colors in the original art. Since Paula Wiseman Books is based in New York, I am more involved in their acquisitions process, reading and evaluating manuscripts and giving editorial suggestions. And of course, I edit my own list of books under the Paula Wiseman Books imprint.
Samantha: Do you have any favorite parts of your job?
Sarah Jane: I love writing, so I enjoy writing up sales materials as well as flap copy for our books. I also really enjoy the collaborative parts of my job, like talking through edits and ideas with authors or meeting with the art director to talk through our notes on a new round of sketches. It’s so satisfying to help an author work out the perfect solution for a narrative problem or to help an artist find just the right way to illustrate a tricky moment in a picture book.
Samantha: Any parts you would avoid if you could?
Sarah Jane: Like most everyone’s job, there are tedious administrative tasks on my plate that I wish could be done by little elves at my desk while I’m home at night. I also never enjoy rejecting manuscripts—having received lots of rejections for my own writing, I know the disappointment of it, even if it is an encouraging rejection. I empathize!
Samantha: Tell us about some of the books you’ve worked on as an editor.
Sarah Jane: I’m so lucky to work with the wonderful authors and illustrators on my list. My recent middle grade novels include Littler Women by Laura Schaefer, a sweet modern day re-telling of the beloved classic, with a craft or recipe at the end of every chapter. I also had the pleasure of working on a book the interviewer knows quite well, The Boy, the Boat, and the Beast by Samantha M. Clark. [Quick interruption from Samantha: Eep! 🙂 ] It’s a gripping blend of mystery, survival story, and the supernatural that explores themes like courage, self-esteem, family, and toxic masculinity. In the picture book realm, I am currently editing The Sea Knows by Alice McGinty and Alan Havis, illustrated by Stephanie Laberis, a lyrical exploration of the wonders of the ocean and marine life, as well as a forthcoming picture book biography of a groundbreaking female athlete.
Samantha: Those sound wonderful. When you’re reading a manuscript for acquisition, what do you look for?
Sarah Jane: I always look for a story that grabs me immediately, that I don’t want to put down and find myself thinking about even when I’m not reading it. I love when a story is imaginative and unique, when it surprises me. Editors read so many stories that are slight variations of the same theme or idea, so something truly fresh is a pleasure. In middle grade, I look for a strong voice that feels singular and specific to the character, one that’s quirky and endearing. In picture books, I want heart—a story that is going to leave its mark on the reader and give them something to think about. A story can be completely hilarious, but if there isn’t a layer underneath that, it may be a one-time read. If a picture book is moving enough to make me tear up at my desk, that is a good thing!
Samantha: What happens in the acquisition process at these imprints?
Sarah Jane: Like a lot of publishers, our acquisitions process has several steps. First, of course, I read all of my submissions. Then I send the manuscripts that stand out to me on to my colleagues and we discuss them at a weekly editors’ staff meeting. Manuscripts that make it through that meeting as well go on to the last layer of acquisitions approval, before I am given the go-ahead to make an offer.
Samantha: If you couldn’t be an editor, what would you want to be?
Sarah Jane: As I’ve said, I love writing, so I would probably be pursuing a career as a freelance writer or journalist. I started college majoring in international relations, looking to work at a non-profit or NGO in the area of third world development with the hopes of making the world a better place. If I hadn’t taken a creative writing elective on a whim and decided to change my major because of it, I would probably be working in that field today. I’m grateful that on my current path, I still get to make the world a better place—through books!
Samantha: Yes! Books can change the world. Thank you, Sarah Jane.
And dear readers, I’ll add one more thing about my early publishing research: One of the best ways to get to know an agent or editor is through the books they worked on. So, while I don’t mean for this to be a plug — I really don’t! — if you think the Paula Wiseman Imprint could be a good place for you, read the books Sarah Jane mentioned here. They’re now on my to-read list. 🙂 And you can follow Sarah Jane at one of the best names on the Twitterverse: @sarahjaneyre.