An interview with independent editor Harold Underdown – and a giveaway!

  So just what is happening with the publishing industry these days?

Amazon seems to be growing in influence. The major trade publishers are discussing a merger. Some small presses are closing while others are opening. Editors who’ve worked for years developing wonderful children’s books are leaving or being downsized.

What does this mean for the average writer? Is this good or bad?

A little bit of both. While the smaller pool of editors may mean that it lowers the odds of being published, some of these editors are actually making themselves more accessible to the aspiring author.  Talented editors, with many years of experience are bravely setting out on their own by re-making themselves as independent editors. Interestingly enough, they offer their services to the very publishing houses they left.  But the best part is that they offer help to the individual writer looking to polish a manuscript before submission. Lucky us!

One such independent editor is Harold Underdown. Harold has over 20 years experience as a children’s editor and has worked with companies like Macmillan, Orchard Books, Charlesbridge and ipicturebooks. He has an amazing website filled with TONS of great information found here:

He attends conferences, holds workshops both with editor Eileen Robinson, on his own, and at the Highlights Foundation. But the best thing is that Harold also works with individual writers to craft fantastic submission-ready manuscripts.

I am lucky enough to have worked with Harold in the past and I asked him if he’d be willing to share some information about what he does with the MUF readers.

Harold, thanks for joining us.

        Why did you decide to become an independent editor?

I decided to become an independent editor because the alternative–moving into another profession–was unacceptable to me. I had to make this choice because in 2001 a company that I was working for closed down, having run out of its initial funding. I looked around, did not see any good prospects in-house, and embarked on this path. I love being a children’s book editor and am glad that I have been able to stay in the field in this way.

           What does an independent editor do?

An independent editor does just about everything an in-house editor does, with the arguable exception of acquisitions, and with the happy exception of not attending a lot of meetings. We edit manuscripts, we coach clients through multiple rounds of revision, we consult on the phone about where a manuscript “fits” in the market, we help pull together the people needed for a writer to self-publish successfully, and we read a lot of books and manuscripts and talk about them. We generally have both publishers and writers as clients.
Many independent editors also give workshops and presentations at conferences. I do this at SCBWI conferences and at the Highlights Foundation in Honesdale, PA, or through Kids Book Revisions, a working partnership with fellow independent editor Eileen Robinson. I keep up a schedule of these at

         How do you choose clients to work with?

I usually am contacted by potential clients by email, and I spend some time finding out what they are looking for from me, and reading some of their manuscript (or the whole thing, if it’s a picture book). I then offer to work with the people who I feel I can help, and who I feel I can provide with the kind of help that they won’t easily find elsewhere for less. So I do turn clients away. If someone has a manuscript that’s outside my experience, such as something for the Christian market, I turn them down.

If someone has a manuscript that only needs the kind of feedback that they could get from an inexpensive critique at a local SCBWI conference, I turn them down. My services aren’t cheap, and I like to provide good value for money. I also turn people away if they seem like they would be difficult to work with, though that doesn’t happen often. More typically, it’s for one of my two main reasons, and I’d say I turn away at least as many projects as I take on.

What are the advantages of working with an independent editor?

I don’t know if I’m the right person to ask–you should ask some of my clients! But from what people tell me, there is  one reason why many of them work with an independent editor. They have gone as far as they can with the avenues that they have for getting feedback on a manuscript, whether that’s their critique group, a writer friend, conference critiques, or all of those, and they know that they haven’t yet reached the place where they want to be. And so they reach out for help from a professional editor. Their manuscripts are in many different stages–ranging from early drafts with significant flaws to oft-revised drafts that need a final polish. What they have in common, though, is that they need or want to get help to move it up another level.

What do you think of mid-grade novels?

 I love middle-grade novels, and read them for pleasure as well as for work. They are one of the oldest of the many forms in which we write for children, with their roots in the 19th century–books such as Treasure Island, Little Women, Alice in Wonderland, and Tom Sawyer that are still read today, and many others that are not. Today there is a tremendous variety of genre and point of view and style to be found in middle-grade novels.

What do you think defines a great mid-grade novel? Can you give some examples?

A great middle-grade novel is one that both tells a wonderful story, drawing upon all  of the tools a writer has to craft plot, character, and setting, and that contains a theme that directly and gracefully speaks to the concerns and needs of its audience. Some examples: Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, Virginia Hamilton’s M.C. Higgins the Great, Lois Lowry’s The Giver, Tamora Pierce’s Wild Magic, Adam Rex’s The True Meaning of Smekday, Linda Sue Park’s A Single Shard, David Almond’s Skellig — I could go on and on. There are so many!

How are mid-grade novels different from YA novels?

That is a frequently discussed question, and due to the differences often being less than clear-cut, I often feel like falling back on the age of the protagonist! But there are some other differences, all of which have exceptions. YA novels tend to be told in first person, or an under-the-skin third person, while middle-grade novels are more likely to have objective narrators. Both focus on themes relevant to their audiences, which is why middle-grade novels have so many missing or dead parents, as children around that age are starting to become more independent and wonder if they could cope on their own. Teens, on the other hand, generally ARE more independent and are focused on their peers. Not that middle-grade children aren’t, of course, but in a different way–and this is where the differences get murkier, as they are often differences of degree.

To get at the differences, I am going to suggest an exercise for your readers. Take a novel that everyone would agree is YA–let’s say Paper Towns, by John Green–and take one that everyone would agree is middle-grade–let’s say Surviving the Applewhites by Stephanie Tolan. Read them both  (they are both well worth reading anyway). And then post your observations in the Comments below….

What trends do you see in publishing?

I see the same trends that everyone does. I see digital publishing changing the way books are sold–and the way books are discovered. I see self-publishing becoming a viable option, though I don’t see it bringing about the end of publishing companies. Those are probably the two areas where the most change has happened recently, and will continue to happen. Where’s this all going? I don’t know, but I’m open to seeing what happens.

I don’t pay much attention to trends in types of books, by the way, such as whether or not dystopias are still hot. It’s fun to speculate and trade that kind of gossip–and I do too when I’m chatting with friends–but I think writers will do best by writing the stories they are driven to write, not the ones they think will sell. Trends come and go, but when you write what you must write, you do your best work, and that is what sells.

One way that I keep up is to use Twitter as a news conduit, though I do use it for other things. I follow a very limited number of people–mostly news sources, along with a few others I know. And those news sources, from Publishers Weekly to individuals such as Jane Friedman and Mike Shatzkin, help me follow what’s going on in publishing generally and in our world in particular without spending a lot of time.

Anything you’d like to add?

Yes: read every day. Read books that interest you, current books, books like the manuscript you are working on or not like the manuscript you are working on. Books nourish the soul. That’s true for everyone, but particularly for those of us creating them.

And a huge thanks to you Harold for giving us all this excellent information. Again, you can learn more about Harold and his services and see all of his fantastic writing information at his website:

As an additional help for the aspiring writers out there, we are offering a giveaway of Harold’s much-acclaimed book, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books, 3rd Edition


To enter to win an e-book version of this book, please comment below. And yes, doing the exercise that Harold suggested above and commenting below does gain you an entry into the giveaway!

Jennifer Swanson’s greatest wish is for someone to invent a transporter (like in Star Trek) so that she can send her kids to their events with the flip of a switch so she will have more time to write!
Jennifer Swanson on FacebookJennifer Swanson on Twitter
Jennifer Swanson
Science ROCKS! And so do Jennifer Swanson's books. She is the award-winning author of over 40 nonfiction books for kids. Jennifer Swanson’s love of science began when she started a science club in her garage at the age of 7. While no longer working from the garage, you can find Jennifer at her favorite place to explore the world around her.
Jennifer is also the creator and administrator of #STEMTuesday and #STEAMTeam2020
  1. Dear Harold Underdown and Jennifer Swanson,

    Thank you for this interview. I have taught literature and creative writing at the college level for decades, and I have learned that most authors need a good teacher and/or editor. I have also found my writing groups and the SCBWI very useful for feedback on my own stories and poems.

    Best wishes!

    Janet Ruth Heller
    Author of the award-winning book for kids about bullying, How the Moon Regained Her Shape (Sylvan Dell, hardback–2006, paperback–2007, e-book, audio, and Spanish edition–2008, 3rd paperback edition and iPad app–2012)
    Website is

  2. Great interview, Harold. And thanks for linking to it on the SCBWI newsgroup as this is a great site, too!

  3. Great post, lots to think about here. Just having my third children’s book published, still so much to learn!

  4. Dave, you can start writing the next one! Keep yourself busy.

  5. I’ve been a follower of Harold’s website since he launched it and found it a great way to keep up with the children’s book business. Thank you for this interview and for giving us some snippets of wisdom from Harold. These are interesting, challenging, and anxious times for children’s book writers, and it’s helpful to have someone like Harold paying attention, taking a close look at what’s going on, and share his observations with us all.

  6. i have the first edition in print; it would be fun to download on my Kindle!

  7. My literary agent has sent out my middle grade manuscript to editors. Is there anything I can do during this stage, or do I just pray and wait?

  8. I had the pleasure of meeting Harold at one of Rich Michelson’s Annual Children’s Illustration Exhibit Openings and have followed The Purple Crayon for years, where Harold generously shares his wealth of knowledge about children’s book writing and publishing. Thanks for this wonderful interview!

  9. Thanks Harold! You always have good advice.

  10. Great interview–and I love the advice to write the book you book you are driven to write, not what you think will sell.

  11. Glad everyone has enjoyed the interview. It was great to learn the answers to some of the questions I’ve always had about the industry.

    @smartcircledirectvcoupons This blog is a compilation of a bunch of different middle-grade authors. Our mission is to excite, inform and otherwise entertain people with the subjects involving middle grade books. I came up with this topic all on my own and was thankful that Harold was willing to participate. Glad you liked it!

  12. I was fortunate enough to hear Harold speak at an SCBWI conference–and he’s as delightful and wise in person as he is online. I’m intrigued by the assignment–I’ve read Paper Towns but will have to add the other to my tbr pile. Thanks for the great post!

  13. Great interview and lots of helpful info! As a newbie to this industry, I am ever appreciative and grateful for those who are willing to share their knowledge. It’s so easy to feel overwhelmed! Thanks again for the wonderful interview, Harold & Jen!

  14. What a great informative and interesting interview. I had no idea that independent editors existed!

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