Welcome to tall tales & short stories and thank you for agreeing to be interviewed.
Could you tell us a little about yourself?
I’m a senior commissioning editor for children’s fiction at Oxford University Press and have worked in publishing for 7 years or so. I previously worked for a company called Working Partners where I developed series fiction including Rainbow Magic, My Secret Unicorn and Beast Quest.
(Interview on this blog with Sara O'Connor of Working Partners)
When I’m not editing, I’m writing, and my novel the Windrose - the first in the trilogy- has just been picked up by Harper Collins US.
Which authors/stories did you enjoy reading as a child/teenager? How do you think they compare to the children’s/YA novels available today? What do you think children of today want to read?
What I liked to read as a child/teenager
• Roald Dahl – The Witches, Matilda, The Twits
• William Sleator—Interstellar Pig
• Phillip Pullman – Ruby in the Smoke
• Judy Blume Tiger Eyes, Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret
• Lois Duncan – Stranger With My Face
• Christopher Pike and Point Horror books.
• Meredith Ann Pierce – Dark Angel, The Woman Who Loved Reindeer
• L.J Smith – The Vampire Diaries _ I read these the first time round, really pleased that a new generation of readers are getting a flavour of such an awesome love triangle.
• Michelle Magorian – Goodnight Mr Tom
• Harry Potter – I was still a teenager [just] so it counts!
What do you think children of today want to read?
The same things that children of yesterday read, great narratives, characters that you can love and empathise with. Funny stories, sad stories, love stories and horror stories. The fundamentals of good storytelling don’t change.
What inspired you to become a children's/YA book editor and how did you prepare for this career?
I have been a lifelong reader of children’s books. Indeed the fact that I was still reading children’s books when I was an adult was my first clue as to what I should do for a living!
I studied English Literature and Language at Oxford University and learnt lots about analysing books and talking about them. After I left uni, I worked for a year going to state schools around the country talking to young people about higher education and its benefits. I realised how important books were to raising aspirations and how they had raised my aspirations as a child without me even really noticing! After that epiphany, I knew I wanted to work with books—writing them and editing them.
I then got onto the Penguin Graduate programme. It was an eighteen month programme where I got to work in lots of different parts of the business – marketing, publicity, sales, a stint in the Penguin US office as well as children and adult editorial. Because I got to work in so many different parts of the business I was absolutely sure that I wanted to work in children’s editorial at the end of the programme.
How would you describe your typical working day?
Not sure there is a typical day – that’s why I love my job.
I’ll have meetings, these could be marketing meetings, cover meetings or acquisitions meetings.
I might be busy writing cover copy or additional info for sales sheets or maybe a piece of passion for a website like lovereading4kids or a letter to bookseller.
I’ll be reading new submissions, editing scripts from authors already on our list. Negotiating with agents over contracts or talking to my colleagues about scheduling and progress of current projects or to the rights team about possible angles to help pitch a book to foreign publishers. I’ll often be on the phone to an author talking about a new idea or how a book event went.
I’ll attend book launches, writers conference – there’s more but I’m exhausting myself just writing this let alone doing it!
What is the greatest challenge of being a Senior Commissioning Editor?
Simply put, there are not enough hours in the day.
Trials and tribulations of being an editor: What do you love about your work? What don’t you love?
I love the fact that every time you are reading a submission you could be about to find the ONE –– it’s a bit like speed dating and very exciting.
I love working with authors and realising their vision for a book.
Editorial is at the centre of the publishing process – that means you job is very varied but also means that you sometimes feel like you have too many balls in the air!
When looking for that new manuscript what are the main things that grab your attention? What makes a piece of work stand out from the slushpile?
An idea that makes you sit up and go WOW that’s something a bit different. A killer idea would make me dip straight into the script right there and then even if I have a million other things to do.
A good first line would could keep me reading.
Could you give us some idea of your tastes, the kinds of books you're looking to acquire and what really excites you?
When I first started in this role, I had a wish list – dark fiction, thrillers, some classic adventure stories. But the longer I do this role the more I feel that any book could be the one that makes you sit up, it’s about falling in love with the writing.
What kind of working relationship do you aim to build between you and your authors?
I cannot answer this question any better than this!
Would you take a risk on a manuscript that showed lots of promise but needed a lot of work?
Yes, definitely. In some cases it might mean that I work with an author even if I haven’t been able to offer them a publishing contract.
Do you think the publishing industry has/is changing in any major ways? Either due to the global economic climate or the introduction of POD and ebooks?
Right, so I’m a real fan of poker and you can either play a loose or a tight game. I feel like publishers are currently playing a tighter game than a couple of years ago because of the economic downturn. That means we are all a little bit more risk averse.
Do you accept unsolicited submissions? What is the best way for an author to approach OUP?
Send your submissions to our Charlotte Elkins our editorial administrator.
The submission should include:
- A strong covering letter
- 1-2 page synopsis
- Your first three chapters.
Do you have any submission preferences or things that annoy you?
No page numbers – that really annoys me!
Please double space – so much easier to read. Be kind to my eyes I’m already ridiculously short sighted.
What is one thing you wish every beginner writer knew?
Don’t rush. Make sure it is as good as you can humanly make it before you send your script out. That means getting your basics down- it is not just about the good idea – it’s also about understanding the mechanics of storytelling. Perspective, dialogue, using an active voice rather than a passive voice. Using speech attribution correctly is a good start.
What are the most common mistakes you see in submissions?
I find that publishers often respond to submissions with the phrase 'doesn't fit with our current list'. Could you explain what this means? Is it to do with trends, or other factors?
I think this can mean different things for different publishers. It can sometimes apply to the style of writing, or genre and that what you’ve written is not fitting with what that publisher is currently publishing or looking for. It might even mean that your seven book arc doesn’t fit with the list because they are already supporting a lot of series.
Would you ever consider a proposal for a series from a new author, or do you prefer stand alone books?
I would consider series ideas but I’d need to be convinced by the writing as well as the concept. Series are a big commitment – I think if you are a debut author starting with this is choosing a more difficult path. Please note, I didn’t take my own advice!
Is it worth submitting at this time, or would we be better waiting till the recession is over?
It is a tough market out there but publishers are always looking for talent and so if you think your story is strong enough and you have made it as good as you can possibly make it – then submit it.
How do you find the time to balance day job with your own writing?
It isn’t easy but both my role as an editor and my writing is a passion and so I have to make time for both [although my social life probably does suffer]
As an editor and writer, how do you balance being a writer and an editor when mixing with writers who may want to submit to you? Do you set any particular protocols?
I don’t set any protocols with writers. If they pitch an idea that sounds even remotely like something I’m cooking up, I’ll tell them straight away – it protects both of us.
Is it easy to move from someone else's story to writing your own?
I actually find it quite easy to move from one author’s story to another author’s story during a working day and so when I move onto my own writing it is a similar shift.
Words of wisdom and advice to aspiring writers?
Use rejection letters as talismans or as wallpaper, believe they give you strength.
tall tales & short stories would like to say a big thank you to Jasmine for taking time out to be interviewed.
Also on tall tales & short stories - Jasmine explains why Witchfinder: Dawn of the Demontide by William Hussey excited her when it was submitted to Oxford University Press
OUP author Marie-Louise Jensen discusses her books and writing historical fiction