No More Piranhas!: Editors’ Thoughts on Conferences

Published in Children’s Writers and Illustrators Market, 2003

Have you heard the one about the editor at a writer’s conference? She’d been “on” for hours and was enjoying a much-needed moment of privacy in the bathroom. Then, from the adjacent stall, came an eager voice. “Hi,” it said. “I’m so happy to finally meet you. Let me tell you about this picture book I’ve written…”

Truth or urban legend? Well, maybe a bit of both. But the fact is with more and more publishing houses closing transoms to unsolicited manuscripts and more and more “pre-published” writers desperate for entrée, this kind of story isn’t far-fetched. Only slightly less dramatic stories have been verified, and they demonstrate the real frustration editors have with conferences. Because of these tales, I decided to ask a number of editors what they like and dislike about these events. It’s my hope that both writers and organizers will benefit from their responses.

The Ambush

All editors expect to receive queries and manuscripts after a conference. They welcome the opportunity to discover new authors and material. But there isn’t an editor alive who likes to be accosted immediately after a presentation or during a lunch break. Several editors have likened this onslaught to a “feeding frenzy.” They say that some writers even foist manuscripts or portfolios on them. As Melanie Donovan of HarperCollins says the ambush “is more likely to hurt rather than help an author’s chances of getting published and manuscripts stand more chance of being mislaid than if they were submitted via the usual means.”

Translation: writers should make pitches and send manuscripts via traditional mail. At the conference, an editor will supply an address and any necessary instructions (writing “SCBWI attendee,” for example, on the envelope) so that the query or work will arrive safely. A conference moderator may want to repeat these instructions-or, better yet, put them in a hand-out for attendees to take home.

The New York Minute

Many editors will critique manuscripts during a conference. Critiquing is another good way to discover writers and to show them what immediately grabs an editor. But because these critiques are so brief, all an editor can really give is a first impression. Stephanie Lurie of Dutton, says one of her pet peeves is when “people expect to have an in-depth discussion of a manuscript they brought along or submitted recently.”

Atheneum’s Ginee Seo once got hate mail in response to such a New York minute critique: “Anonymously, of course, so I had no way of letting the poor person understand that what s/he witnessed was really NOT editing. Editing is not about negativity-it’s about trying to figure out why something isn’t working. But, of course, in a public forum it’s hard not to take any kind of criticism personally.”

Perhaps the critiques should be confined to smaller conferences where editors can have prescheduled one-on-one sessions. The danger with these-with conferences, period-is over-scheduling. Editors and other speakers have sometimes been run ragged with critiques, panels, speeches, etc. Good pacing is a must. In addition, Judy O’Malley of Cricket Books suggests giving the speaker a “‘keeper’ who runs interference, plays time-keeper for critiquing sessions, makes sure I get time to eat and even a break here and there, a cup of coffee, water, etc. This can really help…Pacing the schedule and giving speakers that bit of TLC can mean that more authors/editors/agents who really do value these opportunities to interact with writers and illustrators can do it more often, and more sanely. ”

The Quick Fix

Everyone agrees that a good panel or Q&A session is invigorating. Editors enjoy thinking about and discussing a wealth of important topics related to children’s books, especially with, as Greenwillow’s Rebecca Davis puts it, “people who are passionate about the subject.” “I love Q & A time,” says Harold Underdown of, “especially when people aren’t censoring their questions. I remember being on a panel of editors in Philly and getting asked, ‘What do editors really think of agents?’ This prompted nervous laughter and a great discussion.”

A good discussion can be made even better when the moderator is talented. As Timothy Travaglini of Walker Books suggests, “Audiences can be shy on occasion; they might not think of the right questions until days later; or they might never know exactly the right questions. A good moderator will not only broach new topics…but will ensure that the panelists cover everything that will be of the most use to the attendees.”

But what is truly useful and what the attendees want to know is not always the same thing. Some writers are really interested in perfecting their craft, and their questions demonstrate it. Others, unfortunately, are too concerned with format or are interested in the quick fix, and their questions reflect that: “Will colored paper catch your attention?; “Do you want things double-spaced, with one- or two-inch margins?”; “How many words should a novel be?”; “Do I need to use a fixed vocabulary for a picture book?”; “Do I need to hire an illustrator for a picture book?”; “What’s hot these days?”; “Are you interested in rhyming picture books?”; “How about a novel about a really stupid kid who time travels back to the Gold Rush and strikes oil instead?”

The answers to many of these questions can be found in numerous books about children’s writing or on the Internet (for example, check the FAQ, written by Anne LeMieux, David Lubar, and myself, on my website). As for the “Tell me what you want, what you really, really want” type of questions, editors tend to give the same response over and over: I want something great.”

Prior to going to conferences, writers need to do their homework. They need to learn about format and something about the industry, about what a publishing house actually publishes and how it works. They should also spend some time finding out what types of books different editors edit by researching the editors on the Internet (hint: search for the editor’s name, in quotes, and a keyword such as “editor” or “books”). The conference hand-out should also list what types of books editors do or don’t publish (example: “Betsy Blue Pencil edits picture books and middle-grade novels, but not YA or poetry. She is partial to realistic or historical fiction and dislikes fantasy.”). After learning these basics, writers are free to focus on the essence of writing: craft. Stephanie Lurie has actually met folks who want to know how to get published, but haven’t yet written a thing. “I think conferences should concentrate more on technique and less on the pot o’ gold at the end of the rainbow,” she says.

The Center of the Universe

How can writers develop their technique? By reading good books, by writing a lot, and by learning from good teachers. Most editors feel that the best teachers are not editors, but established authors. Conferences used to feature stellar line-ups of these, but now the emphasis is increasingly upon Editor as Idol – a situation that doesn’t please the Idol her/himself. As Scholastic’s Dianne Hess put it, “I don’t deny that it’s important to have small doses of business people. But this is putting the cart before the horse. The real bottom line of publishing is being able to publish great writers. And you can learn much more about how to write from other great writers than from listening to endless chatter about what publishers are looking for.”

Editors want to get off the pedestal! At conferences, they’d like to see more master classes, workshops, and critiques conducted by established authors and attended by serious-minded writers. “We aren’t the center of the universe,” says Harold Underdown.

And it’s true. Editors are not gods. Sometimes, they even need to use the bathroom – preferably in private.

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