I met Emma through Facebook. She reached out for an interview, and I was happy to oblige.
And I found out how small the world is, especially the publishing world. I've been reading books by one of my favorite authors, Ellen Hopkins. Of course, I never knew who her editor was, until I researched Emma for this interview.
Emma edited my most favorite of Ellen's, Burned. Like I said, it's a small world after all. Emma's list of edits is quite amazing. I'm sure you'll know some even if I only list a few: Bear Snores On, Olivia, Mama Why?, Are you Quite Polite?, The Ride, Posy, Gandhi, America at War, The Legend of Buddy Bush, The Years of Miss Agnes, SKIN, On Pointe, Tilt... and many more.
This editor is the one you want! Go Emma! You keep the children's book world worth reading.
Below are the questions I asked her:
1. You've been in New York City all your life. Any secret favorite places to shop? Eat? Best place for a coffee?
[EDD] There’s a little place where I enjoy meeting clients near my home office on the upper west side called The Popover Café which, true to its name, serves enormous, airy popovers all day long (with homemade strawberry butter on the side)—and lots of other good food as well. That’s all I’ll give away; gotta leave my other favorite haunts a secret so they don’t get too crowded!
2. You've worked at some big names in publishing (Viking Children's Books, Random House, Margaret K. McElderry Books, and Atheneum Books for Young Readers). Which one was your favorite, and why? Which one gave you the most editorial freedom?
[EDD] I loved every company for which I’ve worked for different reasons and depending upon the perspective of where I was on my career path.
I was an intern during college with Viking Children’s Books and my first full-time position was with Random House Children’s Books—so I have a particular soft spot for both of those companies, since the people there helped instill in me a passion for the business and best practices.
I think my work with Margaret K. McElderry Books would have to count as my “favorite” because I had the great good fortune to be mentored by and became friends with Margaret McElderry, a woman whom I consider to be the most remarkable woman in the children’s book business—not to mention, someone with a wicked sense of humor. I was at that imprint long enough to actually shape it editorially and creatively while carrying it on after McElderry’s retirement, which is a source of great pride for me.
3. Describe your workday in 5 words.
[EDD] Always ready for new opportunities.
4. What do you look at, or look for, when you are editing a manuscript?
[EDD] I look for an opening that grabs me. I want to get to know a strong, memorable main character with whom a young reader will be able to identify emotionally and psychologically. I listen for a narrative voice that feels true to the main character and true to the subject matter so that it will feel true to the reader.
I yearn to feel something in a manuscript—I want to be taken on an emotional journey as much as I want to be taken on either a literal or figurative journey.
5. What time do you get up, and what do you eat for breakfast?
[EDD] My schedule really varies from day to day; I don’t have a strict routine, although at least three days a week I get up early enough to go over to the gym (by walking through Central Park) before I sit down at my desk in my home office. Breakfast can be anything from granola to an egg and turkey bacon to crackers and cheese. Depends upon my mood and what sort of pressures the day holds.
6. Are you more of a line editor, or do you look closely at the big picture?
[EDD] Absolutely both. Most of the work I do with drydenbks clients on novels is big picture editing, what I call “broad stroke” editorial work in which I assess the big elements – characters, relationships, setting and world-building, story arc, beginning and ending, the emotional core, the height and depth of the stakes, and so on.
I will often follow up with a client on a revision and that’s usually when I do more line-by-line editorial work.
My goal though, is to provide a client with as much editorial feedback in my initial assessment, so I will often provide not only a lengthy broad-stroke commentary, but will do line-by-line edits on part of a manuscript to exemplify for an author ways in which adjusting words, phrases, dialogue, and narrative voice can address general concerns raised in the broad-stroke assessment.
Picture book editing is a bit different; I usually end up doing some line-by-line edits in tandem with a broad-stroke assessment as well as a pagination breakdown and discussion.
7. Do you get to make, and have friendships with authors?
[EDD] Of course. That’s often the best part of the job of being an editor, when the trust between author and editor becomes so rich that the editorial conversations spill into and intertwine with the personal conversations.
I often ask hard questions when I edit; and the questions generally trigger authors to take a deeper look into themselves, to do some more honest exploration of their values, their backgrounds, their emotions—and that can be painful or exhilarating.
Either way, though, I feel it’s my obligation to be there with a safety net for an author if I’m going to be so bold as to ask the sorts of questions that push authors out of their comfort zones. And when an author trusts me with that net, often a friendship of some sort is not far behind.
I’m not necessarily friends with every author with whom I work—but I do feel there’s a trusting relationship that’s always and inevitably established. Without it, neither of us can do our best work.
8. When you are hiring staff, what do you look for in that person?
[EDD] I’m not currently in a position to hire staff (perhaps someday that will change, when drydenbks LLC goes global!) but I have hired many staff members in the past and I will always look for someone with enthusiasm, passion, sound instincts, a willingness to be flexible, and humility.
I look for flexibility because our business is in such flux that it behooves anyone in it to be open to change right now.
I look for humility because so often I would meet with candidates who looked fantastic on paper (the right schools, the right extra-curricular, the right book-related background, etc) and great online (Believe it: employers do evaluate a candidate’s “webutation”!), but who would say in their interview that they didn’t plan to file or type, but expected to edit books right away. Young people who think they know it all already concern me.
This has historically been an industry of mentoring and I put a lot of store in that due in part to what I learned about editing and professionalism from the mentors I had along the way.
I also believe in the mentor relationship because our work as editors is not just about editing…it’s about knowing when subtlety is required with a boss or an author; it’s about balancing creative and business instincts; it’s about knowing when to keep fighting and when to compromise; it’s about finessing, cajoling, persuading, suggesting, listening, and respecting; it’s about coming to understand the differences and similarities between the writing process and the publishing process; it’s about mature human relationships.
Such skill sets and sensitivities take time to develop and master. I want any staff who works with me to be open to learning from me, open to ideas, open to discussion—and excited enough by it all to take what they learn and make it into something fresh and new while also respecting what’s come before.
9. They say the publishing world of children's books is a very small world. If you get on someones naughty list, it's hard to recover. Is this true?
[EDD] Well, I do think this can be true, yes. It’s a small world in which so many of us have worked together in some capacity, so many of us know one another, and if we don’t know one other personally, we know one another by reputation—so if a reputation is sullied for some reason, we generally know about it.
That’s not to say someone can’t make amends or apologize or do whatever’s necessary to stay professional, respectful, supportive, or whatever the case may be.
A recent client was convinced they were on some “do not represent this author” list that was circulating among agents. To my knowledge, no such list exists (I’m sure agents will correct me if I’m wrong on this, right? Right?).
I know an agent who discovered they were being badmouthed on a listserv; she posted something on the listserv to the effect of, “If you have any concerns with how I conduct my business, please have the courtesy to get in touch with me directly.”
At the end of the day, we have only our reputations. And in this digital age, our reputations are everywhere—including places we might not necessarily expect. As children’s publishing is a business, it behooves all of us in it, no matter how much creative fun we’re having, to stay professional and respectful of each other and of our own selves.
10. What's your blog about?
[EDD] My blog is called “Our Stories, Ourselves” and let me start by saying I feel terribly guilty I don’t post there often enough. I know that the best blogs are those on which something is posted daily or weekly.
Well, with my blog I have become more and more empathetic to the plight of the writer—Oh, the writer’s block! Oh, the blank page and nothing to say! Oh, the distractions!
All that being said, the title is “Our Stories, Ourselves” because I absolutely love stories and think we define ourselves by the stories we tell and the stories we live.
Truth be told, I am a total voyeur, which I think makes me a better editor; I’m fascinated by people’s stories (the more complex and strange, the better!) and I think the very best aspects of our society hinge upon the sharing of stories.
My posts always stem from something personal that I’m thinking about or wrestling with that I can tie into some aspect of the writing process – creativity, making the leap, self-exploration, pushing one’s boundaries, facing the blank page, doubt, fear, and inspiration.
11. How has work changed for you since you've gone out on your own?
[EDD] My editorial skills have actually gotten better because I’m less distracted and can be much more focused in my thinking on a manuscript.
My skill set has expanded since I’ve been out on my own as I’ve had to become knowledgeable about more aspects of the publishing business to be of the best possible service to authors and illustrators of all kinds—those interested in “traditional” publishing, those interested in indie publishing; those interested in self-publishing; those interested in app publishing; those interested in transmedia.
I’m in more conversations with more people now—I consult not just with authors and illustrators, but with agents who want to be more cognizant of the digital landscape; with publishers who want to run something by me for an objective opinion; with people looking to stay in the business but who know they need a fresh perspective.
Being freelance also gives me a much better grounding to consult with people about what it means to be freelance. I love the variety of what I’m doing now. I’ve made it a point to go out and learn new things to stay relevant and I’ve found I’m a whole lot more flexible than I thought I was!
12. You are currently writing books as well as editing. Which one is harder, and why?
[EDD] Well, let’s just say I have ideas for books I want to write. I’m not actually writing books yet—it’s hard to talk about because writing is so darned HARD. I have a wonderful support group of colleagues who are urging me to practice what I preach when it comes to getting the butt in the chair and just writing!
It’s very hard for me, though, not to edit myself right off the page before I’ve even typed a word and the writing process when it’s for and about my own writing makes me feel extremely vulnerable.
Talk about taking the leap out of one’s comfort zone! So, no question in my mind that writing books is a whole lot harder for me than editing books!
13. What one word best describes you?
[EDD] Belonging to ALA (American Library Association) and ALSC (Association for Library Service to Children) keeps me very well informed about books, authors, library concerns, literacy initiatives, programs, and conferences.
As for SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators), I’m not only a long-time member, I’m on the Board of Advisors—it’s an organization that I feel very strongly about professionally as well as personally.
SCBWI is an invaluable network that does fantastic work to support and inform authors and illustrators at various stages of their careers; it also serves as a unified voice to effect discussion and change within the field of children’s literature.
Personally, the organization has supported me throughout my career—first as an editor being invited to many regional conferences, then as a keynote speaker and participant at national and international conferences, and most recently the organization has shown me unfailing support when I started drydenbks, sending me the clear message that even though I’m not an acquiring editor with a big house anymore, I still have value to the membership as a children’s book professional sharing information and helping authors and illustrators to do their best work.
Being appointed to the Board has been a great honor, as that was achieved through the votes of the membership body; my position on the Board is unique in that I am a freelance editor with a publisher’s background and knowledge and have my finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the digital space.
15. If a writer decided to hire your editing services, how would that process begin?
[EDD] First and foremost, a writer needs to look carefully at my website www.drydenbks.com and follow the specific submission guidelines.
Once I am in receipt of the materials I need in an initial submission, I need several weeks to consider the work to determine whether and/or how I might be of the best possible assistance to that person and their work.
I do not take on every project that’s submitted.
If I decide the project feels commercially viable and I feel I can be of assistance, I send out a proposal that outlines the scope of the work I feel would be most helpful to that person, the fee structure, and the schedule.
16. Do you choose to work with first time novelists/illustrators, or someone with a publishing track record?
[EDD] What’s been very exciting is that I work with writers and illustrators at various stages of their careers. Many of them are first timers. But a good handful are somewhere along in their careers—some with one book published, some with an agent, some without an agent and seeking an agent, some with many books published.
Because I am a publishing consultant as well as an editor, the consultancy aspect of drydenbks makes the work I do with authors and illustrators that much more broad and varied. It’s a terrific variety and that’s the way I like it!
17. Do you have a preferred genre?
[EDD] Not really. I am one of those editors who is adept at many genres and formats and who has been trained by various editors (there’s that whole mentoring thing again!) how to work with many different kinds of manuscripts for all audiences, from infants through the grittiest YA readers, poetry, fantasy, and other!
I suppose, though, I have a soft spot for… picture books because that way I get to work visually as well as editorially; for middle grade novels because middle graders are at that wonderful precipice between being tied to family and becoming autonomous; for poetry because I love playing with language and space; for YA because that’s where my voyeurism can really take off as I peer and poke into the deepest, darkest, most complex stories imaginable; for fantasy because it’s so rich with the “what if?”
I seem to have a soft spot for all of it! Just give me a good story!
18. What do you think the children's book market is in the need for at this time?
[EDD] Flexibility. And patience.
This society is very much one of instant gratification right now and there’s a real sense of impatience permeating many aspects of the market—from publishers desperate for the next BIG book and fast sales to authors hurtling into self-publishing for the wrong reasons before they’re necessarily ready to be published at all.
Technological companies thrive and survive by trying new things out on consumers all the time, one after another – but if our industry follows suit, I fear we will lose sight of quality control and presenting our best work to the world; I fear we will become an industry of the mediocre rather than the best.
19. What do you think about today's publishing world? Are the huge houses dying dinosaurs? Or will they survive the digital age?
[EDD] The huge houses are not dying. They are big, though, and they are built on business tenants that don’t always allow or enable much agility and flexibility. I think this digital age necessitates all of us being open to new ideas, trying new things, testing new business models, pushing boundaries, allowing for some failures without giving up.
These are all things individuals and small start-ups are able to explore and ultimately weather; big companies not so much, not when they have to answer to Wall Street and stockholders, not when they work under a corporate structure, not when they’re panicking to survive.
I think the big houses can survive the digital age—they will be changed, however.
20. What is your number one, biggest pet peeve that writers often do?
[EDD] I want writers to recognize that any work on which they put their name is an extension of and representation of that writer.
That piece of work with your name on it—no matter what the delivery system, no matter the genre, no matter what!—is a reflection of you. Care as much about the way in which your work is presented to the world as you would care about how you look when you’re out in public.
Following submission guidelines, being sure of grammar and punctuation, being cognizant of the general make-up and interests of the audience for whom you’re writing (be it the agent to whom you’re submitting a query letter and synopsis or the readership for whom your story is intended)—How much pride and care you take with your work will and does translate into how much care a reader will take with your work.
21. Any advice for writers during this time of change in the publishing world?
[EDD] I’m going to use the word again: FLEXIBILITY.
I urge anyone creating content for children’s books to be flexible, to be OK with being a little uncomfortable in the face of changing rules, to be open to new opportunities, to be willing to ask for help or advice, to stay engaged in the conversations as much as you feel comfortable (on twitter, facebook, etc)…and then, shut it all out and focus on writing the best stories you can write.
22. Do you own an e-reader?
[EDD] Absolutely. I used to use a Sony Reader, which I really liked. I had to get an iPad, though, to work with apps, and now I love reading on the iPad; I use the Kindle app, some eBook library apps, and I use “DropBox” for manuscripts, picture book dummies, etc.
I have a Sony Reader for sale, if anyone’s interested…
23. What words of advice do you have for a newbie editor?
[EDD] I think some of the best editors are those who not only have a passion for the newest books and the publishing business as it is now, but who also take the time to learn some of the history of the business as well as grasp the breadth of the industry’s past—read the classics; read the fantasies that preceded and laid the groundwork for HARRY POTTER and THE HUNGER GAMES; read backlist and frontlist titles in all genres; read interviews with and articles by the many prestigious children’s book editors and reviewers who are no longer working, but who laid the groundwork for what we do today.
Additionally, I would suggest new editors go to conferences outside New York City (or wherever they’re located) to get a better sense of what people are thinking all around this country; go to your company’s warehouse and distribution center if you have the opportunity; start attending SCBWI conferences to do manuscript critiques; read the reports from the company’s sales reps to know what’s going on in the market; seek out an editor who’s been with the company for a while and ask them questions; read more experienced editors’ editorial letters and examine edited manuscripts; sit in on meetings between editors and art directors; hone your likes and dislikes.
And, finally, I would suggest that new editors simply listen: to peers, to colleagues, to your manager; and to authors.
24. ANY BIG NEWS?
Thanks for the opportunity to share! I hope your readers might look through the media listed on my website for more insights into who I am and what I do: http://www.drydenbks.com/media.html and might be interested in the posts on my blog: http://emmaddryden.blogspot.com/
Two conferences I’m attending later this year include the national SCBWI conference in Los Angeles in August, during which I’ll be offering four workshops and one intensive (http://www.scbwi.org/Resources/Documents/2012_Summer_Sched.pdf) and a five-day workshop for fiction writers in October called Your Best Book ( http://www.free-expressions.com/your-best-book/).
Emma D. Dryden is a children’s editorial & publishing consultant with drydenbks LLC, a firm she established after 25 years with major publishing houses. On the board of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, she lives and works in New York City.