Today we are excited to feature editor and consultant Elizabeth Law, who has spent her whole life in publishing, as an editor at major houses and Publisher at Egmont USA.
Update: Here is the transcript of our Twitter chat with her on Sept. 10, #AskEditor.
How did you approach submissions when you were an editor? What would make you stop reading?
When I was an editor, and also a publisher (i.e. the editor's boss), I was looking for two things. Something I could champion passionately was the most important. But something we needed on our particular list was also a concern.
|Here's a book I loved as soon as I started it, so I called the editor and made an offer the next day.|
If I noticed my attention was wandering, if I had to go back and reread three times, I figured it wasn't for me. Also, if something felt formulaic, e.g. a writer had been told to "describe your character + put something at stake + tell us where they live" then I would usually put it down. The book was a homerun if I got so caught up in the story that I didn’t notice anything else.
Editors do have certain genres they are looking for, and now many publishing houses list what they, and/or their editors, want on their websites. So do agents. Other places to find this information are writers conferences and Verla Kay's famous Blueboard, still run by her but now a part of the SCBWI. Pay attention to that when you are submitting.
You've been an editorial consultant, working directly with authors and artists, for a little over a year now. What would surprise writers about your job?
The thing that has surprised me the most is how many writers don't know what they have. I've been sent "picture books" that were quite long and actually chapter books, or "young adult" novels where the hero was 12 and the subject was more suited to a 4th or 5th grader's interest. I've been told "I have a question about the parents/the plot/the ending" when there's some other big issue--for instance, there's nothing at stake for the hero, or no one the reader can relate to--that leaps out at me as I read. I understand how this happens, because it's hard to evaluate your own writing. Everyone needs a qualified outside opinion of their work.
And that brings me to the other thing I've learned, though it's a bit hard to talk about. I think people are getting some really bad advice. I’m working on a blog post about how to find Beta readers you can trust, because for writers who aren’t yet published I think it’s a real issue. If you can afford it, even an overview evaluation from a professional editor in the children’s or YA field can be really helpful. But if you can’t afford to pay for feedback, how do you find good criticism? I’d love to hear from writers about what has worked well for them.
And speaking of paying for feedback, I don’t recommend using a Beta reader, perhaps from a literary agency, who charges a small amount and uses a checklist to evaluate. That kind of things often misses the forest for the trees. In other words, a writer gets checkmarks for character, plot, grammar, whatever, but no one tells them “you’ve written a picture book that is too confusing” or “you’ve written a novel at 5th grade level that features a 7 year old.” The latter is the kind of feedback you really need!
What are the biggest DON’Ts that authors should remember when submitting?
The first thing that comes to mind is a DO -- Do look professional! Spell the name of the editor and the publishing house, or the literary agent, correctly.
But don’t overhype your work, calling your book “the next Harry Potter,” “the next Twilight” “the next Wimpy Kid,” or “the next Hunger Games.” That’s just not meaningful to a publisher. Give us a more realistic title to compare it to, perhaps even a book you admire that we publish.
Also, keep your query letter short, one page is enough. If you can’t tell us about your book succinctly, it makes us think your book won’t be succinct either.
What are the biggest DOs?
Two things that are really helpful are, tell the editor if you know any famous, influential or well-connected people. “My wife is a writer for the AP and can get us coverage,” and “Our neighbor Jamie Lee Curtis has promised to feature the book on her blog” are very useful for a publisher to know.
What is ONE thing people can do to improve their submissions?
I always get asked this, and it's hard to say without seeing someone's work. If I only had time to say one thing, though, it would be "write your heart out." Write what matters to you, what you care about. That passion shows through, and is contagious. If you’re writing because you think something will be popular, but you don’t really care about it yourself, the editor can always tell, and your reading public will, too.
And if I could be allowed to add an encouraging word? Don’t freak out about doing a lot of social media if it’s not your bailiwick. A lot of things move the needle on book sales, and the most important thing is always, always, writing a good book. Work on that and the rest will follow.
You are a freelance editor offering professional services to authors. Can you tell us about these services? Can you describe one or two instances of how you helped someone in a consultation/critique?
Let’s start with a real-life example. Liza Wiemer had a compelling YA novel with a strong premise, but there were also 6 different voices narrating it, and a couple of extraneous subplots I identified. ith my help, she cut the number of narrating voices and developed a more focused story. After the revision, her book, HELLO? went to contract and will be coming out next year.
How it works is this. Writers contact me through my website and lay out their issue, such as “I’ve gotten rejections that say contradictory things”/“Everyone tells me I need help with character”/“I keep getting stuck at a certain place in my story”/“I have 5 different ideas and am not sure which to pursue”—basically, they raise anything and everything.
Then we discuss the scope of the work we’ll do together and the fee. In most cases I provide a written report, line notes, and a follow up call to go over any questions the author has.
Something that’s fun for me is that the work is so varied.
- I’ve helped writers break up with an agent that wasn’t a good fit for them, and helped others strategize about which agents would fit them well.
- I’ve helped a YA writer age down his novel so that he could get it to contract (the characters were originally in their early 20s), and helped another age up her characters so that middle grade readers wouldn’t feel the kid they were reading about was too babyish and put down the book.
- I’ve worked on every kind of picture book imaginable and at least 3 different folktales, and biographies and nonfiction.
….look at me, blathering on and on here. I need to take my own advice and hire an editor for my interview answers!
You were a mentor in the Nevada SCBWI Mentor program. What are your thoughts about that experience and the importance of mentors for aspiring authors?
I thought the experience of being a mentor was enormously gratifying, and I hope it was really useful for the authors, who were able to get feedback from me, revise, get more feedback, revise again, etc. It’s a golden opportunity.
I hate to sound like I’m relentlessly plugging my own services in this interview, but I’m thinking of taking on three mentees this fall, and structuring our working relationship like a semester. Charging tuition, as it were, then working together 5 or 6 times over the course of the coming months, perhaps doing multiple rounds on the same book. I think it could be really exciting.
Where can people find you online?
My website is Elawreads.com, and you can contact me there. Good luck, everybody!
A self-described children’s and young adult literature fanatic, Elizabeth Law has worked in the publishing field her whole life, first as an Editor at Viking Children’s Books and Puffin Books, then later as Associate Publisher at Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers and as Publisher at Egmont USA. Currently working as a consultant to authors and artists, Elizabeth has edited 15 New York Times bestselling titles and many American Library Association Notable Books and Best Books for Young Adults. Among the many authors she has edited and published are Adam Rapp, Allen Zadoff, Dan Gutman, Holly Black, Tony diTerlizzi, Andrew Clements, Malorie Blackman, Hilary Knight, G. Brian Karas, Micol Ostow, Ilsa J. Bick and Michael Grant.