Little, Brown Children’s Book Editors Talk to Dogwood

by Maria Mazzaro, Dogwood Managing Editor 

“There’s a fine line between cannibalizing your own sales and putting out two things that are very similar and realizing that readers will read it all.” Leslie Shumate, Editorial Assistant at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, shared this insight with me after I asked her about the Twilight phenomenon.

It’s a precarious situation, she and Connie Hsu, Editor at Little, Brown, explained. After Little, Brown enjoyed the success of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, the house wholeheartedly rejected any submissions that had a werewolf or a vampire, or even an Edward-Jacob love triangle dynamic.

“I think we learned something twofold,” Hsu admitted, acknowledging that the reading community—teen and adults alike—soon found itself in the midst of a vampire craze.  “It was a learning moment where we learned that teens, when they’re done with that one series, are hungry for more.”

So would Hsu and the Little, Brown team have dealt with those similar submissions differently, had they the ability to time travel as if they were in one of their teen fantasy novels?

“I still think our philosophy isn’t to copy,” Hsu affirmed. “Our philosophy is to say that now, we’re being more open to saying, this has one similarity to one of our books.”  Ultimately, however, the editors now feel that there is no fault in reacting to a similarity or trend.

“But not being too late,” Shumate added.

Of course, Stephenie Meyer is not the only Little, Brown published author to peak to popularity.  In recent years, the children’s division of this almost two-century-old house has seen the bestselling works of James Patterson, Lemony Snicket, and (my personal favorite) Libba Bray.  Just this summer, Little, Brown even published a fantasy children’s book by Glee star Chris Colfer.

Does this mean the editors at Little, Brown have perfected the art of predicting the next literary trend?

Not necessarily.  But they do know what they are looking for in a manuscript.

“To me, you can have humor in anything,” Hsu noted.  “It’s kind of like the ability to write grief and hardship is also the ability to write humor and happiness.  That’s just someone who can grasp the full world of emotions.”

Hsu and Shumate’s advice for YA writers doesn’t end there. “Don’t underestimate your audience,” Shumate recommended, “especially for teen and middle grade writers.”

Hsu and Shumate agreed that an instinct of writers new to the YA or middle grade market is to belittle their writing so as to make it appropriate for their target audience.  But, in reality, the editors have learned that young adult readers are looking for the exact same qualities that adult readers are: an enveloping story and some well-written prose.

Hsu’s advice on this point is clear: “Write as you are: an intelligent adult person. But then remember to be authentic to your character. So as long as you are authentic to your character, teens will connect.”

Little Brown graphic

Hsu took perhaps a circuitous path to her current position—from barista to freelance journalist to substitute daycare instructor. While working in the classroom with first graders, Hsu rediscovered her love of children’s books.  At the same time, coincidentally, a friend who worked at Scholastic told her about an opening in the children’s division of Little, Brown.  Since then, in 2006, Hsu has been working on Little, Brown’s picture books as well as middle grade and children’s novels.

Shumate first joined the team as an intern, and soon graduated to a full-time position, in 2011.  As an Editorial Assistant to editors Hsu and Kate Sullivan, Shumate gets to work on a wide range of genres, from children’s and picture books to middle grade and young adult novels.  As both Shumate and Hsu noted, this is somewhat unique to Little, Brown.

Although Hachette Book Group is one of the Big 5 in publishing, Hsu explained that Little, Brown actually tends to have a smaller list than some of the other major houses.  For this reason, Hsu and Shumate are able to work on multiple genres simultaneously.  Generally, houses with larger lists have very focused divisions, in which editors will only work on specific genres.

“We do have certain editors with a natural taste or passions, and that’s reflected through the books we do,” Hsu explained. “But because we’re a smaller house, our sort of identity is to try to balance between literary and commercial.”  She continued, “I know everyone tries to say that, but for us, I think the literary value is examined, even with a commercial concept.”

There are other houses too, especially in children’s publishing, that are awards-driven.  The motivation behind these types of houses, Hsu explained, is the acquisition of awards in their genres. “And so,” Hsu said, “you look at their list and you say, oh my gosh, almost everything has won an award in the last ten years!”

Little, Brown, on the other hand, isn’t looking to just win awards.  The editors reiterated the fact that they are not afraid to take chances on books about which they feel passionate.

With so many different houses that are motivated by so many various factors, it can be overwhelming to know where to begin the search into the publishing career.  When asked for advice, Hsu likes to refer all prospectives of writing and publishing to the website of the Children’s Book Council Diversity Committee, an organization to which Hsu serves as a committee member.  “Our webpage on the CBC website has a resources link because we want to encourage and offer information to anyone who wants to get into publishing.”

Hsu hopes to provide resources that she herself wished she had when she first came to New York.   “I grew up in Alabama and went to school in Illinois, and one thing I found is, it is hard to get into New York! So one thing we try to look up is affordable housing for people who might want to intern.”  The site also posts internship opportunities and useful tools for teachers, librarians, writers, and parents.

Shumate’s advice to those looking to break into publishing is to know the literary world.  “Familiarize yourself with the market. Read what’s out there, see what’s doing well, and just get to know what teens are doing and looking for.”

That means, if aspiring publishers are looking to impress Hsu, Shumate, and the rest of their team, they won’t just know that Stephenie Meyer is Little Brown’s #1 bestselling author of the Twilight Saga and The Host; they will also know that for the week of November 24, two Little, Brown novels ranked as #4 and #5 on the New York Times Bestseller list for Young Adult books.  And it seems these two wildly successful books could not have had more different plots, especially when put alongside Meyer’s vampire-werewolf-human love triangle.  The first, James Patterson and Maxine Paetro’s Confessions, The Private School Murders, centers around a young girl who tries to exonerate her brother.  The second, Curtsies & Conspiracies by the popular adult and YA author Gail Carriger, tells the tale of a student who struggles at a school for spies.

“It’s sweet to see how these books can impact readers,” Hsu said.  “Even if we sell fewer copies than we hope, I want those fewer copies to count.”

The editors agree: the diversity of Little, Brown’s list, as well as the books’ ability to delight young readers, is what makes both Hsu and Shumate love their jobs.

And, as Shumate noted from experience, “The real fans will read everything—not just one or the other.”

Be sure to follow Maria on Twitter, @MiaBellaMazz.

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