Interview by Gavin J. Grant
Editor Sharyn November has so much energy (or is it all the tea she drinks?) that she has added a third responsibility -- heading up the new Firebird imprint at Penguin Putnam, Inc. -- to her previous pair: Senior Editor, Viking Children's Books (where she edits hardcover fiction and nonfiction, mostly for teenagers) and Senior Editor for Puffin Books (where she buys reprint paperback rights). Although her office is in New York City, she says she can often be found at publishing and library conferences across the country. She is a frequent contributor to the Loose Leaf Book Company radio show, and keeps her website updated with the ever-growing list of books she's read, and much more.
We decided to ask the newly triple-titled November some basic publishing-related questions: What does an editor do? What's an imprint? And, most important, what has she been reading recently?
BookSense.com: So, what does an editor do?
Sharyn November: There are two things involved in being an editor. In one sense of the word, the editor is the author's main contact with a publishing house. The editor decides if he or she wants to buy a manuscript, buys it, edits it, and shepherds it all the way through to it becoming a bound book. An editor takes care of all the details, helps to arrange the cover art, and is the book's advocate all the way down the line. That's the in-house part of the editor's job. The part the author knows best is the editor who works with the author on his or her book. Editing is different depending on the editor and the author -- and it differs with every book. Some books need more editing than others, some come in perfectly clean.
What do you mean, "clean"?
Basically the book doesn't need much revision -- it's almost perfect the way it is. I've worked with authors whose books have needed quite a lot of revision and others who have needed almost none -- which is really nice, to have that mixture. However, just because somebody's book needs revision doesn't mean it's bad.
Why do books need revision?
To ensure they're as good as they can be. Maybe the story isn't quite there yet, maybe the voice isn't convincing, maybe the end doesn't work. It's like creating any piece of art, you want to get it as perfect as you can. The editor simply provides another eye. I always say to my authors, "It's your book, it's not my book. Your name is on the cover, not mine. You can veto any suggestions I've got." But I'm only going to suggest things if I think they're going to make the book stronger.
If an author doesn't accept any of the revisions, would you still publish it?
Well...if it was under contract. It's always best to know how an author revises -- if you can possibly know that before you start working with them -- that way you don't have any surprises. You can usually tell in initial conversations whether or not authors are comfortable revising or not. There have been authors I've chosen not to work with because they didn't want to consider any revisions, ever. Nobody is above doing some more work on a book.
I strive to be the "perfect reader" for each particular book. There's no ego involved there. I'm just reading it, and thinking about whether the story works: do I care about these characters, what's missing, what's dead-on, is there too much off this, not enough of that? I try to be a fairly objective reader.
Why is it some editors can see a better book than the one the writer presents to them?
Writers are often not very objective about what they're doing. An editor can be objective and also has a sense of the bigger picture. Often I'm able to tell somebody, "No, you can't call your book that, there's another book called that."
Every book has its place, its readers. It's my job to see if this is the right book for my list, is this an author who fits in on the list itself? If it does, how would I market it, who would I talk to about it?
So the editor also works with the publicity department...
I do a little bit of everything. I'm very involved in the process. The author knows what the cover will look like, gets to see the proofs [the working jacket/cover of the book], and knows what I'm doing to get the book out there. We love authors who can promote themselves. We do three lists a year and there are so many imprints at Penguin Putnam* we don't want books to get lost.
What's an imprint?
When you're in a department store and there are various departments within the store -- that's one equivalent of what an imprint is. An imprint is like a boutique devoted to one designer's work. It's a subdivision of an editorial wing of a publishing house. It's a part of the list that is specifically crafted for a particular reason: either it's because there's an editor who is important enough to have earned it (like Margaret McElderry, Dick Jackson, or Frances Foster) and that imprint is a showcase for his or her vision; or it focuses on a particular kind of literature (like Hyperion's Jump at the Sun, for African-American children and teenagers). Firebird is specifically devoted to fantasy and science fiction for the older teenage and adult audience. It's also a paperback-only imprint.
When you were setting up Firebird, what were the most important aspects? What did you do first?
The most important part of this imprint are the books! For me it was a whole combination of things -- what books do we have in-house that could go into this imprint? What can I acquire? Which authors at the adult genre imprints at Penguin could I work with?
On the Puffin side, I'm the paperback buyer and I'm also the in-house paperback editor for selected authors here, like Lloyd Alexander, Robin McKinley, Jackie Woodson, Joan Bauer, and so on. For Viking I edit hardcover fiction and nonfiction, mostly for teenagers. My Viking authors include Meredith Ann Pierce, Midori Snyder, Charles de Lint, Nina Hoffman, Jeff Kisseloff, and Laurie Halse Anderson.
Firebird won't be doing any original mass market titles. Firebird books will be trade books that are packaged and sold like mass market titles. It has grown very organically out of what we've done well at Puffin, where we have sold Eva Ibbotson and Lloyd Alexander phenomenally well. It just made sense. I have a taste for the quirky and the fantastical, and all the best teen readers I was working with were all reading speculative fiction. They were all going into the adult section to find those books and something just clicked in my brain.
You have two Firebird editorial boards - one of teenage readers, one of adults. How did you pick your board members?
I've been working with the teenagers in schools, libraries, and via email for about six years. As far as I know I'm still the only young adult editor who does this. I'm out in the field all the time.
Is there a high turnover in the teen advisory board?
They age out. Some of my very first readers are in college now although they still read for me occasionally. There's always a constant steady feed of new readers. I work with a librarian in Princeton, New Jersey, who has an already established teen advisory board. One Saturday a month she talks with them for an hour, then I get them for an hour. Also, kids just find my website. Librarians and English teachers send kids my way. When I go to conferences and talk about my work, a lot of teachers and librarians ask for my card so that they can hook their kids up with me. It's just amazing.
I love my teen readers, they're so smart. I feel lucky because I can get pretty instant feedback from them. They also have input on the covers of the books and on the authors I'm choosing. I have them read everything from manuscripts that I mail out to them, to bound galleys, to books I'll ask them to take out the library. I'll have them go online and read something for me. Then they email me and tell me what they think, and we back and forth a little bit about it, or (if it's the Princeton teens) I come in and we talk at length.
The adults were all people I knew, or wanted to know, who I thought would be excellent resources for the work I was doing. I've got the editor of Voice of Youth Advocates who wrote a book called Young Adult Fantasy Fiction, two librarians (one on the east coast, one on the west) who have teen fantasy reading groups, people who have worked for publishing houses who do a lot of science fiction and fantasy, reviewers of the genre who've been doing it for years, and then there are the authors. I knew most of them for a while before asking them to do this. There's Lloyd Alexander, Garth Nix, Megan Turner, Robin McKinley, Tamora Pierce, Jane Yolen, and the most recent addition, Diana Wynne Jones.
Do you have any kids from abroad or who use English as a second language on your list?
I do have some of those kids, but obviously when we talk, we talk in English. [Laughs] I'd love to have more kids from around the world -- that would be thrilling. Speaking of which, it would be wonderful to have some books in translation -- I'd be more than excited if anyone can suggest any.
Now something silly -- are you the most caffeinated person you know?
People tell me that I'm very caffeinated. My boyfriend thinks I drink too much tea. I drink five cups a day...there's also iced tea and my favorite, favorite soda, Diet Mountain Dew: it looks like freon and I made the diner downstairs in my building carry it. I tend to work through to the late evening, so at a certain point I go back to hot tea. How much is that? A lot?
Last question: if you worked in a bookshop what would be on your staff picks shelf?
The new Oliver Sacks book, Uncle Tungsten, which I just read and loved a lot. My staff picks shelf would be everything from poetry to cookbooks, a real eclectic list:
- Nalo Hopkinson: Skin Folk
- Kelly Link: Stranger Things Happen
- Han Nolan, Born Blue
- Garth Nix: Sabriel
- Christina Stead: The Man Who Loved Children
- John Dos Passos: The USA Trilogy
- Randall Jarrell: really, anything -- poetry, criticism, children's books.
- Nina Kiriki Hoffman: A Red Heart Of Memories
- Charles de Lint: Any of the Newford collections -- such as Moonlight and Vines
- Laurie Colwin: Home Cooking
- Ellen Raskin: The Westing Game
- Diana Wynne Jones: Dark Lord of Derkholm
- Chris Crutcher: Ironman
- Lewis Shiner: Glimpses
* Including Dutton, Dial, Phyllis Fogelman, Putnam, Philomel, Viking, Grosset & Dunlap, PSS, and Puffin.
Fire Bringer by David Clement-Davies was a Jan/Feb 2001 Book Sense 76 Pick:
"I read this book in a day, then gave it to my 13-year-old son and he read it in a day. We LOVED it!!! Set in ancient Scotland, it's a story with a little mythology, fantasy, and mystery. It reminds me of Redwall and Watership Down, and I've told people here that it's my 'Harry Potter pick' for this year. I enjoyed it that much."
-- Suzanne Droppert, Liberty Bay Books, Poulsbo, WA
Photograph by MaryAnn Harris.