Friday, May 2, 2008

The Sweetest Berries Come with an Assful of Thorns

Why aren't teachers consultants to Book Publishers? We read a gazillion books a year - at LEAST four a day, and more at night and on the weekends. We nowwhat kids like, what they laugh about, what they cry about, who they are interested in, and what works and what doesn't. We are in the school library, the public library, the used bookstores, the yard sales and Barnes and Noble looking at books. Honestly, shouldn't WE be the ones hunting through the slush piles?

Sometimes teachers are consultants to publishers. But I'm surprised to hear that you think you have the time to read our piles of slush. I know some teachers who are as dedicated as you describe, and they work as much as I do (or more!).

The people who do tend to have the time, and the knowledge, are experienced booksellers. It's true they know less about children than teachers, but they're more likely to have an eye on the market as a whole, and they know more about what sells. And that's important. If you can't sell a book, you're never going to have the chance to share it with a child, no matter how appropriate to children it is.

But heck, if you want to read slush, write to publishers in your area and send them your resume. Make a case for why you're qualified to judge submissions. If you ask me, people who read slush should not only have a whole bunch of experience with children's books, they should:
1. read all age groups of children's books. If you don't read YA, how will you judge the YA manuscripts you get?
2. read what's current. If you don't know what's new and exciting in different age groups, you won't know which manuscripts are copycats, and which are breaking fresh ground.
3. be extremely hopeful. People who you can bury under a kitchen's worth of slush, and who will still say (muffledly) "I think I see something!"

Slush is a dirty job. Struggling through those piles takes intelligence and resilience and a sense of humor. You have to be the sort of person to whom grammatical mistakes, bad rhyme, and self-indulgent treacle are torture, and then read piles of grammatical mistakes, bad rhyme, and self-indulgent treacle. There are sweet and wonderful things to be found, for the sharp of eye, but it's like throwing yourself in a briar patch because you know there's a single blackberry in there. If you're crazy enough to want to do it ...well, come join the club.


Chris Eldin said...

Bravo to the person who asked this question!

I volunteer at my children's elementary school--working with the 'low' readers. I will tell you the teacher is one of the most creative and talented people I know. Yes, she is on top of the books. I have to steal myself away from her lest we talk about MGs all day and not get any work done.

But yes, teachers are excited about books,and know what the children's interests are! THey should have input, if at all possible.

Sarah Miller said...

At the risk of starting a firestorm...

Lots and lots of teachers & school librarians are indeed aware of the current market, and on top of what kids are reading. I had the good fortune to work with some truly great ones during my years at Halfway Down the Stairs bookshop.

However, there are at least as many who are painfully susceptible to books that teach a lesson, books with a message, books as medicine, and so forth. In short, books that sacrifice story quality for a moral.

Plenty more are so gun-shy from challenges (or the perceived threat of challenges) that they're reluctant choose any but the safest books for their classes.

Neither of those traits would do the slush pile any favors, I'm afraid.

Now, to atone for my mini-rant, I promise to post a shout-out to HDS's beloved book-buying teachers on my blog in the immediate future.

Anonymous said...

I am willfully hiding behind anonymity because no one young or old wants to piss off teachers, especially after so many years of hardcore conditioning that it is the worst thing to do. However, I have to disagree with this.

Sure, teachers are (often) great, wonderful, selfless, committed, caring and most of all uniquely experienced with children. Which is a wonderful thing, I'll agree, without which we'd be a society of illiterate monkeys.

However that alone does not necessarily give them understanding enough in legion to evaluate literature's primary function: to succeed as art.

To appreciate such art once properly polished? Sure. To integrate its contents successfully into the learning programs? Even better! But to make choices do not tend towards the celebration of horrifying aphorism, clunky educational content, or any number of other undesirable qualities, I'm far from sure.

I have seen time and time again how teachers do not necessarily understand art, and are often even the enemies of art as the inadvertent champions of conformity.

I realize this is a bit of a broad statement and there are probably some great potential editors out there among the profession, but the original suggestion presented here is that teachers are as a group uniquely qualified for this. Cobblers.

I know that is going to make people mad, but this is my firm belief. Why are people always trying to fix children's literature as if it's broken? There are fantastic books being written and illustrated all the time without the folks so keenly offering up their services.


Anonymous said...

Cross posted with the braver soul above!


Unknown said...

As a children's librarian and someone who has done an internship in publishing (which I did post-MLS degree), I have to agree with the great EA and the equally great Sarah. We, librarians and teachers, may know kids...but think about some of your can't claim that they all know books, right? Not to mention that publishing is a business and they need to make money (basic econ, right?) - so we may think there's a great need for a book...but if the publishers can't make a profit on said book, it ain't ever getting made.

And we do get some say - that's partly what conferences are for. And a lot of publishers have previews so, if you live in reasonable proximity to a publishing house, you can attend those and give feedback as well.

And the slush pile really is a slush pile. And it sucks. That's what I did for almost three months straight. Wanna look at xeroxed photos of people's grandchildren and pets all day?

Sarah Miller said...

Anon 12:21 -- I agree with everything but your anonymity!

Here's the rantidote I promised:

Anonymous said...

While everyone above makes valid and thoughtful points, it's also worth noting that we DO consult teachers in many ways, directly and indirectly. We watch what's selling well in the educational channels, we take notice when a school system gives a book an award, we talk to teachers and school librarians in person at conferences throughout the year, we hound our teacher-friends for insight, and some of us read blogs of teachers and librarians every day.

Since I doubt that teachers really do want to read our slush piles (but if you do, I guess you could always try for a summer internship?), I'm curious what other ways folks think we should be tuning into teachers. I know I'm open to new things.

I think the reason teachers aren't the ones choosing books to be published is because if they were, they'd be publishing professionals and not teachers. Makin' books is a full time job. Teachers have little enough free time as it is.

Anonymous said...

As an author/illustrator who does many school visits, I am routinely amazed at the assumptions many [not all!!] elementary teachers and librarians have about the publishing business. When I show how much work I do on one book, many often audibly gasp. They often express shock that people "have to" do revisions, that we have real deadlines, that editors actually edit, etc. In short, they tend to share the same assumptions most of the general public has, which I honestly can't blame anyone for since I had my own share of unrealistic assumptions before I had real life work experience in publishing.

It totally goes both ways. Being in a classroom as a visiting adult gave me a very startling eye-opening glimpse of real teachers functioning in real classrooms. After my first school visit, I was really shocked at the idea of how hard day-to-day teaching must really be, especially compared to my little special guest status presentations [I know, only possible because the teachers expertly handled the kids while I talked!]. I always thought teachers deserved lots of credit in an abstract way, but to really see them in action and what they have to deal with was startling for me. Wow. They deserve even more credit and appreciation then I ever thought before.

Despite the common denominator of working for/with/about children and books, teaching and publishing jobs are not alike in any way. Working with books in a classroom does not in and of itself qualify someone to do any kind of work professionally with a publisher. No offense, but it would be like me saying since I do children's books, I should consult on your curriculum or something. The irony is that elementary school teachers probably have to put up with the exact same kinds of insensitive remarks that we do, ["your job must be so FUN!" ]. Unlike a visiting author though, they never see the difficulty of our jobs firsthand, while we can get a glimpse of theirs.

Heidi Willis said...

This is such an interesting question. As a former English teacher, I take no offense to those who question a teacher's ability to really cull from the pile the best of the best.

For one, I taught in Texas, California and Pennsylvania, and the kids in these places all liked vastly different things. As an agent, editor, or publisher you need to see the wider audience, as well as be able to do a bit of telling the future by past trends. Some teachers may be able to do this, but it takes a whole different approach than just choosing the books you think kids like.

Secondly, no offense to English teachers (I was one, so no poison darts please), but English teachers don't always know what good writing is. We were taught to encourage lots of adjectives and adverbs and liberal doses of similes and metaphors. We were taught to emphasize correct grammar and punctuation, and to squash individual expression.

And anon 1:41 is right: teachers, for the most part, have no idea about the publishing industry. Years after leaving teaching, when I began to pursue writing as a career, I was shocked at how much I didn't know, both about the process, as well as what is considered commercially viable writing.

There are, I'm sure, some teachers who might do well with a slush pile, but on the whole, maybe they'd do better as a consultant ("I've got this manuscript I think is great: can you read it and tell me if you think the kids you teach would get into something like this?) than as the hunter for the pearl in an ocean of oysters.

Anonymous said...

why does everyone feel compelled to MAKE children's books? don't some people just want to enjoy them from the other side? so strange. I like music. I don't need to be a singer. or even a recording industry consultant.

Anonymous said...

I am a teacher and a lover of wonderful children's books. I read dozens of books to kids every week and I'm around children constantly.

I also have a freelance job reading MOUNDS of slush.

Many editors are former teachers too.

A submitted manuscript bears very little resemblance to a finished book. Even a bad finished book.

Seeing the glimmer of something that could become a great book is ... sort of a weird sixth sense. They are the rarest of the rare, and no matter how many times you see a child's eyes light up reading a chapter of Matilda or The Library Lion that is no help when you are pitch forking through unbearable slush.

I'm sorry to say to anonymous 12:21- when reading slush literature's primary function is not to succeed as art. It is to succeed as commerce. What will sell is (sadly perhaps, but there you go, we do live in a capitalist society) the bottom line. Obviously, it's best when both literature and commerce meet in a happy union. On an average day of slush reading don't count on it.

I find it funny that so many people think the problem with publishing is a wrong-headed desire by 20-year-old editors to pick bad books that children and parents will hate. Spend one day reading slush and you'll view the world differently.

Anonymous said...

In one sense, I see what you're saying, anon 9:26, about art vs. commerce. But who is honestly pulling things out of the slush -- the(somewhat) nice name for the pile full of nobodies -- from the point of view of commerce?

I can see why Madonna or Ginger Spice gets handed a line of children's books that way, no matter how hamfisted their offering. After all, they already have lots of fans. And they get press. Their very names, in fact, come with a built-in dollar value attached.

But slush authors? How can anyone be sure if any such books will even see the light of day on the crowded publishing scene, no matter how commercial their projects seem?

No, I'd argue that the only way to rise out of the slush pile is by appeal alone, which in my opinion is the same as art: its characters, voice, humor, drama, etc. Sure, it can be high art or low art, but it is still the art itself that captures the attention.

Sure, there will be the usual futile attempts to divine the mysterious forces of commerce during the actual acquisition meeting. But it was the actual artfulness of the manuscript that got it there.


Anonymous said...

Madame or Mr. X-
Anon. 9:26 here.
I don't disagree with anything you've said.
Except Madonna or Miss Bush's manuscripts aren't laying around in the slush in the first place. And that's not the kind of commercial I mean.
In the real world odds are stacked against even the most artful folktale or piece of historic fiction-because with few exceptions people do not buy them. But excellent writing (you can call that art. I do.) or the glimmer of potentially excellent writing is definitely the thing that gets a manuscript out of the slush... along with the subject's potential appeal to children.

That's what we all want-- beautifully written entertaining books for children.

My point is merely that the gatekeepers aren't a bunch of ignorant childhaters who just want to see bathroom books on the shelves. When you're in the position of actually searching it out genuine art is hard to find.

This is arguably a golden age of children's books. Personally, I think most publishers do a pretty good job of locating the good stuff.

Sarah Miller said...

"In the real world odds are stacked against even the most artful folktale or piece of historic fiction-because with few exceptions people do not buy them."

Predictably, I beg to differ. My novel is historical fiction and doing respectably well -- and I'm just a rookie. Elizabeth C. Bunce's debut novel is a blend of history and folktale, and it's getting rave reviews across the blogosphere. Kirby Larson debuted with a historical novel which became a bestseller and won a Newbery honor -- same with Christopher Paul Curtis. What about Gary D. Schmidt, Donna Jo Napoli, Richard Peck, Carolyn Meyer, Ann Rinaldi? Are they all exceptions, too?

Sure, I'm an optimist, but IMO a book with a combination of accessibility and quality has the potential to soar, regardless of genre.

Carly said...

I might want to jump in here for just a moment and say that marketing and book packaging have a lot to do with how well a book sells. I personally agree with anon 9:26 in his/her remark that the most artfully crafted, beautiful tale is far more likely to tank like an anchor than it is to succeed UNLESS it has powerful marketing behind it.

How many times have any of you guys come across a book that just amazed you, but you had never heard of the author or the book before? It's happened to me quite a few times, so I can only imagine that it happens to others every so often as well. Not every author who deserves to be a big-name author is a big-name author, and (in my opinion) not every author who is a big-name author deserves to be.

Anonymous said...

Sarah- Anon 9:26 here again.
I've read your book and both the writing and story are wonderful. It is deservedly successful. And I know you've worked at a bookstore so I expect you do understand the market.

All anyone has to do is look at the list of Newbery winners and honor books to see that high quality historic fiction is being published. As I said, I think this is a golden age of children's lit and most publishers do a fantastic job of finding and promoting great books, all things considered.

BUT (sure this is a generalization) it is way harder to sell a work of historic fiction than, for instance, urban fantasy (I'm not picking on urban fantasy, just using it as an example.)

I don't claim to know all the reasons for this. I think it's complicated. One thing I do know for sure- it's not because people reading the slush have a twisted desire to suppress good literature and advance only pop fiction.

The tight market does not mean I wouldn't recommend a very well written historic novel, or even one that needed a lot of work but dealt with a compelling historic event, be acquired. I jump on those with both feet. It just means the bar is set pretty high.

Your book achieved all that. It's something you should be proud of and something your fans can celebrate. A book like yours is exactly the sort of thing I hope to find when I dig through the slush,but those manuscripts are exceptionally rare.

Anonymous said...

I had two picture books picked out of the slush piles of two wonderful publishers this year. Many of my writing colleagues in my critique groups have had similar victories and gone on to win awards and make good sales. I realize editors are exhausted by mounting slush piles, but we slush-writers are tired of hearing slush denigrated so badly, so often. Even the submissions that aren't up to snuff represent some great efforts on the part of writers. Since we don't get paid much, can't we get some respect?

Anonymous said...

How are you and your friends still slush writers after being discovered, published and winning awards? Instead of defending the slush, you should celebrating your escapes!

Sarah Miller said...

Anon 9:26 --

Thank you for responding so kindly, and for your compliments to Miss Spitfire.

As you've noticed, generalizations tend to make me huffy, but I do agree with your latest post. Historical fiction is a harder sell.

Actually, I'm not sure "harder sell" is the right way to put it. It's not like you have to beg people to read historicals. Kids who enjoy them are often devoted to the genre. However, my experience has shown me that the audience for historicals is indeed smaller. In my opinion, that's because HF is more of an acquired taste than say, contemporary realistic fiction. (It's a little like sushi: some people like it, some people don't -- regardless of how well made it is.)

Over the course of 20 years in business, Cam, the owner of the shop where I worked, noticed that the most fluent readers also tend to be the kids who gravitate toward historical fiction and fantasy/sci fi (Harry Potter being the exception, of course). The explanation she offered went something like this:

When the actual task of decoding words on paper doesn't come effortlessly, identifying with an unfamiliar time, place, or culture only complicates the task. A story with a setting and culture you can immediately relate to makes reading the book that much easier, no matter your age or skill level. Kids who aren't heavy readers don't usually appreciate the added effort required to "get into" an alternate time or place - the experience becomes more work than pleasure.

In view of that, contemporary realistic fiction was almost always our staple recommendation to folks who were shopping for a child they didn't know well. It's a safe bet -- like hamburgers or pizza.

Editorial Anonymous said...

Anon 4:08,
Please believe that when we cast our aspersions on slush, we aren't thinking of you and your colleagues. It's difficult to convey to good writers (who for the most part know only other good writers) exactly how bad a great deal of the slush is. (But you could get an idea from my series "Slush and Punishment".) Thank goodness you and your friends are around to make slush a place worth slogging through!

Anonymous said...

Just because we can't publish a good book that we don't think we can sell doesn't mean we're not looking for good books first and foremost. "Do I like this?" is first. "Can I sell this?" is second.