Sunday, June 10, 2007

Panels galore...and a poll

I've been on three panels in two weeks. I think I'm panelled out right now. I don't know what I was thinking, scheduling these things all smack dab in the middle of IRA, BEA, and ALA, but I got through it! Now, even if you don't read this post (it's another "wrap-up" post, which I realize isn't necessarily that interesting for everyone), please scroll down to the bottom to participate in a poll on submissions policy. Thanks!

Panel 1:
I was on a Children's Book Publishing panel on May 31st for the Women's in Children's Media organization. My fellow panelists were Nancy Mercado of Dial, Rebecca Sherman of Writer's House, and Michele Beno of Curtis Brown. My colleague Jennifer Hunt was the moderator. We answered questions about our favorite books as children (The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats and Little Women by Louisa May Alcott for me), what we look for in a manuscript, the author/editor/agent relationship, and so on. It was a lot of fun because I'm friendly with all of the panelists, and it was an interesting crowd, different from the type of people I normally talk to. Basically, the audience was all women who work in children's media, whether it be television, magazines, movies, etc. (although the event was open to the public, so there were some non-members in attendance) I had dinner afterwards with some of the leaders in the organization, and they were all really nice and interesting. I'm considering joining, partially because I realize that I do very little networking outside of the children's book field, and partially because I just love being inspired by great women.

Panel 2:
Then last Tuesday I participated in the Meet the Editors Day in Doylestown, PA along with Cheryl Klein of Scholastic and Karen Chaplin of Puffin. Cheryl and I took the bus over and arrived in time to join everyone for a lovely lunch (I had a delicious pear and walnut salad with roasted duck. Yum.). I saw a few familiar faces from Kindling Words, the Rutgers One-on-One conference, and the Poconos conference from a few years ago, which was nice. The three of us just talked about our respective houses, the kinds of books we work on, our submissions policy, and then we read through ten first-pages and each gave our thoughts. One thing that I found interesting was that the three of us tended to agree on the first pages. Usually when I do a first-page critique, there are at least a few that someone has a completely different opinion about. Not sure if that means that the three of us just have similar tastes, or what.

Panel 3:
And finally, this past weekend I went up to Poughkeepsie for the Eastern-NY SCBWI Conference. My colleague, Art Director Patti Ann Harris and I drove up together, and it was fun getting to know her even better. Ellen Yeomans, the lovely author of Rubber Houses which came out this past January, is the former regional advisor, although she stepped down and relinquished her role at the beginning of this year. But it was wonderful to be able to spend time with her at the conference. It was also nice to be able to talk more with Laurie Halse Anderson, who I first met a few weeks earlier at IRA in Toronto. She told me how much she loved the new Sherman Alexie galley of The Absolutely True Diary of Part-Time Indian that I had given her at our booth.

Dinner conversation Friday evening with some of the organizers was lively, and ranged from farm animals (Ellen works on a farm)--castrating bulls, flipping bunnies--to a dive-bombing bird with a nest under a mailbox, to soft-shell crab, running, and books, of course.

Laurie's keynote the next morning was fantastic. Conversational but focused, inspiring but funny. She talked about how to find time to write (make it a habit, stop watching American Idol), how to nurture your creativity (be active, expose yourself to other art), and more.

Then I was up. I felt much less prepared for this talk than any other I'd done, because I hadn't had a chance to write my speech until the day before--but it was a hodgepodge of other speeches I'd done before, so I felt pretty comfortable. I also never know what the right balance to strike between giving a lot of nuts and bolts information for beginners, and yet something different for more experienced writers. So, I'd really love some honest feedback--feel free to post anonymously, even! Basically, I spoke about acquisitions process at my publisher, telling the acquisitions story of three specific books I'd acquired and edited: Hippo! No, Rhino; Blow out the Moon; and Nothing But the Truth (and a few white lies). I gave a few tips on getting out of the slush pile, and also gave some advice on what to do before submitting.

Then I did a six one-on-one critiques, and the day ended with a panel of all the faculty (you can see a complete list of faculty here). One question posed to all of us was: if we could have edited/written/illustrated one book that we haven't, what would it be. I said Zen Shorts by Jon Muth. Some of the other answers were Harold and the Purple Crayon (Patti Ann Harris), City of Ember (Kathy Dawson), Holes (Laurie Halse Anderson), Wizard of Oz (Steve Petruccio), the Winnie the Pooh series (I think Kelly Going said that), etc.

And that was it. Patti Ann and I skedaddled back to NY right afterwards so that I could attend Meghan's Strong Man: The Story of Charles Atlas book party, which was a complete blast. I scored myself a free copy of the book, which looks fantastic, and ate, drank, and was merry. Anna and Grace made it down from Boston, so there were four BRGs in attendance. I'll have pictures to share later on.

I'm glad I don't have another conference lined up until November, although I did manage to get involved in another panel discussion in LA on July 7 with the Taiwanese United Fund (TUF). I don't really know much about TUF (the organization contacted me through my father), but I'm always eager to encourage other Taiwanese Americans to be involved in creative fields. Charles Yu, author of Third-Class Super Hero will also be on the panel.

One thing (of many) I started thinking about more while doing all of these panels is different submissions policies, and their pros and cons. I've been thinking about adjusting my own submissions policy a bit, so here's the question. For all of you authors out there, what is more important--a closed house with a somewhat personalized rejection letter, or a more open submissions policy, but either only a response if the editor is interested, or only a form letter if you're rejected? Specifics: 1) Dial has an open submissions policy, but you only get a response if an editor is interested. 2) Cheryl Klein also has an open submissions policy, but she only sends back form letters. Whereas 3) I have a more closed policy, but I tend to try to write personalized rejection letters for almost every submission. Which would be more valuable to you, 1, 2, or 3? Vote by posting in the comments section. Thanks in advance!


Anonymous said...

What does your "closed" submissions policy mean? Only manuscripts from agents?

Interesting question. I am drawn to an ongoing relationship with an editor. Which way is that more likely to happen? I think with your current policy, although it makes no sense to me for you to take the time to personalize a response if you do not see potential.

Maybe a blend. Accept manuscripts from agents and friends of people you currently publish? You need some way of keeping the pile from growing out of control. I heard once of an editor who used a local writing teacher to help find new talent.


alvina said...

Let me clarify--closed means no unsolicited manuscripts are reviewed. So, you have to have an agent, or else you need to be referred by someone I accept referrals from (coworker, friend, author or illustrator I already work with), or you need to have been invited to submit by attending a conference that I've spoken at (such as SCBWI).

Another At-Home Dad said...

Hi, Alvina. I was at the SCWBI conference in Poughkeepsie and enjoyed your talk. It was helpful to hear about the three very different acquisitions. Many of us writers see the process of contacting an editor as mysterious, and your talk clearly pointed out that there are multiple ways that editors acquire books. Thanks for taking some of the mystery out of it. I came home from the conference with renewed energy, increased confidence in my work-in-progress, and way too many books.

As for your question about submissions policies, I prefer the door be closed, with the understanding that I would receive a more personal response. In receiving fewer submissions, you surely are able to read them more closely and carefully, giving the authors personalized feedback that can help them improve their work. A form letter, on the other hand, leaves authors with more questions than answers.

Thanks again for your talk at SCBWI.


Courtney said...

I prefer number 2. Although form rejection letters do irk the soul like almost nothing else, it is nice to be able to have at least a chance for your story to be seen in the first place.

Barbara O'Connor said...

My answer is going to be more hypothetical than based on my personal experience, since I have been publishing with the same editor for quite a few years now (Frances Foster) and, thus, no longer submitting thru the "standard" route....

But - if I were to go back in time to when I WAS submitting thru the standard route, I'd prefer the more closed door situation with the chance for more specific (and, ergo, more helpful) feedback.

I think the feedback is invaluable, particularly to the more inexperienced authors. But the closed door houses help narrow the marketing focus, which serves to save time on both sides of the fence and forces authors to give more careful consideration to the houses they submit to.

I think the shotgun approach to submitting, along with the "not right for our house" form rejections are just not helpful for any of us.

Barbara O'Connor

PJ Lyons said...

Hi Alvina,

An interesting question, indeed.

Though I fully understand why, I find closed houses extremely discouraging, and the trend of publishers not responding unless interested, disheartening. It makes me feel my writing is worthless. I would much rather have a sense of hope and of closure, even if the publisher did nothing more than mail me back my SASE, empty. At least then I know my ms. was at least received.

pj lyons
author of "The Wonderful World that God Made" (Kregel, 2004)

Anonymous said...

I'm going to wave my submission policy opinions and get back to the castration issues. I think you'll be happy to know that all went well this morning. All the bulls are now steers and I still had time to flip some bunnies. A fine day on the farm, indeed.

Anonymous said...

I think number 1 is a reasonable compromise. For those who don't have agents (and the many who can't afford to get to scbwi conferences and other events where they might find a submission loophole), open houses are pretty much the ONLY opportunity to submit. The odds of making it out of the slush pile are slim, of course, but at least there is a chance, which is nonexistent if no one will even accept your submission.

- Abigail

Anonymous said...

I have read that a peronal rejection is a gift. The editor saw promise therefore took the time to write something personal. When you stated that you like to write them because of your submission policy I became a bit disheartened. Writers read between the lines a lot and I know when I receive a personal rejection I get excited because I think- okay at least I'm on my way.
I guess what I am trying to say is 1. Isn't all that good, how long must one wait before we know we are not being responded to because they weren't interested. All those months of waiting were months spent hoping
2.Isn't great either because this editor never sends personal rejections
3.Definitely would feel the best. But only if you were writing a personal note to truly let them know(in a round about way)you saw promise.
I guess you have to do what feels right to you.

celerysoda said...

I like option 2 the best. I don't have an agent at this point, and it's been nice to submit directly to editors and get some response. In general, I'd hate to see more houses go the way of requiring an agent or some other behind-the-scenes referral -- but I realize opening up submissions is asking to be flooded with unsolicited manuscripts.

Form rejections are fine with me, though of course a personalized rejection from someone who really thought it had potential is great. I hate the idea of waiting forever with the potential of no response at all; "give us 12 months before you assume we don't want it" -- who has the patience for that?

gail said...

Interesting. Thanks for caring about our opinions on this.

I thought I knew what my vote would be right away, but after thinking about it, I’m wondering what really is the most important in the long run. I have to say #1 is a new policy I don’t care for at all. The wait is bad enough, let alone not knowing for sure if it’s over or not. I’d rather get a form rejection than hear nothing.

#3 sounds great, getting a personalized rejection is always a bonus. But if it’s a closed policy, and I don’t have an agent right now, I’m not going to get in anyway. So I’m totally out of the ball game here.

That brings me back to my initial reaction. #2 has to be the most valuable. I get in, I’ve got a shot. I get an answer, even if it’s a form, I know where I stand. And you never know! Maybe this time it won’t be a rejection. Maybe it will be a perfect match.

Anonymous said...

I think this new style of NO response at all is completely unprofessional and basically insulting to writers who have spent years studying, editing, conferring, critiquing, just to be ignored? I am trying to avoid submitting to any such house, which is getting harder and harder, I admit. I think it will ultimately repel experienced writers while attracting beginners.

Thanks for asking!

alvina said...

One thing I realized after I wrote the poll is, why would anyone choose #1 if #2 was an option? But it was interesting to hear people's reactions of all three.

Keep voting!

Anonymous said...

1) Would be bad - no closure
2) Would be better - not much
3) Would be the best - to learn

Colorado Writer said...

#2, by all means. A form is better than No Response. A form allows us to move on. No Response fosters hope.

Thank you for asking!

Anonymous said...

I vote #3 (if it means conference submissions would also receive a personal response). I would be thrilled if attending a conference would get me personal feedback from an editor.

I think the only thing worse than #1 would be a house that asks for exclusive submissions and only replies if interested. :-)

-- Annie Bailey

Lisa S. said...

I think your policy is good as is. Writers who are serious about their profession should try to go to a conference or two in their area. Many editors and at least a couple of agents have this same policy, and I think it makes sense.

It seems to me that more authors are agented these days, which would mean you have more submissions to deal with anyway. Do you think you have more submissions today than you did say 3-5 years ago?

Anonymous said...

I vote for #2. Too many doors are closed to authors who do not choose to work with an agent.

Jen said...

I'd like to propose option #4. Stick with #3, but open a tiny window once or twice a year for agentless and conferenceless writers who pay enough attention to you and what you publish to maybe have a clue about what you might like. Announce a 1-week (or 1-month?) opening on this or your personal blog or a web site, or offer a semi-secret code that will get mss through to you during a specified period of time. (Think Cheryl's squid.)

Thanks for asking.

olmue said...

If you don't have an agent and the house is closed, it doesn't matter if an editor gives the coolest personal responses in the world. Yes, you can suggest that people join SCBWI and get an "in" that way--but the SCBWI conferences I've been to have only had "open" editors (or no editors at all, at one conference). I've paid in money and time, but I have yet to get a special backstage pass. Maybe I just have bad luck.

I also hate the no-response policy. My impression is that houses love this, and authors uniformly hate it. I'd rather have a form.

The option I like best, though, is Jen's #4!

Liz Jones said...

I like open subs, and don't mind form rejections in the least. As I am sending mostly PB dummies, I have made a policy of never subbing to houses that don't return things in an SASE, because of the time and expense that goes into producing the dummy.

And closed houses that only accept from agents? Ugh. What if I don't know any that are a good match for my work right now? While I think a good agent can be invaluable, I dislike feeling pressured to take on such a relationship simply to get in the door somewhere.

Lois Toureen said...

1) I've subbed to Cheryl Klein several times and with each submission she sent a form letter back, but she also took the time to jot a comment at the bottom. The comments were always helpful and to the point. I like this procedure the most.

2) I have also subbed to Dial since they changed their policy and discovered I don't enjoy not getting anything back at all. I have a hard time shaking the feeling that they might not have gotten my manuscript and so I'm left with the nagging feeling that I want to do a follow-up. I don't of course, but it's annoying just the same.

3) I find so many of the houses that really fit the manuscripts I tend to write are closed houses. Pressure to find an agent only adds to the stress.

Thanks for asking!

Anonymous said...

Ok, I changed my mind. I vote for Jen's option #4. Great idea Jen!

-- Annie Bailey

Anonymous said...

#2 is the way I'm most used to, with authors reading into how much feedback they get as good/bad signs. The form letter is, itself, a form of feedback, albeit an enigmatic one.

It's generous of you to respond to everyone! If I were an editor, I could see myself doing the same. Even if I tried Cheryl Klein's method (as reported above) of using form letters and jotting helpful comments at the bottom (which seems an excellent way to go), I could still see myself writing too much on each--thus tricking myself into trying to personally respond to everyone.

Tough question!

Maybe you can experiment with Jen's Option #4 above and respond to a month's worth of unsolicited ms'es with personalized forms. See how it feels. The idea of giving more people that chance is also nice/generous.

By the way, what inspires you to speak at conferences and events? Is there a way you choose one event over another?


alvina said...

I like Jen's suggestion for a #4 as well--I've also been thinking about another option, #5, if you will--to not change my official policy, but maybe in addition to that accepting unsolictetd queries, but then only responding to the queries if I'm interested, or something like that (so a combination of #1 and #3). But I like the once or twice a year idea as well.

As for the question of how I choose one event over another, I pretty much accept invitations to conferences as they come, trying to limit myself to 2-3 a year. But of course, if a conference pays, it becomes more attractive. I also go by location--someplace where I have family or friends I could visit, or places I've never been before.

I'm not sure what you mean by what inspires me to speak at events--do you mean why do I even go? Part of the reason is because you never know where that next great book is going to come from, partly to meet and connect with other editors and agents and authors, there's also the money and travel, and I also like to practice my public speaking, etc. etc. I enjoy going to conferences, overall.

alanajoli said...

I do like the concept of #4--especially if you have interns you can use to filter out the truly awful submissions that aren't appropriate for your house/imprint anyway. Having interned at small trade houses before working at a reference house and then freelancing, it doesn't bother me to think that interns weed out the least appropriate submissions to save the editors time. Using #4, getting impersonal letters back at that stage also seems fine, as the editor would have to deal with a huge influx of unsolicited queries.

Speaking practically, I've always heard that it's as difficult to find the right agent as it is to find the right publisher. If that's the case, than #3 does an unagented, new writer absolutely no good. (Several agents also have closed submissions policies, which makes it even harder to find representation.)

The conference question may be just as tricky: the SFWA, for example, requires its members to be published in certain venues before they're even eligible to join (though I don't know if that's true about their conferences as well--I should find out). If you can't go to industry conferences appropriate to your genre/market unless you have some experience, that puts you back to square one, needing open submissions.

Also a question: how many editors actually want to be flooded with requests to submit work to them at conferences? I've been told that it's bad manners to approach speakers an instantly try to pitch a book to them.

That's the long way of saying that if #4 isn't an option, I'd rather see #2 continue than not be able to submit work at all.

-Alana Abbott