Monday, April 27, 2009

How I read submissions

In my previous post about my reaction to Jellicoe Road, I touched a little on the way I read submissions, mainly that I generally decide about novels based on the first 30-50 pages. I thought that I'd expand on this and talk more about how I read submissions and the way I decide if a book is something I'm interested in taking on, or something to decline.

Another editor I know got some flack for saying at a conference that editors (or, at least, her specifically) read submissions looking for a reason to say no. When I heard this, my first instinct was to say what an agent at the same conference said: that she reads looking for a reason to say yes. But honestly, the truth is a combination of both.

It's just not possible to publish every submission we get. Knowing this, it's true--I'm looking for reasons to reject most manuscripts. Some possible reasons? (feel free to ask me to elaborate on any of these)

-not well written
-too slight
-too quiet
-forced rhyme, off rhythm (for picture books, mainly)
-too similar to something already on our list
-too similar to too many books already in the market
-forced/inauthentic dialogue
-too didactic
-slow pacing
-too niche in appeal

and of course I could go on...

However, I'd be lying to say I'm not always hoping for that surprise--that I'll fall in love with a submission. And sometimes I'll fall in love with something despite it being something on the above list. It really IS like falling in love--I can fall in love with something, flaws and all. When I'm reading something that I'm really loving, my heartbeat will speed up. My mind will start racing, thinking about what I need to do to ensure that I get that manuscript. I'll imagine pitching the book at our editorial meeting, and then at our acquisitions meeting. I'll think about how I would edit the book, even what the cover would look like. I picture it winning the Newbery, making the NY Times bestseller list. In other words, I'll imagine us married with children during the middle our first date.

Generally, when I read a manuscript, it's either/or. Either I find a reason to say no, or else I fall in love with it. But the tough decisions happen when a manuscript falls somewhere in between. Agents, and perhaps authors who submit on their own, may be familiar with that rejection that takes an especially long time to come, where an editor apologizes and says that she was "mulling it over." This is what happens when I read a manuscript and can't immediately say no, but don't completely fall in love with it either. When this happens, I may put it aside to revisit later. And sometimes when that happens, I don't think about it again, and therefore usually will end up declining it. Sometimes when this happens, I keep thinking about it, which it generally a good sign that I don't want to let it go. And sometimes I'm completely on the fence, and then will either ask my assistant to read it, and/or I'll bring it to our editorial meeting to get some second reads.

This happens when the concept is really great, but the writing isn't particularly special. Or if there's just nothing wrong with the writing or the book, but I just don't fall in love with it. Or if I know the book is something publishable, but it's about something I just can't see myself working on, or reading over and over.

Sometimes when I'm in-between, a lot will depend on the current state of our list. Are we looking for more of that particular genre, or are we too saturated? For example, we're fairly overloaded with fantasy right now, which allows us to be even more selective than usual in acquiring that genre. A fantasy novel really has to be outstanding and original for us to even consider taking it on. For picture books, when I first started almost ten years ago, it was so much easier to acquire picture books than fiction. But in the last seven or eight years, in reaction to the market, we've cut our picture book list way back, and because of that, I'm even more picky when acquiring them--I can't just like something, I need to love it.

Sometimes I'm feeling in-between when an agent tells me that he or she has either received an offer, or else they "have a lot of interest." When this happens, I'll usually just end up passing on the submission, thinking that I don't love it enough to want to compete against other publishers. Of course, if I do love a manuscript, hearing that there's other interest will spur me on to move through the process more quickly.

And yes, I'm looking for love--I do want to say yes, I just know I can't say yes to everything. But like most people, I want the happily ever after.


In other news, I'm so proud and excited to share the news that one of those books that I fell in love with has attained a kind of "happily ever after": The Curious Garden by Peter Brown has hit the NY Times Bestseller list at #7! It's also #7 on the Indiebound bestseller list.

Congratulations, Peter!!!

(BTW, all but one sprout in my Curious Garden pot has died. But that sprout is going strong!)


Kimbra Kasch said...

Love this post - thanks for sharing it. I'm going to link it over at Verla Kay's chatsite - hope you don't mind.

Angela Ackerman said...

Thank you for an excellent post, and for allowing us to ask for expansion on some of your reasoning to reject. I'd like to take advantage of that and ask what falls under the 'too slight' category. I've got a good idea, but would love your exact take on it.

Thanks again!


alvinaling said...

Thanks, and no problem about linking to this elsewhere.

Angela, in terms of "too slight," this generally means that I don't feel like a submission has enough depth. This could be that there isn't enough conflict in the plot, or if the book feels too one-note, etc.

Judy Clemens said...

Alvina, thanks for the very helpful post.

You say you are overloaded with fantasy right now and are looking for something original. Can you say anything more about what you're seeing too much of in terms of fantasy?


alvinaling said...

We're seeing a lot of YA urban fantasy with a heavy romance element--not unlike TWILIGHT, but with Angels, or Twilight with werewolves, or Twilight with Witches, etc etc. We're a little more open to middle grade fantasy, but as a genre, we're definitely not actively looking for it.

Angela Ackerman said...

Thanks for the answer, Alvina :-)

Cynthea said...

Fabulous post, Alvina. I'm sharing it with Snoop's groupies over at BTW, I thought you might find Snoop's own critique codes interesting to you... Sound familiar? Too bad he won't look at my own work. BAH!

Stephanie J. Blake said...

Thank you for this post.

Can explain "too quiet?"

Also...if the historical backdrop is simply a setting for a good story, does it still have to be categorized as a historical?

Are quiet books like Because of Winn Dixie or How to Steal a Dog? still wanted?

Sherrie Petersen said...

What a great post! Your explanation helps make the rejection less painful.

tammisauer said...


Thanks for giving us another behind-the-scenes peek!

Christine Tripp said...

I can completely understand the need for an editor going in to reading slush submissions with the idea that they are looking for a reason to not like the story/writing. It's not a democracy in business, it's not like innocent until proven guilty. It is the opposite, prove that I am wrong and that this is the next best seller, totally get it.
As for Peter's latest book, so many reviews have talked about the art is strong, the writing weak, that in itself makes an illustrator/author wonder which of the two contributions in a pic book makes the final product marketable.

DW Golden said...

Thank you so much for the candidness of your reading process. This is so helpful to rising authors!

DW Golden
Sour with fairies in this new young adult novel: Purple Butterflies.

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

Thanks for the great post. It's fun to take a peek into an editor's thought process. I appreciate your transparency.

alvinaling said...

Thanks for all the comments, everyone!

Too quiet: This is similar to "too slight"--basically a book that may not have much of a plot, where not much happens. I happen to like quiet books, though, but the writing has to be absolutely standout gorgeous. Many good night books are quiet, and for good reason.

Christine, of course I'll have to respectfully disagree with the opinion that Peter's writing is weak--I think it's the best writing of his career. Although I will say that his art is the much stronger component. I think we've had the debate before whether the text or art is more important. There are many books where I personally disliked the art, but turned into huge bestsellers. I think strong art can lift a mediocre text, and a strong concept/text can life mediocre art. I'd give a slight edge to the art, but just barely. It's all subjective.

alvinaling said...

Oh, and to answer your other two questions, Colorado Writer:

Also...if the historical backdrop is simply a setting for a good story, does it still have to be categorized as a historical?
I think it depends. I don't think it necessarily needs to be the main categorization of a novel--it could be an adventure book, or a romance, or a mystery first. But I think it's hard to avoid the historical tag all together--and why would you want to?

Are quiet books like Because of Winn Dixie or How to Steal a Dog? still wanted?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this helpful post!

Meg Wiviott said...

Thank you for sharing your process. This was very informative.

Shelli (srjohannes) said...

this was very helpful!

Stephanie J. Blake said...

Thank you for answering my q's.

It's just that I keep getting the "historical is a hard sell" thing...and also, "quiet, literary is a hard sell..."


Quiet books are my favorite.

Jim said...

Hi Alvina:

I’m so sorry I just now found your post. How generous of you to share this great information with everyone. Honestly, this post is like a treasure trove and I feel very fortunate to have found this.

If it’s not too late, I had a question about middle grade sci-fi. Would you say it falls into the same category as middle grade fantasy and as genre, Little Brown is not actively looking for it?

I don’t know if you are still checking this blog and I’m sensitive that this is a very public forum but I am meeting with an editor from your company in June about my middle grade sci-fi story and now I am having doubts. The woman I am meeting with didn’t want me to rule her out because she is definitely seeking MG and boy oriented material but did admit heavy sci-fi would be a bit of a stretch for her but that she would enlist other editors if she saw something in my work. I just want to make the most of my meeting with her. It’s my first meeting with an editor and I had a couple of choices but when this particular editor came up, I got very excited and decided to meet with her over anyone else.

My story is basically TWILIGHT meets HARRY POTTER… just kidding, it’s nothing like that but that but your comments about being pitched so many variations of TWILIGHT, made me laugh. In the movie business there’s never a race to be first but everyone wants to be second. I guess books are no different.

Thanks, Alvina


alvinaling said...

Hi Jim,

I just saw your comment--congrats on meeting with an editor at L,B! I would say that we're very open to science fiction, especially middle grade--it's not something we have very much of. But yes, I don't think all editors are as open and able to read and *get* science fiction as others are. But as she said, she'd pass it on to another editor if she saw promise in it but it wasn't for her.

Anonymous said...

Alvina, thank you so much for getting back to me. I know I was late in catching your blog so I am even more appreciative of your comments.

It’s very encouraging to know Little Brown doesn’t have much middle grade sci-fi. Seems like if agents or editors specifically exclude genres, there’s a good chance it is sci-fi so thank you for putting my mind to ease about that. I’m also glad that editors will pass things around, if they need help or other opinions.

My story is definitely sci-fi and I am proud of that because I think sci-fi is so universally appealing, if it is done right (i.e. E.T., Star Wars, etc…) but I’m also proud to say the sci-fi aspect of my story is only the back drop I use to enhance the story – hopefully. I don’t believe in writing to draw attention to the sci-fi elements of any story. I think sci-fi is so much more effective when it simply unfolds around the main characters without drawing much attention away from the plot, if that makes any sense.

Now, I am even more excited to meet with Andrea in about a month.

A million thanks, Alvina.