I had the pleasure of talking to Kate Harrison, Senior Editor at Dial Books for Young Readers, over dinner one night at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference. A graduate of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Kate spent the first eight years of her editing career at Harcourt Children’s Books. She joined Dial Books for Young Readers January 2008.
Limiting herself to just one or two conferences each year, “So that I can still enjoy them!” Kate spent the weekend offering advice, encouraging writers and noshing on the vegetarian entrees. She was kind enough share some of her time for this interview.
How many original titles does Dial publish each year? And how many of those are from first time authors?
Well, I’ll use 2009 as my example, since it really varies year by year. In 2009, we’re publishing about 50 titles, and I think 3 of them were by completely new authors. That doesn’t sound like many, but in fact a lot of the titles are second or third books from authors that Dial debuted. I love finding new talent and introducing authors and illustrators to the world–it’s always very exciting to publish someone’s first book.
How many books are you working on at any given time?
Oh wow, it hurts my head to think about this! I’m usually working on at least 3 different seasons of books at a time. (And I have been known to write the wrong year when I write the date because I’m usually working on projects at least a year in advance…) I would guess I’m working on around 10 different projects at a time, in various stages of production.
During the conference, you talked about your Stack of Shame, otherwise known as the dreaded slush pile. Have you ever discovered a fabulous book from an unknown author in your pile?
Oh, the Stack of Shame indeed–did I admit that on record? I wish I could say I’ve published a bestseller I found in slush, but alas… I’ve worked with people to revise promising things I’ve found in slush, but I haven’t found that fabulous slush gem to publish yet. There’s always hope…
Because Penguin allows unsolicited submissions, you must receive a great deal. How many manuscripts do you estimate come in each year and how many people does it take to get through the stack?
Over the course of a year, I get hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of unsolicited manuscripts. Sometimes the assistants gather and have “slush lunches” where they go through the mail that comes to Dial, so it’s a team effort in that way. I do go through all of the ones that come to me through conferences myself, though I can’t always promise to be super fast!
You mentioned the importance of voice quite often during the conference. What type of voice appeals to you and what turns you off?
It’s so hard to define what makes a voice really appealing. I know it sounds like a cop out to say that I know it when I read it, but it’s really true. Basically, it’s got to feel natural, true, unique. The thing that turns me off most is a voice that feels forced, like an adult’s cliché version of what a teenager sounds like. I can tell when someone hasn’t done their research–I always tell writers to eavesdrop, eavesdrop, eavesdrop!
I’ve heard many editors say that when they read submissions, they’re looking for reasons to turn it down. Besides voice, what are some of the things that you look for as reasons to accept a submission?
A really fresh hook–a sentence that sums up the book that totally grabs my attention.
Can you explain the acquisitions process? Once you find a book that you love and are ready to get behind, how many more people does it have to go through before you make an offer?
Dial actually has a fairly unusual/informal acquisitions process. We do have a monthly manuscript meeting with just the editors (not the publisher) in which we’ll give one another feedback on projects before we show them to the publisher. Once I gather any other editorial feedback, I write out the reasons I think we should acquire it and then take it to the publisher. And sometimes I’ll show things around to the sales and marketing department for extra feedback, too, but we don’t have a formal acquisitions meeting with them.
People keep saying the publishing industry has to change in order to remain viable. What changes do you see happening in the industry right now?
I think publishers are being a bit more thoughtful and cautious in deciding what to publish. We’re still taking risks, but it’s all about balancing the list with risks and sure things. We’re also trying to reach readers in new ways through the Internet and by experimenting with different formats.
During one of the sessions where you were a panelist, you made the comment that great storytelling will always find it’s way to the top. It was such a beautiful, optimistic thing to say to a room full of writers. Where does that optimism come from?
I’m really not normally the la-la Pollyanna type, but I honestly think what I said is true! It may take a while, but if your writing is really exceptional, it will eventually get noticed. It may be a matter of finding the perfect story for your voice, it may be a matter of getting it into the right hands, it may be a matter of pure perseverance, but I’m a firm believer that talent gets noticed.
What are some of the upcoming titles that you’re excited about?
Oh, there are so many! One that’s coming out in just a few weeks is DRAGONBREATH by Ursula Vernon. It’s a middle grade comic-book hybrid about a dragon who’s the only mythological creature in a school full of reptiles and amphibians. It’s absolutely hilarious–Ursula has such a weird and wonderful sense of humor and is such a talented writer and illustrator.
What do you read for pleasure?
I actually read a lot of young adult books for pleasure–the last two I read were Kristin Cashore’s FIRE, which is the fantastic follow-up to GRACELING, and Neil Gaiman’s THE GRAVEYARD BOOK. Sometimes it’s hard to find a lot of time to read adult books! (Shameful, I know.) I end up reading a lot of nonfiction when I read adult books–I guess just for a change of pace. I’m reading James Woods’s HOW FICTION WORKS right now, and I just finished Dave Eggers’s WHAT IS THE WHAT and Sloane Crosley’s I WAS TOLD THERE’D BE CAKE.
Any last words of advice?
READ!! And don’t just read the classics or the books you loved as a kid. Really, I can always tell when authors have read a lot of contemporary YA, middle grade, or picture books. It’s important to study what’s out there and working.