Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Julia Richardson - Editorial Director of Children's Paperbacks at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children's Book Group

  • How did you get your start as an editor? Why become an editor instead of say, a fighter pilot or computer engineer?
 Becoming an editor was more of a happy accident than anything planned. I moved to New York City after college to go to grad school at NYU. There I got a masters in political science. My plan at the time was to do something helping children. Beyond that, I didn't have a clue. The only thing I was sure of was I wanted to stay in New York City. I absolutely loved it.

So, as I was ending my studies for my masters, I started sending out resumes. I must have sent out two hundred. After no luck getting even an interview, I went to a headhunter. She sent me in to interview for the position of marketing assistant at Macmillan Children's Books. Publishing had never entered my mind before then.

But I was offered the job and took it. In an odd way it fit me. First off, it was working for kids if not actually with them. Second, my mom is a reading teacher and a storyteller. But most importantly, I have loved books since I could read. I remember reading WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE over and over when I was about six. I always got scared right before Max got to the place where the wild things lived. Seriously, no matter how many times I read the book, I would get a nervous feeling in my belly. But then Max tamed the wild things and all was well. I read it so much I knew what was going to happen, but it still got me every time. By the time I was in middle school, I was a huge Stephen King fan. Then I read Katherine Paterson's JACOB HAVE I LOVED. This story has stayed with me all my life.

This may sound melodramatic, but I remember holding a copy of RETURN OF THE NATIVE and thinking, all I have to do is open up to any page, and there's a story going on that I can be completely immersed in. It felt like magic.

So, when I got the offer from Macmillan, I knew it was the right choice for me. After a year in marketing I switched to editorial. I loved kids' books, andI wanted to be more involved in creating them.

The only other profession I ever considered was a professional dancer. But my body just isn't the right shape. Besides, I like eating, though as an editorial assistant living in New York City, I couldn't afford to eat too much.
  • What are some of the exciting books you've acquired that you're most proud of?
 Being in paperbacks, I've mostly worked on reprints, so the originals, both in paper and hardcover, would probably be the ones I'm most proud of. But even that isn't completely true. I love books. I love bringing them to kids. I love taking a hardcover and writing some great copy and re-working the cover (if it needs it) and filling out all the paperwork, so it can become a paperback. Even without being a part of the editorial process at the beginning, I still find it very rewarding.

For me, it's mostly about the authors. I've been lucky in my career in that I've worked with some of the best. Ellen Hopkins, Garret Freymann-Weyr, Lauren Baratz-Logsted, D. J. MacHale, Jennifer Armstrong, Anne Ursu, Mary Casanova, Hilari Bell, Ann Rinaldi, Roland Smith, Gary D. Schmidt, Linda Sue Park, Pat McKissack, Terri Farley, Lynda Sandoval, Niki Burnham, Willo Davis Roberts--the list goes on. All these people are so talented and they're also such wonderful people. Working with them in whatever capacity has been a joy. And I can't leave off the list Scott Loring Sanders, Marley Gibson, Jake Halpern, Peter Kujawinski, and Kim Antieau. I feel blessed to have worked with so many wonderful people. I feel like I have friends all over the country.

I'm even working with an entire family on a series of books! Lauren Baratz-Logsted wrote the Sisters Eight, a new series coming out in December, with her daughter, Jackie Logsted (She's only eight!), and her husband, Greg Logsted. I know I'm biased, but I have to say they did an awesome job. The books are fantastic, and I think it's because they each brought a unique perspective to the books.
  • When you receive a submission what about it really grabs you and excites you to the point that you'd like to acquire it?  
 A combination of the voice or rhythm of the language and the story. The writing has to grab me right from the beginning, but without a good story, I can't necessarily acquire it. I have said to folks I like your writing, but the story just isn't right for me.

I also have to feel that there's an audience for this book. I first met Ellen Hopkins when I went to Reno to speak at their book festival. She had arranged for me to do some critiques for the local SCBWI chapter while I was there. So, we were talking over breakfast before the critiques were to begin and we started to talk about the manuscript she had sent me. Well, here was a case of the above. She had sent me a picture book written in verse. I loved the writing, but I wasn't interested in this story. So I said if she had anything else, I would be interested in taking a look. It just so happened that she was starting a novel in verse about a girl who is addicted to crank. I knew immediately that this was a book that would find an audience. When I was young, one of my favorite books had been GO ASK ALICE and I knew it was still hugely popular. But also, I had just read an article in ROLLING STONE about meth and the havoc it was wreaking in rural communities.

I'm pretty sure I remained calm on the outside, but inside, I felt like I was going to blow a gasket. I wanted this book. I knew it would be huge and that Ellen could write it. At first I told her I needed to see the entire manuscript. But after she sent me the first fifty pages, I signed it up.
  • What makes you decide to read a submission overnight compared to it rotting on the bottom of your slush pile?
 A good pitch helps. If the story sounds intriguing, I'm more likely to start it right away. But I also have to say it's my schedule. Sometimes I'm just so busy with day-to-day responsibilities that I can't find the time to read new things.
  • What's the best way for a writer to contact you? Query letter?
 I prefer writers go through an agent.
  • Are you open to receiving submissions from self-published authors?
  • Are you open to receiving unagented submissions?
 This may sound harsh, but I'm going to have to say no. I need to know manuscripts I receive have already gone through some sort of weeding out process.
  • What are you personally doing in order to adapt to the changes in the marketplace? (Changes meaning: lower print runs, shrinking book review outlets, oversaturated market and chains stores being more selective about what books they put on their shelves) I'm more vigilant than ever that the books I take on are ones I feel strongly about. Whether it's the writing or plot or characters (hopefully, all three), that this book is the one I'm willing to fight for.