Interview with Harold Underdown

by Barbara Odanaka

[I've lifted this from Barb's personal web site, Skateboard Mom. She wrote it for, and it should be available there too, but I can't find it. It appears here word for word as it appears on her site, with a few additions to correct an impression that I am no longer editing print books, when in fact I am still editing them. This does not replace the earlier interview I have on my site--it updates it. H.U.]

   Like most children's book editors, Harold Underdown has a passion for the printed (and illustrated) page. So it raised more than a few eyebrows last year when the Charlesbridge editor announced he was leaving traditional publishing for the Wild, Wild Web.
  On Dec. 1, Underdown became editorial director and vice president of, founded last year by industry veteran Byron Preiss. The site allows users to purchase fully-illustrated, ready-to-download children's e-books for about five dollars per title. Underdown says the company intends to become the source for children's books online, and with the recent announcement that AOL Time Warner acquired a majority stake in the venture, the future looks promising indeed.
     Underdown hasn't broken all ties with print publishing, however. This month, his book, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Books, appears in bookstores both real and virtual. The 362-page reference guide, co-authored by Lynne Rominger, offers a wealth of industry insights, a taste of which can be found on a special section of Underdown's popular Purple Crayon website.

  Authorlink columnist Barbara J. Odanaka spoke with Underdown in New York last month, following the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators conference.

  Authorlink: Let's start with your new book. There are a lot of guides on writing for children. How is yours unique?

  Harold Underdown: This is different from all of the books out there because they tend to fall into two categories. They focus either on how to write, or they're market guides like the Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market. We're not doing either one of those. What we have done is create a comprehensive, general guide to children's publishing as a whole. From how to get started writing a book, [recognizing] the different kinds of books out there, how your motives as a writer affect what you do, how to format a manuscript, how to read a catalog and figure out what a publisher's doing, how to deal with a contract... All the way through to how you can build a career. That's the final chapter.

   Authorlink: Did you write the book from your own experience or..?

    Underdown: There are parts of the book that are written directly from my own experience [and parts where] I contacted several dozens authors and illustrators and editors and agents that I know and asked them questions.
  I also more formally interviewed some editors [because] I wanted to give people a sense of what editors are like. We're not these gods up on a podium somewhere. We're people who love books and working with creative people.
   Authorlink: Let's talk about ipicturebooks. You're a guy who's worked for some very traditional publishers. Did you ever dream say, two years ago, that you would be doing e-books?

  Underdown:  No. The initial impetus was a very personal one. I was simply tired of commuting to Boston. I took the job at Charlesbridge [in 1997] on the understanding that I was not willing to move to Boston and that we would work out some kind of commuting arrangement. We did, and that was fine, but I was the head of the trade division, editorially, at Charlesbridge and I had staff. I had to be in the office [more than part-time to be effective].
   So, I started looking around New York for work. It became pretty apparent that opportunities, at least at my level, were pretty limited at the traditional publishers. I found out, though, through people I knew, about ipicturebooks. I was told they were looking for an editorial director and they wanted someone with publishing experience. So I called Byron Preiss and talked to him.

  Authorlink: And?

  Underdown: First, you need to know that I am still editing print books. They are part of our program, and so I haven't completely left the "traditional" world.

  One thing that interested me about ipicturebooks is that a lot of the business is about converting existing books into e-format and finding good out-of-print books and putting them back into print, in effect, electronically. As an editor, I've seen books that I've edited go out of print. It's frustrating. I don't like to see that happen. I also thought it was very interesting to think about what you could do with e-publishing beyond just straight conversion of a book into straight electronic format.

  It's a very flexible medium. You can do something very simple, just text on a page--it can be cheap, cheap, cheap. Or, you can do a complicated book that's really no longer a book--one that's become another kind of visual storytelling--and everything in between... A book that has words that you can click on and have them read out loud to you. A book that has a few pages [with animation]. A book that has a bifurcated story line where you can click on links and take the story different directions. A book where you can add your own name. We are exploring the possibility of having books that can be personalized with somebody's photo... We're looking at books that not only have animation in them, but animation that is, in effect, created by the child. There are a lot of possibilities.

Authorlink: Don't CD-ROMs already let kids to do some of those things?
Underdown: Well, this is a lot like that. To some extent, it's simpler and it's less expensive. It's very hard to get a CD-ROM---at least not until it's been remaindered, as it were---for less than twenty dollars. We're offering a lot of our titles for five.

Authorlink: I may sound like a paranoid mom, but has anyone given any thought to the safety concerns of having a kid at the computer so long, such as ergonomics, eyestrain? I mean, why encourage kids to be on the computer even more than they already are?

Underdown: Well, our website is not for children--these are books that have to be purchased by an adult. We will later parts of the website accessible to children. But we can't do anything about ergonomics and eyestrain. Setting up a computer correctly and limiting a child's time on it is up to the parents. But what you have to think about is, would you rather have a kid online playing a multi-player game like Doom, or online reading a book?

Authorlink: Fill us in on the AOL Time Warner deal. How will it change things?

Underdown: It doesn't really change things because we've been planning for that all along. The negotiations went back quite a long ways. When Byron first came up with the idea of doing ipicturebooks, the question in his mind obviously was: from where does the funding come? He pretty early on looked to find an investment partner and that became Time Warner. In fact, when I took the job something of the sort was already expected.

Authorlink: So that helped your decision then?

Underdown: [Big smile] Ohhh yes. I don't like venturing out into the great unknown.

Copyright 2001 by Barbara Odanaka. All rights reserved.

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