Interview with Harold Underdown
by Debbie Ridpath Ohi
This was my first published interview, done in 1997 for Inklings, the newsletter that Debbie published as part of her sadly now defunct Inkspot WWW site, an excellent writers' resource. I know it may seem a bit vain for me to post it here, but it does provide some possibly interesting information about my experiences and opinions about the state of affairs in children's publishing at that time. Just be warned that this is now somewhat out of date, since a lot has happened since then! The complete unedited text follows: I have inserted HTML formatting for clarity. Debbie's questions appear in boldface.
More recent interviews with me are listed on Interviews page.
Harold Underdown is a freelance children's book editor who has worked with Orchard Books (Editor) and Macmillan's Children's Books (Associate Editor). His web page is an excellent resource for both beginning and advanced writers, with articles such as "Really Basic Info For Writers And Illustrators", "Agents for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators", and "Trends In Children's Books: The Business Side". You can find out more at:
I see you used to be a grade school teacher. How did you make the jump from teaching to editorial work?
I simply jumped. I had been teaching in an alternative elementary school program, though my training was in HS. I enjoyed working with the kids individually, liked reading out loud to them, but did not like classroom management. After considerable soul-searching I decided that I might do better and enjoy more a job in which I had a hand in creating the kinds of books I knew were hard to find for my classroom.
I left my job in June, took the summer off, and in September started looking for an entry-level position. In six weeks, I was hired at Macmillan Children's Books as an editorial assistant.
What kind of work did you do as an editorial assistant?
Like all editorial assistants I typed, filed, answered the phone, and read manuscripts for my boss.
I also gradually took over the reading of the slush (from the freelancer who had been coming in weekly to read it), seeing it as a source of projects that would lead me to a better position. And sure enough, within 18 months of starting there I was promoted to associate editor, a position in which I edited some books for our publisher (mostly imports), but mainly got to edit stuff that I had found in the slush or otherwise initiated. These included Fire in the Forest, the first book idea I had, within a couple of months of starting at Macmillan, a book about the fire cycle in a Western forest, which was just published last fall (the art took a long time) with text by Larry Pringle and Bob Marstall; The Footwarmer and the Crow by Evelyn Coleman, illustrated by Daniel Minter, the third or fourth ms. I had seen from an author I originally met in the slush; and the Macmillan Book of Baseball Stories, which came in as a proposal and some sample stories.
What did you like best/least about being a children's book editor?
It's hard to say what are the best/worst things, but some of the things I most like include the thrill of reading a manuscript that has just come in and knowing at once that it has to be published, the give and take of working with an author or illustrator, especially when the book ends up better than either one of us expected, and the satisfaction of holding a finished book in my hands.
Some of the things I do not like include dealing with the realities of children's publishing in the 90's, when it has become a business in which double-digit profits are expected every year, a review by a reviewer who has simply misunderstood a book, and having to cancel a contract.
What are the "realities" of children's publishing in the 90's?
Ugh. Well, I mentioned one of them--the expectation of high profits on the part of corporate owners. Others include higher returns from bookstores, making children's publishing more like adult, in that there is a desire for the "sure thing" (when no such thing exists); and related to that a greater reliance on the unreliable bookstore market, due to the continued shrinkage of the library market. Also of course the downsizing of the last few years, which has made it very hard for many authors and made editors and other publishing staff nervous about their jobs (and therefore cautious) or like me working as freelancers. There's more on this in my article on "Trends in the Business" at my WWW site so I won't go on and on.
But there are some good developments too--whole language has brought more real books into schools, and this is a rich and still growing market, in spite of some backlash from conservatives, who prefer textbooks. Multicultural publishing, though not always done with a concern for both authenticity and quality, also seems to be fairly healthy. And paperback sales are growing, with the result that many more are being published. Not all of these are Goosebumps, either. There are more reprints of quality hardcovers too, which makes these books more affordable, and that is a Good Thing.
In your opinion, what makes a good editor?
In the popular imagination an editor checks an author's grammar and spelling, and then takes him or her out to lunch. This is an accurate picture so far as it goes but a good editor has to play a number of different roles:
I could go on but I think you get the idea....
- A good editor has a passion for children's books (or whatever the chosen field is), a strong sense of what he or she feels is good writing, and a desire to publish it.
- A good editor must be able to intuit where a manuscript could go and offer suggestions and questions that do not impose an outside standard but help the author make it more what it could be.
- A good editor must be able to "sell" other people at her or his publishing company on a book, especially if not by a big name, both when signing it up and setting its budget, and when the marketing and sales people get involved. If they are excited about the book, then that excitement will be passed on to librarians and booksellers.
- A good editor must be a team player, able to work productively not only with author and illustrator but with copyeditor, art director, designer, and anyone else involved with a book.
- A good editor sees beyond each book to the author who wrote it and provides encouragement when needed and guidance in building a career--What book should come next? Did you consider...?
- A good editor has a head for business. It does no one any good if all the books an editor signs up lose money for a publisher.
When you're reading a mss for the first time, how long does it take you (approx. how many pages? chapters?) to figure out whether it's worth publishing?
That depends....if it is really bad or absolutely wonderful I usually get a sense of it in the first few lines. Ones I don't like I reject as soon as I can, as I feel that there's no point to reading them. If I'm excited by a manuscript, though, I'm going to read the whole thing: after all, it may not continue to grab me. In fact, in a few cases I haven't been able to stop myself from reading the whole thing, even though I had other things I needed to do. Some manuscripts may intrigue me less, but still enough to put them aside for re-reading. After a few readings, I'll decide whether I want to publish, reject, or suggest revisions.
(Such is the ideal process, but of course in today's market manuscripts often sit unread on editors' desks for months, as they struggle to get books out.)
What kinds of things "turn you off" a manuscript right away?
Bad verse, cliched writing, animals with alliterative names, stories with messages, wordiness (particularly in a picture book)--any number of things. Probably 95% of the manuscripts that a publisher receives are of this sort and can be rejected without having to read beyond the first page. Those who have access to the WWW can read more on this topic in my article, "Getting Out of the Slush Pile," and they can access the relevant section by typing in:
I've given 45 minute talks at conferences on this subject and find that there is always more to say. Beginning writers need to get their manuscripts critiqued by professionals--other writers--not family members, to improve their chances of not submitting something that will be rejected without a moment's hesitation.
You don't like stories "with messages"? Or do you mean stories that push a message too obviously?
We need to make a distinction here between themes and messages. A story can be "about" something without having a message. And what it would be "about," I would hope, would be the theme, a theme appropriate to the audience--coping with new experiences, relationships, ideas... If, on the other hand, a writer says in a cover letter that "this story teaches children the importance of obeying their parents," then I expect to find a message-driven story, and usually do. But a story can be about growing up, for example, without having a message about growing up that can be expressed in one sentence. So, yes, a story with good characters and a compelling plot could have a message in it, but it shouldn't overwhelm the story.
Writers should tell stories and leave the sending of messages to politicians.
How should a beginning writer (with very few contacts in the writing field, if any) go about finding someone to critique his/her manuscript?
The best place to go in my opinion is a local SCBWI conference, or the equivalent in Canada. They are held coast to coast and one can get a critique from either an editor or an experience writer for $40 or less. Failing that, a writer should look into classes at local colleges. Many published children's writers supplement their incomes teaching children's writing in continuing ed. programs. General writing conferences are not a good idea--their main focus is books for adults and the children's authors tend to be shunted aside and condescended to. There are also people online doing critiques and other freelance work, but one should tread warily. A writer should find out as much as they can about someone contacted on the Internet before sending them a manuscript--not because they might steal it, but because they might not be qualified.
Do you have any other words of advice for beginning writers?
There are any number of other things to say but I'll limit myself to one general comment--stick to it, and don't count on anything. It can take several years--of learning, writing, researching, and so on--to get published from the time someone starts writing for children to that first contract, and in today's market many people aren't going to make it even that far. If the writing itself is interesting, and one enjoys the process of getting better at it, that may have to be enough. After all, it's a long road and it may not lead to publication in a glossy hardcover book, so if someone's primary goal is to be published, rather than to write, he or she probably shouldn't even set off.
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