Louise May, Editor-in-Chief at Lee & Low Books, and my editor for THE EAST-WEST HOUSE: NOGUCHI'S CHILDHOOD IN JAPAN responded to these questions:
When you are considering a project for acquisition, what is a typical time frame for refining a manuscript? How much back and forth do you have with an author before you are ready to move to a contract?
The time frame varies greatly from project to project. Some manuscripts may only need one or two rounds of revising with the author before I feel it is ready to consider for acquisition. Other projects may need many more. Several variables that affect this—the topic, the format of the text, the intended audience. The experience of the author is sometimes a factor, but not always. I have gone several rounds with an experienced writer, and just a few rounds with someone relatively new. Also, depending on the schedule and work commitments of both the author and the editor, this back and forth can take a few weeks or months, or a few years. If a project is continually moving in a positive direction, then it is important to give it whatever time it needs to develop fully. I have published more than one book that the author and I worked on for several years before it was acquired.
Do you think LEE & LOW is different in this process than other publishers?
Lee & Low has a small, specialized list. We focus on bringing into the mainstream of children's literature those racial, ethnic, and cultural groups who have traditionally been underrepresented there, and we publish only twelve to fourteen new titles per year. Because we have so few spots to acquire for each year, we do require that manuscripts be fairly well developed before considering them for acquisition. We need to feel confident that each spot is filled with a special project that uniquely fits our needs. Other publishers, especially larger houses with significantly more books on each list, do acquire manuscripts at an earlier stage in their development. They need to acquire many more projects than we do, and I’m sure they have their own parameters for judging when a project is ready to be considered for acquisition.
After a manuscript is acquired, how much refinement occurs? How many passes of revisions might there be?
This also varies greatly from project to project. Looking back in my files I see projects where the author and I worked on five revisions of the manuscript and others where there were fifteen revisions. Major issues are resolved in the first few revisions. By the end we are only fine tuning, maybe just discussing the best word or phrase to use in a few places in the manuscript. With an illustrated book, there may also be refinements that need to be made once the illustrations come in, to make sure that the text and art complement each other perfectly. To me it is not important how many times a manuscript goes back and forth between the author and me. The crucial thing is that we make sure everything in the story is as good as we can make it.
What helps this process? What makes this process difficult? What are the qualities that make a good editor-author relationship? A bad one?
Professionalism, respect, a willingness to listen, flexibility, and a sense of humor on the part of both the author and editor all contribute to a good working relationship. My job is to help an author make his or her work the best it can be. This is a collaborative process, and I expect my authors and myself to work hard. There may be disagreements and frustrations, but they can be overcome and resolved because we both have the same goal. By the time I acquire a manuscript I usually have already established a relationship with the author, so I am fairly confident that we will work well together. The process may occasionally become difficult if the author and/or editor are not comfortable with each other. But since I believe in the author’s project (or I wouldn’t have acquired it), I find ways for us to work around that and bring the project to fruition. It constantly amazes me how each project finds its own individual path to publication.