Monday, May 25, 2009

Paean to a Publisher

Today is Memorial Day and I am in the mood to memorialize a publisher. Not a publisher that has died, fortunately (though many worthy ones have), but a publisher that is in transition. I don’t know whether the transition will transform it, but I know what I like about the way it used to be and I’m going to celebrate that here.

Why would I use this forum to talk about a publisher? Because I often meet educators with a passionate interest in children’s literature and I have found that many want to understand the relationship between author and publisher. (Actually, I know plenty of authors who would like to understand the relationship between their publishers and themselves!) Whereas children ask authors, “Where do you get your ideas?” and “How old are you?” their teachers tend to ask, “Do you get to choose your illustrators?” or “How hard is it to get an editor to read your manuscript?”

My six publishers come in three sizes: small, medium and large. About two months ago, one of the small ones, Ten Speed Press of Berkeley, CA, was bought by one of the world’s largest media conglomerates. Ten Speed Press and its children’s book division, Tricycle Press, are now part of Random House of New York, a division of Bertelsmann AG of Germany. So, for those who are interested in the inside scoop on the publishing world, I will dish up a few scoops as I pay tribute to Tricycle Press. I do not know how, or if, things will change at Tricycle, but from the perspective of an author, I do know what I loved about the old Tricycle Press. I’ll share these thoughts by answering the kinds of questions I have heard from teachers who are curious about authors interacting with publishers.

 “Do you get to choose your illustrators?”

Answer for most publishers: No. End of story.

Answer for Tricycle Press: No… and yes. Of course Tricycle gets the final decision. But I have had major input. When Tricycle bought my manuscript G Is for Googol: A Math Alphabet Book, editor-in-chief Nicole Geiger asked if I had any thoughts about the illustrator. (To be consulted on such a decision was in itself remarkable.) I admired Marissa Moss's light-hearted but detailed illustrations, so I suggested that Nicole consider Marissa, who had already published several books with Tricycle. A week later, Marissa was offered the job, and she accepted. When the sequel to Googol, called Q Is for Quark: A Science Alphabet Book, was ready for publication and Marissa was busy with other things, I introduced Nicole to Kim Doner. I had just met Kim in Tulsa and I thought that the bold humor in her illustrations would be perfect for my book. She was little known outside of Oklahoma but I felt she deserved much wider recognition. Nicole sent her a “trial assignment” (an invitation to illustrate one small section of the book for the editors’ perusal) and sure enough, Kim made the grade. Her pictures add immeasurably to my book, and she has since illustrated a number of titles by other authors for Tricycle.

 “Do you get to work with the illustrator while he/she is working on your book?”

  Answer for most publishers: Not really. I sometimes get to see sketches and make comments that may or may not be conveyed to the illustrator.

Answer for Tricycle Press: While I don’t work with the illustrator (i.e., I do not visit his or her studio and talk about the work in progress), I get to see the art at various stages in its production and my comments, relayed through the editor, are taken seriously. When Kim was doing Quark, I was looking at her work almost daily and made many suggestions to keep it true to the science behind my text. She and I both appreciated the process and the final result.

“How hard is it to get an editor to read your manuscript?”

 — Answer for most publishers:  Very. Some will not read a manuscript unless it has been submitted by an agent. Regardless, it takes a long time to get an answer. Publishers typically say it takes 6-8 weeks but I believe that’s wishful thinking. Two to six months is more typical and I have sent in many manuscripts that have never generated a response.

Answer for Tricycle Press: All publishers are inundated by manuscripts these days, so I cannot promise you will get the same treatment I got, but consider my story: I sent G Is for Googol to Tricycle on a Monday. On Tuesday, my answering machine had a message from Nicole: “I like it a lot.” On Wednesday, we had a phone conversation in which she conveyed her enthusiasm but told me that she still had to send it around to various readers for their opinions. About two weeks later, we were negotiating a contract. Sometimes it takes longer, but usually I can send a simple email to find out when I can expect an answer.

 “Do the publicity people at a publishing house really help get your book known?”

 — Answer for most publishers: Maybe — but mainly if your book has blockbuster potential, or if it's already a blockbuster. Then they're really happy to promote it! 

Answer for Tricycle Press: As a small publisher, the original Tricycle did not have a large budget for marketing, but they had  good ideas and a willingness to consider anything. I have always felt that my marketing suggestions have been taken seriously. When I suggested a classroom contest for activities based on Q Is for Quark, they set it up and publicized it. The prize was a free visit to the school by Kim and me. When I requested a poster as a promotional piece for Googol, and I pointed out my busy upcoming school speaking schedule, Tricycle agreed that a poster was a good idea even though they had originally wanted to do a bookmark (less expensive, but less durable).

“Who has the last word on the many decisions that must be made in producing a book?”

 Answer for most publishers: The publisher. It’s in the contract. No ifs, ands or buts.

Answer for Tricycle Press: The publisher. It’s in the contract. But there are ifs, ands and buts. In producing four books with Tricycle, every time we’ve struggled over a sticky issue related to my text, we have resolved the disagreement in a most agreeable way. After I tried to see it the editor’s way (and failed) and the editor tried to see it my way (and failed), I have always been told, “You are the author. You get the final word.” The contract says the publisher gets the final word and I am certain that Nicole would have exercised her ultimate authority if necessary, but she has thus far always let me have my way . . . and my say. In the end, we always found a solution that made everyone happy. The book was a collaborative effort — exactly as it should be!

And so, I close my paean to Tricycle Press with hopes for its future. Nicole Geiger is still Tricycle’s editor-in-chief and the editorial offices are still in Berkeley, close to my home in Oakland. I don’t know what the future will bring but I’m trying to be optimistic. Perhaps Random House will allow this small imprint to maintain autonomy while effectively directing some of its vast marketing resources to selling my books. I hope to be a happy little fish in a very large pond. 


jama said...

Thanks for the interesting post, David. Been a fan of Tricycle's books for awhile now, and crossing my fingers that its unique identity remains the same despite the acquisition.

Cheryl Harness said...

Well said, David.