How To Think Like an Editor
Blog | writing craft | craft | writing for children and teens | writing for magazines | Writing nonfiction for children
October 13, 2016
There is one thing I often notice when I'm reading query letters or cover letters with an eye toward improving them: when writers don't know how to submit to an editor it's often because they don't think like editors. Writers think about their reasons for writing something. At the submission point, editors do not care what your reason for writing something was. They don't care that you want to encourage children to obey their parents. They don't care that you want to share with kids the joys of playing outside. They don't care what motivated you to write the thing. At some point they might care. That kind of extra information is interesting. But at the query or cover letter stage, editors only care about whether they want to buy this piece.
So what kinds of things will influence whether an editor will want to buy something?
1. Why will kids want to read it?
Not why should they read it. Not how reading it will make them better behaved kids. Not even how reading it will make them smarter kids. The number one thing editors want to know is how have you crafted something kids will want to read. You're not mixing the literary version of castor oil. You're crafting entertainment. It can be educational entertainment. It can be deeply meaningful and moving entertainment. But if it contains nothing to make a kid want to read it -- the editor is done with the piece right there.
2. How is it different?
That is, how is it different from all the other stuff in the slush pile? This sounds scary at first glance because we have no idea what might be lurking in the slush pile. But slush piles tend to be full of books that are very similar to works already in publication (or to popular movies or television shows), so if you're conversant with stories for young people, you should be best able to avoid writing something very similar to popular books, movies and television. This is one reason why it's a good idea to invest a certain amount of your time in getting to know what books are hot and what shows are popular with young people -- it can help you avoid overdone story themes. Some writers think they should jump on "hot" ideas, but that often leads to your book sitting in a slush pile with dozens (if not hundreds) of books with strong similarities.
3. Is it a good match?
How is it a good match for that editor, that publisher? Finding other books edited by a specific editor is easier now than ever before as often a search on a specific editor's name will let you find some books that editor worked on. Also when you're reading those books mentioned in Book 2, you'll likely find some authors thank their editors in acknowledgements so you could take notes on the editors of the books you liked best. But if you can't know what that editor likes, you should at least look at what that publisher likes.
Look at the publisher's website. What patterns do you see in the books they've published? How would your book fit in that collection? It shouldn't directly reproduce a book they've already done, but it should have things in common with the line overall. For instance, if you look at the publisher's line and read all the blurbs and you see they clearly like a little humor, and lots of action, and many of their books tie to important world issues (pollution, endangered species and the like). You might then ask yourself––which of those elements are present in my book? Is anything about my book in direct opposition to what they like. For example, the publisher I described probably wouldn't be interested in a quiet story about a family working through the pain of family member suicide. It might be a fantastic book, but it wouldn't fit smoothly into their line (and might be difficult for them to market it effectively to readers).
There is one more point that doesn't affect your submissions language much, but which is something you may run into as you begin submitting.
4. Can they market it?
This last one can pop up when the book is at an acquisitions meeting and marketing people get involved in the mix. Can that publisher market your book through their present channels? For example, a publisher who depends heavily on sales to schools could not market a young adult book with a lot of coarse language or sexual content because their buyers can't buy that kind of book. A publisher who depends heavily on bookstore sales, might shy away from a book that is difficult to identify by genre, because bookstores often shy away from stocking a book if they don't know where to put it in the store. Now, if the publisher adores your book, they may ask you to change it to make it more marketable through their channels, and you'll have to decide if you want to do that, or if you want to look for a publisher who handles marketing differently.
By knowing the pressures on the acquisitions editor and publisher, you'll do a better job of describing your book when you make that submissions connection and better understand the editor's responses to your book. So write those query/cover letters ?while think?ing? like? an? editor? and you'll have a much better chance of getting an acceptance letter in return?.
Jan Fields is a full-time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor. Would you like to have your own instructor teaching you on a one-on-one basis? Show us a sample of your work here.