Abigail Samoun was an in-house children’s book editor for over ten years, working on a wide range of projects, from board books to young adult novels. Her books received such honors as the CCBC Charlotte Zolotow award, the New York Public Library Ezra Jack Keats award, and the Pura Belpre. In 2011, Abigail made the transition from editing to agenting, co-founding Red Fox Literary with Karen Grencik. She is the author of three children’s books, What’s In Your Purse? (Chronicle Books, 2014) and How Gator Says Goodbye and How Hippo Says Hello (Sterling Publishing, 2014) and one Kickstarter project, Mind Afire: The Visions of Tesla, an illustrated biography of Nikola Tesla with art by Elizabeth Haidle.
Abigail likes to organize her library according to which authors would get along well together (the Brontës next to George Elliot, Lois Lowry next to Margaret Atwood). She’s shelved all her Tesla books next to Mark Twain’s so that the old friends can keep each other company. Abigail lives in Sonoma, California with her entomologist husband, two dogs, a gaggle of chickens, and a curious little boy named Tristan. Visit www.redfoxliterary.com.
I was the kind of kid who didn’t go anywhere without bringing a book to read. My tastes were pretty broad—from classics like The Secret Garden to popcorn books like The Sweet Valley High series. When it came to thinking about a career, my dream was to find a way to read for a living. At the time, there was a small publisher in Santa Rosa, California, where I went to high school, called Black Sparrow Press and though I was a painfully shy teenager, I steeled up my nerves and asked them if I could work there in some capacity. They were very kind about it but they had absolutely no use for a clueless sixteen-year-old with no editorial experience. In college, I took creative writing classes every semester, which was really the best training for an editorial career. Creative writing classes taught me how to (gently!) critique my fellow writers, how to identify story elements that worked and didn’t work, how to pare down a text and eliminate unnecessary words and hackneyed phrases.
Though my heart was in literature, I went to grad school in Journalism, thinking that it would be a more practical choice. I graduated right at the time that print newspapers were starting their long and tragic death spiral–so much for being practical. It was no time to look for a job in the journalism industry. Besides, I preferred the pace and literary spirit of book publishing. So I returned to my adolescent dream of working at a small press. A friend told me about an author he knew who published with Ten Speed Press, an indie publisher based in Berkeley. They had an opening in the children’s book department. I didn’t know anything about children’s books–other than the ones I’d read as a kid—but I quickly fell in love with the field. I loved being able to work closely with both authors and illustrators. I loved the emphasis on imagination and fantasy. I loved meeting creative and interesting people who were passionate about children’s literacy. I’ve been in the business nearly fifteen years and I still learn something new every day. Most of all, I still believe that kids need good stories and beautiful art and it’s gratifying to know that I’m contributing to this in some way.
That’s the million dollar question isn’t it? What I’ve found after reading thousands upon thousands of manuscripts is that though a lot of people write, very few are writers. To me, a writer is someone who loves words, who takes joy in finding just the right word to express an idea, who pays attention to the sound and rhythm of a word. So, someone with those qualities will stand out in the slush pile.
I also look for stories with a compelling central theme that the author explores with originality and insight. That doesn’t mean that the theme should hit you over the head, but think about what Where the Wild Things Are communicates about a child’s relationship with their own wild nature, how the boy’s mother responds to his wildness, how the boy empowers himself, how he comes home calmed, ready to be loved, and ready to accept his mother’s re-conciliatory gesture in the form of a supper which “was still hot.” What an original and insightful way to explore the universal theme of how a child grows from a “wild thing” to a civilized member of society (with a little help from mom and dad). So the authors I’m looking to represent as an agent have a mastery of the writing craft but also the ability to explore universal themes with depth and insight.
There’s a metaphor I think most of your readers will understand here. Being an editor and agent is like being the midwife, while being an author is like giving birth. Of course, in reality, it’s quite a bit less messy, as least in the physical sense. But what you’re doing as an editor and agent is helping someone else fulfill their creative vision. As a writer, you’re working to fulfill your own creative vision.
Though I love working closely with my clients to help them birth their book, there’s nothing quite like walking into a bookstore and seeing your own book on the shelves. In a much less intense and primal way, it’s like seeing your baby emerge from you, knowing that it started as this little seed inside of you. We are all creative beings and we all long to bring something of ourselves into the world and to touch others with something we’ve created. When you achieve that, whether it’s posting a beautiful portrait of your child on Facebook or baking a delicious cake or embroidering a pillow for your baby’s bed, it gives you a very particular kind of satisfaction. I think we all need to feel that on a regular basis. So it’s important to me not only to help artists create their work, but to also work on my own stories.
To become a children’s book editor it helps, of course, to be passionate about children’s books and to have read quite a lot of them. Picture book texts are often song like and rhythmic because they tend to be read out loud so it also helps to have a musical ear. For similar reasons, an understanding and appreciation of poetry comes in handy. Picture books, like poems, are an economical form. Every word in a picture book text must earn its keep. It has to have a good reason to be there.
Editors also need to be good diplomats. Working on a book is a collaborative process and there are many people involved, from the author and illustrator to the designer, art director, publisher, marketing department, proofreader, and copy editor. It’s up to the editor to keep all the various parties on track and happy–which isn’t always easy!
If you feel you have the qualities outlined above and you want to try to break into the biz, my advice is to research the children’s publishers in your area. Though the publishing industry is still based largely in New York, there are many smaller publishers around. Some of them are regional publishers who specialize in books about their area, others are indie presses who publish books that might not have the mass appeal larger publishers look for. Make sure you know and like the books a publisher publishes before approaching them about a job. If they don’t have an opening at the moment, ask them if they have an internship program. Interning can be a great way to learn the ins and outs of publishing and at smaller houses you may be doing everything from stuffing envelopes to reading manuscripts in the slush pile (what publishers call the bins of unsolicited manuscripts they’ve received). Traditionally, an editor’s first job in publishing is either as an intern or as an editorial assistant. These jobs aren’t glamorous and they certainly don’t pay that well, but they’re a good training ground and it’s expected that, if you do well, you’ll work your way up the ladder eventually. First, you have to pay your dues!
If your goal is to work for one of the major publishers, you’ll likely have to move to New York or Boston. Some editors at major houses work remotely but they’ve usually earned that right after years of building their reputations.
If you’d like to learn more about the publishing business and the sorts of jobs that are out there, take a look at www.publishersmarketplace.com. There’s a job board on there, but you can also find lists of agencies, see what sorts of books editors have been buying and from whom, find the latest publishing news, and subscribe to Publishers Lunch, a big industry newsletter.
Thanks so much Abi for your insightful answers on the world of children’s book publishing! To read more from Abi, see her article on children’s book illustration, read her activity on how to encourage children’s natural storytelling, or see her favorite bedtime books to read to her son.