Welcome to our quarterly Ask the Editor feature! Katherine Gibson is an editor at Zonderkidz and was previously at Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. She's collecting questions from SCBWI-MI members and sharing her answers with our community. Did you miss her other Q&As? See the links at the end of this post.
Hi there! A huge THANK YOU to everyone who sent in their questions! I’ve answered them the best I could, and I hope you find this post helpful and informative.
As with my previous Ask the Editor posts, I humbly ask that you take my comments in the spirit in which they’re intended. The advice here is meant to be friendly and helpful; I don’t want anyone to finish this post feeling vulnerable or discouraged.
Also, a general disclaimer that my thoughts are my own; I do not speak on behalf of my publisher or the publishing industry in general. I would not be at all surprised to learn that you’ve heard an editor or agent say something that directly conflicts with my perspective. Everyone in publishing has their own views and preferences, and I can only be honest about my own.
If you have any questions about writing, editing, or publishing that aren’t addressed here, please reach out to me. I’m always happy to gather questions for my next post!
Thank you, and happy reading!
How important is the pitch and query letter? If you love the story, but not the pitch, then what? Is it still a determining factor in your final decision on a manuscript? What is your ideal query letter like? Is there a preferred order of information, or is it more about the content? And what about comps? I've heard it's optimal to give three, but what if you don't furnish any? Does it hurt your overall chances if you don’t provide them?
Lots of great questions here! Speaking for myself, the manuscript is the determining factor in my decision, not the query letter. If I love a manuscript, it doesn’t much matter if the query letter isn’t very good. That being said, I don’t think I’ve ever been impressed by a manuscript that wasn’t accompanied by a solid query letter. I think most people who are serious about writing a children’s book are also serious about presenting it well.
As for the preferred order of information, this can vary depending on the agent/editor, but typically the letter starts with the hook (usually a fun, quick summary of what happens), then moves into the specifics (themes, selling points, age range, word count, comp titles, etc.), and finally includes a paragraph about the author and their credentials.
You’ll notice I included comp titles in the list of things to outline in the second paragraph. Of all the information that goes into a query letter, I think comps are pretty far down on the list in terms of importance. If you know of a similar title or two (honestly, three feels like a bit much to me!) that have done well in the market, it definitely helps to include them, partly because it helps to place it in the agent’s or editor’s mind, but also because it shows you know the market and have done your homework. But if you can’t find any solid comp titles, or the ones you know of are obscure and/or performed badly, I’d just leave off mentioning them altogether. It’s not the sort of thing that makes or breaks a pitch.
And finally, I’d say my ideal query letter is one that piques my interest in both the project and the author. That probably sounds lofty, but there are really just three pieces of information I’m looking for: What’s the story? Who wrote it? And, most importantly, why should people read it? I love when I read a thoughtful, professional query letter, because it tells me that the author takes the submission process seriously. They’ve done their research and put in the time to make a good first impression, and knowing that, I’m much more eager to turn the page and read their story.
When webinar presenters give participants a chance to submit a manuscript, should you use the same format for the query letter that you use for agents?
Unless the presenter has expressed a preference in regard to the query letter format, I think the typical format you’d use for an agent or editor (which I described in the previous question) should be just fine. And, good luck!
I submitted a project to a publisher I’ve worked with before, and in the past even when they’ve rejected a manuscript they’ve always been good about sending me a personal response. But it’s been five months since I sent them the project, and I still haven’t heard anything. Should I try to call or email them, or just let it go?
It's totally understandable to be confused by five months of silence from a publisher you've had a good relationship with up until now. I’m not sure if you sent a physical submission or an emailed query, but if it was the former, I can tell you that all the publishing houses I know of have had people working from home since the start of the pandemic, so it's possible that no one's collected the mail since you submitted it!
In either case, though, I think it would make sense to reach out via email. Maybe you could tell them that since they haven't responded in the past several months, you're going to start submitting the manuscript elsewhere, but that you'd still be happy to hear from them if they decide they want to pursue it. I wouldn't advise calling them unless you've talked to them on the phone before, as that can sometimes feel a bit pushy, especially if the publisher states in their guidelines that they can't respond to every submission. But hopefully an email will prompt them to respond to you.
I received a personal rejection from an editor that seems to leave the option of resubmitting open, but I’m not sure. When do you know if an editor’s response allows for the author to ask to revise and resubmit?
It's often tricky to assess whether or not it's appropriate to rework and resend a manuscript to an agent or editor, but in my experience, unless they directly invite you to make adjustments and send it back, it's probably not an R&R (Revise and Resubmit). I think you can and should send another manuscript to the editor, perhaps something specially tailored to their list, but generally speaking I wouldn't advise revising and resubmitting a manuscript unless the editor directly asks you to.
That being said, I do think there are some exceptions to the rule. If you make significant revisions to the manuscript (enough that it reads like a completely different story), and if it seems like a better fit for their list now, you could probably resend it, explain the changes you’ve made, and ask if they’re willing to take another look. Ultimately though, it’s important to remember that you want to work with someone who’s passionate about your book and your vision. The right editor will love your book almost as much as you do!
While putting together my bibliography, I noticed a spelling error in the title of the article I was using (from a credible source). Do I correct the misspelled word in the bibliography or just credit the article the way it is?
Good question! I’d say the best (or at least, the most common) way to address that issue is to list the source exactly as it’s spelled, with [sic] inserted after the misspelled word. That should communicate to the person reading your bibliography that the typo has been noted and is part of the original source material. When it comes to sources, the most important thing is to ensure that anyone who goes looking for your source will be able to find the correct one, so using [sic] allows you to list the source exactly as it appears while assuring the reader that the typo didn’t originate on your end.
If I wanted to donate the royalties from my book to a non-profit organization, would the publisher set that up for me? Is it possible to do it in such a way that I don't have any tax obligation because no money would come to me?
If you would like to donate the royalties from a book, I would recommend establishing that in your book contract with the publisher. It should be relatively easy to set up; just make sure that the contract stipulates that all monies should be wired directly to your chosen non-profit, and that the publisher is able to procure the non-profit’s current tax documents for payment processing.
If you already have a signed book contract with the money going to you, contact your editor and ask if they can draw up an addendum to change the beneficiary for royalties. It can take some time to update a contract, but the process shouldn’t be too laborious on your part.
When corresponding with an editor, agent, or publisher through email, is it best to continue on an email strand after it has ping-ponged back and forth a few times, even if it’s been a while since you corresponded? Or should you begin a totally new email with a reminder of who you are and what your project is about?
I think if it’s been a while, or if you’re emailing them about a fresh topic or question, it probably makes sense to start a new email thread. Maybe this is just my own idiosyncrasy, but I don’t like it when an email chain gets too long and I have to scroll through months of correspondence to find the one piece of info I’m looking for. Then again, if you’re referencing things in this new email that have already been discussed in the thread, then I’d keep it in the same email strand for consistency’s sake.
What factors does an editor consider when determining whether or not a standalone manuscript has series potential? Are there things an author can do in advance of publication, to better their odds of their story piquing an editor's interest for a series?
In my experience, the editor usually knows from the get-go whether a book will be part of a series or a standalone, as that will factor into both the acquisition and the contract. Some publishers get excited by the prospect of a series (it helps them build their future book lists and promises reliable revenue if it’s popular), and some are wary of picking up a series (if the first book doesn’t do well and they’ve signed a multi-book contract, they’re suddenly in a bind). So if you know you want the book you’re submitting to be part of a series, I would recommend stating that in your query, pitching both the individual book and the overall series. The publisher may want to take it a book at a time, or they might want to sign the series all at once.
Otherwise, I think the most important factor in determining whether a standalone book becomes a series is how well it sells. If you write a book that sells like hotcakes, you can bet that your editor or agent will come back asking for more, even if you’ve never talked about turning it into a series before. Look at Hatchet
for example. That was supposed to be a standalone book, but it became so popular that fans kept writing to Gary Paulsen asking what happened next, until he finally wrote more books. (I thought there were three books in the set, but it turns out there’s five?? I guess that proves my point!)
Katherine Gibson is an editor for Zonderkidz, having previously worked for Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. She graduated from the University of Denver Publishing Institute in 2013 and has spent the last five years editing and publishing award-winning children’s books, including Sibert Medal and Caldecott Honor book
The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus and Plume, which was a New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book.
Thank you, Katherine!
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