Meet the Editor: An Interview with Stephanie Owens Lurie
Originally published in the September/October 2001 SCBWI-MI Newsletter.
Stephanie Owens Lurie received her true calling at an early age. After reading HARRIET THE SPY at age 10, she resolved to be an author and wrote a novel about worms in love (never submitted for publication, thankfully!). A few years later a local bookstore owner asked her to review a young adult novel written by a townsperson. She thought the author was slightly out of touch with teenagers and wished the author had taken the story in a different direction. It dawned on Stephanie that it would be fun to help writers improve their books. She pursued her interests at Oberlin College, where she was a Creative Writing major. In her senior year she had a semester-long internship as an editorial assistant in the children’s book department of Dodd, Mead and Company (now defunct), and she knew right away that this was the career for her. Over her twenty years in publishing she has worked at Little, Brown and Company, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, and now Dutton Children’s Books, where she is president and publisher. ***Update, June 2010: Stephanie is now
What do your responsibilities as President and Publisher include? Do publishers still have time to nurture new writers? As President and Publisher I am responsible for planning Dutton’s publication lists and maintaining the imprint’s profit. I help the seven other acquiring editors decide which projects to publish and how much to offer for them. I work with the Managing Editor to keep the books on schedule. I work with the Art Director to make sure our designs are effective. I work with the President of Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers to make decisions regarding frontlist print quantities and prices as well as backlist inventory. I work with Sales and Marketing to create promotion plans and to inform and excite the sales force about the books. In addition to that I am acquiring and editing 20-25 books a year, several of which come from new writers and illustrators, because I think people are looking for fresh stories and talent and I don’t want our list to get stale. Compared to my last position at Simon & Schuster (as VP, Associate Publisher and Editorial Director), I have more time now to edit books because I have fewer meetings to attend and more administrative staff to support me.
What happens at an “acquisitions meeting?” How much time has an editor typically invested in a manuscript before it gets to this stage of review? Who is present at these meetings? Does one person/committee have the final say? This really varies from house-to-house. In some houses there is a board (sometimes two or three!) that consists of editorial, sales, and marketing people, and the majority rules. It can be difficult for an editor to convince her colleagues in sales and marketing that something still unformed can be made into a viable book. In that case the editor has to spend a lot of time getting the manuscript into good shape and often has to find an illustrator, too. All of this has to be done before a publishing commitment has been made. Fortunately for us at Penguin Putnam Inc., the publishers make the acquisition decisions and don’t have to have projects approved by marketing and sales. At Dutton the editors, editorial assistants, and art director attend biweekly Creative Meetings, which I run, in which we discuss manuscripts we are ready to acquire. Because we have all been trained in the development of books, the material doesn’t have to be as polished in order for us to see the potential in it.
A common phrase used in personal rejection letters is that a manuscript isn’t commercial enough. What might that mean? Today it isn’t enough for a book to be a literary gem–it also has to sell, preferably at retail. If a manuscript is too quiet or doesn’t offer any hooks for a consumer, we will pass on it because we don’t think it will be profitable.
Describe your dream writer, in terms of professional habits & attitudes. (We’ll assume they are oozing talent!) Yes, talent is the most important element. Then we look for fresh concepts and approaches, as well as some familiarity with the marketplace and Dutton’s list. We’re looking to build authors’ careers, so we need writers with more than one good manuscript. It is essential that an author be willing and able to revise. Authors also have to realize that making a children’s book, especially a picture book, is a collaborative venture. I will encourage an author to share her comments about sketches and final art, but I will not let an author dictate anything to an illustrator, or vice versa. We like authors and illustrators who deliver on time (of course). We encourage authors to share their marketing ideas and contacts, but authors also need to realize that marketing budgets are very limited only so much can be done to promote a first book.
Thanks for taking time to talk with us. Do you have any current projects that you’d like to mention? We’re excited by the success Eva Ibbotson is enjoying and encourage people to read her latest novel, DIAL-A-GHOST. We’re pleased that Lloyd Alexander’s new novel, THE GAWGON AND THE BOY, recently made it onto the New York Times bestseller list. A good example of the kind of concept book Dutton would publish is DOG’S COLORFUL DAY by Emma Dodd. Nonfiction writers should take a look at FOOD RULES by Bill Haduch.