Amy Hsu, Editor
Little, Brown and Company (2004)
Amy Hsu graduated from MIT with a degree in biology and a minor in literature. She fell into children's publishing by chance - she was taking a volleyball clinic with a neighbor who turned out to be an editor at Bulfinch Press (Little, Brown's art imprint), and when she asked her how to get into publishing, she recommended that she apply for an internship at Little, Brown, for which she was hired in children's editorial. She's been here ever since, even moving from Boston to New York when their offices were relocated.
Little, Brown does NOT accept unsolicited manuscripts.
How many books does Little, Brown publish every year and what kinds of books are they?
Little, Brown has been growing lately, and we are now publishing about 200 books a year (over two seasons, fall and spring). We focus mainly on the trade market, but we publish picture books, middle grade and YA novels, nonfiction, several series, and a few board books. We are currently expanding our mass publishing and now have an editor who works specifically on novelty and mass merchandise projects.
How many do you edit per year?
I currently have about 20 projects published in a year.
What have you edited recently?
A wacky sports stories book by Len Berman, a high-school loser novel by Erik Kraft, and a giant book of science “explorations” from the San Francisco Exploratorium. Books out this year include LEAP DAY by Wendy Mass, and THE CANDY MAN COMETH and THE BROTHERHOOD OF ROTTEN BABYSITTERS (books 3 and 4 in the Sidekicks series), by Dan Danko and Tom Mason. Books coming next year include TOFU AND T. REX, by Greg Leitich Smith, and SWEEP DREAMS, by Nancy Willard, illustrated by Mary GrandPre.
Were any manuscripts you edited from the “slush pile”?
None were from true slush (unsolicited), but I have worked with several writers who were previously unpublished and do have a book with an unagented, unpublished writer (a former student of Nancy Willard).
Is the slush pile an actual pile? Where is it? How many manuscripts are in it?
Yes, our “slush” pile is made up of submissions from agents with whom we do not have a working relationship. Each editor has his/her own batch, and mine is an actual pile. I'm not sure how many manuscripts are in it, but it's about three feet high.
What percentage of manuscripts from the slush pile do you estimate get published?
Less than one percent.
Why does so much NOT get published?
Many people think it's easy to write a good children's book. It's not. Aside from manuscripts that are just plain bad, we might decline a project because it's not right for Little, Brown; there's no editor who truly wants to work on it; we're publishing or have published something too similar; we think it has limited appeal or sales potential; we have major editorial concerns (for example, good concept but not well executed, strong plot but poor characterizations).
How long does it take Little, Brown to read a manuscript?
We try to respond within three months, but it may take up to eight or more, particularly now that we're getting more novel-length submissions. Authors and agents with whom we have working relationships get priority.
Describe a typical day at work. Be specific!
Each day is different, but a “normal” day will usually include answering loads of emails, fielding phone calls, reviewing some stage of book production (galleys, proof, etc.) for multiple books, attending at least one meeting, corresponding with authors and agents, reading whenever possible.
Do you usually read manuscripts at work or at home in the evenings and on weekends?
I occasionally read at work but usually don't have the quiet time needed to concentrate, so I often take manuscripts home.
What kinds of books do you like to work on?
I can't really pinpoint a genre or format — I have a lot of interests. I love picture books and novels, fiction and nonfiction. I like books with humor in them, but that doesn't mean they're what you'd call humorous books.
What was your favorite book as a child?
Oh, this is tough! There isn't one. Books that pop into my mind at the moment:
ANIMALS SHOULD DEFINITELY NOT WEAR CLOTHING and CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS by Judi Barrett; Richard Scarry's PLEASE AND THANK YOU BOOK; Steven Kellogg's PINKERTON books; everything Dr. Seuss; anything illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman; PIGS MIGHT FLY, by Dick King-Smith; CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, by Roald Dahl; the ANASTASIA books by Lois Lowry; THE FACTS AND FICTIONS OF MINNA PRATT, by Patricia MacLachlan; THE TRUMPET OF THE SWAN, by E. B. White; HENRY HUGGINS, by Beverly Cleary; the PRYDAIN Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander; ENTER THREE WITCHES, by Kate Gilmore; AND BOTH WERE YOUNG, by Madeleine L'Engle; SON OF INTERFLUX, by Gordon Korman... I could go on and on...
Do you have any favorites now?
Another tough question. Books that have stood out to me in the past few years:
THE SCRAMBLED STATES OF AMERICA, by Laurie Keller; HANDEL: WHO KNEW WHAT HE LIKED, by M. T. Anderson, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes; THE CITY OF EMBER, by Jeanne DuPrau; HOLES, by Louis Sachar; A VIEW FROM SATURDAY, by E.L. Konigsburg; A STEP FROM HEAVEN, by An Na. And I'm a Harry Potter fan too.
Is it every editor's dream to discover the next J.K. Rowling?
Not sure about every editor, but in my case, that'd be nice! Personally, I want to publish a book that a child will read, love, recommend, and remember fondly 20 years from now. (Lofty goal, I know.)
What must a manuscript have to get your attention?
Good writing isn't enough — I want a good story with good characters too. Anything that makes me laugh, cry, or think. Anything that sticks with me long after I've read it. Anything that feels real and true.
Do you read manuscripts all the way through or do you read just the first page? First chapter? First paragraph?
For picture books, I'll read the whole manuscript. For novels, I usually read at least the first ten pages, 30 or more if the writing seems promising.
Describe the acquisition process. Let's say you found a manuscript you want to acquire. What happens next? Be specific!
I will “present” the manuscript at our weekly editorial meeting and ask for volunteers to read it. At least two other editors must support it, at which point it will go to the Editor-in-Chief.
If she supports the project I will then put together a proposal with competitive titles, the author's previous sales history and reviews if available, sales projections, production cost estimates, profit and loss analysis, etc. If it is a picture book I'll also gather some art samples from proposed illustrators. I will then present the project at our acquisitions meeting (we have one every three weeks).
Do you think “celebrity books” are on the rise? Why?
I'd say not just celebrities but also well-known authors of books for adults are trying to write for children. They have seen the Harry Potter phenomenon and believe they can do it too. Many book buyers shop by looking for familiar names, so a famous name will often help sell a book. As with the rise in fantasy also due to Harry, the good stuff will stay and the rest will go away (I hope).
Do you ever love a book that you have to turn down? Why?
Yes. It would be wrong of me to try to acquire a project without enough support from my colleagues — it does the author a disservice to publish his/her book at a house where only his/her editor cares about it. Unfortunately, one sole editor's passion for a project is not enough to sell a book in the competitive market.
Do you read manuscripts addressed to you or do you have an assistant?
I try to read all manuscripts addressed to me, but sometimes it just isn't possible. Based on my relationship with the author or agent, I will give some to my assistant.
When you make an offer to an author, do you expect the author to negotiate the terms or to accept the offer on the spot?
I don't “expect” an author to negotiate, but I definitely want to consider his/her desires when deciding the terms. After all, without authors, I wouldn't have a job.
Are offers made by telephone or email?
Usually by telephone, with a follow-up in writing (email, fax, or snail mail) to confirm terms.
Which parts of a publishing contract is the publisher most flexible about?
This varies depending on the author's history with us, the nature of the book itself, our own projections for the book, etc. Again, we want the author to be happy, or we wouldn't have a book.
How often do you send “personal rejection letters” versus “form rejection letters”?
If I've worked with the author or agent before, I'll send a personal letter. If I've met the author in person, I also try to send personal letters. I feel guilty sending a form letter with my name on it!
What is the approximate print run of a picture book these days? A novel?
With a picture book, Little, Brown usually starts at 12,000 copies but may go to 100,000 depending on what the book is. A novel's print run usually starts at 7,500 and can also go much higher.
Is it true that most books lose money for the publisher if they don't sell out their first printing? Why?
Usually. We try to juggle the numbers (author's advance, marketing money, production costs, print run, etc.) so that a book will show a profit within the first year or two. Overprinting leads to high storage costs, especially because publishers are taxed on inventory.
How long can the average picture book be expected to stay in print these days? The average novel?
Children's books generally have a longer shelf life than adult books, because it takes a little longer for them to get recognized and there's not quite as much pressure for them to become bestsellers right off the presses. We sign up projects with the expectation that they will backlist for many years.
Is it true that today's books stay in print less time than yesterday's books?
Probably. There's just more out there, and not enough shelf space for all of it.
Is it true that editors have little time to “edit” these days? Is it true that they are looking for manuscripts that are more “finished”?
Editing is the whole point of being an editor, so I certainly hope editors are still doing it! It's generally true that a more polished manuscript will have a better chance gaining support from those who aren't trained at identifying an author's potential, especially for an unpublished author. However, a seasoned editor will still be able to sign up something that seems unfinished as long as the publishing house has faith in his/her editorial abilities and his/her vision for the project.
How has the field changed since you've been an editor?
When I began (seven years ago), it was very difficult to acquire novels - picture books were what sold. Now, it's the other way around. I'm sure the market will cycle back, but right now it's tough on picture book authors and illustrators.
How has Harry Potter changed the field?
The Harry Potter books have brought some well-deserved attention to the children's book market. I will gladly lavish praise on anything that gets kids to stand in line to buy an 800+ page book that they just can't wait to read. We also had a flood of fantasy submissions not too long ago, but people have finally figured out that it's not that easy to write “the next Harry Potter.” Whew.
Have big chain stores, like Barnes & Noble, changed the field? How?
Definitely. They represent a huge customer base and can have an enormous impact on sales. A so-called “quieter” book may not be able to break out at the chain level.
Have Internet sites such as Amazon.com changed things?
We haven't noticed a significant sales impact from Internet stores, but they have made it much easier to research what's out there. Customers are much better informed than they used to be and much more able to buy what they want. The Internet is also an excellent and far-reaching venue for sharing and discussing books.
Do you think these changes are for the better or worse?
Some of each. We can't prevent changes, so we need to adapt to them. As long as readers need good books, we'll publish them!