EDITOR AS WRITER: A Conversation with Editorial Director Arthur A. Levine, by Anna Olswanger
A graduate of Brown University, and later the Radcliffe Publishing Course, Arthur Levine landed his first job in publishing at G.P. Putnam’s Sons. After a stint at Dial as senior editor, he worked as editor-in-chief at Putnam’s and at Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers. In 1996 he joined Scholastic as publisher of his own imprint, Arthur A. Levine Books. Among the wide range of books he has edited are Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, Rafe Martin and David Shannon’s The Rough-Face Girl, Jerry Spinelli’s Crash, Barbara Bottner’s Bootsie Barker Bites, Gary Soto’s Chato’s Kitchen, Tomie dePaola’s Tomie dePaola’s Book of Poems, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, and two Caldecott winners, Peggy Rathmann’s Officer Buckle and Gloria and Emily McCully’s Mirette on the Highwire.Levine credits his success as an editor-identifying authors and illustrators who will make a lasting contribution to children’s literature-to having “been there.” He is himself the author of six picture books: All the Lights in the Night, Bono and Nonno, The Boardwalk Princess, Pearl Moscowitz’s Last Stand (all Tambourine), and Sheep Dreams and The Boy Who Drew Cats (both Dial).
Arthur Levine: I started out wanting to be both. I discovered as I worked at both that they’re two complementary activities. Being a writer is an internal, self-oriented activity. You write to express your personal thoughts, stories, and feelings. Being an editor is an externally focused activity. It’s about listening, about helping other people tell their stories, and about providing feedback. Writing is something you have to do alone, and editing is something that you can only do in relation to another person. So I find that doing both creates a balance for two parts of my personality.
Olswanger: Did you plan from the beginning to have a career in children’s books?
Levine: I went to the Radcliffe Publishing Course, and one of the most helpful things they did there was push you to examine what books you have the most passion for. While I read broadly and love adult books, when I thought about the books that had been the most important to me, what came up were children’s books. Radcliffe also kept sending you into the bookstore and saying, "Where do you find yourself?" I was always winding up in the children’s book section. That clearly indicated to me what I wanted to do.
Olswanger: Did you always want to write for children?
Levine: I don’t think I had children’s books in mind in college. But after I was in publishing for a while, I started thinking about writing children’s books myself.
Olswanger: Is writing an important part of your life now? Do you set aside a certain number of hours each day to write?
Levine: Writing is important to me, but I don’t have time every day. I belong to a writers’ group that forces me to produce on a deadline. I have to produce something at least once a month, for instance. So I don’t just write whenever I feel like it, but I don’t put pressure on myself to write every day, either.
Olswanger: How did you land your first job in publishing?
Levine: I answered an ad in The New York Times-very straightforward! Margaret Frith, who hired me at G.P. Putnam’s Sons, had also gone to the Radcliffe Publishing Course, so my being a graduate indicated to her my seriousness about publishing.
Olswanger: Do you have a mission as an editor?
Levine: It’s a broadly defined one. Every book has an impact on a lot of kids’ lives, so my mission is to publish great books for children.
Olswanger: Can you define a great book?
Levine: A great book is any of the books that you remember reading and loving, that made enough of an impact on you that you remember them thirty years later.
Olswanger: In your own life, what were some of those books?
Levine: Charlotte’s Web, The Mouse and His Child, The Little House, and The Little Red Lighthouse. These are books that I still remember loving.
Olswanger: Do editors want to find new writers?
Levine: Sure. The lists get full, but there’s always room for a new, special voice. There’s nothing more exciting than coming across that. I can’t imagine a point where I will have covered every possible form of great writing, not only serious literary fiction but humorous literary fiction, fiction from many different cultures, and mysteries, and . . . you know, there’s so many genres and so many types! I can’t imagine a time when I would have a writer that is the last word in every possible form of writing. There’s always going to be room for somebody new.
Olswanger: Do editors go out looking for new writers?
Levine: That depends on the editor. When I’m at writer’s conferences, certainly part of the excitement is the people you meet in the halls, people who say, "Oh, I think this is somebody I could get along with, somebody who could help me in my writing." Then they may choose to send me something. So this is a form of going out and looking for a writer. I have friends in many areas of publishing and other worlds who may suggest that I look somebody up. I have a friend who was senior editor at Harper’s Magazine, for instance, and we were always talking about great writing. Occasionally I would think, "Oh, I should contact that person." So I definitely do both.
Olswanger: Do you contact both fiction and nonfiction writers?
Levine: It’s tricky to approach somebody who does fiction. I don’t believe in approaching somebody who is being happily published by another house and saying, "Oh, why don’t you publish with me?" The example I gave about Harper’s is a good one because that’s reading short fiction published in a magazine and saying, "Oh! This is wonderful. Have you ever thought of writing a novel?" That’s how I might do it in fiction, seeing an excerpt or seeing a work of adult fiction that indicates sensitivity to writing for a younger audience. Or, reading nonfiction and you think, "Wow, this is really amazing. I wonder if they have ever written a novel in this setting."
Olswanger: Can you mention a particular writer that you approached and ended up publishing?
Levine: I did a book with Lynn Sharon Schwartz at Dial that came from my having read a piece of hers in a book called Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Hebrew Bible. I had an illustrator who had created a haggadah which didn’t work. I felt that together maybe we could create a book about Passover that did work, and so I approached Lynn and she wrote a picture book called The Four Questions. She’s well-known as an adult novelist so this wasn’t an incursion on the turf of her adult editor.
Olswanger: How does a new writer best approach you?
Levine: By first showing that they are approaching me because of me, and not because of my title. A writer should approach me because of other books they know I have edited, or because they have a piece they think is particularly going to appeal to me. I am an individual. I think that’s true of every editor I know, but yet it’s funny, writers forget that. They are used to the idea that this person sits in judgment and therefore they forget that it’s just another human being who has likes and dislikes. Spend the effort to find out what that human being’s history is.
Olswanger: By looking at the books he’s edited?
Levine: Yes. Most human beings don’t have a published record of their tastes and interests, the way editors do. It’s much easier in some ways to get to know the taste and style of an editor than it is to find out about a person you might want to date.
Olswanger: What kind of cover letter catches your eye?
Levine: A great thing to do in a cover letter is to phrase it positively. I’m thinking of one cover letter from a fellow who had written a nonfiction picture book about a nutcracker. He started off with three fascinating facts about nutcrackers, and he talked about why he was submitting to me. He mentioned an illustrator that was published on our list so he was clearly thinking visually. He gave a brief synopsis and then he listed his published books. He was impressive. I immediately requested that book.
Olswanger: What’s an example of a bad cover letter?
Levine: The mistake that people make in cover letters is that they spend a lot of time apologizing for their lack of credits, which they don’t have to do, or they ignore the fact that the way the cover letter is written, as much as what is written, is important. People are sometimes overly matter-of-fact and without style in their letter, like: "This is a story about a dog and his doghouse. Are you interested?" Or: "In my story a girl goes to the store and she buys some groceries and comes home and surprises her mother." I would never be interested in that kind of dead, matter-of-fact prose. The idea of a cover letter is to give the editor a feeling for what the manuscript is going to be like, and you do that not only by saying what the content of the manuscript is, but by the style of the writing. Think about letters that friends write. Some people write letters that are full of their personality and when you read that letter, you can hear the person’s voice and imagine him in the room next to you. Some people write really boring letters that don’t have any of their personality. It’s the same thing when people write cover letters.
Olswanger: Suppose a writer is approaching you as a second publisher. How should she explain in her cover letter that her first publisher rejected the new manuscript?
Levine: My first response is that you don’t have to explain or apologize. You don’t have to talk about it at all unless it’s particularly relevant. It’s common enough that people have published a book with one publisher and then the second book happens to be different. If you’ve published a nonfiction book, and this is a fiction one, that makes it obvious. You say, "Knopf is publishing my first book which is a nonfictional treatment of blah-blah-blah, but I’m looking for another publisher to do my fiction and I think you’re right." Just market it in a positive way. You don’t have to do full disclosure. It’s a relative of the statement that you don’t have to apologize for no publishing credits. You also don’t have to say, "This editor rejected my manuscript." I think they’ll assume that you are either choosing to publish with this other house because you want two publishers, or that there was not agreement about the second manuscript. As a writer, I have a publisher and they haven’t taken everything I’ve written. Sometimes I think they have turned down some of my best things so naturally I understand that somebody may have published a very nice book and then the editor just didn’t see eye-to-eye on the next one.
Olswanger: In your opinion, how does a writer grow?
Levine: I think writers grow by pushing themselves to be more honest and revealing about themselves in their work. They grow by reading and turning outward, not by turning inward and becoming self-referential. The writer who says, "Oh, I only concentrate on my own writing. I don’t read other people’s books" is missing out on the opportunity to be exposed to new voices and approaches that help one grow.
And taking risks. That’s another way that writers grow.
Olswanger: Is editing a good job for you as a writer?
Levine: It’s healthy for me because it gives me all sorts of perspective about the publishing business. I know firsthand not to take rejection personally. I know that it’s just a matter of a story that didn’t quite hook up to the editor’s taste. And I think it helps keep me in the world. It keeps me from becoming too isolated and anxious-things that are challenges to writers. So in all of those senses, being an editor has been a good job for me as a writer. And vice versa. Being a writer is good for me as an editor.
Olswanger: In what ways?
Levine: It’s helpful to me as an editor to be reminded of what challenges authors face. I am an author. I know what it feels like to get a rejection letter. I know what it feels like to send something out and wait for a response. I know what it feels like to get feedback. I know what feedback is helpful to me and what feedback is not helpful to me. I know what pisses me off as a writer! And I try not to do that to my authors.
Olswanger: What’s your day like as an editor?
Levine: My day varies a lot. Usually when I get in, 9-9:30, I read some of our circulating things while on my first coffee, things like Publisher’s Weekly, reviews, maybe sales reports. A typical day would involve meetings with other editors to talk about projects. There are a lot of off-the-cuff, nonscheduled meetings. So, "He’s in a meeting," would be the art director called me over and said, "A sketch came in. I’d like your opinion on it." I jump up, run over to her office and take a look at the sketch and we talk about it. Then one of my other editors says, "Arthur, can I ask your opinion on this manuscript? This section isn’t working." I’ll go down and we’ll talk about it for a few minutes. I may have a little time to work on catalog copy or jacket copy, something usually due the next day! I will probably have some kind of scheduled meeting, like a production meeting where the editorial, production and art departments get together and discuss books that are on a schedule. I will probably put out five or six fires, as we say. Somebody’s called up, and they didn’t receive their check for some reason. I have to find out why they didn’t and make sure that a check either gets out to them immediately or tell them when the check went out. Or, I may have a conversation with an agent.
Olswanger: We hear about agent-editor lunches. Are those important in children’s book publishing?
Levine: It’s definitely important to go out to lunch with agents. I think that may happen once every couple of weeks. It’s much more likely that I will spend time with an author at lunch, which will include conversations about their manuscript and where they’re going, usually because somebody is coming in from out of town. But I’d say nine lunches out of ten I spend with a tuna fish sandwich while I’m trying to read a manuscript. The times that I get to read manuscripts are with that tuna fish sandwich at my desk, or on the bus, or at home. I don’t really get to read much in my office.
Olswanger: What time does your day end?
Levine: I tend to work until around seven, or seven-thirty, unless I’m staying late!
Olswanger: And you still take manuscripts home?
Levine: Yes, I read them on the bus or at night. There are periods when I can’t do that as much, and I fall behind. That’s a problem.
Olswanger: What are some of the things that can sour the author-editor relationship?
Levine: An editor will try very hard to be perfect all the time because so much of their job is nurturing and caring and being the perfect reader of a manuscript. And you really do try to be there for the author all the time. It’s a selfless relationship, which is as it should be, and yet sometimes editors have flaws. They will take too long in responding to a manuscript or they’ll get a phone call when they can’t spend the usual amount of time on the phone because of deadlines and pressures. Once in a while an author may not understand that. They are used to the editor seeming to have all the time in the world. You do want an author to feel that you are there for them, but occasionally you are not going to be able to be, and tension can arise.
And it’s helpful even in people anticipating an author-editor relationship to remember editors are just people and they are people in high pressure jobs who are doing the best they can, and sometimes they fall behind like anybody on a job. You hear a lot of complaints about editors taking too long with submissions and I understand that completely from an author’s point of view. It is frustrating to wait. And I also understand how it happens with editors. Sometimes an editor will intend to write a lovely letter right away and they’ll just put a manuscript aside for the half-hour they are sure they are going to have that afternoon to compose a letter. But it turns out they don’t have that half-hour that day, so they think that they are going to do it the next day, but it doesn’t happen the next day and sometimes something can get buried. It’s all with the best intention. The bottom line, I guess, is that it’s miscommunication and lack of empathy on either side that can sour the author-editor relationship.
Olswanger: Are editors comfortable with authors who want to promote their own books?
Levine: Editors love that. It’s important for an author to take responsibility, and maybe even take charge of the promotion of their book: getting out there, exploiting all their contacts to the fullest.
Olswanger: Are appearances effective?
Levine: Usually not, because in general for them to work, you have to be famous. I was a huge hit at my parents’ Jewish Center. I’m not joking-I sold like 300 copies of various books the time that I appeared there because everyone knew me from when I was a little kid. But I did a signing at a Barnes and Noble in New Jersey and five people showed up. Every author would like to have an author tour and appear at book stores, but sometimes it’s an ineffective way of promoting a book.
Olswanger: What is effective?
Levine: There are general things that are done for every book, but every book and author are different. An author like Rafe Martin, for instance, is an amazing performer and storyteller. Every time Rafe appears he makes 500 new devotees because he is magical in the way he tells his books. So for him, the best possible way to promote his books is by personal appearance. Some authors are very shy and are not comfortable in public, and for them the best thing to do might be to generate a mailing list of personal contacts who might want to know about their book.
Olswanger: If a writer is good at promoting herself, does that affect your decision whether to publish her?
Levine: Not usually. I buy a book based on the writing, but promotion skill can’t hurt.
Olswanger: Are you ever concerned that you might lose an established author by asking for revisions?
Levine: I would think I would lose an author by not caring enough about their work to give them honest and helpful feedback. Questions come up at writer’s conferences about, "Later, are you allowed to refuse to make changes?" That reveals a belligerent and immature attitude about the publishing relationship. The relationship I would like to have with an author is a collaborative and positive one. I am just giving somebody feedback about how their story has affected me, and hopefully giving them feedback in an articulate and understandable way. That gives them the chance to think about the book before it is final and goes out to the public. That’s an opportunity. As an author I would hate it if an editor didn’t give me feedback. I would think that they didn’t care, or that they hadn’t paid enough attention.
Olswanger: As an editor, do you prefer to negotiate contracts with the agent or the writer?
Levine: It depends on the agent and the author. Some agents are wonderful to work with, and some I’m less comfortable with in the area of contract negotiation. The same thing is true with authors.
Olswanger: What’s it like to be the editor of the Harry Potter books in the States?
Levine: It’s made me more visible, but that’s a temporary visibility that will fade with time.
Olswanger: Do you think beginning writers can emulate J.K. Rowling’s success?
Levine: I think it’s a fantastic bit of reinforcement to write what you truly want to write, without regard to "saleability." J.K. Rowling could not have been thinking that her complex, long fantasy novels would be so financially successful. She wrote them because she wanted to.
Olswanger: Do you believe good writing always gets published?
Levine: "Always" is too strong a word because nothing happens always. But I think if a person is determined, smart and professional enough, in addition to having that piece of writing, then they have a great chance of getting published. With enough persistence, they will wind up getting published.
Text copyright © 1995 and 2001 Anna Olswanger and Arthur Levine.