Every year at the SCBWI Summer Conference, there is an editors panel on Saturday morning where a group of editors are introduced and then questioned about a variety of subjects. This year, SCBWI did something new with the panel by giving the discussion a specific focus.
The discussion was entitled: What Makes an Evergreen, What Makes a Hit
What makes a book a timeless classic versus a momentary blockbuster? I found this discussion much more interesting, especially when the discussion turned toward the acquisitions process. Not what I had pictured at all.
Here were the editors involved:
Donna Bray, Co-Publisher of Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins
Claudia Gabel, Executive Editor at Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Children’s Books
Allyn Johnston, Vice President and Publisher of Beach Lane Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster
Melissa Manlove, Editor at Chronicle Books
Andrea Davis Pinkney, Author and Vice President, Executive Editor at Scholastic
Namrata Tripathi, Executive Editor at Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster
Nice line up, right?
The fabulous Lin Oliver acted as moderator and asked the questions.
What qualities of a work make an evergreen versus a hit?
Donna Bray: Evergreens are speaking to universal truths; hits are speaking to a moment in time.
Wonder (by R.J. Palacio) has both – perfectly timed and also has quality.
Melissa Mangrove: Books that continue to speak on the human experience. If I’m understanding the question, it’s a book with long backlist potential versus the big splash.
Andrea David Pinkney: It’s the longevity. I’ll feel myself falling in love and I’ll ask myself if I’ll still feel this way years from now.
The Hunger Games (by Suzanne Collins) during a time of war banged us over the head in a good way. It landed at the right time to be a hit.
Allyn Johnston: Not wanting to buy just one project from the author. Books that continue to have lives is very gratifying.
Claudia Gabel: An evergreen can sometimes be about a close examination of a time period that changed the face of our world.
The Book Thief (by Markus Zusak) for example. Having Death as a character made it stand out. The plot around the importance of books is an evergreen point.
Namrata Tripathi:The only thing to add is qualitative. This whole discussion about time is interesting; you don’t really know until after publication. It’s so nebulous. It’s always surprising.
If acquiring a book, do you discuss whether it will earn out versus receive awards?
Andrea Davis Pinkney: More marketing driven? No.
I depend on the expertise of my colleagues. I do go in prepared for objections and speak to them. I fight for the books I want.
Donna Bray: I don’t think it’s changed; I want the whole team behind me. Sometimes you bring a book in and people have reservations. This doesn’t mean you can’t bring the book in. It’s up to you to start it off on the right foot.
Namrata Tripathi: One of the things we all do; go in the day before acquisitions and line up our allies. (All laughed.)
Allyn Johnston: The great Sid Fleischman used to say, “Point to the problem; if there’s a weakness, make it a strength.”
Namrata Tripathi: It doesn’t even matter what the objection is. There’s so much chemistry involved. We have to carry how much we love the book to others. No matter how much I love my husband, I can’t convince Lin of this. You can’t define it; it’s touched you viscerally and now you have to convey this to others.
What manuscript spoke to you as an example of a good marriage between evergreen and hit?
Allyn Johnston: A book by a new writer, Liz Garton Scanlon called All the World. It’s going to sound cliche, but it felt universal and timeless, with a strong emotional core. She sent it to Marla Frazee and told her to drop what she was working on to do this first. It won a Caldecott Honor.
Also, a bedtime book about evolution called Our Family Tree: An Evolution Story (by Lisa Westberg Peters).
Namrata Tripathi: It has a lot to do with voice. Voice and character are related. When you’ve rendered a character so vividly that they stay with me. Though I’ve stepped away from a book, my mind hasn’t. When I’m obsessing about characters, I should probably get the book. She felt this way about Lulu and the Brontosaurus by Judith Viorst. It was funny, sassy and fresh. The character felt now and timeless.
Andrea Davis Pinkney: The thing I look for is the voice. There’s a reason the show The Voice is so popular.
Melissa Manlove: Marriage of voice and topic. When an author talked to me about the subnivian zone, I said I didn’t know what that was. It was quiet and I kind of loved it. (The book was Kate Messner’s Over & Under the Snow.)
Donna Bray: It’s like a physical pain. If I lost this book, I would be sad forever.
For her it was Clementine by Sara Pennypacker. It was the character and the voice. The author was firing on all cylinders. It went deeper than most chapter books. This must be what people reading Ramona must have felt the first time.
Claudia Gabel: Really deep, deep love.
When reading the second pass, you can’t wait to read it again. A manuscript that somehow surprises you.
What a great discussion. I think we could continue this over drinks during our next writer’s weekend, what do you think?
I’ll leave you with this nugget of wisdom from the amazing Allyn Johnston that she just dropped in the middle of the conversation like it was nothing. I swear, she makes me want to learn how to write picture books just so I could work with her.
It’s the rhythm that’s missing in the picture books that don’t work – not the rhyme, the rhythm.