See You on the Bookshelf

3. The Acquisition


Jack: Previously on See You on the Bookshelf, we talked about the first offer–from Germany.

Kalah McCaffrey: They were very fast and enthusiastic.
Jessica Craig: The Germans were just like, bam!

Jack: And then the offers started coming in from the US and UK. But the novel is also in this territory between young adult and a younger category: middle grade.

Jessica: What happens if we end up with the lead choice on the UK side wanting to shift the book older, and the lead choice on the US side wanting to go younger?

Jack: But there ended up being one offer that stood out from the rest. And this week, we meet the editors behind that offer.

Jess Garrison: I’m Jessica Dandino Garrison–Jess, to those of you who know me–and, I’m senior editor at Dial Books for Young Readers, which is an imprint of Penguin Random House.

Jack: Imprints are like mini-brands inside a publishing house; each has its own team of editors and its own tastes.

Also, to clarify, Jessica Craig is my agent; Jess Garrison, here, is my editor. Jessica and Jess. Hopefully that’s not too confusing. Okay, so back to Jess, the editor.

Jess: How did I get here? I didn’t really know what I was doing with my english and creative writing degree from school. And so I kind of cast about for a year and then decided I would take this plunge and move to New York where I’d only been a couple of times in my life, and try to get into publishing, just like – on a whim. And I was very lucky in that I just submitted my resume everywhere and got a call back to be the – basically an executive assistant to the head of Penguin Young Readers at the time.
And that first position was really constructive because I had to deal with, you know, all the department heads from all different facets of publishing. And so I kind of just had a better global understanding of how things work. I did that for like a couple years and then moved into editorial, which is what I really wanted to do, and I moved over to Dial Books for Young Readers and I’ve been here ever since.
And the reason I went for children’s versus something else is, you know, during that time, when I moved out here from Chicago on a whim and a lark and I don’t even know what. I was like, 22 and brainless.
[ laughter ]
And I went on a lot of interviews, and I did magazines and I did adult publishing – and by that I don’t mean porn. I mean, you know, fiction for adults. [ laughter ] And I just did all kinds of interviews with agencies and whatnot, and I just felt right in the halls of children’s publishing houses. It just felt like the vibe was right. Just the atmosphere felt more my speed. I kind of felt when I arrived – when I was lucky enough to arrive at Penguin – that after a long time I had found my people. You know, like a whole building and a whole industry full of my people, which is not a thing that I’d really felt before.
So, yeah, that’s my story.
Anthea: Oh Jess, I didn’t know some of that! [ laughter ]
Jess: Yeah!
[ laughter ]

Jack: So that second voice you hear – that’s my UK editor, Anthea Townsend.

Anthea: I’m Anthea Townsend, I’m editorial director at Penguin Random House Children’s UK and I mainly work on the fiction side. One of our imprints is Puffin, which See You in the Cosmos is being published under. And kind of similar to you, Jess, I did a degree in English and Classical Studies, it was called. Latin and Greek and Classical Literature. And I came out of university not really knowing what I wanted to do with my life. And it was through a series of chatting to lots of people that I sort of thought, well, publishing might be a good fit given what I’ve loved about my studies.
And I wrote to apply for work experience and was lucky and got various places, and actually different adult publishers. At that point, I hadn’t actually considered children’s and, funnily enough, my first paid full job was actually on an erotic fiction list.
[ laughter ]
So that’s something you probably didn’t know about me! It was a very short time as an editorial assistant. So obviously the process – you know, content’s a little different to what I publish now but the process is the same. And during my time there I got a callback for an interview at Penguin.
My first job here was working for Tom Weldon, who’s now our CEO, but at that point he was a managing director of a division here called Penguin General. And Tom – much like you described, Jess, at your first job – that role, I was his assistant. And so I got an overview of the whole process. The kind of meetings that I would just sit in on with Tom, and the kind of conversations I could, you know – I wouldn’t say eavesdrop on, but minute and listen to …
And so I kind of saw all the cogs, which was amazing, and I feel very lucky to have had that first year or so in terms of seeing the big picture of publishing. And I think quite quickly, I learned that as well as the romantic and literary notions I had about publishing, I also really enjoyed the commercial side of things and learned about the business of publishing, which is exciting. It’s an exciting business.
And then I moved over into editorial, actually on the adult side again. Now this – I mean books for adults rather than … porn [ laughter ]. And at that point I became an editorial assistant in what was then an imprint, but has now become a division, of Penguin Random House called Michael Joseph. And during that time I got to work on a few projects that crossed over into our kids team. So, I worked with a senior editor who was publishing an additional book in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Series written by children’s author Eoin Colfer.
And I found myself realizing that it was those few projects that I was really, really enjoying. And as Jess has described, the community of children’s publishing – it’s kind of second to none, I’d say. It’s pretty awesome. And then I actually had a brief spell out of publishing. I had a brief period where I’d left – I actually was unwell. I had meningitis. Bet you didn’t know that, Jess.
Jess: Oh, no, I didn’t know that. I thought you were going to say you like, you know, jumped ship to be a copyeditor for a couple of years in advertising.
Anthea: I got kind of taken out of the game. But it was – I remember having a very insightful conversation with Tom, actually – I was probably 25, I think. He said, it’s pretty rare that you get a kind of gap like this. Obviously you wouldn’t have wished for it, but it will allow you to do some thinking, and think about where you really want to be.
And anyway, to cut a long story short, that brought me all the way back around into children’s a little time later, back at Penguin, and I’ve been there ever since.
Jack: It sounded like there were a lot of parallels between both your –
Anthea: Yeah Jess, I didn’t know that about your first job –
Jess: My very, very first job was actually in development at a science and engineering school in Chicago, and I’m not cut out for fundraising. That’s what I’ll say about that job.
[ laughter ]
But I feel like jobs are sort of like boyfriends, you have to try out a few and figure out what doesn’t work, until you figure out what does.
[ laughter ]

Jack: So, how did we get here? How did I end up with Jess and Anthea as my editors?

Kalah: Jess Garrison at Dial is one of my good editorial friends

Jack: If that voice sounds familiar, it’s because you heard it in our last episode. That’s Kalah McCaffrey, the scout who was involved in our German deal. She also helped my agent build that initial list of editors to send the manuscript to. Jess Garrison was on that list.

Kalah: She and I have had a lot of serendipity in terms of reading projects and being able to talk about why we love them, and why she would be excited to publish them.

Jack: But while Jess’s name was on that initial list, Anthea’s wasn’t.

Anthea: Jessica – your agent Jessica, Jack – sent See You in the Cosmos to another colleague of mine, but she actually had left the business. And this all happened very quickly but Jessica hadn’t yet received her email bounce-back or notification that she wasn’t still part of the business.
But separately I’d seen a – I think it was in the US – a blast about your German publishing deal, and it was just a brief thing about, you know, what See You in the Cosmos was about, in a kind of real nutshell. And I thought, ooh, and then reached out to Jessica. And then at the same time I found out that Jess was reading.
And Jess and I have known each other but, we’ve not actually met in person, have we Jess?
Jess: No. Still, we haven’t, yeah.
Anthea: But we’ve known each other, and there were a few submissions prior to the first time we read See You in the Cosmos – there were a few things that we’d read or just books that Jess was publishing that you know, I’d admired and liked. And so we kind of knew our tastes aligned. And so when I knew Jess was reading See You in the Cosmos at the same time on submission, we kind of reached out at that point. So it was really, really early on.
And I just remember getting this email back from Jess saying – I would say, oh, I’m really excited about this manuscript I’m reading. And Jess was saying the same thing.

Jack: One thing that really surprised me was just how much cross communication there seemed to be between different editors and people in the industry. Here’s our scout from last week again, Kalah McCaffrey, referring her to Jess.

Kalah: She, and I had a drinks date actually, in the middle of the submission, and she had not yet finished the manuscript when I sat down with her. And I was able to say, no, you have to finish it right away. This is extremely special. I think it would be perfect for Dial. And she went right home and finished it.

Jack: I asked Jessica – my agent, Jessica – about this.

Jack: When I was talking to Jess and Anthea and Kalah, I was getting this like very strong sense of just, how like, everyone was aware of what everyone else was reading. And that’s something that … I don’t know if that’s the case in like adult fiction.
Jessica: It actually is. I think, I mean, when there’s a book that, I guess, stands out from the rest of submissions in any given week, there’s kind of this sense of an electric – like, I don’t know, a cluster of people talking about it or getting excited about it at the same time.

Jack: I mean, it makes sense if you think about it. People in any industry – they know each other, your friends work at other companies … there’s a good chance you know what kinds of projects they’re looking at, what manuscripts they might be working on.

What was maybe less common in this case was that Jess and Anthea were both looking at it simultaneously for their separate markets. And because they were both under the Penguin Random House umbrella, they’re able to team up to put in a joint offer for both the US and UK.

Anthea: I think it was on a Friday, and I think by Monday morning, Jess and I were on the phone – or, you know, early that week – about how much we wanted to go for it.
Jess: Yeah, I do remember there being a flurry of Friday afternoon flurry of emails – probably emails at that stage because it’s late in the UK. But I do remember the sort of the rapidness of it.
Jack: So typically, how many manuscripts come across your desks, and out of those, how many do you actually take an action on?
Anthea: Ooh.
Jess: Yeah, it’s funny, I get that question a lot, and so I should go back and sort of quantify – like at any given time, how many submissions I have. But it’s too scary to do that so I never do.
Anthea: Yeah. Yeah, it is. And it can change. I mean, there are a few peaks and troughs. Sometimes certain times of year can be busier. It does vary – so a lot, but I don’t think I can quantify further. Jess? Do you –
Jess: I mean, I feel like I have a never-ending list of submissions that I need to get to. And Anthea is exactly right that they’re in flux. You’re never without something to read, which is good. And in terms of how many, I think it depends on the kind of editor you are and the kind of imprint you’re working with. You know, I tend to be – I dunno, I guess I tend to be picky. I tend to be hard to please. So I don’t actually sign up a ton. I wish I signed up more than I did, but I’m kind of greedy for all of the components to be executed at a really high level, and so it just means that I don’t sign up as much as I would like to, actually.
Anthea: Yeah, I second that. I’m very similar in terms of the latest submissions – I will always have a reading pile. It’s never a to-do list tick-off, to put it that way.
Jess: Yeah. You’re never finished with your submissions. That’s not a bullet point you put on your to-do list.
Anthea: And then in terms of the number of projects that we move forward with, we are, as Jess said, picky and selective. So it’s not a great number.
And to Jess’s point about the different kinds of editors and publishers – in the last year and a half, I’ve managed our Roald Dahl publishing, which obviously isn’t editing in the traditional sense. But managing a big author brand like that takes up a significant chunk of my time. So I probably slowed up a little bit, or I suppose I can be and am ever more selective with the new projects I take on around that.
Jess: Yeah. And I read plenty of novels that are that are totally publishable. They’re great and all right and I think it – you actually have to keep yourself sharp and keep reading books that you really love, and that really move you, so that you remember what it is that you want to be putting out into the world. That just because a story is good, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s right for you, or in my case, Dial. I always am wanting to keep my standards high and keep myself sharp in that regard.
Anthea: Yeah.
Jess: Which is tough because you know, you really want to sign up something new but you’re just, for whatever reason, not seeing the kind of projects that you want to be seeing. And then it’s on you to figure out who you should be talking to in the agent world, letting people know what it is you’re hungry for, and getting the projects you want that way.
Anthea: Yeah. There are lots of reasons often why we don’t take things forwards. It’s not so black-and-white as it’s not good enough to be published. Because that’s often not the case.
Jess: That’s a good point. You know – that you might like something just fine. But I often feel like when I like a novel just fine but I’m sort of hesitant to go all-in, there’s a reason for that. And it’s often because I like it, but doesn’t every author deserve an editor who loves their novel? And if I don’t love it, am I going to be the best person to help it –
Anthea: – to go through the world. To stand up at those meetings and to be the champion. You have to be all-in.
[ soft transition music ]
Anthea: Speaking of that weekend when Jess and I were both first reading See You in the Cosmos, from that Friday through to the Monday, I remember sitting in my kitchen reading sections out to my partner, which is pretty unusual for a Sunday at home. But reading – Alex is just making me laugh a lot with his … sometimes it’s just that one-liner, or it’s just the way that he was processing this conversation. And I just fell in love with him at that point.
Jess: That’s always the mark of a good manuscript – when you’re at home and it’s like 11 o’clock at night and you should be going bed.
Anthea: Totally. Totally!
Jess: But instead, you’re sitting on the couch, reading excerpts to your spouse or your girlfriend or boyfriend. You know, that’s a keeper.
Anthea: Literally. When you’re making – you know, your other half is trying to persuade you to watch the next episode of something that you’re both addicted to at the time, but no no no, you cannot take yourself away.

Jack: So Jess and Anthea both connected over their enthusiasm for the book. But they also both had a shared vision for making the book more for a younger audience. And that appealed to me too. What would it mean to make my novel more squarely middle grade? I wanted to find out.

Jess: You do want to be sure when you’re taking on a book, if it’s a debut as it was your children’s debut with See You in the Cosmos – you don’t know how long a person has spent pouring themselves into this book, into this story of these people. And it’s a big commitment you’re making to an author to say, I’m going to help you make this book even better than it is. And so you want to be sure that everyone is on the same page, that you kind of have that mind-meld. You all are in agreement about what it is you want to achieve and how you want to achieve it.
And Jack, if I’d gotten on the phone with you and you were like, no, I really think it’s an adult novel, that’s what it is. I would have been like, I hear you! Respect. Onward. You know, because it’s your book. It should be what you want it to be. And the same with Anthea. Like, that we both had a vision for what we thought it could be for the readers that we serve. And yeah, I think that neither of us would have wanted to enter into this if we had conflicting ideas about what the story was.
[ peppy, upbeat music ]

Jack: Next week on, See You on the Bookshelf, we go deeper into that vision and into the editing process.

Thanks very much to my editors, Jess Dandino Garrison and Anthea Townsend. Anthea is on Twitter, @antheatownsend. And Jess is on Pinterest as JKD Garrison. Thanks also to Kalah McCaffrey and Jessica Craig. Music for this podcast is by Saint Benjamin (now known as Ben Johnson Music Factory).