Interview with… a children’s book editor
Niamh Mulvey, 31, is a children’s book editor at Quercus Books. She grew up in Kilkenny, Ireland, and has been living in London for four years
I’ve always loved children’s books – as a child, I used to get to into trouble for reading too much and was always being told to go outside and play. My job is to find writing talent and turn it into a desirable object that people want to buy. It’s a very creative process.
I went to college in Galway in the west of Ireland where I did a degree in English and History. Afterwards I went traveling and worked in various jobs including a credit card call centre and a local government office where I researched historic bridges – that was a bit of a low pointI! I then taught English and History at a secondary school and I really loved that but I wanted to try something different. That’s when I decided to go into publishing.
I came to London and did a MA in Creative Writing and Publishing and then returned to Ireland to intern at Penguin before getting a job offer from Quercus.
At Quercus Children’s Books, we publish everything from illustrated chapter books for young children right up to Young Adult fiction for teenagers, which has become a fascinating area to work in.
Books can change children’s lives and influence them in a way that adult books generally don’t – adults tend to be more measured in response to books, whereas when children love something, they really really love it.
Children’s publishing is less glamorous and sexy than adult publishing but it’s lovely to think you can make an impact on someone’s life at that crucial early stage. I love the way children re-read the same books over and over again; it shows how children crave stories and can become so passionate about the characters they read about. This desire for the similar stories and characters is why series are so popular and successful in children’s publishing.
Growing up, I read a lot of the classics. The books I loved and re-read the most were the Anne of Green Gables series. I also loved historical fiction, which is really unfashionable in children’s publishing now, sadly! An Irish publisher called the O’Brien Press used to publish these incredible novels for children that drew on different aspects of Irish history which I absolutely loved.
There’s three of us on the children’s editorial team at Quercus. We all work very collaboratively – writing and editing can be so solitary so it’s great to bounce ideas off each other.
Editors who acquire books will be sent manuscripts from literary agents. If there’s something I’m excited about I’ll share it with the children’s editorial team and if I feel strongly about it I’ll bring to our weekly Quercus editorial meeting where we get to hear about the projects our colleagues from different departments are considering.
One of the main jobs of an editor is to be an advocate for the books that you publish and to get your colleagues enthused about your projects. It’s amazing how getting your colleagues buzzing about your book can influence its success in the outside world.
My team gets about 20 submissions a week. A core part of the job is reading submissions, talking with your colleagues and taking the submissions forward or rejecting them. You learn to trust your tastes and your instincts but when you reject someone’s work it’s important to do it respectfully.
If I’m on the fence about something, I’m probably going to say no. Making a book work in this market is really, really hard. You have to be passionate about what you’re publishing.
The other important aspect of the job is packaging – deciding what a book is going to look like, trying to figure out how the way it looks will make people feel. We spend so much time talking about covers. When I have a book and it’s time to get the cover ready I’ll write a brief for the designer with a vision of what I want it to look like. During this time you are also considering the title, the copy on the back and how you’re going to talk about the book to the world.
Packaging is paramount. For most books published nowadays the only marketing money spent on them is on the cover. It’s often the only way to catch a consumer’s eye.
Everything from the typeface to the size of the author’s name to the image used is sending signals to the reader. If these things are interesting and send the right message, the book will (should!) sell.
Literary readers will respond to certain fonts and positioning while commercial books will have different visual cues. A good publisher will be able to entice the consumer with these visual cues.
Children’s publishing has an extra layer of complexity because you are trying to make a book attractive to kids but also communicate with parents and other adults that it is appropriate for their child.
it is really important that authors like their covers. As an editor you’re trying to keep both the author and the salespeople happy.
Writing is a very private activity until you put it out there. I published a short story a couple of years ago with the Irish publisher Stinging Fly and since then I’ve done a bit more writing, but not as much as I’d like. It’s hard to write around a publishing job: it’s not like you’re coming home to do something completely different, like painting or something – you’re still sitting there in front of your computer. Also, there is always a pile of submissions to get through in the evenings!
Doing my own writing is helpful, though. Being on the other side of that process makes you a better editor, I think.