Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Other Side of a Book: An Interview with Editor Andrea Tompa

There are times when I review a book, and I find myself shaking my head over grammatical errors, or significant plot fails, and my first thought is — shouldn’t the editor have picked up on this?! I tend to assign blame for bad novels equally between editors and authors, but then I read Jessica Day George’s awesome post about the editorial process, and I started wondering about how much of an editor’s input actually goes into the book. How influential are editors in determining industry trends? How much of an emotional investment do they have in the books they edit? We hear quite a bit about the authors’ side of things, but how often do we get to hear the editorial viewpoint?

Fortunately for my curious self, Andrea Tompa of Candlewick Press sweetly agreed to answer some of my questions. Andrea is the editor of the upcoming YA sci-fi novel, A Long, Long Sleep by Anna Sheehan. Having read and enjoyed the book (more on that tomorrow!), I was very excited to get a chance to talk to Andrea about an editor’s take on the YA industry.

But before I go into the interview, I think I should warn those of you who are planning to rush off and inundate Andrea with your life’s work that Candlewick is NOT accepting UNSOLICITED MANUSCRIPTS at this point! Mandatory warning having been issued, here goes...

ME: Many times, when people point out errors in grammar, or sentence structure or weak plotlines, I see them fingering the editor instead of the author for these mistakes. How much of a novel is the author's work, and how much of it an editor's? Can the editor really assume responsibility for things like weak characterization or plot fail? 

AT: It's hard to specify exactly who's responsible for what -- ideally, it's a collaborative process, and by the time a book is published, both the author and the editor are in agreement that the book is as strong as it can be. From that point of view, you could say that both parties are responsible for any issues that remain in the finished book. (I should also say that as an editor, I'm grateful for copyeditors, who review manuscripts for spelling, grammatical, and other mechanical errors.)

ME: How much of your input into a manuscript is decided by your own tastes and preferences? Would you accept a manuscript with a great idea, even if the writing was weak or mediocre? 

AT: The only way I know how to edit is to listen to my instincts, which are necessarily informed by my own tastes and preferences. This is a very subjective business, and just as a picture book text could go in any of several different ways depending on which illustrator ends up working on it, I think that a novel (or a picture book) could go in many different directions depending on who edits it. That being said, the editor's role isn't to impose her vision on a manuscript, but to help the author realize her own vision, so it's important to listen, to ask questions, and to work toward the story the author wants to tell.

I don't think I've ever run into a manuscript with an idea that's great enough to make me overlook weak writing -- which is not to say that it could never happen, but I think that in general, great execution is much more important than a great idea. (That being said, two different editors may disagree about whether an idea is "great" or whether the writing in a given project is "weak" or not!)

ME: As an editor, do you think that the practice of flooding the market with dystopians or vampire novels or whatever else is hot at the moment detracts significantly from the quality of literature accepted and published by publishing houses? And is this something that happens only with YA?  

AT: If something is published merely because it fits into a current trend, that can be problematic; the best books happen when an author, an editor, and a publishing house are truly invested in the story and care deeply about the characters. That being said, I don't think that books that are trendy are necessarily bad! There are lots of authors and publishing folks out there who are really passionate about books that happen to fit a current trend, and those books can be wonderful. When it comes down to it, there are a lot of books published every year, for kids, teens, and adults, and any individual reader is going to love some of it and find fault with some of it. 

ME: In your opinion, would editors-turned-writers make better writers than, say, stay-at-home moms-turned-writers? Also, in your experience, do writers with an academic background in literature and writing (like an MFA, maybe) write tighter, more technically sound novels than people from other fields? 

AT: Editing and writing are two very different skills, even though they are related. While some editors (including some of my colleagues at Candlewick) are talented authors as well as being talented editors, many (like myself) are not writers at all -- I freeze up when faced with a blank page! An editor may have an advantage as a writer because she will have read widely and be very familiar with her field, but there's no reason why someone with a different background can't write books that are equally strong, or stronger.

I have a lot of respect for people with MFAs -- they've done incredibly hard work -- and if I did a real comparison of submissions, I might find that those submitted by MFAs are, on average, stronger (though I haven't done such a comparison). However, when I'm considering a particular manuscript, I don't think about whether or not someone has an MFA -- I try to base my opinions solely on the writing in front of me.

ME: We've all heard the stories about some first-time authors being paid fabulous sums of money for their manuscripts, sometimes for novels that, let's be honest, are terrible! I think a lot of people like me have come to the conclusion that with YA, especially, the latest bestseller is more about how much marketing and publicity the publishers have put into it than the literary value of the actual book. What's your take on the topic? 

AT: That's a tough one! In general, publishers pay a lot for manuscripts if they think that they will be successful -- and then they invest marketing and publicity to make sure that they're right. But that doesn't mean that those books don't "deserve" that success. In many cases, books that capture multiple publishers' imaginations and wind up in an auction (which is usually where that big money comes from) do so because they're very strong in some way -- they've got a strong, original voice, or characters that feel incredibly real, or an irresistible hook and pacey, accessible writing, or any other combination that makes for an appealing read. In other words, the bestsellers aren't always the highly literary titles -- just as adult bestsellers aren't always highly literary -- but in general, I don't think it's true that they're terrible.

ME: Most authors tend to treat their novels as their babies. As an editor, what is the level of your emotional investment in a book you edit? Do you tend to get as indignant as the authors when you see reviewers panning a book you've edited? 

AT: I feel incredibly invested in the books I've edited, and I think my reactions to the big moments in a book's life are similar to the author's -- I get really excited about seeing cover ideas, holding an advance in my hands for the first time, and reading good reviews. So I definitely get upset by bad reviews, too! I find that ice cream can help.

ME: What's your favorite YA novel of all time? 

AT: As a young teen, I was obsessed with The Outsiders -- but I could never pick one favorite YA novel. I'm just glad that there are so many wonderful YA novels out there, and so many more being published each year.

Thank you, Andrea, for taking time out to answer my questions.

Andrea Tompa works as an Editor for Candlewick Press, based in Somerville, Massachusetts. Candlewick publishes outstanding children’s books for readers of all ages and has been named "the fastest growing children’s publisher in the U.S." by Publishers Weekly.


  1. I love Andrea's positivity! I think she must have an incredibly difficult job, but that at the same time would be so much FUN. At the same time, I'm pretty sure I would be a fan of hers based purely on the fact that she cited The Outsiders as a favorite YA read.

  2. Ditto - she has great taste if The Outsiders was/is one of her favorite YA books!