Finding Her Wings: editor Emma Dryden talks about drydenbks and the state of the publishing industry

By Posted in - Interviews on August 30th, 2010 12 Comments

Last May, after nearly 19 years at Simon and Schuster, Emma Dryden was laid off from her position as Vice President and Publisher of Atheneum Books for Young Readers and Margaret K. McElderry Books in a cost-cutting initiative which left the publishing industry reeling.

If even someone who has edited writers of the caliber of Susan Cooper and Ellen Hopkins and has 25 years of experience in the children’s book publishing industry isn’t immune, where would the axe fall next? And who will be left to guide the young talent left in charge in their stead?

Too young to retire, Dryden was left with a sense of unfinished business and launched drydenbks, applying the same passion and love of craft that marked her outstanding career as an editor for major publishing houses.

Six months on, drydenbks is a multi-platform venture offering editorial, creative and consulting services to children’s book authors, illustrators, publishers and agents, as well as workshop presentations at author retreats, book clubs, and conferences.

What better time to check in on how drydenbks is faring? Emma graciously satisfied my curiosity when I caught up with her recently.

What’s it like to be on your own after 19 years within the corporate structure of Simon & Schuster?

EDD: It’s never easy for anyone to make the leap from the apparent safety and stability of a corporate job to being on your own. However, it’s important to realize that the safety and stability of a position within a corporation is just what I’ve called it—apparent—and there is no guarantee for anyone’s security in the current economic environment.  Launching one’s own business because one has to is quite different from launching one’s own business because one wants to—and I suppose I might have preferred to remain where I was if only for the benefits such a structure provides for me and my family. However, since I had no choice but to launch my own business, I recognize how fortunate I am to have such a strong support system within the children’s book industry and to have retained professional and personal relationships forged during my tenure at Simon & Schuster, as it is these that have bolstered drydenbks and kept me more busy than I ever dreamed.

What’s your overall vision for drydenbks?

EDD: I’d like to share what I think and what I know about the children’s book industry through drydenbks and I hope drydenbks can be a useful resource for authors, illustrators, agents, publishers, and anyone interested in the children’s book business. I’d also like drydenbks to be an editorial haven for authors and illustrators, a place to which they can turn for assistance and consultation if they haven’t been able to obtain helpful feedback on their children’s book projects nor know what to do next with their work.

What do you believe are your particular strengths as an editor?

EDD: I enjoy helping others and I’m a voyeur who enjoys getting to know a person’s deepest, darkest stories! As an editor, I get to engage both of my interests in the best possible way: I ask the right questions to get an author to share their most intimate stories and I suggest ways in which to best engage a young audience, thereby helping an author tell their best story in a way that will reach the widest possible audience. I feel it’s important to be sensitive to others and to the world around us and I bring this to the editing process; I’ve been very successful in providing authors and illustrators with a calm, comfortable space in which they feel safe to express themselves, push their own limits, and surprise themselves by doing something they didn’t trust they could do.

What have been the highlights of your publishing career to date?

EDD:  There have so many moments of pride and delight during my career, it’s terribly difficult to quantify or define them. I cannot answer this without first acknowledging three mentors for whom I worked and from whom I learned how to be a professional, sensitive, thoughtful editor:  Ole Risom, Linda Hayward, and Margaret McElderry. During the earliest phase of my career, I had the honor of working with such luminaries as Richard Scarry and Laurent de Brunhoff, whose books were magical and instrumental to me as a child—and working on their new books allowed me to participate in the workings behind the magic. What better highlight of a career than to imagine oneself a magician—and have it be true!  As my career progressed, It’s been particularly exciting to work with authors and illustrators who allowed me to help them push themselves to try a new voice, a new medium, a new dimension to their work—such as Louise Borden, Lorie Ann Grover, Chris Demarest, and Shelia Moses—and it’s been most gratifying to work with authors and illustrators on some of their very first books and to still be working with them now that they’re winning awards, critically acclaimed, and on the bestseller lists—artists such as Karma Wilson,  Alan Katz and Ellen Hopkins.

You’re offering a range of editorial services to publishers as well as authors. Is outsourcing the editing a new trend in publishing?

EDD: So many people in publishing companies have been, and are continuing to be, laid off— editors, designers, production managers, copy editors, etc—and are not being replaced, thereby giving the people who remain in the publishing houses way too much to manage on their own. Publishers need help, but don’t want to pay out the salaries and, more to the point, the benefits they’d have to pay full-time employees, so they are outsourcing more and more work to freelancers and consultants.

You offer both ‘broad stroke’ and ‘line-by-line’ editorial help. What form does each take?

EDD: Once I consider a submission (as per the submittal guidelines posted on the services page of my website), I make a determination as to whether I think the work will be best served with a broad-stroke assessment or if it’s far enough along to be ready for a more intense line-by-line editorial suggestions. A broad-stroke assessment includes a detailed memo from me outlining what I perceive to be the strengths and weaknesses of the plot, the characters, the storyline—all supported, as appropriate, with examples pulled from the manuscript itself—and whether I feel the work will or will not fit into the current needs and demands of the marketplace. A line-by-line edit consists of the same sort of assessment memo as offered in the broad-stroke scenario and includes a copy of the manuscript in which I’ll insert, through track changes technology, text change suggestions, make comments and/or ask questions in the margins, highlight passages/words of particular concern, move passages of text around, etc.

Are you working within any particular age category of children’s literature?

EDD:  My training—and my interest—is in board books, picture books, poetry, middle grade and YA fiction and fantasy. I am comfortable working within all of these genres for all age groups. I also work with non-fiction, but not as often and only if the subject matter is of intense interest to me.

I love that you’re offering help with synopses, too. In what ways can editorial suggestions improve synopses?

EDD: I recently asked an author to think of her synopsis as an overture to an opera or musical insofar as an overture introduces snippets of the longer pieces of music we’re going to hear over the course of the whole piece of entertainment prior to the curtain going up. An overture sets the tone, the pace, and the emotional mood of the story we’re about to experience. In the same way, if an author gives a synopsis a bit of the character’s voice and attitude and emotional drive, this can set the stage well for the story a reader is about to experience and encourage a reader to want to read more, to know what happens next.  Too often authors overload their synopses, thereby creating something not nearly as streamlined as it should be; an editor can be helpful in suggesting ways to streamline and condense a synopsis in order for the essential elements of an author’s story to shine through and grab a reader’s interest. Really, the synopsis is a selling tool; editors can be helpful in advising how best to craft such a document particularly because editors are the ones to whom the author wants to first sell the story to begin with.

How can you help illustrators with portfolio evaluations?

EDD: I can look through a portfolio and make suggestions as to what they may have too much of or what they may be missing that art directors and editors are going to want to see. I can also advise an illustrator as to whether the portfolio best showcases their style/s, whether it’s easy to look through, and what sort of publishing houses (trade, mass, educational, etc) may find their work suitable for their needs.

I noticed a glowing endorsement from Eddie Gamarra of The Gotham Group on your website. Does that mean you’ll be developing proposals for submission to the film industry, too?

EDD:  My area of expertise is not in the film industry, however I know full well that a good story is a good story and ought to have as wide appeal as possible, be it in book form, electronic form, or film form.  While I’m not specifically helping develop proposals for submission to the film industry, I do think a strong proposal will transcend format.

With the dawn of the digital book era, do you think the format of books will change?

EDD: I think we’re going to see a continuing rise in e-books, digital publishing options, and books as apps, formatted to be read and experienced on all sorts of devices.  All that being said, though, I don’t think we’re going to be seeing the demise of the book as we know it.  And as much attention as possible (authorship, editorial, design, production) ought to be paid to putting the best possible stories into whatever format is available on which to share stories and writing with readers.

Will it require new skills from authors?

EDD: I’d hope authors will want to learn as much as they can comfortably tolerate about digital publishing—at the very least, what the various digital options are, what their rights are when it comes to royalties and rights, and the general lingo used when maneuvering the digital landscape so they will stay apprised of what’s going on in their business—for, indeed, authors need to see publishing as much their business as it is a publisher’s business and a bookseller’s business.

How can we best prepare for what’s to come?

EDD:  I’ve been speaking on this subject quite a bit recently! My best advice on the matter right now is for authors and illustrators to listen, learn, be open-minded, be flexible, and be willing to adapt. I urge artists of all kinds to stay in the conversations (even on the periphery is a better place to be than nowhere near the table at all) about what’s happening in the digital landscape, what’s on agents’ minds as they negotiate rights, what’s up with B&N and Border’s, what decisions publishing companies are making right now, how illustrators are using digital techniques, and the like. Authors and illustrators can stay attuned to news from SCBWI on this subject and follow along on Facebook and Twitter and wherever else such conversations are happening.  And, at the same time, I want to emphasize the need for authors and illustrators to focus on writing the best stories they can and preparing the strongest artwork they can—agents and editors have less time than ever to evaluate and critique submissions, so the more an author or illustrator can invest in their work prior to putting it on submission, the better it will be for them in this current market. Ultimately, I feel that whatever happens on the publishing scene, there will always be a need for new material to publish—whether it’s called literature, story, or content and whether it be on an iPad, in ink on paper between covers, or on a 2” screen—and the author and illustrator remain of the utmost importance to the entire process, and need to recognize and feel empowered by their important role in the process!

Further reading:

Where Emma’s appearing next:

Connect with Emma:

(12) awesome folk have had something to say...

  • Paul Greci - Reply

    August 30, 2010 at 6:03 pm

    Thanks Emma and Lia for a really informative and far-reaching interview. I'm sure drydenbks will be a valuable resource for people at all different stages of their writing journeys!!

  • Kristen Held - Reply

    August 31, 2010 at 12:14 am

    Thanks for a great interview. I second Paul's comments!

  • melanie hope greenbe - Reply

    August 31, 2010 at 12:14 am

    Emma has an insider-outsider perspective and can see the overall yet detailed nuances of the current publishing climate. Her writings open discussions bringing together the vast and varied community of juvenile publishing. Thanks, Emma!

  • anne rockwell - Reply

    August 31, 2010 at 12:44 am

    With all the layoffs in publishing many of us lone authors and illustrators out there may need a helping hand from time to time. Praise the lord for such a gift to us as Emma. Long may she reign!

  • Rebecca Kai Dotlich - Reply

    August 31, 2010 at 1:38 am

    Emma Dryden is all of this and more.
    What a power house, yet what a heart.
    Her determination is fuel for all of us.
    She is a legend in her field.
    Thank you Lia for the great interview.

  • Gail Goetz - Reply

    August 31, 2010 at 4:56 am

    When I found out about Emma's new business, I jumped at the chance to be one of the first to query her. She accepted me and my YA manuscript and agreed to do a line-by-line edit plus what turned out to be a seven-page single-spaced editorial letter. Emma was gentle with me but completely honest. I felt safe with her because I knew she wasn't going to coddle me and she wasn't going to leave me hopeless and discouraged. I came away with new understandings about writing, about my witing, and about my writing of that particular novel. I learned about formatting, word usage, all the things I thought I knew but didn't. I've been using that knowledge in reworking my other novels. I'm thrilled with the way they're turning out. I am an Emma Dryden fan. I always was, and I always will be. She is a genius and a sweetheart.
    Gail Goetz

  • claudine - Reply

    August 31, 2010 at 5:23 am

    Thanks for the great article, Lia. You did a good job asking questions that I would have liked to know the answer to.
    Best wishes to her in her new endeavor!

  • Lisa Gail Green - Reply

    August 31, 2010 at 8:16 am

    What an AMAZING interview, Lia! Thank you for sharing this with us.

  • Lia Keyes - Reply

    August 31, 2010 at 8:27 am

    I'm so delighted by the support shown to Emma in response to this interview! If you have any further questions that haven't been covered here, don't hesitate to add them to the comments section. You will receive an answer!

  • Kim Koning - Reply

    August 31, 2010 at 3:47 pm

    Fantastic Interview Lia…worthy of Barbara Walters!
    Congrats to Emma on 6 successful months! This is a huge achievement in a very tough economic climate. The publishing world is luckier for Emma going out on her own and starting DrydenBks. Her experience and her insight are valuable to any author/illustrator especially for us newbies.
    Thank you both for this interview full of insight!

  • Lia Keyes - Reply

    September 1, 2010 at 1:43 am

    Barbara Walters? *blushes* She's a bit of a dragon, but she does ask the questions we all want to ask yet wouldn't dare to, so thanks for that, Kim! 🙂

  • Elizabeth Varadan - Reply

    September 17, 2010 at 1:20 am

    Thanks, Lia for such a comprehensive interview that yielded such wonderful information. And thanks, Emma! I'm bookmarking this for further reads.

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