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Publishing Interviews: Kate Sullivan, Little, Brown Books

In our new Publishing Interviews Series, teen contributor Kody Keplinger sits down with people on the other side of book publishing -- agents, editors, and more -- providing insight into industry happenings and just what goes into getting a young adult novel on shelves.

Today, I have the honor of interviewing the amazing Kate Sullivan, an editor at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers/Poppy. Kate has worked with authors Malinda Lo (Ash), Darren Shan (The Thin Executioner), Jen Calonita (Secrets of My Hollywood Life series), and – squee! – myself. Thank you Kate, for putting so much thought into our questions!

First off, can you tell us a little about your journey to working at Little, Brown? How did you come to being an editor?

It was a pretty straight path. I was an English major in college, and since I was in school in NYC, it was easy for me to do internships. Before heading towards publishing, I had an internship at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, which was amazing but totally exhausting—serious respect to teachers! —but I couldn’t do it long-term. So next up was my internship with Walker Books for Young Readers. This is totally going to age me, but I got it after making a friend on Friendster who was a designer there. She got me the job. When I graduated I had a few part time jobs—assistant at a literary agency, temporary assistant at Houghton Mifflin--but six months later, when Walker’s editorial assistant decided to go to med school, they hired me!

So what made you want to be an editor?

Well, books. Of course. They were always my peaceful, easy place.
But on a more specific level, why editorial rather than anything else? I used to have a teacher who would say he couldn’t wait for me to write, and for a little while I thought I wanted that—I looked at a lot of schools with creative writing programs. But I don’t know if that ever fully felt like “me”. I’m not sure if it’s that I lacked the courage to take that path… more likely, I think I’m not very skilled at generating ideas. I’m good at working creatively in a team, but not solo.

Literature classes were always my favorite time of day—I loved to discuss the tiniest little element of a story, to pick apart meaning and symbolism and such. I guess I just always loved taking an analytical eye to the books I loved so dearly. Once I realized that, I knew there was no other place for me than editorial. This way, I get to be a little bit creative, but I get to use a very analytical part of my brain, too, the problem solving part. It makes me happy!

When you receive manuscript submissions, what are the things you look for? What really catches your eye?

Honestly, I go for voice. That’s an unfortunate answer because voice is something that is notoriously hard to pinpoint and explain, but it’s true. For instance, many people know that I’ve been looking for a zombie novel for years. I’ve received a number of them too, but as of yet haven’t acquired any because I need the voice to be just right. Or as another example, I wasn’t actively looking for fantasy when Ash by Malinda Lo was submitted to me; I was surprised when the agent pitched it to me, but game to try it. And the voice won me over, absolutely seduced me, when I was even a little biased against it.
I will be honest that a killer concept will make me read more of a manuscript, even when I don’t connect with voice immediately. But in the end, it’s the voices in books that make them memorable to readers— Roald Dahl’s subversive, insider narrators; Suzanne Collins’s deft hand at tension; Madeleine L’Engle’s intelligent storytelling.

At the same time, do you have any pet peeves? Things that really irk you in manuscripts or even published books?

YES I DO, AS A MATTER OF FACT. The thing that I hate most of all, out of everything in the world, is a trope that has been around for a long time, I think, but was made popular—and inescapable—by Twilight. Not that I have anything against Twilight—I sucked it up with the rest of ‘em. But I do have a thing against the hoards of imitators. It’s the “Wow-I’m-so-drawn-to-that-hot-guy-but-he-totally-hates-me-but-oh-wait-it-turns-out-he-acts-like-he-hates-me-because-he-really-loves-me-with-an-intensity-verging-on-dangerous” love story. I’m sick of guys acting like dicks being secret code for True Love, and I’m sick of stalking being sexy.

Also, I’m sick of cliffhanger endings trying to lead into Book 2 or 3. I am not okay with those, at all. If the book is strong enough I’ll read book 2 and 3 without a cliffhanger. And frankly, when books come out a year in between, I actually get more annoyed about the ending and don’t want to read book 2.

I know we’re all curious about the process that goes into getting a book on shelves. Can you explain the process a manuscript goes through once an agent submits it to you? How does a manuscript go from a submission to a book deal?

Basically, there are a number of approvals it has to go through. First, I have to like it. Then it goes to edit board. If they like it, the editorial director reads. If they also want it on the list, it goes to acquisitions board which consists of more than just editorial input. If acquisitions approves an offer, then we make one. Sometimes, it’s accepted right away, but on a lot of the things I’ve gone for, other houses might be interested and I’m competing against other editors for a project. If that’s the case, I might be turned down because another house has made a better offer. Or the agent will let the author interview the offering editors and decide for him or herself which editor seems like the best fit. If I pass all those tests and hurdles, that’s when it’s a book deal.

So as much as it stinks to be a writer who can be rejected, it always good to remember that we editors can get rejected, too. For me, I have three different levels of in-house approval that could say “nope!” for any number of reasons—we can’t figure out what the angle is to sell it, it doesn’t fit on our list, we already have something like this on or list, or just the “eh, I don’t feel passionately that it needs to be on our list”. I’ve definitely gone to editorial meeting thinking I had a home run on my hands, only to be told by readers that they “don’t get it.”

It’s heartbreaking, but just know that there is a circle of life when it comes to rejections. At every stage of the publishing process, someone can get rejected—the reader can reject a book, the editor can be rejected by an author or the acquisitions board, an agent can get a pass from an editor, and writers, obviously, can go through much of that before getting a foot in the door. But if they’re very lucky, they too will have the chance to interview and choose an agent or editor.

Awesome! Now, it seems like writers know most about agents, but the editors are kind of a mystery. Can you tell us what exactly an editor does?

An editor does EVERYTHING IN THE WORLD. We wear so many hats, it’s amazing. Naturally, I edit manuscripts. But I also shepherd a book through every stage of the process, overseeing copyediting, production, marketing, publicity, and design. I see numerous passes of the book—so not only do I edit 5 drafts with an author, but then I might review two proofs of a novel or more. I meet with the designer constantly, before and during the conception process, and then we tweak the jacket a dozen times after that.

I’m also a representative of the house, and I go out there and want to let agents know that Little, Brown is the best house ever, give them a good sense of our list, what we do, and how we do it. So there’s a little bit of PR in my job.

I’m the liaison between the agent/ author team and the rest of my publishing house—this means that almost all information gets funneled through me. I’m the voice and champion of the author, speaking into the massive publishing structure, whether that be demanding more attention from marketing, or letting publicity know to cool their heels and let the author rest already. I’m also the one who takes the decisions of the house and is able to translate them back to the author with a personal touch.
The most important thing to know is that 90% of my job is my authors, and only 10% of it is looking for new authors and submissions. When an author is on the outside trying to get published, it can seem sometimes like editors just stomp on dreams all day every day, but that’s not it at all. Most of my job is making sure that when an author does break through, get to the inside and get published, the author and the book have the best possible experience, and get the right treatment.

So I have to ask. Who are some of your favorite YA authors? Favorite YA books?

This is always such a tough question for editors because so often we’re just reading our submissions pile. Even when I’ve read something that I loved that will soon be a book, I’m usually months ahead of pub! Our timing is simply always off! Does Philip Pullman count as YA or middle grade? Those books are some of my favorite all-time books. Is this question favorite all time or favorite recently? I’m going for favorite recently because favorite all-time is too much pressure!

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver
Hold Still by Nina La Cour
The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness (Manchee is one of the best characters ever)
What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell
Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
Kristin Cashore is pure gold
Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chobsky
Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks by E. Lockhart
I’ve been dying to read the Monstrumologist, Going Bovine, Jellicoe Road, Lips Touch: Three Times, and more.

Wow! I love that list! Okay, so what do YOU think the next big trend in YA will be?

Oh, well, now. This question is so impossible. I mean, that’s the point of a trend or a phenomenon, is that they always catch you off-guard. If media could predict them, I don’t think they’d be phenomenon, because we’d all be printing the same sorts of books at the same time, you know? But this one’s been bugging me: Anyone know why aliens are cool on TV and in movies but not in books yet?

Next, I challenged Kate to answer 5 questions as fast as she could without thinking. I know she did this, too, because I got her responses to these back in 5 minutes – before she’d even completed the rest of the interview! I love it when people play along.

Last book you read? INCARCERON. Next up: FEED. (Hey, we just reviewed Incarceron on the highway!)

Best title you've ever heard on a book? FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH, but maybe I’ve got zombies on the brain.

One thing you cannot live without? Internet. For the love of god, Time Warner, please give it back to me! I get the shakes without it. Seriously, yesterday I was trying to think of different ways to get something accomplished without the internet and all I could think of was different ways to Google that thing. Sad.

Something no one would guess about you? I used to have a pair of breeding pet chinchillas when I was a teenager, named Pepper and Roni.

Worst character name you've ever heard? Look, the Lord of the Rings shaped me as a reader, but the names Frodo and Bilbo Baggins are clown names. Let’s face it.

Thanks again, Kate! It’s always great to know more about the amazing YA publishing industry!

You can check Kate out on Twitter as katert0t.
Michelle Schusterman

Michelle writes books for kids, screenplays for a tv/film production company, and music for anyone who'd buy a "groove matters" bumper sticker. She lives in New York City with her husband (and band mate) and their chocolate lab (who is more of a vocalist). She is the author of middle grade series I Heart Band - 2014, and The Kat Sinclair Files - 2015 (both from Grosset).

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  1. "I’m sick of guys acting like dicks being secret code for True Love, and I’m sick of stalking being sexy."

    That is the greatest comment in an interview ever, period.

    FANTASTIC interview, thanks so much Kate and Kody!

  2. I too have to say I'm so glad I'm not the only one who bangs their head into a wall when stalking is accepted as sexy.

    Awesome interview! Thanks Kate and Kody!

  3. AMAZING, thank you Kate and Kody! I'm trying to figure out if I want to get into editing after graduation and this is the most I've ever heard about the editing process. I'm super excited now, but I still don't know whether I'm leaning towards editor or agents. Why are you all made of awesome?!

  4. Majorly awesome interview, Kody and Kate! Great Qs and great, in-depth answers. You two rock!

  5. Great interview!
    Thanks Kate & Kody!

  6. “Wow-I’m-so-drawn-to-that-hot-guy-but-he-totally-hates-me-but-oh-wait-it-turns-out-he-acts-like-he-hates-me-because-he-really-loves-me-with-an-intensity-verging-on-dangerous” that. That sums up 80% of YA books nowadays ;)

    Fantastic interview.

  7. Wonderful interview! And I'm with Thuy. That line is so funny -- and so, unfortunately, true. What happened to the-great-guy-who sticks-with-you-through-danger-and-is-so-great-you-don't-deserve-him stories? Or the I-may-not-be-perfect-but-I-found-a-guy-who-sticks-with-me-through-all-the-dire-complications-the-author-throws-at-me-to-prove-I'm-worthy story?

  8. I want to hug her for the bit about cliffhanger endings.
    *stabs cliffhangers* *hugs Kate*

  9. Hugging the editor, or hugging yourself? :P

  10. The other Kate. It's a Kate love fest.


  11. Kate you sound cool as hell. Im tired of the bad guy too.

    I think frodo and bilbo would be great names for chincillas! :) (as well as clowns)

  12. Such a great post! Thank you all...

  13. It's that annoying romance trend that's forced me to take a different style. Does anyone else miss the way Lois Duncan wrote, or just me?

  14. HAHAHAHAHA Great interview!! Lovedit!

  15. Kate sounds like such a great and fun person! I loved the comment about guys acting like dicks being secret code for True Love. It was so true.

  16. Haha, I'm totally agreed on the stalking-as-sexy and cliffhanger endings.

    Awesome interview, Kody and Kate! :D

  17. I love that comment about pretend to hate you, but I really love you. The emphasis on unhealthy relationships in YA bugs me. And there's a possibility that it's causing good guys to get turned down because they're not vampires or stalkers. But then, we've been promoting this for centuries. Look at necrophiliac stalker, Prince Charming!

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  19. I'm commenting late, but I loved this interview -- thanks, you two. Kate, it was great meeting you in NYC (everyone, this girl can dress as well as edit, she is like a vintage supermodel), and I adore your taste in books.

  20. Well, at least Frodo is better than Bongo, the original name Tolkien came up with.

  21. Great interview! I wish I had come across it earlier...


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Item Reviewed: Publishing Interviews: Kate Sullivan, Little, Brown Books Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Michelle Schusterman