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FEATURE TOPIC: Musing on Manners

Q: FEATURE TOPIC: Musing on Manners

MUSING ON MANNERS

Children’s books have become a much bigger business in recent years and some people think the industry may not be as nice as it used to be. There’s always competition in business, but most industries do not involve the heart and soul that goes into writing, illustrating and producing a new book. It’s a long process and one that requires sharing a lot personally. As a result, many close relationships are forged working in this industry, and we should take care in the way we deal with each other.

Some questions are: Is it realistic to expect things to be different in our industry? Has the increased focus on the bottom line changed our relationships? What impact has the formation of online communication and communities had? Are there consequences when relationships are publicly breached?

Clearly, the industry has changed substantially in recent years. Many publishers are owned by big conglomerates, short-staffed, and trying to figure out how to balance handling brand name products with the rest of the books on the list. Authors and illustrators are looking for new advocates in-house and out, and everyone’s trying to figure out how to make a living without facing job cuts or having books go out of print.

“One of the biggest changes in-house,” according to Deborah Brodie, Executive Editor of Roaring Brook Press, “is that there’s little time for mentoring, so younger people aren’t getting the training they once received in negotiating and working with authors and illustrators. It takes time to learn how to diplomatically work with someone. The mergers and consolidation have also meant less personal contact in-house. At one time, the editor would know all the sales reps and other people in the trenches advocating for your books. Now that’s much harder.”

Jodi Reamer, Literary Agent with Writers House, says that publisher consolidation has also made relationships more formal and less personal. Even with that, Amy Berkower, President of Writers House, thinks that the children’s book business is still gentler than most. One of the main problems, according to Berkower, is that the economic model of the business is based on publishing a large volume of books making it very difficult to provide all books and authors with a satisfying amount of attention. She also believes that the pressures of Wall Street to constantly top past performance as well as the needs of large entertainment conglomerates creates a unhealthy tension between the creative people in the business–the authors and editors– and those responsible for the bottom line.

Patricia Gauch, former Vice President and Publisher of Philomel, currently Editor-at-Large at Penguin Children’s Books, thinks authors and illustrators should know that editors will do everything they can to advocate for their books, both editorially and marketwise. She also feels that respect and good manners go a long way in the working relationship. “If there is that underlying mode of working, it will positively affect everything: how quickly your calls are answered, the kind of support you receive inhouse, everything. And it works both ways. The author/artist can and should expect respect as well.”

“I’ve found that some of the people who have been the rudest are those who are inexperienced and who have been told that they should be pushy to get attention. Pushy is seldom a good thing. Bad advice.”

“If anyone thinks being rude will get them anywhere, they’re likely to be disappointed in the long run. Keep in mind that these are very human relationships and that you can disagree without being rude. If you are polite, people are more likely to care about you and will try harder on your behalf.”

Tim Moses, former director of publicity for children’s books at Penguin Group (USA), thinks things have gotten worse over the years in terms of trust among professionals. He points out that “each company has its own culture and etiquette and trust stems from that. He agrees that etiquette is extremely important. “Some authors have used their temper to get what they want or need, but most people can’t get away with that. There’s always a risk you’ll be seen as too difficult, and not worth it.”

Deborah Brodie points out that “everyone has choices and that once you’ve dealt with a person who acts unprofessionally, you may have second thoughts.” She also is mindful of the fact that everyone at the house will have to deal with the authors she takes on.

What about how we treat people online and in other professional forums? “Be sure of your facts before you post things,” advises Tim Moses. “For one thing, you run the risk of legal action against you. You shouldn’t air dirty linen because everyone has some. It’s plain stupid in my opinion for people not to think carefully about what they say. When people do make derogatory comments, it’s usually clear that it’s being done by someone of no stature attacking someone of higher stature for their own gain.”

People should realize that it’s easy to hurt others in such situations. It can even damage people who are willing to listen because others know they’re open to that and it looks bad all around. People should keep in mind that it’s a small world on the internet, and everyone knows everyone’s business very quickly.

Amy Berkower concludes, “It doesn’t make any sense to burn bridges. People in this industry are hard working, dedicated professionals, and we all should behave as though we’re on the same team.”