Monday, July 11, 2011

Elizabeth F.: An Interview with Beth Potter, Associate Editor, Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers

Posted by Elizabeth Fama

A busy Beth Potter takes a moment to smell the flowers.

A quick profile of Beth Potter, prepared by Farrar Straus Giroux BYR for Book Expo America 2011:

Some of the books Beth has worked on: The Children of Crow Cove series, by Bodil Bredsdorff; Edges, by Léna Roy.

Looking for: For middle-grade: accessible contemporary stories; something funny! For YA: luscious, historical fiction; a murder mystery or psychological thriller. For both: fantasy, projects involving food and cooking.

Loves working on: Stories with real emotional resonance.

Recent Exciting Deal: Syrenka (new title to come) by Elizabeth Fama, a fabulous, dark young-adult novel featuring monstrous mermaids, a curse, ghosts, and murder.

Favorite backlist titles: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle; Dreamhunter and Dreamquake by Elizabeth Knox; Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden.

If I weren't in children's publishing I'd be: A lookout in a fire tower in some remote wilderness.

The book I wish I could have worked on: Chime by Franny Billingsley.

Fama: What was the process like on your end for acquiring Syrenka (new title to come)? And more generally, how much power do you have to acquire something you love?

Potter: I first read Syrenka on one of my work-at-home reading days about a week after Sara sent it to me. I had read something that was not at all to my taste in the morning, and instead of then moving on to the next manuscript in the queue I skipped ahead to what looked the most interesting... and I couldn’t put it down. (I know, cliché alert, every editor says this about the books they acquire, but it’s true!) I read straight through the afternoon and evening and finished just before going to sleep.

The next night I was headed to a party held by my book club friend Michael Northrop (hi Michael!) and noticed while looking at the invite for directions that Sara was going to be there too. I’d actually not met her in person before so I was able to introduce myself and tell her how much I loved the book over a gin and tonic. I think that having that lucky chance to express my excitement in person, and early on, gave me a competitive edge.

I talked about Syrenka at our next editorial meeting, but for one reason or another it was a few weeks before everyone else was able to read it — and when they did, reactions were overwhelmingly positive. By this time Sara had interest from other editors, and was planning to hold an auction. The auction was set for a Monday, and my boss and I were strategizing the Friday before when he suddenly said, “Do you think she’d sell it to you today?” I said it was definitely worth a shot and the next thing I knew I was calling Sara and offering a pre-empt. It was completely exhilarating.

Our process has very recently changed and we now hold acquisitions meetings which allow key people in marketing and sales to weigh in on projects early on. But the editor’s passion is absolutely the driving force behind all of our acquisitions.

Fama: Can you talk about your path to becoming an editor?

Potter: I got the idea to become an editor when I realized during my senior year of college that I didn’t really want to pursue either of the areas that I majored in (art history and philosophy). I attended the Denver University Publishing Institute which confirmed for me that my heart was in children’s books, and then moved to NYC and started networking while holding down two restaurant jobs. I landed happily at FSG a couple of months later and was Margaret Ferguson’s assistant for several years before being promoted to build my own list.

Fama: FSG still has an "indie" reputation in the publishing world (or at least that's my sense), in spite of being part of the much larger Macmillan. It feels like a place where authors are nurtured, often through more than one book, or even for their careers. Is that a conscious policy? Is it changing at all with the new market we're in?

Potter: This is absolutely a conscious policy and one that we have held tightly to in spite of how FSG and the market have changed over the last few years. We believe very strongly in author relations and in supporting our authors throughout their careers.

Fama: With me you've been a real, old-fashioned, hands-on editor, turning my sow's ear into a silk purse through four and a half rounds of revisions. Many writers suspect that this is not happening as much in the publishing world today. Do you think you're becoming an outlier?

Potter: First of all, there were no sow’s ears involved. It was more like a silk purse into an even better silk purse. I hear a lot about editors who don’t really edit but I don’t know that I have ever met one! Everyone at FSG and at Macmillan in general is quite hands-on, and my editor friends at other houses are very dedicated too, though of course everyone has a different style. I learned how to edit from Margaret Ferguson (now of the soon-to-be launched Margaret Ferguson Books). She is an extremely rigorous editor and I always try to work in a way that I think would meet her very high standards.

Fama: What is a typical work day like for you? Do you have time to do all that hands-on editing at your desk during the week, or do you have to take it home with you? When and where do you read submissions?

Potter: A typical work day can involve a mix of meetings, email answering and general problem solving, reviewing and discussing various stages of projects, writing copy, and hopefully some editing! I do a fair amount of editing in the office but do often take it home. I read submissions on my company-supplied Sony reader and do that very occasionally in the office, almost every day on the subway, and often at home too. I use precious “reading days” at home a couple times a month usually to edit and sometimes to read.

Fama: Tell us what you hope to find in your submission pile. And on the other hand, is there anything you're sick and tired of seeing there?

Potter: I hope to find stories that are engaging, deeply felt, and above all, surprising. I am tired of submissions that feel derivative and/or that lack an emotional center.

Fama: This question has always interested me because I'm a slow reader. How do you keep up with all the new books out there? Do you actually read a lot of them, or mostly just read reviews?

Potter: I don’t worry about reading every new middle grade and YA book out there — I read what most interests me (and hopefully, those are the comparable titles to my own acquisitions). I do read a lot of reviews and blogs and try to stay aware of what’s being buzzed about. And I’m part of a YA book club, which forces me to read books that I might not choose myself. I also have another book club which reads mainly adult books, and read a fair amount of adult fiction and memoir and food writing too, and try to stay up to date with The New Yorker... I admit I have always been a fast reader! In sixth grade my teacher held a contest for who could read the most pages over Winter Break. I read over twenty books and I think the runner-up read two.

Fama: That is the cutest, nerdiest story I've ever heard. Thank you for visiting the Crowe's Nest, Beth P., and for supporting me so unfailingly and so cheerfully these last eight months.


  1. I absolutely love interviews like this. So fun to see an editor's style/process/wish list. Thanks to both Beths for making this happen!

  2. This was a fantastic interview. It was really interesting to read what the process is like for an editor - something I hadn't learned before! Thanks Fama and Beth!

  3. I wish we could run into editors and agents over G&Ts at parties in Chicago . . .

  4. Elizabeth, Beth: This was such a terrific interview--loved see the inner workings of the acquisitions process. Felt like I was a fly on the wall as Beth discovered Syrenka. Love it.

  5. I enjoyed this interview and the insights it provided. I also liked learning more about FSG Books and Beth Potter. Thanks.

  6. Great interview, Elizabeth! Each acquisition is so unique, and I love to hear those stories. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Thanks, is very interesting how you made interviews, i guess that is very important to be straight when you are talking to someone in this way.