Thursday, February 17, 2011

Interview With Erica Sussman

As promised last week, here is the interview with Erica Sussman, Senior Editor at HarperTeen. Erica is all kinds of awesome, and has been fantastic to work with throughout all aspects of the publishing process, and I was really excited have her on the blog. So, without further ado:

Rob: We probably ought to start with the standard "how did you become an editor?" question.

Erica: It was kind of random, actually! I had been teaching in a private school in Brooklyn, and one of my best friends was working at HarperCollins Children’s Books. She didn’t see herself staying in publishing long term, and she kept telling me that I would love her job, and that I should work in children’s publishing. I wasn’t loving life as a teacher as much as I thought I would, so I decided to apply for an open spot at Harper. When I went in for the interview, I had no idea what to expect, but I had the greatest time talking first to the HR director, and then the two editors who would become my managers, about children’s books. It was amazing. When I left, I knew that this would be the best possible career for me. And the rest is history!

Rob: Are you one of those people who corrects everyone's grammar?

Erica: Ha! No. That would be annoying. I do cringe when people say “I did good” because my parents drilled the “I did well” rule into my head as a kid. But I promise that, even though I cringe, I do not correct them out loud. I have a feeling that would earn me some enemies.

Rob: I've heard you say elsewhere that you usually know right away whether you'll like a manuscript. Is there anything that will make you quickly reject a manuscript? Any pet peeves?

Erica: I do know right away! But it’s nothing particular that I can tell you – it’s really just if the writing or the voice don’t pull me in. I can forgive a LOT of problems in a manuscript if the voice is compelling. It’s harder for me to forgive problems if the voice isn’t engaging enough. After all, most problems in plotting and structure are fixable – and if I didn’t like editing, I wouldn’t be an editor. A voice, on the other hand, is not easily fixable. Most times, either a manuscript has a voice that gets me right from the start, or it doesn’t. And I do mean literally right from the start. The first few pages are key.

Rob: When Sara first sent you Variant, you initially passed on it (though you wrote a very helpful note, and offered to take a second look if revisions were made). Could you walk us through that whole process? What made you reject it at first, and what caused you to look at it again? (That seems pretty unusual in the submission process.) And, of course, why/how did you decide to accept it after the revisions?

Erica: I’m so excited to answer this question, basically because, in my mind, I didn’t reject Variant. What I did was tell Sara that I would have trouble positioning it in the way I would want to for our sales and marketing teams if it wasn’t revised. I see a LOT of manuscripts from agents, and I ask to take maybe 2-3 through revisions each year. At the most. If I want to see something again, or I give suggestions for how it can be even stronger, that means I really like it. Sometimes, though, even if I like something, it doesn’t make sense for me to take it into meetings at Harper if I don’t think it’s going to wow our editorial, sales, and marketing teams. Our acquisitions process at HarperCollins is twofold – first we take manuscripts to our Editorial meeting, where the Editorial team, including our Editor-in-Chief and Publisher weigh in on it. If that group agrees that the manuscript will be a good addition to the Harper list, we take it next to our Acquisitions meeting, where we present the project to our Sales and Marketing teams.

We publish a lot of books at Harper. A lot. And oftentimes, the impression that a manuscript leaves readers with after Editorial and Acquisitions meetings is the impression that stays. First impressions are absolutely the most important in our process. If I’m concerned that a manuscript won’t be able to immediately wow the room in it’s original state, but I love it and see a place for it, the best thing for me is to be able to take it through a revision and then show the even-stronger-manuscript to the team at Harper.

With Variant, I really REALLY liked it – I was excited by how different it was and how interesting it was. And I loved Benson (the narrator) right from the start. However, I was concerned about how to position it because it the pacing wasn’t as strong in places as it could have been, and some of the twists and turns were a little confusing. When I asked Sara if you would be willing to revise for me, I did tell her that if she suddenly received an offer, that she should let me know so that I could determine whether it would make sense for me to take it in to meetings as is. Luckily, the other interest only seemed to come in after you revised for me – so, win-win! I was able to take a revised, stronger manuscript in and position it strongly for our sales and marketing teams and get everyone on board.

So there. I never really rejected it. :)

Of course, a good thing to keep in mind, is that an editor asking for revisions isn’t a guarantee that the revised manuscript will get through. I’ve had to pass on a lot of manuscripts that writers revised for me, for a variety of reasons.

Rob: Three book questions: What book (assuming there was only one, and if you can remember) caused your love of reading? What book has been most life-changing? And what book have you read and re-read more than any other?

Erica: Hm. This is hard. I think the books that caused my true love of reading were the Baby-Sitters Club books. I loved them. I devoured them. I read them, and re-read them, and re-read them some more. I just loved them. I even wrote my college essay about how much I loved the series and how it had been so important to me as a child. (I’m sure the admissions officers were a little baffled by a college essay about children’s books…)

I’m not sure any book has been life-changing, per se. I wish I could point to one! But alas. I can’t. I should probably make something up here. Oh well.

The books that I have re-read the most in recent years, hands down, are Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and Jellicoe Road. I know everyone out there has heard of (and hopefully read!) HP7, but I’m sure plenty of people haven’t yet discovered Jellicoe Road, by Melina Marchetta. It won the Printz in 2009 and it blows me away every time I read it. I’ve read it at least 10 times now and I always discover something new. I love it love it love it. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Rob: It seems like a large part of an editor's job is to be the author's therapist--talking them (me) off the ledge when they got bad news/reviews/etc. Is there any other aspect of being an editor that you were surprised to find yourself doing?

Erica: Hm. There’s a lot I didn’t know about before I got into this career path. I think I, like most people, probably thought that the job involved spending the days sitting around and reading manuscripts. Not so! I don’t know anyone who has time to just sit around in the office and read submissions. That’s nighttime and weekend work for all of us.

It’s nice that you think I talk you off of ledges. I like to think I’m helpful like that. Of course, if there are that many ledges in your house, maybe you should move? No, no. Kidding. I’ve really really enjoyed the aspect of the editor-author relationship throughout the years. It’s so much fun to work with authors through the creative process and I love getting to know them. Authors are generally awesome.

Rob: What do you like to do when you're not editing/reading/talking authors off ledges?

Erica: I like to cook a lot. I’m relatively obsessed with my dog, so if I’m home and I don’t have work to do, I’m usually playing with her or trying to get her to go on walks. (We have the one dog who doesn’t really like to go outside…she’s a little shy around loud cars and people) I also watch a lot of TV. Probably too much, but what can I say? I like to be entertained and at a certain point, I can’t read anymore.

Rob: Even though this interview will be posted after the Super Bowl, explain why the Green Bay Packers are your favorite football team.

Erica: Heh. Nice try. I am a Jets fan through and through (J-E-T-S, JETS JETS JETS!), with the Buffalo Bills coming in a close 2nd (for nostalgia’s sake – I lived in Buffalo until I was 10). However, I do love the Packers, mostly because I like how dedicated the fans are (I’m big on fan spirit). I also love Aaron Rodgers since he was my QB on my Fantasy Football team the first year he started on the Packers. (And I have already decided that Jordy Nelson gets a spot on my Fantasy Football squad next season. Go, Jordy!).

So again, many thank to Erica for answering a few of my questions! Erica—you did good.


  1. Great interview, thanks guys!

    And YAY for Aaron Rodgers!!! I'm a huge fan too. :)

  2. VERY awesome interview. Thank you Erica and Rob for posting.

  3. Great interview! Thanks Erica & Rob.

    p.s. I'm a stickler for good vs. well, too. Just as my sixth grade students :)

  4. And YAY for Aaron Rodgers!!! I'm a huge fan too
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