Saturday, August 3, 2013

Editor's Panel on Hits and Evergreens: Allyn Johnston

Allyn Johnston's an editor everyone dreams of working with. In her 24
Editor Allyn Johnston
years of children's publishing, she's shepherded some of the most wonderful books into shelves. Her authors and illustrators include Mem Fox, Lois Ehlert, Marla Frazee, Cynthia Rylant, Avi, M.T. Anderson and more.

Her imprint at Simon & Schuster is called Beach Lane Books, where she is vice president and publisher. Andrea Welch is the senior editor there (and is also at this conference).

Lin Oliver introduced Allyn as "our resident grump." This, people, is fiction.

Most of her long career has been based in California. They publish about 25 books a year, mostly young picture books, but also do novels for older readers. They've bought 15 manuscripts from people who've heard them speak and sent manuscripts in that way--so conference success stories can happen.

When she considers a picture book, she asks, "Does this thing have the power to do the magic with the word and pictures and the voice and the performance an adult does when they're reading aloud to a young child?"

What makes an evergreen and what makes a hit? 

Most editors are looking for long relationships with authors and illustrators we work with. "We aren't making the decision to buy your one project."

She's done 27 books with Lois Ehlert. All 27 are still in print (some via Harcourt). "That to me is extremely moving and gratifying."

The math of whether a book is "successful" is complicated, she said. "If we spent zillions of dollars on a book, it could be on a bestseller list for a long time but still might not earn out."

But a book that gets on a state list and goes into reprints--suddenly you've sold 100,000 copies. "You want the earn out when you're doing our job." It's not so much about bestsellers. 

Editors do a lot of behind-the-scenes maneuvering to acquire manuscripts. Anticipating the objections of others is a key part of the job.

"The great Sid Fleischman used to say to writers, 'point to the problem,'" Allyn said. "If there's a weakness, make it a strength."

Mostly, though, it's essential for editors to love the books they acquire. It's a bummer, she said, when you acquire something you don't really love and you have to find an artists and talk about it at marketing.

What quality do you respond to in a book? 

Allyn told us the story of how she acquired ALL THE WORLD, the Caldecott-honor winning book by Liz Garton Scanlon and Marla Frazee. A the time, she was working with Marla on another project. It wasn't going well, but Marla had sorted things out and was on a roll when Allyn got an email from Liz Garton Scanlon, an unagented writer who'd heard Allyn speak at a conference.

"I read it because it's very brief. And I called her as soon as I was done. I hadn't shown it to one other person at the house. I said, this is stunning and we're going to buy it."

Allyn sent it to Marla Frazee who was working on something else. She told Marla to drop what she was doing and illustrate the book. Marla wasn't so sure we wanted to, but she did.

The manuscript felt universal, and timeless. It struck an emotional chord and a fabulous satisfying ending--all keys for Allyn.

"It had some clunker stanzas in that draft, but it was all the things I dream about in a picture book manuscript just sitting right there," she said.


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