Editor Interview: Nancy Feresten of National Geographic Children’s Books

Nancy Feresten has been editing children’s books for almost over 20 years. After earning a degree in English Literature from Yale, she began her career at Harper & Row Junior Books Group and has since worked at W. H. Freeman, Scholastic, and National Geographic, where she is now Vice President, Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic Children’s Books, an imprint that specializes in children’s nonfiction and reference.

What first inspired your passion for children’s books? Were you an avid young reader or did you come to this love later in life?

I read voraciously all through my childhood, and when others left children’s books behind, I continued to read my old favorites and discover new ones. When I graduated college and embarked on a career in medical editing, I found that the books I still loved most to read were children’s books.

What made you decide to make children’s book editing your career focus?

When I realized that though I spent my days editing medical professional books, I spent my spare time reading children’s books, I decided to change my focus and went looking for a job in children’s books.

What do you see as the job(s) of the editor in the publishing process?

An editor has a two-pronged responsibility. It is an editor’s job to find and nurture powerful writers and help them do their very best work, and it is also the editor’s job to select books that will be meaningful and attractive to children and the parents, teachers, and librarians who select books for them.

Have you worked with both fiction and non-fiction? If so, how do the processes compare? What do you like most (and/or least) about each?

I have worked in both fiction and non-fiction, though I have spent far more time on non-fiction. Both genres are fun and challenging. In both, the goal is to support the author and the rest of the book team (including illustrator, photo editor, designer, etc.) in telling a compelling story.

Could you offer us an overview of the your children’s nonfiction and reference publishing program at National Geographic? Age ranges, types of books published, etc.?

At National Geographic, we publish nonfiction and reference books primarily for children ages 7 to 14. We have three distinct publishing strands: narrative trade nonfiction, school library series nonfiction, and trade reference. We will publish about 85 titles in 2006.

What are you looking for? In which areas are you looking to grow?

Right now, we are focused on expanding our school library series publishing.

What are the particular challenges in marketing non-fiction for young readers? What are the benefits and encouraging signs?

The good news is that nonfiction is coming into its own among teachers. For many years, kids were taught to read by reading fiction. Now, with new research showing that 80% of adult reading is nonfiction, the education community has developed a new respect for nonfiction reading, which they are actively passing along to their students.

Do most of your manuscripts come directly from writers or from agents? What recommendations do you have for individual writers in the submission process? What are pitfalls to avoid?

Our manuscripts come from agents and from authors we already know or whose work we know. We are not accepting unsolicited manuscripts.

For those submitting manuscripts to any publisher:

1. Know your market. Visit bookstores and libraries and read what is being published right now. Read books that have recently won prizes or appeared on Best Book lists. Know how your work fits in. Understand what age child it is for. Know what type of book it is and how long that kind of book should be. Demonstrate your knowledge in your cover letter.

2. Don’t underestimate your competition. Serious children’s writers labor long and hard to do the very best research and create the best and most appropriate text. In the case of nonfiction or nonfiction-based fiction, do first-rate research, using primary sources as much as possible. Wait to send in a manuscript until you have read the work of others and are satisfied that yours is as good as the best of them.

3. By all means read your work to the children in your life, but don’t use their enthusiasm as evidence that your work is publishable. Editors are very skeptical of this sort of claim.

4. If you write a picture book manuscript, don’t try to find an illustrator for it. That is the job of the publisher.

5. Grow a thick skin. Even the very best writers get rejected a lot.

How about with illustrators? Any insights, recommendations, or cautionary words for them?

My advice to illustrators is fairly similar to my advice to authors. Know what’s going on in the world of children’s book illustration. Make sure that your work is special and appropriate. Then make appointments to see art directors and editors. And stick to it.

What titles would you especially recommend for study to authors interested in working with the house and why?

As I said, we are not taking unsolicted manuscripts. And I don’t encourage authors or illustrators to set their sights on a particular house. Write what works for you and then find the right publisher for that project. Many highly accomplished authors and illustrators work with several houses.

What titles are you especially excited about in 2007 and why?

In 2007, we are continuing our tradition of showing children new ways of understanding history.

1607: A New Look at Jamestown by Karen Lange explores the settlement of Jamestown through the most recent archaeological discoveries at the site. It will be published in the spring to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the settlement.

A World Made New by Marc Aronson (author interview) and John Glenn explores the causes and consequences of the Age of Exploration, showing how it changed not just the Americas but the whole world.

Both of these books are graphically engaging and highly illustrated with photographs and archival materials.

In what ways do you work with teachers and librarians in support of your titles and their efforts?

We work with librarians and teachers in several ways: both before and after the books are published.

To make sure that we publish books that will resonate with librarians, we have a library advisory board that guides us in our long-term planning and series development. To make sure that our books work for teachers and students, we bring our books into schools for testing.

Once a book is published, we make sure that librarians know it is there by sending out tens of thousands of catalogs and hundreds of sample copies to key decision makers around the country. We also submit books to review journals and prize committees, attend both teacher and librarian conferences, and advertise in the professional journals that teachers and librarians read.

What do you do outside your editorial/publishing life?

I read, knit, hang out with family and friends, work out, do laundry, watch TV, take walks in the woods, go to the movies, all the usual stuff.