SCBWI Bologna 2008 Editor Interview: Giselle Tsai of CommonWealth Magazine Group

Giselle Tsai is one of the founding members of the children’s book department at CommonWealth Magazine Group. Their list includes picture books, easy readers and short novels. Giselle was interviewed by Anita Loughrey in January, as one of the speakers at the SCBWI Bologna Conference 2008 (scheduled for March 29 and March 30 in Bologna, Italy).

What made you decide to go into publishing? Tell us a bit about your background.

GT: I have always cherished a passion for literature. Reading is an indispensable part of my life. I graduated from the English Department of National Cheng-Chi University. Then I earned a MA degree in Children’s Literature at University of Reading in the U.K.

Personally, reviewing or analyzing a book is as enchanting as making a book myself.

However, creating books is also important and something fewer people do in Taiwan. In my role as editor, I hope to introduce those lesser-known works from abroad, as well as to cultivate creators in our own country.

What is the Taiwan Commonwealth Magazine Publishing Group? Do they publish children’s books? If so, what areas of children’s publishing are they involved with?

GT: CommonWealth Magazine Group is derived from a bi-weekly magazine broadly defined as an economic journal. Now it has grown to include three magazines, one publishing department, and an educational foundation.

In the beginning, we published books concerning the economy, health, and education. Some of the books regarding education have been very well received and become influential in Taiwan. Teachers and parents inquired about whether or not we would begin to create children’s books ourselves. Thus, we decided to take the plunge and create our own line of children’s books.

In 2005, the children’s book department started functioning. We began by producing picture books, chapter books, and novels. No matter what genre we touch upon, we tend reinforce concepts by organizing many titles as series. Our editorial work and marketing strategies are closely intertwined, and the response to our books has been favorable from both book lovers and parents.

In 2006, we began publishing non-fiction. Croq’Sciences and Guide pour un Enfant Citoyen are two of the most popular books in this line.

In the long run, we’d like to establish ourselves as a publisher with a wide variety of children’s books. There’s still a long way to go, but we’re working hard.

In your opinion, what makes a good editor?

GT: An editor is more or less like a film producer. First, they should have the talent to distinguish work with potential from those without. With the knowledge of book production and marketing, they merge all the necessary elements to grow a manuscript into polished work.

Moreover, there’s the reader’s part to consider. It’s important to know where the reader is and try to match their needs with creators’ ideas. A published book without readers will pine away. A burgeoning author without readers will also pine away.

Therefore, what a good editor does is to be the bridge connecting authors and readers. In doing so, both sides prosper.

When you’re reading a manuscript for the first time, how long does it take you (approximately how many pages? chapters?) to figure out whether it’s something you want to pursue?

GT: On the whole, I will read the summary of a story, but how the story is told matters more to me. There are few original stories nowadays, so I value “how” more than “what.”

I’ll at least read half of the manuscripts for novels, and three to four chapters for easy readers.

As for picture books, I must read the whole story and closely examine the storyboard before I start any plans for publication. Of course, the attitude of the author/illustrator to revise and work with me also counts.

What kinds of things “turn you off” a manuscript right away?

o A contrived plot
o Loose structure
o Flat characters
o An obvious moral

What is your favorite thing about being an editor?

GT: I enjoy sharing ideas and giving advice to creators. Nothing compares to the moment when all of us, with respect and sincerity, finally finish a book in the end. It’s like merging everyone’s dreams into one and making it come true all at once.

What are some of your favorite children’s books and why?

GT: As a little girl, I loved A Little Princess and The Secret Garden very much. The former gives me a sense of wonder and conveys the power of imagination–I can imagine whatever things I like and to some extent, by thinking of them, they become real. The latter installs a tremendous courage into my heart, as if telling me children can “create” a world of their own without the help of any adult. A seemingly powerless girl can be strong enough to bring others (even an adult) salvation. Both of them left a great impression on me.

After I studied children’s literature, I also became enchanted with the stories by E. Nesbit. The narration in her work can be read in so many different ways, and she’s so good at blurring the boundary between reality and imagination. Her stories create tremendous interest both in kids and adults.

What book(s) or magazine feature are you proudest of having worked on? Why?

GT: I would say it’s an easy-reader series, written, illustrated, and organized all by Taiwanese creators. As the editor, I’m proud to be the one bringing it to life. Nevertheless, there’s still much to be done.

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?

GT: Most of the time, I work with fiction, but I do have some experience with non-fiction. In our case, fiction is a world well explored while non-fiction is almost a foreign land. Our ideal is actually to add fictional elements to non-fiction and, therefore, make hard knowledge more palatable to readers.

I like to imagine wildly with authors when creating a story. It’s simply a natural thing to do. When it comes to non-fiction, I regard it a challenge to see how children first see the world and how they feel about reality. If we can recall how, for the first time, nature appealed to us and such, we may do a better non-fiction book. However, I realized writers in this field are not easy to find and editors are particularly essential.

What does the ideal cover letter say?

GT: Concise and sincere.

Do you look at art samples?

GT: Certainly, looking for a proper illustrator is a constant need, so I’m more than willing to hear from those who are interested in children’s books and capable of illustrating them.

Cynsational Notes

Anita Loughrey writes teacher resources and children’s non-fiction. Her books have been published by A&C Black, Hopscotch and Brilliant Publications. She also writes regular features for Writers’ Forum in the U.K. about authors and the writing industry. She recently interviewed all 31 speakers for 2008’s Bologna Conference.

The SCBWI Bologna 2008 interview series is brought to you by the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference in conjunction with Cynsations.

To register for the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference 2008, please visit and click on SCBWI@Bologna. Queries?