Publisher Interview: Elizabeth Law of Egmont USA

Elizabeth Law [pictured] began her career in children’s publishing as an assistant at Viking Children’s Books, leaving 18 years later as associate publisher of both Viking and Frederick Warne imprints.

After nearly four years as vice president and associate publisher of Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, Elizabeth joined Egmont USA last year as its publisher.

Passionate about children’s books and fiction in particular, Elizabeth has enjoyed publishing and editing many authors including Andrew Clements, Dan Gutman, Adam Rapp, Linda Buckley-Archer, Malorie Blackman, and working with the estates of Don Freeman and Ludwig Bemelmans.

Note: Egmont covers shown below are not final.

What kind of young reader were you?

“Avid” doesn’t begin to describe it. My sixth-grade librarian loved me. In high school, I co-founded a children’s book discussion group with the children’s librarian at my public library. I slept with some of my favorite books tucked in beside me. You get the picture.

What inspired you to make children’s-YA literature your career focus?

I already knew I was crazy about children’s books by the time I went to college. And while I was there, at the University of Chicago, I was lucky enough to study with the legendary Zena Sutherland, who was then the editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books. She told a lot of stories about her friends who were editors, including ones about Dick Jackson and Ursula Nordstrom. That’s when a light bulb went off—being an editor would combine working with the books themselves and working in business in New York, which seemed exciting to me. (And as a side note, I also met my best friend in that class. He is now the editor of The Horn Book.)

How did you prepare for this career?

I moved to New York City (believe me, that was the scariest and hardest part) and looked for entry-level jobs. I was hired to be Deborah Brodie‘s and Nancy Paulsen’s assistant at Viking Children’s Books, Frederick Warne, and Puffin Books.

In those days, the three imprints all had one editorial department. Children’s publishing has gotten a lot bigger since then.

And I want to give a shout-out to my mother. She forced me to take typing the summer after eighth grade, and I whined and whined about it. But what a useful skill that has turned out to be.

What does a publisher do?

A publisher should be thinking about his or her vision for the list. I think about what we stand for, and whether each book fits that mission. A publisher acquires and edits books, and also makes the final decision, more or less, on what gets published. We are a primary spokesperson for our list and a big cheerleader for our authors.

What are the job’s challenges?

To be honest, keeping up with the submissions! We all read a lot here, and we work with a few very trusted outside readers, but we are seeing a lot of really good stuff.

Before I entered publishing, I imagined myself pounding the desk with passion saying, “We must publish this book!” Now I realize that titles I feel that strongly about are not the norm.

A more common question is “I really enjoyed reading this, but is it different enough from what’s out there? Will it sell in bookstores and schools and libraries? Is this an author to grow?”

It can be very hard to turn down a book from an author whose work I like, or to tell someone on my editorial staff “no.” That was just as hard when I worked at Simon & Schuster as it is at Egmont. Every editor and publisher faces it, just as every writer has to hear it sometimes.

What are its rewards?

Meeting writers and artists I admire is amazing, and working with writers—feeling that I’m helpful, that I’ve given good advice and helped them express their true voice—is incredibly satisfying.

Championing a good book to sales reps and librarians and book buyers is a lot of fun, too. And seeing a kid enjoying a book I’ve had a hand in—that’s the greatest feeling there is.

Could you tell us a bit about Egmont Group and Egmont USA?

Egmont Group is a huge international publisher whose corporate headquarters are in Copenhagen. What’s great is that Egmont is a foundation, all of whose profits go to charity.

Egmont UK, a member of the Egmont Group, is a venerable children’s publisher whose trade division has a great track record with authors including Jenny Nimmo, Lemony Snicket, Helen Oxenbury, Michelle Magorian, William Nicholson, and many, many more.

Egmont USA will come out with our first list in Fall ’09. Our list will be primarily fiction from American authors, but we do work closely with our British colleagues to find books we are crazy about for both of our lists. We are passionately committed to editorial excellence and to caring for our authors.

At Egmont, our motto is that we turn writers into authors, and children into lifelong readers.

Who is heading up your editorial efforts?

Egmont has possibly the smartest, most experienced and professional executive editor in the business, Regina Griffin [pictured].

She’s had a great deal of experience in growing fiction lists, first at Scholastic and then at Holiday House, and she brought Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers, among others, to Egmont.

And Greg Ferguson is our other editor, very talented and adept—he’s a real rising star who came to us from Harper. We think we’re very lucky to have them both.

Finally, we have an enormously dedicated editorial assistant, Alison Weiss, who will probably run her own editorial line one day.

[Pictured from left to right: Greg Ferguson, Mary Albi, Elizabeth Law, Doug Pocock, Alison Weiss, Nico Medina, Rob Guzman. Missing from photo, Regina Griffin (see above), who had gone to vote when this photo was taken.]

What kinds of books will you publish?

We believe in books that are kid friendly—books children will really enjoy. My own tastes in fiction are pretty down to earth, and that’s reflected in the kind of books I like for children.

Also, I’m a sucker for romance. I wrote my B.A. paper on Wuthering Heights and I’ve read the Twilight books [by Stephenie Meyer (Little Brown, 2005-2008)] several times. To quote the late, great Scholastic editor Ann Reit: “It’s all about the yearning.”

We are primarily looking for chapter books and middle grade and YA fiction, but when we see a picture book that blows us away, we can’t say no. That’s how we got Looking Like Me by Walter Dean Myers, illustrated by Christopher Myers (Egmont, October 2009).

What will make Egmont USA special, different from other houses?

We love all our books, and having a small list means we can bring each book to market with its own specific marketing plan and our full support.

At big houses, the best-selling franchises eat up so much time and attention that sometimes really good books don’t get all the attention they deserve, no matter how talented and committed the team behind them is.

Will you be taking submissions from agents, from writers directly, or both?

Right now, we can only accept submissions from agents. We’re a very small company (there are eight people in the entire U.S. office!), and we would not be able to respond to unsolicited manuscripts in a timely way. We intend to change that in the future, as we grow.

What Egmont USA titles should we look forward to? (or look for?)

We have so many good ones! I’d like to brag about a few from first-time writers.

We have an “‘Addams-Family’-meets-Cheaper-by-the-Dozen” novel called Leaving the Bellweathers by Kristin Venuti, a wonderful steampunk kind of thriller called Candle Man: The Society of Unrelenting Vigilantes by Glenn Dakin, a novel by first-time writer Pam Bachorz called Candor, which is set in a sort of Stepford town for teens, and a novel titled Back Home [cover not final] from a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, Julia Keller, about a family coping with their father coming home from Iraq with a traumatic head injury.

Also, we have a very funny novel from Allen Zadoff called Food, Girls, and other Things I Can’t Have. It’s one of the funniest novels I’ve read in years, but it’s got a lot of heart to it, too. I really believe he’s a YA talent to watch.

All of those books will be on Egmont’s Fall ’09 list.

Over the course of your career what are the most significant changes you’ve seen in the field of publishing books for young readers? What are the bright signs? The challenges?

I could talk about this for an hour, so I will just discuss one part of it.

The rewards of one of today’s great publishing franchises (a Harry Potter, a Twilight, a Chronicles of Narnia) are more lucrative than ever before—but a company can really struggle when a big series comes to an end, or doesn’t come out with a new volume for a few years.

That’s just business. Corporate “parents” and stockholders press for growth—that’s their job. But even the greatest publishers in town struggle with duplicating their big hits.

What do you do outside your editorial/publishing life?

I’m mad for the theater, and I go every chance I get. It’s fun to have a passion that I don’t work in. I can just love or hate things without any attachment.

When I read Rachel Vail or Doreen Cronin or Kirkpatrick Hill, I think, Oh, I wish I published her! Or when a book I’ve acquired and nurtured to publication doesn’t sell as well as I thought it should, it can be very disappointing.

With the theater, I have none of those conflicts. I just go and have fun. Also, I love to scuba dive.

Is there anything you would like to add?

Don’t we have the best jobs in the world?


Egmont covers are not final.