|Hadley in Tanzania|
By Lena Coakley
Today I’m interviewing my friend, Hadley Dyer, the new executive children’s editor for HarperCollins Canada.
Hadley’s time was scarce, but she graciously agreed to let me poke a microphone into her face as she drove us to the country to visit friends.
With her dog Luke packed into the back seat, we set off, immediately launching into a conversation that was so interesting that I forgot to tell her where to get on the highway.
We ended up getting caught in an enormous traffic jam. Was it just my way of getting more time with one of my favourite people? I’m not telling.
Lena: Congratulations on being appointed the executive children’s editor at Harper Collins Canada.
Hadley: Thank you.
Lena: I was quite surprised by the announcement because I thought you had given up editing for writing.
Hadley: To be honest, I wasn’t looking for a full-time editing job until this opportunity came up at HCC. My focus was shifting more and more towards being a full-time writer. But I found the list at HarperCollins to be absolutely irresistible. The opportunity to work with Canada’s top writers and to help develop one of the best lists in the country was something I couldn’t say no to.
Lena: Does being an author yourself give you a unique perspective when you edit a book?
Hadley: I like to think I’m a sympathetic editor. I’m probably more willing than others to give authors extra time when they need it; I think that’s extremely important. I think I can speak the language. When an author is in a crisis over a deadline or a plot knot, it’s nice to be able to say, “I know how you feel,” or, “This is a familiar stage to me, and trust me when I say you’ll move beyond it.”
The best editors can do that anyway, even if they’ve never written a word, because they have experience with writers and have been through the process many times before, but the authors I’ve worked with do seem to appreciate that I have not just a sympathetic ear but a truly empathetic ear—I think that does help our working relationship.
Lena: Are you continuing to write?
Hadley: As it turns out I had signed a contract to write a nonfiction book for Annick Press just before I got the call from Harper Collins, so right from the outset I had to learn how to make time to write.
I have two novels in progress that I really would love to finish, so, yes, I definitely intend to keep writing. However, when you’ve been published before in different forms—I’ve written fiction and nonfiction and also for newspapers and magazines—the novelty of seeing your name in print wears off.
Writing really does become about creating your best work, so I am not in any hurry to get published again for its own sake. It’s only worth it to me if the work is really good. That takes time—but I’m okay with that.
The fun thing about working with really great writers is that it does keep the pilot light on. Authors often say that reading great novels inspires their work—and now it’s my job to do just that.
Lena: Many people reading this interview will be more familiar with American publishers. Are there differences between being an editor in Canada and being an editor in the States?
Hadley: Our book industry is quite different from the States. For starters, it’s much, much younger. Most of the independent Canadian children’s houses were founded just thirty or thirty five years ago.
And Canadian publishers have a mandate to publish Canadian authors for the Canadian market, so there are cultural considerations for us that U.S. publishers might not share.
Our whole industry is also much smaller than in the U.S.: A best seller in Canada used to be 5,000 copies…
Lena: What is it now?
Hadley: Well, there are examples of books in Canada that have sold hundreds of thousands of copies, so there’s no ceiling anymore, but to sell 5,000 copies is still very respectable in the Canadian market because we have a much smaller population—the economy of scale isn’t there for us the way it is in the U.S. All of these considerations factor in when you’re acquiring an author here—who they are, where they’re from, the setting of their novel, the audience for the novel and what it would mean for that audience to see those characters in a story, and of course the sales potential—these are all things that we consider slightly differently in Canada than in the U.S.
Lena: I often hear that U.S. publishers live off the books that sell a hundred thousand copies or more, so how does Canadian publishing work economically?
Hadley: Well, it can be similar for us. Some books on our list are great engines that generate revenue that allow us to then publish quieter books, smaller books.
Canadian independent publishers actually receive subsidies in the form of grants from the Canada Council for the Arts, an organization that administers public funds for the arts on behalf of the government. This helps to ensure that market forces aren’t driving all of the publishing decisions. It has allowed publishers to keep historical fiction in the marketplace, for example, even while genres like paranormal and dystopian fiction and are dominating.
This benefits those of us who aren’t eligible for those grants as well, including HarperCollins Canada, Penguin Canada, Random House and so on, because it means that there’s more breadth of selection on bookstore shelves and that kids have more variety in their reading choices. It also just keeps certain genres alive.
Lena: With the American market being so huge and with so many changes in publishing, do you think Canadian culture is safe?
Hadley: It’s certainly true that when Canadian publishers began distributing their books in the U.S., many of them chose to drop Canadian spellings, because they couldn’t afford to do a separate print run for each market. And sometimes decisions are made to keep the location of a story a little more generic so that a Canadian location can pass for an American one. But the cost of having a successful book industry is that in order to grow we do have to look beyond our borders.
Lena: I know you haven’t been at HCC very long, but can you tell me about any acquisitions that you’ve made?
Hadley: Sure! I’m very proud to say I’ve acquired poet Dennis Lee’s first book for children in more than a decade and also his classic backlist, which includes Alligator Pie and Garbage Delight and other books that have sold hundreds of thousands of copies over the last forty years.
Alligator Pie was one of the first books I ever owned.
When I started writing for children, I wrote quite a bit of poetry and studied poetry thoroughly—I think it actually made me a better prose stylist, funnily enough—so for me it was a very proud moment when he agreed to allow us to be the caretaker of his work.
I was also very excited to sign Kenneth Oppel for two more books.
I’ve recently acquired the first children’s book by Michael Redhill, a much-loved novelist and playwright for adults. I have been trying to get Michael to write a children’s book for years, even when I wasn’t associated with any one publisher, so I was pretty excited when I finally wore him down.
And we’ve also acquired two books by Richard Scrimger, one of the funniest writers for children in Canada.
Lena: Is there one book coming out in 2011 that you are particularly excited about?
Hadley: Our whole fall list is wonderful, but the book I’m most curious about is This Dark Endeavour: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein Frankenstein by Kenneth Oppel. It is so unique and wonderfully written, and I’m very curious to see how kids will respond to it. That’s the kind of thing I think about before I got to sleep at night.
Lena: So that’s being published by Simon & Schuster in the States but HarperCollins here in Canada. Can you talk a little bit about how that works?
Hadley: As many readers know, territorial rights and language rights can be sliced and diced a thousand different ways. Sometimes you give a publisher world rights and then they turn around and sell subsidiary rights—foreign language rights, for example—to foreign publishers; sometimes the agent or author will split off the rights from the get-go and sell them piecemeal to different publishers.
So it’s not unusual for a Canadian author, especially a well-established Canadian author, to have a separate Canadian home from their U.S. home, even when those companies have a presence in both countries.
Kenneth Oppel has always been a HarperCollins Canada author. He was at one time with HarperCollins U.S.; now he’s with Simon & Schuster in the U.S. Though we love to keep our Canadian authors in the HarperCollins family, we have worked quite happily with many different U.S. publishers.
The neat thing for the author is that it’s not unusual to have close editorial relationships with both their Canadian and U.S. editors and maybe even a U.K. editor as well.
When this happens, there are many different possible scenarios: An author might get three separate editorial memos, or the editors might collaborate and produce only one memo. The author is often in the position to choose the relationship that works best for them.
It’s been great for me because I’ve gotten the opportunity to work with very talented editors from all over the world—Susan Rich at Little, Brown and Wendy Lamb at Random House, for instance.
Lena: In addition to being an author and an editor, I know that you are also very involved in the children’s book community as a volunteer and that you are a past President of IBBY Canada. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Hadley: One of the best decisions I ever made was to become involved with IBBY Canada. It exposed me immediately to children’s publishing around the world, and it infused me with enthusiasm for helping colleagues in different countries who are trying to get their book industries off the ground. I think volunteerism is very important in the arts, and it’s certainly has been an important part of my career.
Lena: I know that one of the things that you did as a volunteer was to travel to Tanzania—I’d love to hear more about that.
Hadley: I had the wonderful opportunity to be part of a new project administered by CODE, which is a literacy organization that works in developing countries, especially Africa. They had just founded a new English language writing prize designed to encourage East African writers to write wonderful, easy-to-read, engaging novels for young adults. Because the prize was sponsored by a Canadian, Bill Burt, they wanted a Canadian to be on the first jury.
I put my name forward and ultimately traveled to Tanzania four times, twice to be on the jury and twice to lead writing workshops with a juror from Uganda. These were some of the most exciting and rewarding experiences of my life.
I worked with African authors who were just starting to explore the YA genre and who were working extremely hard to produce works in a second language. English is the language of the secondary schools in Tanzania, which is why the writing prize is for English-language works—the prize encourages writing by Africans for Africans, so that schools don’t have to rely on foreign imports. The commitment that these writers show to their work has been extremely inspiring.
Lena: At HCC you’re not accepting unsolicited manuscripts, correct?
Lena: So, Hadley, how are you going to find the next big thing?
Hadley: (Laughs.) First and foremost, Lena, agents do a really good job of finding authors.
Also, as an author myself I have strong connections to the writing community, so sometimes I find unagented writers through those connections, and I’m trying to stay connected to the community by doing events like The Word on the Street that put me in touch with writers just finding their footing.
But I have to tell you, before I was at HarperCollins, I worked at a small Toronto publisher for five years and I published a lot of first-time authors. (That was the best part of my job, in fact, calling authors and telling them that I was going to publish their first book.)
However, I rejected 99% of what I saw—we just had an enormous slush pile. At HarperCollins Canada, the cost benefit of taking unagented writers just doesn’t work for me, because the odds of finding that diamond in the rough are so small. Keep in mind that I am the sole children’s book editor there, and at the moment we only publish four to seven front list titles per season.
Lena: You make it sound almost impossible to get published!
Hadley: Not at all! To be honest, I often think that one thing that stands between great writers and their future editors is the number of manuscripts in circulation that really shouldn’t be in an editor or an agent’s slush pile—because they were sent to the wrong house; because they weren’t appropriate for that list; or because they simply aren’t ready yet to be published.
People are very excited about the prospect of being published. I understand that—of course I do. Very early in my career I sent off manuscripts prematurely. And then I stopped, because I realized it was more important to produce good quality work and end up in the right home.
I do think that in Canada especially that it’s not very hard to get a book deal if the work is good. There are so many publishers, and their lists are so diverse. Every editor I know is dying to find someone new and wonderful, but it can be a lot of hard work to get to those manuscripts.
My advice? Be patient. Send your best work. And be thoughtful about where you send it. I honestly believe that if the writing is there, publishing will follow.
Hadley Dyer is the executive editor of children’s books at HarperCollins Canada and an author for children and young adults. Her first novel, Johnny Kellock Died Today, was the winner of the Canadian Library Association’s Book of the Year for Children Award. She also writes The Globe and Mail’s Live Better column and teaches in the publishing program at Ryerson University. Previously, she was the children’s book editor for James Lorimer & Co. and has worked as a bookseller, publicist, reviewer, and library coordinator of the Canadian Children’s Book Centre. She is a past president of IBBY Canada.
Lena Coakley was born in Milford, Connecticut and grew up on Long Island. In high school, creative writing was the only class she ever failed (nothing was ever good enough to hand in!), but, undeterred, she went on to study writing at Sarah Lawrence College. She became interested in young adult literature when she moved to Toronto, Canada, and began working for CANSCAIP, the Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers, where she eventually became the Administrative Director. She is now a full-time writer living in Toronto.