Book Publishing with Alvina Ling
Editor, Children's Book Publishing
New York City, New York
Alvina Ling has always been passionate about books but never thought of publishing as a career possibility until one of her friends mentioned it. While working at a Barnes & Noble as a bookseller she somehow naturally gravitated towards the children’s section. Alvina now works as an Editor for children’s books at Little, Brown. She is a great example of someone following her interests which led to her doing something that she loves. The Career Cookbook interview spotlights the apprenticeship aspect of book publishing, what goes into editing, and how you need to be a bit of a salesperson in championing your projects.
CCB: When did you realize you wanted to work in book publishing?
AL: It was after graduating from college when I was living in Taipei, Taiwan, studying Mandarin Chinese and teaching English. I had gone there to stall for time while doing something productive because I didn't yet know what career I wanted to pursue. I had made a lot of friends there who were in the same boat, and I remember sitting in a
restaurant with some friends after being there over a year, and knowing that I didn't want to stay there forever, even if it was a lot of fun. Some of my friends were thinking about going into consulting, but that didn't appeal to me. I had done radio work and interned at a magazine and at a film production company during college, but although I enjoyed all of these, none of them really felt right to me. Then one of my friends asked me if I had ever considered book publishing because one of his friends was considering it. Even though it had crossed my mind before, since there was very little book publishing on the West Coast at that time where I went to college, I hadn't really seen it as a viable career option. But when he said it, it made sense
to me. I had always loved books and reading, so I decided to look into it.
CCB: What appeals to you about working in this field?
AL: Well, I think initially people think that if you work in publishing
you can read all day, which of course is not the case, but I do enjoy
that reading and books and literature are a big part of the job. I
love working with authors and illustrators, and knowing that I'm
helping them achieve their goals. Being in children's books
specifically, I really love the idea that somewhere there are children
reading the books I edit. I remember how big an influence books had on
my life when I was growing up, so thinking that I had a hand in
touching these young reader's lives is probably the largest appeal.
CCB: Is there a typical day on the job as an editor?
AL: Not really--part of what keeps the job interesting, and why I still
passionately love doing what I do after almost seven years, is that
every day is different. The days might start pretty much the same--I
get into the office, have my breakfast while going through my emails
for maybe the first half hour, and then each day veers apart. One day
might be filled with meetings, another day I might attempt to close my
door and edit or read (Although most of this work is done at
home--either at night or during a work-at-home day). Another day might
be spent entirely working on one book that has for some reason entered
crisis mode--maybe the production schedule has been moved up and
materials need to circulate quickly, etc.
CCB: Please give a brief overview of your career so far.
AL: When I started doing research on how to break into this field, I
bought a book called Making it in Book Publishing by Leonard Mogel,
which I believe is out of print now. Since I had absolutely no idea
what this industry was about, this book became my bible, and I started
outlining my plan. The book said that New York was really the place to
be, although there were still a few publishers in Boston as well. The
book also mentioned that bookstore and library experience was a plus,
as well as publishing internships. So at the time, since I knew nobody
in New York City, but a few people in Boston, I decided to first try
Boston. When my parents heard of my plan, they told me that my
childhood friend, Grace Lin, was living in Boston, so we got back in
touch and decided to be roommates when her lease was up in eight months.
I also found out that Grace, who had gone to RISD, had just gotten her
first book contract with Charlesbridge Publishing for a picture book!
Anyway, since I had some time before moving out to Boston, and since I
didn't want to live at home, I moved to Oakland, CA where a college
friend had an extra room in his apartment for dirt cheap. It was a
basement apartment and pretty dingy, but it was perfect for what I
needed. I got a job as a bookseller at Barnes & Noble, and also took
some publishing courses with UC Berkeley Extension, including
"Introduction to Book Publishing" and a copyediting course.
While working at B&N, I found myself constantly gravitating towards
the children's section, so eventually my manager started putting me
there as a children's bookseller. After I moved to Boston, I
transferred to the B&N in downtown crossing where I was also placed as
a children's specialist. I then did two internships, one as an
editorial intern at Charlesbridge, another as an editorial intern at
The Horn Book (A children's literature review journal). When both of
my internships were finished, my supervisor at The Horn Book told me
about an editorial assistant position open at Little, Brown, and I
applied and got the job as Megan Tingley's assistant.
I've pretty much moved up the ranks at Little, Brown at a steady rate,
spending about two years at each position, which I think is just about
average. (Editorial Assistant, Assistant Editor, Associate Editor,
then Editor) I acquired my first book (under Megan's sponsorship)
after being at the job for about a year. That book was Blow out the
Moon by Libby Koponen. As an Assistant Editor, I acquired several more
titles, including The Sound of Colors by Jimmy Liao, Santa Baby by Janie
Bynum, Hippo! No, Rhino by Jeff Newman, and Flight of the Dodo by
Peter Brown. As an Associate Editor I acquired mainly novels,
including Firegirl by Tony Abbott, The Year of the Dog by Grace Lin,
Nothing But The Truth (and a Few White Lies) by Justina Chen Headley,
In The Break by Jack Lopez, and Eggs by Jerry Spinelli.
I was promoted to Editor in December of last year--2005. Whew! So,
that was probably a little more detailed than you wanted, but it was
fun going back in time!
CCB: How did you learn about editing? Was this a lot of on the job training?
AL: Yes--publishing is considered an apprenticeship, and I basically
learned from my supervisor and other colleagues how to edit, how to
write editorial letters, how to review mechanicals and galleys, and
how to interact with authors, illustrators, and agents, etc. I also
draw on my experiences editing my own writing in high school and
college. I also took a copyediting course after college, although
copyediting is very different from the sort of editing I do. But
really, in terms of the actual editing of a manuscript, my job is to
act as the reader, and to point out issues that the general reader
might notice or be bothered by. So I learn the most by just reading a
lot of everything.
CCB: Have you had any mentors in your career?
AL: Yes--my first boss, Megan Tingley, who is now Publisher of LBYR (Little Brown Young Readers), has been a wonderful mentor. Another editor here who I assisted for a few months, Jennifer Hunt (now Senior Editor) was also a mentor to me. I also participated in my company's formal mentorship program where I
had three different mentors who helped me understand other aspects of
the publishing industry, including customer service, operations, and
CCB: What qualities do you need to succeed as an editor?
AL: The love of reading and books is most important, I think. You also
have to be able to multi-task, be adaptable, work well with people, and
sell--both yourself, your books, and your authors.
CCB: Have any advice for people interested in becoming an editor? Is it
important to become a better reader as far as how you approach your
material, examining things much closer?
AL: Be passionate about books. And if you really want to become a book
editor, because it's considered an apprenticeship, you pretty much
have to start at the bottom--as an Editorial Assistant. I don't know
of any book editors who didn't start this way.
In terms of becoming a better reader, there are many different kinds
of editors--I personally don't line-edit very much, and am more of a
big-picture editor. There are other editors who can really get into a
manuscript and line-edit. Some authors prefer/need the former, others
the latter--it's a matter of finding the right author/editor fit. But
I would say that it's important to get to know the work extremely
well. You have to know the characters almost as well as the author, be
able to say if they're doing something out of character or that
doesn't ring true. When I'm evaluating a book for acquisition, I'll
tend to skim, but when I'm reading for editing, I have to slow down
and read every word, get to know the work intimately.
CCB: How do you know when a book is edited to the fullest?
Is that when it feels like nothing else can be cut?
AL: The answer is that you don't know--I think both the author and I could
work on a manuscript forever. But at a certain point, you have to
declare it done, so some of this is dictated by the book's schedule
and when it needs to be sent to copyediting. The author and I work on
a manuscript, going back and forth many rounds (usually a minimum of
two rounds, but it can go all the way up to ten rounds or more if
necessary). I would never send it to copyediting if I didn't feel it
was ready, at a level that was publishable, so if the deadline
approaches and the manuscript isn't ready, then I would push the
publication date out.
It's interesting that you mentioned cutting in your question--that's
just one possibility when editing a manuscript. Many times you're not
cutting at all, but adding to a manuscript, fleshing it out, adding
more back story, more action, etc.
CCB: Do you have any tips for writers on how they can do some of their own editing?
AL: Become as careful a reader as you can. Notice when you have
inconsistencies, when the pacing needs work, which parts are
unrealistic, when you don't have as strong of a handle on one of your
character's personalities as you should, etc. But many times, you need
a person other than yourself to read it to notice these things, so
join writers' groups, or have someone who you trust to read your work.
CCB: Are there certain rules to editing with regards to children's books?
AL: There are no hard and fast rules, but one thing that an editor of
children's books has to keep in mind that other editors don't is age
range. If the book is for younger children, we have to make sure that
the vocabulary and content is suitable. I also feel that, unlike adult
books, most children's books end on a somewhat hopeful note.
CCB: Do you put yourself in the mindset of a child or young adult when you
are reading the titles you are editing? Can you read in the role of a
AL: When I first read a submission, I'm just reading it as myself. But
inevitably during the course of reading it I think about if this was
the type of book I would have liked as a child. I'll also compare it
to competitive titles in the market and will often think, "Teachers
and parents and librarians will love this!" But overall, I'm just
looking for my own gut reaction to a book, and if I love it, I know
there are readers out there who will love it as well. When I'm
editing, I will consider whether parts of the book are confusing to a
child, or if maybe the pacing is too slow, etc.
CCB: Do you choose the types of projects that you edit?
AL: To an extent--as a more junior editor, many of the projects I'd edit
and oversee were assigned to me by my supervisor. Now, most of my
projects are my own acquisitions, so I do choose what I work on to a
certain extent--however, I do need to get my projects approved by our
acquisitions committee, so not everything I want to work on ends up
CCB: What is your relationship like with the authors that you edit? Is it
hard telling writers how they can improve their manuscripts?
AL: I try to have a friendly relationship with my authors, and many of my
authors have become dear friends. It's not rare to never meet an
author--to just communicate with them via email and phone, but I do
travel a lot, and try to meet the authors and illustrators I work with
when I can. It is hard to tell a writer how to improve their
manuscripts, but I hope that I make it clear how much I love their
writing overall, so that softens the sting. But I also feel strongly
that the book should 100% be the author's work, that they shouldn't
make any changes that they don't agree with. I'm simply acting as the
reader, and they should take into account my comments--but I'm never
offended if they choose to disregard them, and give me their
CCB: What is the most difficult part of your job?
AL: The part of my job that I dislike the most is having to reject
hundreds of manuscripts every year. I know that each time I do this,
I'm crushing someone's dream or stomping on someone's confidence just
a little bit.
Another aspect of my job that I found most challenging at first,
although now I enjoy, is how integral being a saleswoman is in my job.
I never realized this was such a big part of the job, but I have to
sell the projects I love to our acquisitions committee, and once a
project is under contract, I then have to sell it to our sales force
in order for them to turn around and sell the book to their accounts.
CCB: What has been the most rewarding thing about the job so far?
AL: Two things:
1) Making an offer on an author's first book, knowing that I'm helping
them realize their dream of being published
2) Hearing feedback about how much someone, either a child or adult,
has loved a book that I edited, knowing that the books I help to
introduce to the world are touching people, just as the books I read
as a child really touched me.
CCB: People would be surprised to learn what about your job?
AL: That reading, and even editing, take up a relatively small percentage
of my time day-to-day. So much more time is spent dealing with
schedules, answering emails and phone calls, preparing for various
meetings, writing copy, etc.
CCB: What surprised you the most?
AL: As I mentioned about, how much of my job is selling. I never thought
that public speaking would play such a big role in my job as an editor.
CCB: What do you having coming up career-wise?
AL: I'm finishing up working on my Spring 2007 list right now, and have
four great novels on that list: Eggs by Newbery Medal winner Jerry
Spinelli, Call Me Hope by Gretchen Olson, Going Nowhere Faster by Sean
Beaudoin, and Girl Overboard by Justin Chen Headley. Some of my books
coming out this fall include a hilarious picture book, Chowder by
Peter Brown, and a YA (Young Adult) novel in verse Rubber Houses by Ellen Yeomans. I just hope to continue to acquire and edit quality books for young
readers, books that entertain as well as challenge them, and books
that fill a need in the marketplace.
*Alvina does not accept unsolicited manuscripts or queries.