Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Sheila Barry, Co-Publisher at Groundwood Books, Chats with Susan Hughes

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Sheila Barry, Co-Publisher at Groundwood Books, Chats with Susan Hughes

I have a real treat for you this morning. I’m chatting with SHEILA BARRY, one of the most respected and well-liked players in the world of children’s books. Sheila has worked in publishing for almost 20 years. For the past eight she was editor-in-chief at Kids Can Press. She is president of the Canadian Children’s Book Centre and, in January of this year, became co-publisher of Groundwood Books.

ME: Sheila, thanks for speaking with me! You have been co-publisher of Groundwood Books for several months now. What exactly does a publisher of children's books do? What is your average day like?

SHEILA BARRY: I ask myself all the time what it is that I do all day, and so I’m going to take your question very literally and give you a limited sampling (below) from my to-do list and agenda for the week. Essentially, I seem to spend an awful lot of time on email and on the phone. And I think people are often surprised to hear that most of the actual work of reading manuscripts and editing them doesn’t happen during office hours, because those are taken up with meetings and talking to people.

Monday: just back from a vacation, so catching up on emails much of the morning; lunch with an author; sales conference in the afternoon followed by a dinner with in-house people and our sales reps.

Tuesday: various meetings around producing and marketing our Fall 2012 list and our plans for e-books; emails and phone calls to authors and agents about contracts and schedules. No time for actually reading any manuscripts, but that is what evenings and weekends are for.

Wednesday: looking at rough sketches for a picture book; looking at sales histories for some older titles; planning my schedule for Book Expo America in June; some time for reading manuscripts, which was nice.

Thursday: checking in with editors; management meeting; meeting with an agent; leaving messages for another agent who seems strangely slow to return my calls; looking at more sales figures; many, many more emails.

Friday: putting these notes together for you, Susan! And also meeting with an author, followed by dinner.

Saturday: spending the day at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, looking at books and talking to people.

Sunday: laundry

ME: Wow, you’re one busy woman, but you did make time for laundry! Sheila, can you tell me if you’re involved in choosing manuscripts for publication? If so, how do you know when one is right for you?

SHEILA BARRY: My co-publisher, Patsy Aldana, and I acquire all the books Groundwood publishes. From a business point of view, we try to have a balanced list each season--a mix of books for children of all ages, pretty evenly split between picture books and fiction but with some non-fiction as well.

From an editorial point of view, we want books each season that reflect the voices and experiences of children who might not otherwise see themselves reflected in print. So we look for writers and illustrators from under-represented communities, and we publish books from other countries. We hope that the books we publish embody our belief that the right book presented to a child in the right way can be transformational.

ME: My 16-year-old daughter has a question for you: Do you ever survey kids to help you figure out what kind of books will be popular?

SHEILA BARRY: I do try to talk to kids a lot. I ask what interests them, what they think they would like to read about; why they like the things they like. I’m particularly interested when I am talking to kids who say they don’t like to read, since I cling, perhaps optimistically, to the belief that not liking to read just means that no one has given you the right book yet.

I have participated in focus groups with children, and I have found them frustrating. The results tend to be bland conclusions along the lines of “We like books with good stories and interesting characters” or “We like funny books,” rather than information that is specific enough to be useful. I think this is partly just a fact of life about surveys and focus groups, but also an indication that most of us, adults as well as children, aren’t that good at analyzing our own responses to what we read. We know what we like and don’t like, but we have trouble articulating why.

ME: Here’s a question I’m sure all children’s writers are keen for you to answer: What advice would you offer writers of children's manuscripts who would like to see their books in print?

SHEILA BARRY: My advice ranges from the practical (Make sure your cover letter meets the minimal requirements for standard written English) to the ludicrous (Please don’t send food with your submission. Since you are a stranger to me, I am not going to eat your cookies, however delicious they may be). Mostly, though, my advice would be to take your time. Don’t write something and send it off to me immediately. Let it sit then look at it again. Read as widely and as well as you can, and then revise some more. Join a writing group; take a course; think about the feedback you receive, whether or not you decide to follow it; and then, revise some more.

ME: I am an avid reader, and I’m wondering if you are. Also, how does reading affect your professional tastes? What books are by your bedside at the moment?

SHEILA BARRY: I read all the time, a mix of fiction for adults and children, with a little bit of non-fiction and poetry thrown in. By my bed right now, you will find David Foster Wallace, THE BROOM OF THE SYSTEM; David Lodge, AUTHOR, AUTHOR; John Corey Whaley, WHERE THINGS COME BACK; and Brian Doyle, ANGEL SQUARE—so two adult novels, a YA novel and middle-grade novel, all by men, although that’s probably a bit unusual. You will find other books in different parts of my house, in various purses and bags, and also, to anticipate your next question, on my phone and iPad.

ME: Ah yes, the ubiquitous question: Do you have and/or use an e-reader? Many people are wondering how the new e-technology might affect the publishing world, especially picture books. What are your thoughts on this?

SHEILA BARRY: E-readers and tablets are transforming the publishing and bookselling industries. Children’s books are not the fastest growing market, but even in children’s publishing I think that being able to offer an electronic book alongside the traditional print format is pretty close to being the norm rather than the exception. I read on an iPad, and before I had one, I read on my phone, although it’s true that I couldn’t read for too long on that tiny screen. I am still reading more books in print formats than electronically, but ask me again by the end of this calendar year.

I do think the primary format for books for very young children—so picture books and illustrated early fiction—will be paper rather than digital for many more years, partly just because young children have very sticky fingers and limited motor control, and also because there are sound developmental reasons to limit the amount of time young children spend staring at any kind of screen.

However, I assume that by the time I have grandchildren (which I expect won’t happen for at least a decade, although I guess who knows), they will be horrified to learn that once upon a time we took it for granted that it was okay to kill trees to make books. I just hope that by the time I have grandchildren we won’t be looking at a completely monolithic industry, with only one or two successful e-book vendors and only one or two gigantic publishing companies controlling what gets published, who has access to it, and how much it costs.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

Susan Hughes

Susan Hughes is an award-winning author whose books include The Island Horse, Case Closed?, No Girls Allowed, Earth to Audrey and Virginia.

Go to Susan Hughes’s Author Page