The process of taking a book from acquisition to publication is different for every book. What remains a constant in the process (or at least in Sky Pony Press’s experience!) is the presence of both an author and an editor to facilitate the process of turning a manuscript into a printed book. Julie Matysik, Sky Pony’s editorial director, has worked with many authors over the years. Amalie Howard, a Sky Pony author, stepped in to interview Julie and get some insight about what it’s like to be an editor at Sky Pony Press.
Amalie Howard is the award-winning IndieNext author of Alpha Goddess, the Aquarathi series, and the Cruentus Curse series. Her debut novel, Bloodspell, was an Amazon bestseller and a Seventeen Summer Read.
Amalie Howard’s books:
Amalie Howard Interviews Julie Matysik:
Julie Matysik is the wonderful editorial director of children’s and education publishing at Skyhorse Publishing, and we are here to celebrate the inaugural launch of the fantastic Sky Pony Press blog! I was so honored to have been asked to conduct this interview. Not only do I adore Julie on a personal level, but on the professional side of things, she is also a tireless, talented, and driven editor whom I greatly admire.
As editorial director, Julie oversees acquisitions for Sky Pony Press, Skyhorse’s children’s imprint, and manages the Education category titles across the board. She acquires new and licensed titles for Sky Pony and handles manuscripts through all stages of production for the publication process.
Now on to the interview:
Amalie: Hi, Julie! You’ve been with Sky Pony from its inception, helping to launch the children’s imprint from day one. What inspired you to become an editor, children’s in particular?
Julie: Like many people in publishing, I have had a love of books and reading all of my life. In high school, I was that introspective kid who visited the library in the summer between grades and read every book on college reading lists and things like that. So when I went to college, I decided to major in English because, well, I would be able to read a lot. But I guess I had never really thought about how books came to be—probably because I was a bit of a book snob and would only read the “classics” or “tried and true” books recommended to me by college professors and didn’t think of publishing as a current industry. But as graduation drew nearer, I realized I didn’t know what to do with my English major. I met with a professor in the English department who suggested I take her Intro to Editing and Publishing course and that’s when it first dawned on me that I could work on books. What a novel concept! So after a few years teaching abroad and at a preschool in the Midwest, I moved to NYC and started to pursue a career in publishing. Becoming a children’s editor, however, fell into my lap somewhat, though I had toyed with the idea of working on children’s books when I first applied for jobs. When Skyhorse’s publisher decided to start a children’s imprint (this was after two years of my working at the company on adult nonfiction titles), I was happy to transition to a new focus. Everything sort of grew from that moment rather organically. And I’ve never wanted to look back.
A: That sounds like a match made in heaven to me. It’s awesome when you get to do something you love. So, how many years have you been involved in publishing, and what are some of your titles?
J: I’ve been working in publishing for seven years. I started as an intern/part-time assistant at a small boutique literary agency and then was hired as an intern and then editorial assistant at Skyhorse in early 2009. I’ve worked on so many books while at Skyhorse (you should see the index cards I keep for each book in my desk drawer!) so it’s hard to pick just a few titles. Focusing on the children’s list, I’ve acquired and edited author/illustrator Iza Trapani’s nursery rhyme books The Bear Went Over the Mountain and Little Miss Muffet; Beth Vrabel’s Pack of Dork series titles as well as A Blind Guide to Stinkville; Richard Fairgray and Terry Jones’s Gorillas in Our Midst (the first Sky Pony picture book to be picked up by the mass merch accounts); and, of course, your Indie Next Pick, Alpha Goddess.
A: That’s cool that you keep index cards for each book. It must be such a rewarding feeling, knowing that you’ve made so many author dreams come true. Including mine! As you know, I love being a Sky Pony author, but from your perspective, what makes working with Sky Pony so different?
J: Sky Pony takes a lot of the principals that our publisher, Tony Lyons, has set up for our parent company, Skyhorse, and puts them to great practice. We aren’t a huge imprint or publisher and we know that we can’t always compete in certain areas with the bigger houses. But we love seeking out those special authors and stories that deserve to be published. We aren’t afraid to take chances on authors and books that have been rejected by larger publishers because they were too “exotic” or not “commercial” enough. We are a forward-thinking publisher who isn’t too rooted in any one way of doing things. And we have such a small committed staff who loves what they do and who champion each book on our list. Sky Pony really does feel like a family in many ways, and I hope that feeling extends to our authors and the agents we work with.
A: Sky Pony absolutely does feel like a family, I agree, and having been one of those acquisitions those other publishers thought was too exotic, I am so happy that you give those kinds of books a home. Despite not being a huge imprint as you say, Skyhorse Publishing has had amazing growth over the past few years. What do you attribute this to, and what we can expect from Sky Pony in the coming months?
J: One word: Minecraft. Haha. But in all seriousness, our novelizations for Minecraft fans have opened incredible doors for Sky Pony, not only in the trade but also in the specialty and mass merch retailers. Sky Pony used to be a small imprint that very few people in and outside of the industry knew. We were publishing incredible books but still trying to find our footing in the market. Then along came this crazy little game called Minecraft and our novels for Minecraft fans and boom! Sky Pony books were everywhere, in large quantities. This has opened up the door for all of our amazing authors and books and we’ve seen an incredible rise in sales and distribution.
Sky Pony has some really exciting things coming up in the next few months, including starting a line of chapter books written by New York Times bestselling author Nancy Krulik and her daughter Amanda Burwaser. And you can bet that we’ll be on the lookout of the next big “trend” in kid’s books as well.
A: That sounds awesome. My three children are addicted to Minecraft, so that’s not surprising, and they adore their Sky Pony Minecraft books. So, let’s talk about the editing side of things. In your opinion, what makes a good editor?
J: That’s a hard question to answer, actually. I likely edit differently from my colleagues, but I don’t think that makes one of us better or worse than the other. In general, I do think an editor has to be impassioned about the project she or he takes on—to really connect with the story, the characters, the voice, and the author. An editor must be the author’s advocate within the publishing house and work tirelessly to make sure her or his voice is heard. I believe a good editor works collaboratively with authors and doesn’t just tell them to “do something this way” or else. An editor should be willing and able to adapt to the author and story that she is working on at any given moment, knowing that the next book she edits might be a completely different process than the previous one. And that’s okay.
A: Wow, it sounds like you wear a lot of different hats and have to be flexible in your process, depending on changing needs. I can personally attest that you have been a wonderful advocate for me. What do editors look for in both authors and submissions?
J: Personally as an editor, I look for an author who clearly wants to be published but who isn’t afraid of being edited. I want someone who feels comfortable working with me and who is willing to accept that her or his manuscript may need some extensive revisions and fine tuning. I don’t want an author who thinks her or his book is perfect as is without any editorial insight. In terms of submissions, I want a manuscript that is engaging, that has a great sense of place and characters, and that treats both major and minor characters as important and integral to the storytelling.
A: I think that’s the beauty of a having a good editor—one who can see potential in the bones of something that may need work. And, of course, an author who is willing to work toward that shared vision to make that book the best it can be. What kind of fiction do you primarily acquire?
J: Since Sky Pony has recently grown to include five editorial staff members, I’m acquiring less fiction than I once did. But for the few novels I am acquiring, I look for stories that have a good dose of diversity, that explore “issues,” and that are set more in a contemporary space, though that’s not always the case (as you know with Alpha Goddess and other books you’ve published with Sky Pony).
A: Contemporary does seem to be a hot button these days, but glad to hear you are open to others and still occasionally acquiring! When you open a manuscript, what do you hope for in the first few pages?
J: I want a killer first sentence—a sentence that is going to propel me to the next and then the next. And that doesn’t mean I need intense action right up front; rather, I want something that pulls at my very core and gets me engaged to want to keep moving forward with the book. I want a first sentence or two that sticks with me throughout the rest of the story. Then, beyond that, I want to become almost instantly invested in at least one character—main or not.
A: I could write an essay on fabulous first sentences, so I hear you. There’s nothing better than that first powerful sentence that just hooks into you. So, let’s talk books. What are some subjects or some styles that you don’t see tackled often, and what would you like to see more of?
J: Fortunately, I think the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign has opened a number of doors for writers who are tackling difficult subjects, who are writing about people who are marginalized in our society, and all that. Those are the books that I’m most drawn to and love seeing more of. I think you know this about me, given our history of working on your Rama and Sita retelling, but I think bringing more stories from the East into the Western market is something that I’m still not seeing a lot of, but would like to. In picture books, I want to see more stories where the main character can be a person of color or different ethnicity without the story having to be necessarily written with that in mind.
A: Yes! I love that you’re drawn to more nontraditional ideas and was so grateful that you saw something special in my Ramayana reimagining. Writers of all walks are no longer afraid to tackle complex subjects and are trying to incorporate more diversity in their works, so it’s fantastic to hear that you are actively looking for that. So say an editor falls in love with a manuscript and takes it to the acquisitions board for approval, why/how/when could a prospective manuscript be turned down during the acquisitions process?
J: This is one of my least favorite things about the job. A manuscript can be turned down at acquisitions for a number of reasons: 1) sales may not think the book will be successfully sold or won’t have a large enough market; 2) it may come to light through a meeting that a book is too similar to another book already published; or 3) the publisher or others making these decisions may just simply not like the concept or the comparable title sales figures. Turning down a manuscript might happen at any stage—early on after an editor reads the first 20 pages, or when an editor discussed the concept with fellow editors or the editorial director, or at acquisitions meetings.
A: I can see how that would be difficult. Rejection is rough on both ends. Once a manuscript passes the internal approval stages, could you briefly explain what an author can expect once his or her novel has been contracted for publication?
J: Every publishing house has its own timeline and processes, but generally, an author can expect to start working with an editor on either larger conceptual edits or line edits or both after a book has been contracted for publication and the manuscript officially delivered. An author will be involved in the cover design process (seeing comps and probably hating many of them until finding that perfect gem, or loving one comp right up front, only to be told that the sales team or a buyer has asked for a completely new design). An author will likely have a back-and-forth dialogue with her/his editor regarding the edits and will be reading and re-reading the manuscript in many different forms (manuscript, copy edited manuscript, and typeset pages) before the book is finally submitted to press. It can be a whirlwind process or a slow and, sometimes daunting, journey, depending on scheduling and the amount of work the manuscript needs.
A: Ah yes, I remember getting my cover concept for Alpha Goddess and absolutely falling in love with it. I’m a big fan of revisions and getting on the same page with my editor to hone a book into something even better than what I’d submitted. Speaking of revisions, on your end, what is the hardest element of editing a newly acquired manuscript?
J: Getting started. Editing a book, for me, is like sitting down to compose an essay for a college course. Your head if full of ideas, but it’s hard to get everything in order, to find that perfect way to begin. That’s what’s hard for me on every single manuscript that I acquire and start working on. But once I get over that first or second page, then I’m usually good to go!
A: Much the same for us writers! Getting started is always the hard part. What are some of the common misconceptions about the editing process?
J: That editors are only going to line edit for grammar and usage. Sometimes a manuscript is quite clean and that’s the bulk of what editors end up doing. But most times, editors will be pointing out inconsistencies in plot or characterization, will be making suggestions for major cuts, additions, or shuffling around of scenes to make the book more cohesive, and will be picking apart or suggesting sentence rewrites on almost every page. Be prepared to get your manuscript back with a lot of tracked changes and different colors. But don’t be scared!
A: Yes, all those tracked changes can be daunting, but once you start working through them, it becomes easier. Deep breaths and one page at a time, I say! Overall, what do you like best/least about being a children’s book editor?
J: I love coming to work or sitting at my kitchen table at home and allowing myself to enter the mind of a child or young reader and to get a bit lost in that part of myself that still remembers what it was like when books were full of pictures and when reading independently felt invigorating (like getting your driver’s license at sixteen). That’s what I love the most.
What do I love least? Having to send rejection letters to children’s authors. They are all so sweet and seem to get dejected much easier than adult authors (though I could be generalizing, so my apologies).
A: I love that escapism, too, and I can see how saying no to someone would be tough. I don’t envy you that part. Let’s talk about something nicer. What are some of your favorite books (that you have not edited)?
J: You’ll laugh, because I actually read a lot of adult books outside of publishing children’s books, so most of my favorites are adult fiction or nonfiction. But some of my favorite kid’s books that I haven’t edited are Hot Jazz Special by Jonny Hannah, Whistle for Willie by Ezra Jack Keats, A Story, a Story by Gail E. Haley, Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, The Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin, Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, and The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak.
A: That’s not surprising given you are such a devoted lover of books, and I’m only laughing because you tell me I have minions in my basement, but it sounds like you have the same—little book reading clones. What fantastic choices! I haven’t read a couple of those, so I’m excited to check them out. Before I let you go, let’s talk big picture. What changes over the years do see as positive for the publishing industry? And are there any changes that concern you?
J: I think the fact that more diverse books are being written and published for children is a huge plus for the industry. I think the industry has stopped its fear mongering about ebooks and how they’ll be the death of the industry—that’s clearly not been the case. But I am concerned about the closing of bookstores, both large and small. Shopping for books online just doesn’t provide the same experience as going into a store, touching a cover, feeling the weight of the book in your hands, and paging through a book’s contents to see if it might be the perfect read for you or someone you love. I’m not sure what the closing of bookstores means for the industry, but I have to believe that people will keep reading—and authors will keep needing editors.
A: Thanks for sharing your insight. I agree that the growth of diverse books is a wonderful plus, and I firmly believe that authors will always need good editors. I’ve honed my writing skills since my first book, but nothing will replace the contribution of a smart editor. So, last question: what kind of content can we expect to see moving forward on the Sky Pony blog?
J: We have a lot of great stuff planned for Sky Pony Express! We’ll have days dedicated to picture books, middle grade, and young adult books; we’ll have posts about the Sky Pony team and the inner-workings of the imprint; we’ll have guest posts from authors, Sky Pony staffers, and possibly other industry people; we’ll have giveaways; we’ll have #tbt posts; and we’d love to hear from readers of the blog what they’d like to see happening here. It’s an evolving process and one that we want our whole Sky Pony extended family to feel connected to and a part of in some way.
A: I adore the name! Sky Pony Express sounds so fun! Julie, thank you for your time, and readers, please feel free to share your comments and thoughts below. We would love to hear from you. Thank you so much, and happy reading!