LitChat Interview: Susan Katz, HarperCollins Publishers

This week we’re talking to someone on the other side of the publishing curtain, President of Children’s Publishing at HarperCollins Publishers, Susan Katz. In her 24 years with HarperCollins, Katz has seen many changes in children’s publishing as well as the ever-increasing growth of the genre. We sat down with Katz to discuss her career, her favorite reads and where she thinks children’s books are headed.

Thanks for talking with us, Susan and for your support of LitStack!

LS: You’ve cultivated a respected, dynamic career in the industry. How did you begin in publishing and how what has been the biggest changed you’ve seen in the industry over the course of your career?

I began my career in educational publishing at Random House as an editorial assistant working on English Language Arts textbooks. I worked in educational publishing for several years and especially enjoyed my time as English editor working on college textbooks. The very best job I’ve ever had it the job I have now, working in Children’s Trade publishing. The biggest change I’ve seen in the industry is the digital revolution in book publishing.  I think the biggest surprise is not that it happened, as the shift seemed to be coming.  It’s the speed of change, how rapidly consumers of all ages have embraced eBooks, and the ramifications of the shift.

LS: Did your decision to go into publishing stem from a love of books as a child? What was your favorite book when you were growing up?

My decision to go into publishing was “an accident” and sometimes publishing is called “the accidental profession”. I graduated from college at a time when teaching jobs were very scarce.  I thought I would work in publishing until a teaching job opened up.  Instead, I fell in love with publishing and decided to stay.  My first favorite book was Lucky the Caterpillar which was a Golden Book.  I still look for it from time to time on out-of-print book sites.  I can picture the cover vividly in my mind.  As a child I read all the Bobsey Twins books, Half Magic by Edward Eager was a real passion, and of course the Sue Barton, Student Nurse books. I used to read novels on the sly at school that were hidden in my desk.  I was always reading.

LS: YA/Children’s literature has grown wildly over the past 15 years. Why do you think there’s been such growth in its popularity?

The consumer base for YA titles has expanded greatly to include readers from 11 years of age to probably 80 plus years of age.  The topics covered in the books as a whole are much broader and seem to appeal to a broad audience, and the bestsellers have crossed over so often now that readers look at teen books regularly in deciding what to purchase.  I was with a group of my friends recently who are not in publishing and when we started talking about our favorite new books I laughed to myself because my friends didn’t realize they were reading YA titles!

LS: When a manuscript comes across your desk, what are some elements that will make you want to publish it? Do you know in the pitch whether you’ll want to read the manuscript?

A great pitch is only the beginning.  If the description is exciting, of course I will want to start reading.  The clincher for me is always the voice of the writer. While I think I would be a terrible writer myself, I am a much better reader.  Over the years I’ve come to learn that a writer has to hook the reader very early in the manuscript or book with a compelling voice to be successful.

LS: As someone whose career is focused on great fiction, are you ever able to read a book for pleasure without critiquing it?

When I am reading a book I love, I tend to be overly generous in my praise, even if only in my head. I find I can get lost in books still and leave my business head out of the room.

LS: How important is editing and learning the craft of writing for new writers and do you feel, with the influx of self-publishing, that the importance of knowing the writing craft has taken a backseat to the business of publishing?

Knowing the craft of writing and editing will never take a backseat to anything. It’s amazing how many books are published each year. The books that rise to the top will sustain strong sales for years,  well written and well edited.

LS: What are you reading right now? And what’s your favorite “guilty pleasure” read?

I’m reading Anna Quindlen’s new book, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake and The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht. In terms of a guilty pleasure, all I’ll say is that I had to check out the series that has sold over ten million copies in a matter of weeks.

LS: What’s the one thing you wish writers knew before they begin the query process?

Getting a good agent really makes a difference.

LS: What are your thoughts on the future of publishing, specifically on the future of children’s books?

I’d like to focus my comments on Children’s and Teen publishing.  Now is our time.  It’s going to be a little rocky, but mostly great.  You ain’t seen nothing yet!


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