Today I'm Grateful For Old-Fashioned Editors

In this fast-changing world of publishing, we hear about a future where writers will directly post content for digital downloading—no costly binding, no "middle-men," no meager 10-15% cut of a sale, no lengthy turnaround time until our next book is consumable.

Sounds great, right?

Not to me. Take TIGER BOY, for instance, coming in 2014 from Charlesbridge.

A year ago, I was in the doldrums of a newly-empty nest, wondering what to do now that I'd been fired as a Mommy. A mother-writer hyphenated vocation had been a good gig for years; how was I going to weather this transition? I had no creative sizzle, and when students asked the inevitable question during author visits—"Where do you get your ideas?"—my honest answer should have been: "No clue. Got nothing here."

That's when the phone rang. Yes, I got an old-school call. Not a text, not an e-mail, but an actual call on our landline.

I picked it up and grunted into the receiver, expecting a marketing robo-voice. Who else called that number these days?

"Mitali? This is Yo. How are you?" It was Yolanda LeRoy Scott, my Harvard-educated, drop-dead gorgeous editor at Charlesbridge. "I want to take you to lunch and talk about your next book."

"Okay, Yo, I'd like that." How am I going to tell her about my creative constipation? Get ready for the shortest working lunch ever, Mrs. Scott.

We met at Not Your Average Joe's in Watertown, right near Charlesbridge's offices, a mile or so from my house in the Boston area. "I'm stuck, Yo. I got nothing," I said, soaking up parmesan cheese and olive oil with freshly baked bread.

"Just throw out some topics for me. Is there anything you've always wanted to write about? Or a new genre you want to try?"

Yolanda passed me the bread bowl, and I helped myself to another chunk of carb comfort. "Well, there is something. I've always wanted to write a picture book, and I've been thinking about Bengal tigers—how beautiful they are." I didn't add that one of our sons' walls was covered with posters of the creatures, because that would imply I was mooning around his  room.

Her face lit up. "That sounds lovely. Send me a proposal."


"I know you can do this, Mitali. This is your story to tell. Now let's talk babies. Mine isn't sleeping all that well. Got any tips?"

I slipped easily into my role of seasoned veteran as we chatted about mothering for the rest of lunch.

Somehow I eked out a proposal, and then a picture book manuscript. Yo's editorial letter came quickly: "I love it, but as usual you've got the start of a short novel with great potential here, Mitali. It could be the perfect companion to RICKSHAW GIRL." The letter continued with a list of brilliant questions and suggestions.

I felt a sudden spark in my latent imagination. A character leaped to mind—a skinny brown boy, like hundreds I had seen in the villages of West Bengal. Years ago, my own father had been one of them. Immediately, I named him: Neil. He loved tigers.

Yesterday I sent Yolanda a second revision of TIGER BOY, the novel. Thanks to her insights, it's become a real story now, with plot, characters, theme, place. It's going to take another round or two of changes and honing before I like it, but my imagination needs the breathing room of our back-and-forth collaboration.

Here's my question: will the future be a world without small publishers like Charlesbridge who champion stories across borders, without editors like Yo who encourage and nurture broken-down mid-career writers, without the time a story needs between revisions to improve?

If so, I'm never going to make it.

Can we be proactive and keep the best from the old publishing model as we explore new ways to deliver content to consumers? One non-negotiable is the input of an excellent editor who doesn't work for me, but with me.

Thanks, Yo.  And thanks, Charlesbridge. Now on to the next story.