Molly O’Neill is an Assistant Editor at Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Children’s Books. After graduating from Marquette University, Molly began her career in publishing in the Marketing/Publicity department at Clarion Books, where she worked with luminaries such as David Wiesner, Katherine Paterson, Linda Sue Park, and Gary Schmidt. After spending almost five years working in Marketing, first at Clarion and later at HarperCollins, Molly achieved her long-term goal of moving to the editorial side of the industry, joining the Bowen Press imprint at its inception in 2007, and joining Katherine Tegen Books in 2009. She is seeking both literary and commercial projects, from picture book through young adult, and looks forward to discovering vivid stories, original voices, and new talent to join her list. Molly blogs about editing, publishing, and the convergence of art and life at www.10blockwalk.blogspot.com.
What was your journey to becoming an editor?
Molly: I was a double major—elementary education and a creative writing—in college, and was well on my way to becoming a classroom teacher when the field of children’s publishing opened up to me in the form of a great mentor—a guest professor with the title of “Distinguished Scholar of Children’s Literature.” I’d always loved children’s books, but I didn’t know it was even possible to BE a distinguished scholar of them, so I was fascinated. I ended up doing an independent study under that professor—the same year she was on the Caldecott Committee, which was an amazing experience to view, even peripherally—during which I realized there was this whole career possibility (the book publishing world) that I hadn’t known anything about! That led to my doing an internship at Cricket Books in Chicago and later I interned at Lerner Books in Minneapolis. I did a couple years of post-grad volunteer work (unrelated to publishing) right after I graduated from college, and then in 2002, I moved to NYC to start my career in children’s publishing.
My first job was in Marketing/Publicity at Clarion Books, where I got to work with some of the true luminaries of the industry (I nearly hyperventilated the first time an email from Katherine Paterson showed up in my inbox, and the first time I answered the phone to find David Wiesner on the other end of the line!) After three and a half wonderful years at Clarion, I realized I’d learned a lot about how a small, boutique-type imprint worked, but wanted to understand how a big house operated, too, so I accepted a position in the School & Library Marketing Department at HarperCollins Children’s Books. That job was really exciting, and I worked with some brilliant colleagues, but I’d honestly fallen into marketing as somewhat of an accident—my goal had always been to be an editor, to get to touch words and be more a part of the creative process, rather than someone who promotes an already-produced project. Happily, I was able to make an in-house move to the editorial side of things here at Harper, and have now been an editor for just under two years. And now that I am happily on the editorial side of the table, I realize more and more how valuable that background as a marketer is—it’s like having an extra set of eyes through which I can look at every project as I think about its potential.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
Molly: Being an editor really is my dream job, and I guess what makes me say that is that I’m lucky enough to have found a profession that perfectly matches my passions. I love words and strong writing; I love smart, imaginative ideas and the power of storytelling; I love art and watching creative vision take shape; I love the imagination of kids and the impassioned opinions of teens; I love vibrant, creative people and getting the chance to be part of their inspiration; I even love the business (okay, maybe not the math part, but everything else!) behind publishing.
One of my favorite quotes is from Thomas Merton, who said “In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that changes everything,” and I think publishing is a industry which depends so very much on the truth of that statement: personal relationships—with authors, with artists, with agents, with librarians, with teachers, and with readers themselves—are the backbone of this entire industry. I also think there are few professions in which you find so much genuine community at every level, and I feel fortunate that I rarely think of the people I work with on a day-to-day basis in non-descript, business-y terms like clients or vendors or end users—instead, I get to think of them as advocates, creative geniuses, and (happily!) friends.
Tell us about Katherine Tegen Books. What is unique/interesting/ in the works for you?
Molly: There’s been a fair bit of change in my corner of the publishing world lately, since the closing of Bowen Press two months ago, so I’m still catching up and doing a lot of mental reorganizing and learning what it means to now be an editor for the Katherine Tegen Books imprint. Right now, I’m excited for a number of projects coming out over the next while that I’ve gotten to be a part of: the launch of the first Emily the Strange YA novel--EMILY THE STRANGE: THE LOST DAYS, which is due out this summer and is all kinds of awesome; a brilliant debut YA that I worked on the early stages of (tentatively titled BEFORE I FALL) by first-time author Lauren Oliver—her intensely powerful story is one that has kept me up reading past 3 a.m. twice, and I expect it will have that effect on many readers once it’s published next winter; a fun picture book called BRAND-NEW BABY BLUES, which is a jazzy look at sibling rivalry by Newbery Honor author Kathi Appelt; and I’m of course delightedly looking forward to Kathryn Fitzmaurice’s second middle-grade novel, a companion to her much-loved THE YEAR THE SWALLOWS CAME EARLY. I’m also looking forward to acquiring more books for my own list, so stay tuned!
What are your editorial sensibilities? When do you say to yourself, Wow! This is a book I really need to acquire?
Molly: If I read a manuscript and can’t stop thinking about it, or if I read a manuscript and desperately want someone else to read it RIGHT NOW so we can talk about it together, or if it makes me laugh out loud (or cry) as I read it on the subway—those are all indicators that it’s well on its way to being a book in my mind. In other words, if it’s already generated that kind of aliveness in me as a reader, it usually means there’s a spark of life in the story, and I might get to be the lucky editor who gets to bring it fully to life as a book.
Personally, I really respond to books with a strong sense of place, where setting is woven into every part of the book--books where I feel like I'm stepping not just into a story, but a whole world, where the setting is far more than the just a static backdrop, but is as active a part of the story as the characters and plot. I also love that elusive but compulsively readable combination of high-concept plot and really great writing—it’s not often that a book does come along that makes me want to read it over and over on a loop, to want to turn back and start again at page one as soon as I’ve come to the story’s end, but when that happens, it’s a sure sign that it’s a must-have for me.
I like books which stir up my emotions, whether they make me laugh (I’m currently looking for some truly funny middle-grade girl books) or tear up. I swoon over books with an artsy, backstage premise (i.e., ballet/theatre/fine arts/etc) because those were worlds I loved as a young reader. I love novelized retellings, magical realism, and speculative fiction, and am on the lookout for a good steampunk novel. And I’d really like to publish some YA that authentically grapples with questions of faith/belief/doubt/spirituality in a way that makes teen reader pause and *think* about their worldview and why they've claimed it, because I think that's somewhat of an under-explored area in YA. Somewhat relatedly, I also love books that zoom in on the idea of connectivity and the little actions that add up to the lives we end up living out, like Jay Asher’s 13 REASONS WHY, or Lauren Oliver’s forthcoming BEFORE I FALL.
A lot of it boils down to character (and by association, VOICE!) for me, too—I read to hear characters tell me their stories. As a reader, and as an editor, I’m hoping to fall in love with smart, independent characters who feel three-dimensional and really REAL to me--honest, vulnerable, and totally engaged in their own stories. And if they’re in the midst of a romance that intrigues me (a la GRACELING or THE HUNGER GAMES or Ken Oppel’s AIRBORN) so much the better! If the characters are fascinating or endearing or amusing enough that I feel like I’d want to invite them to dinner and sit and talk and gossip and ask them questions and get to know them better—well, it’s practically like they’re alive already, right? So the only thing left to do, then, is publish their book so other people can meet them, too!
One question on everyone's mind - the economy. How do you see the long term effect on publishing in general, your house in specific?
Molly: The closing of Bowen Press earlier this year was a disappointing result of the current economy, and so I think I’m particularly aware of how much the economy is changing the publishing world. But many things outside of the economy are bringing about change in the industry, too, right now—particularly the questions of massive change facing the print media world in general. The positive side of it all is that I think that times like this are when visionaries get step forward with innovative ideas that have exciting, long-term effects on the industry. I can’t necessarily predict what all those changes will be, but I can say that, already, the industry looks a lot different than it did when I first started working in it, and that was only six years ago!
Social networking possibilities—everything from websites to blogs, MySpace, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, to even the existence of collective groups like the Class of 2K7, 8 & 9—have quietly revolutionized parts of the industry by allowing authors far more opportunities to interact with their readers—and with each other. As a result, I think the children’s book community feels more like a community than ever. We’ve also seen how social networking can have a huge impact on the success of titles—when people fall in love with a book, that word spreads—and fast!—on the internet. But that same force at work has undone the power of things like print newspapers, because people have learned to depend less on authoritative, expert voices, but more on a personal-feeling kind of authority—the voices of everyday people they feel they “know” through the internet—for opinions and taste-making. Change has to have balances at both ends, I think—we have to recognize that as some things are added, other things get taken away. The industry has tightened—but there are also new possibilities coming rapidly to life, so I think it’s an exciting time for writers, and for publishers, too. As humans, we’re drawn to stories, and have been since the beginning of time. So while publishing may change, perhaps even drastically, the world will always need stories, and the people who tell them, and (I hope!) the people who help bring them to life.
If you weren't an editor, what would you be?
Molly: I’d probably be a florist! That was my part-time job all through college, and I loved the fact that (except for funeral flowers), it was a job where I pretty much got to make people happy all the time. And like a good English major, I love when there are layers of hidden meaning in things, so thinking about the occasion and the recipient as they were described to me, and matching up the right kind of flowers for them was always something I really enjoyed. And, I got to hear wonderful little tidbits of thousands of people’s stories about their loved ones, their relationships, their special occasions, which I always found delightful. I guess at my core, I’m someone who is fascinated by people and relationships and stories, no matter what kind of work I’m doing!