Sarah Jane Abbott is an assistant editor for Paula Wiseman Books and Beach Lane Books at Simon & Schuster. She started her career at S&S as a publicity assistant in 2013 before joining Paula Wiseman Books and Beach Lane Books as editorial assistant in 2014. She is also on the editorial boards of Simon & Schuster’s OfftheShelf.com and RivetedLit.com. She loves quirky, character-driven picture books with a lot of heart and unique, literary middle grade novels.
What was your path to getting into publishing?
I’ve always been a bookworm, but had never really thought about working in publishing; when I entered college I was studying international relations. Then I took a creative writing class as an elective and I loved it—and the professor encouraged me to pursue writing. So I switched my major to English with a concentration in creative writing. After graduation, I started applying for editorial assistant jobs at adult fiction imprints, but wasn’t having any luck. A helpful HR director advised me to broaden my search, so I started looking at entry level publishing jobs in many different departments and ended up in children’s book publicity. I was pleasantly surprised to discover a passion for children’s literature, especially picture books. I hadn’t read a picture book since I was a kid and had never stopped to think about how complex and beautiful they are; I knew I wanted to help make them. After about a year and a half in publicity, I got a job as editorial assistant for Beach Lane Books and Paula Wiseman Books and I’ve been here ever since. I feel so lucky to be doing a job I love thanks to some good advice and fortuitous coincidences.
When you read a submission, what are the elements that make you say, ‘I have to acquire this now’?
For picture books, I’m always impressed by manuscripts that are original and imaginative—stories that are unlike any I’ve ever read before. A lot of picture book manuscripts are variations on the same theme or story line, so I love when a story surprises me and feels fresh. Dashka Slater and the Fan Brothers’ The Antlered Ship (edited by the wonderful Andrea Welch) is a great example—there is a story that had never been told before and is entirely unique and transportive. I also love a picture book with a good heart that makes me cry. I am a big manuscript-reading crier.
For middle grade, I always love a voice that feels completely individual, quirky, and authentic. I also can’t resist a manuscript that keeps me guessing with some kind of mystery, twist, or supernatural/magical hook. I edited a debut novel (forthcoming June 26th) called The Boy, the Boat, and the Beast by Samantha Clark that begins with a boy waking up on an abandoned beach with no memory of who he is or how he got there. I was completely hooked from page one—I had to know what was going on!
Once you acquire a book, what can an author expect working with you?
Once I acquire a book, I like to get on the phone with the author (or ideally, if they are local or traveling to New York, meet up for coffee) to get to know them a bit and talk about their vision for the book and the story behind its creation. I love hearing about how the idea came into the writer’s head and the journey the book took to get to its current version. When I’m working on edits for a picture book or novel, I’ll write a letter for the author with my edits and suggestions, as well as mark up the manuscript. Then after giving the author a day or two to process, I usually set up a phone call to talk through the notes. I want the process to be as open and collaborative as possible.
What’s on your manuscript wish list?
I’m looking for quirky, character-driven picture books with heart and a strong plot; picture book biographies, especially of women and people of color whose achievements have been overlooked; nonfiction picture books about animals and nature; and literary middle grade novels with a well-crafted voice, especially contemporary realistic, mystery, and magical realism. I’m also always looking for picture books and middle grade starring children with diverse backgrounds, experiences, and voices that are underrepresented in children’s books, especially written by own voices authors and in stories that are not issue-driven.
Some more specific things on my manuscript wish list right now are: a non-didactic picture book exploring gender identity (like one of my new favorites, Julián is a Mermaid by Jessica Love); a middle grade novel like the film The Florida Project but with elements of magical realism; a middle grade supernatural mystery à la Stranger Things with a diverse group of friends; and a picture book biography of Neil deGrasse Tyson.