Happy 5th Anniversary, drydenbks – Interview with Emma D. Dryden

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Emma - SCBWI LA13, credit Sonya Sones.

Emma – SCBWI LA13, credit Sonya Sones.

Emma D. Dryden is a children’s editorial & publishing consultant with drydenbks LLC, a company she established 5 years ago today, after 25 years as a publisher and editor with major publishing houses. I had the privilege of working with Emma on some picture book manuscripts when I first started writing just over four years ago. I thought it would be fun to celebrate drydenbks’ 5th anniversary with an interview.

[JM] Emma, what has surprised you most about the way drydenbks has evolved over the past five years?

[EDD] I have to say what’s surprised me most is how busy I am not only with editorial work—assessing and critiquing authors’ manuscripts and illustrators’ dummies—but with the consultancy side of my work and the teaching side of my work. I bill myself as a children’s book editor as well as a children’s publishing consultant and I am consistently surprised and gratified that I am considered a resource for advice, guidance, and support when it comes to authors or illustrators (or agents or publishers, for that matter) seeking career overviews, career coaching, assistance with maneuvering through apparent chaos or murkiness, clarification about the business and their role in it, and, quite honestly, a sort of life-and-work coaching. I’m also doing a lot more teaching than I ever expected; I’ve been speaking at conferences for a long time, but until a few years ago, I was speaking primarily as an editor/publisher representing not only my goals and interests for an imprint, but the goals and interests of a large company. For the past four+ years, I’ve been doing a lot more intensive teaching of all aspects of the craft of writing, of the craft and business of publishing (traditional, non-traditional, hybrid), and of the reinvention and re-imagination of oneself as much as ones work. Five years ago I couldn’t have imagined the breadth and depth of what I’m actually doing under the auspices of drydenbks; it’s all extremely gratifying!

drydenbks logo created by Anne Corvi

drydenbks logo created by Anne Corvi

[JM] How has your editorial approach changed, if at all, since becoming an independent editor? 

[EDD] My basic editorial approach was defined, honed, refined, and polished during my wonderful years working with mentors Deborah Brodie, Jazan Higgins, and Regina Hayes as a summer intern at Viking; with mentors Ole Risom, Linda Hayward, and Janet Schulman at Random House; and then with the inestimable Margaret K. McElderry, before I was given the reins as Publisher of McElderry Books and Atheneum at Simon & Schuster. So, given that rich editorial upbringing, I feel completely solid in my editorial approach, which hasn’t changed at all since becoming an independent editor. What has changed, however, is my editorial skills are sharper and my editorial eye is more focused now than when I was at a publishing house. This is in part due to the fact I have more blocks of concentrated time and energy to attend to one manuscript, and I will stay with a work from beginning to end without distraction; this is also due in part to the fact I am working for myself and no longer have to answer to anyone or anything except the work, the writing, and my editorial instincts. So saying my assessments and critiques of manuscripts are intense, specific, and frank (too frank, some might argue!) not because I’m looking at a manuscript or dummy with an eye to publishing it on a list that needs to make money, but because I’m looking at how a writer can become a better writer and how a manuscript or dummy can be the very best it can possibly be whether that author or project ever get published or not. Some would argue these are mutually exclusive, that an editor at a publishing house is not only looking for a project that will make money on a list, but is also looking to make sure a writer becomes a better writer and a project is the best it can be. I’ve found, however, that as an independent editor, I have a much clearer vision as to how to assist an author or illustrator achieve their larger goals with their writing and their craft without worrying about time or financial restraints that come into play that might work against the creative process. As an independent editor, I’ve had to figure out and define my own creative and business processes, and this is serving me extremely well as I work with authors and illustrators on their own creative and business processes.

[JM] In your opinion, what makes a good editor? And what skills do you need that might surprise us? 

[EDD] A good editor knows how to separate herself from the book she would write if she were a writer from the book an author is writing, thereby sharing an author’s vision rather than obfuscating an author’s vision. A good editor knows how to ask the right sort of questions in a supportive way that not only is an author or illustrator inspired to try something new and move out of their comfort zone, but in such a way that an author or illustrator feels safe in doing so. A good editor listens: to the voice of the author, to the voice of the main character, to the voice of the narrative. And a good editor is able to listen for something else as well: for the fears and doubts and dreams of that author or illustrator, for the truth behind the story, for the story that’s being told underneath the story, for the pulse of the project that the author or illustrator may not even know is beating. I’ve made authors and illustrators cry by asking them questions they were never asked before, that brought them to a deeper level in themselves and in their work. (I’m not particularly proud of making these people cry, but it always resulted in some sort of breakthrough and yielded the best work out of them, so I think that’s fair, don’t you?) I don’t think it will surprise anyone to know that to be a good editor you need to be something of a good therapist! I’m the first to admit that I am a total voyeur: if I could, I would peep through windows, poke through drawers, and spy in order to find out the story of an interesting someone or something! Because I’ve chosen to live on the right side of the law, I have resorted to being an editor: I get to peep through windows, poke through drawers, and spy all the time!

[JM] What is your best advice for authors and illustrators just starting out?                                                                                   

[EDD] Please please please join SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators)! I cannot extol the virtues and benefits of this global organization enough. I won’t list the benefits of being a member here, as folks can find out more about it on the website, but suffice to say, being a member of SCBWI allows you entrée into a community of like-minded, like-spirited, like-hearted authors and artists and we are a community who love to share, support, encourage, and mentor one another. It’s as valuable for resources and workshops as it is for community and networking.

READ READ READ! Read outside of your comfort zone—regardless of the age you think you want to write for, read board books, picture books, middle grade, young adult, poetry, nonfiction, and graphic novels. Read for fun and then read with discernment. Discern what you like and don’t like in a book by recognizing how you feel—what is your experience reading that book and why? Discern how stories are made, what page turns do for the experience of the story, what the bones or architecture is of the story behind the story, what is left off the page as much as what’s on the page, how white space is used, how something is shown without being told. The more you read, the more this will help your own writing and illustration craftsmanship. Apprentice yourself to the words and images of those who are doing the work and learn from them.

WRITE WRITE WRITE! Get into the practice of writing every day. Writing something. A poem, a scene, a setting, a feeling. Writing needs to be as much a discipline as it is a creative outlet. The more you write, the more you will figure out how to write, the more you will figure out what distinguishes your voice, the deeper you will go with your own craft. Keep doing it—not for publication or praise, but for yourself, for your spirit, for your own satisfaction. Just as you need to read outside your comfort zone, write outside your comfort zone as well—and be open to the surprises and the results!

[JM] What qualities distinguish the best authors and illustrators that you have worked with over your 25+ year career?                                                                                 

[EDD] I’m going to say that the best authors and illustrators have been those who’ve listened to me! I know! I know! This sounds so facetious, but I mean it in a way that’s actually quite serious: there are authors and illustrators who listen and do only and exactly what’s suggested or asked of them. Then there are the authors and illustrators who listen to suggestion and questions and take them deeply to heart, mull them over, and come up with solutions that not only answer the editor’s concerns or questions, but that bring new meaning and depth to a work. These are the authors and illustrators who are excited by the “what if?” aspect of the editing and revision process, who are willing to try, who say “yes” before they say “no,” and who relish the opportunity to work in a collaborative spirit with someone whom they know shares their vision.

The other thing that distinguishes the best authors and illustrators with whom I’ve worked is the author or illustrator’s willingness and ability to trust: to trust the process of writing and revision (and revision…and revision…and revision…!), to trust the process of editorial back and forth, to trust themselves that they can do something they never thought they could do, to trust me as a guide, to trust that the extra time they take with their work is worth it, and to trust that the journey is as important as the goal.

[JM] Have you any advice for writers working with a critique partner/beta reader?                                                     

[EDD] I’d like to respond to this question with a focus on a writer working with a critique group or beta readers, because in my experience it’s more usual for writers (and some illustrators) to have more than one early critique partner or reader, and that’s when the writer is suddenly dealing with more than one opinion, and often finds herself dealing with (aka juggling!) differing opinions and differing pieces of advice, which can make a person a little nuts.

I’ve written and spoken quite a bit on the subject of when to allow another person to read your work—and I feel strongly (really strongly, people!) that a first draft of anything is far too delicate and too precious to be shared with anyone. By the second or, better yet, third draft, that’s when I think you can share it with some trusted readers—and when you do, don’t just ask whether the reader liked it, but ask for feedback on specific things that you know in your gut need attention. For example, ask people to comment on whether the dialogue feels authentic to the age and psychological make-up of the characters; ask people to comment on the pacing—where does the story lag or speed up too much; ask people if certain images or scenes are clear; ask people focused, specific questions and that should help streamline the kind of feedback you get and make it more helpful for you to work with. If your readers want a little more on this subject, I hope they’ll take a look at this blog post: http://emmaddryden.blogspot.com/2013/10/falling-in-lust-with-our-first-draft-or.html

I’ve also come to recognize a key ingredient to what makes a successful critique group is the ability for the group to set boundaries and expectations in advance of anyone sharing their work. Sharing work can be a hard, painful, emotional thing to do, so I’m a huge proponent of setting guidelines for how critique will be delivered (for example, start with positive feedback, then move gently into things that may not be working so well in that reader’s opinion) and for how the author will listen and respond to that feedback (If I’m leading a group critique, I often won’t allow an author to respond until all feedback has been given, so that the author is not on the defensive but is, rather, listening and taking things in).

In no way is an author or illustrator obligated to do everything suggested to them by a reader/critique. In fact, in no way is the author or illustrator obligated to do any of it! However, if you’re going to ask for beta readers or early “reviewers,” then be sure you’re ready for the good, the bad, and the ugly. You need a thick skin to take critique, and it’s not easy. Then again, sometimes if you have a really good critiquer who critiques the way an editor might, by asking questions and posing “what if?” scenarios, that can be the most helpful way for an author or illustrator to feel confident about revising.

Honestly, I have turned away potential clients if my sense is that they’re just not ready for the sort of intensive editorial critique and assessment that I am wont to deliver. In those instances, I will encourage the author to get feedback first from a critique group, or at a conference with an editor or agent, or to take a writing class or workshop…so that the author becomes a bit more savvy to what it’s like to get and manage criticism and to think about how that criticism can evolve into productive, inspired revision. Your readers might enjoy my recipe for a great critique group:


[JM] You’ll be glad to know I have been working on specific and different questions for each of my three beta readers! You don’t just work with authors and illustrators. With whom do you work and what made you broaden drydenbks’ consultancy service to others in the children’s book industry?        

[EDD] Something that sets me apart from a lot of other independent editors is the fact I was a publisher for many years. The publisher hat is quite different from the editor hat, and so it’s been exciting to be able to bring my experiences as a publisher to bear on drydenbks’ consultancy services.

So saying, I consult with small publishers and presses by offering opinion and advice on the overall marketplace, on how to forge and fashion a balanced publishing list, on publishing strategies to suit the marketplace and the various channels into which they’re trying to get their books, etc. I consult with newer agents just developing their list of clients, and we discuss what sort of reputation and list that agent wants, what ought to be on their website, and how best to bring in, nurture, and manage clients—we also discuss how to ensure a healthy life/work balance (Note: I can advise people well on this matter, but I don’t seem to practice what I preach!). I consult with established agents who are looking for an objective opinion about some issues with an author, or some publishing strategy options, or some ideas as to how best to position a hybrid author, that sort of thing.

I am editing a terrific debut YA novel and several picture books for vibrant Little Pickle Press, and I’m currently consulting with two start-up companies, one of which is a brain trust set up similarly to a packager, and my role spans everything from offering editorial oversight, publishing strategy, illustration input, and formatting decisions to business model options, contract negotiation talking points, and brainstorming new book/series ideas; the other of which is the book-app-iBook company, Time Traveler Tours & Tales whose mission and focus I love: to turn history on! There, too, I provide editorial support alongside collaborating with the launch strategy for the company, researching audiences, scouting talent, being a cheerleader for the founder, and more.

It’s worth mentioning that I am on the advisory board of SCBWI and so pleased to be able to bring my unique point of view and experience as a former editor/publisher turned independent editor/consultant to bear on decisions and initiatives that affect the 22,000-strong membership. (And no, this is NOT why I suggested earlier that authors and illustrators join SCBWI. I was encouraging that long before I was ever on the Board!)

Honestly, there’s not much I won’t consult about when it comes to children’s books and children’s book-based content if I feel I can truly be of service and offer sound advice or feedback!

[JM] From which countries so far has drydenbks drawn its clients?

[EDD] Primarily from all around the US, but also from the UK, Canada, Mexico, Spain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Hong Kong, Japan, Africa…I’m certain I’m forgetting somewhere, but that’s a nice global reach, isn’t it? What fun that is to think about!

[JM] Working for oneself can be challenging as well as rewarding. How have you developed a healthy life/work balance?

[EDD] Hmph. As mentioned earlier, I’m not the best person to emulate when it comes to creating and maintaining a healthy life/work balance. I tend to work very late and through weekends, eat late, not exercise enough, and not pay attention to my cat enough. My partner also works for herself (she’s not in publishing, thank goodness!), we both work from home offices, and she’s not great at the life/work balance either, so we try to remind one another when to stop for the night, when to eat, when it might make sense to get some air, when we can put off something until tomorrow, and so on. I did just join a gym a couple of months ago (after three years of saying, “I ought to join a gym!”) and have committed to seeing a trainer once a week. That’s what I need when it comes to exercise—to have someone to whom I’m accountable. When it comes to my work, I am excellent at being accountable to myself and the high standards I set for myself (thanks to all those mentors I mentioned earlier who set very high standards for their work and for themselves!). When it comes to the life side of the scales, I need to balance a bit better—so I’m glad for trainer Jay in my life right now on that score.

Oops, sneaking in a pic of Emma snowshoeing in the Adirondacks last month to show she does know how to take a break!

Oops, sneaking in a pic of Emma snowshoeing on Lapland lake in the Adirondacks last month to show she does know how to take a break!

[JM] Any hopes for the next five drydenbks’ years?

[EDD] I sometimes think it could be fun to expand somehow—maybe bring on another editor who shares my vision and my standards to enable drydenbks to work with more clients—or perhaps combine forces with another independent editor so we create a larger company. But when I ask myself why I would really want to do that, I don’t have a good enough answer. Having someone with whom to bounce ideas around, compare notes, and touch base about the business is probably my best answer, because that’s what I miss most about being in a company setting (that, and having the company foot my bill for the Bologna Book Fair!) – but I can actually bounce ideas, compare notes, and touch base with other independent editors already, and indeed, I do that. So…in the next five years I’d like to continue the work I’m already doing, keeping it interesting, diverse, and fresh. I plan to stay open to the “What If?”s that come my way, the project that takes me out of my comfort zone, and the phone call with the person who allows me to try something new. As long as drydenbks is thriving and keeping me more than afloat, that will make me (and my partner!) happy.

Five fun ones to Finish                                                                                                   [JM] What artwork do you have hanging in your apartment? 

[EDD] My little home office is full of children’s book artwork. Here’s a sampling:

(Please click on each thumbnail for a larger image, credit and caption)

[JM] Cats or Dogs?


[EDD] My cat Charley Noble (even though he loves my partner more than me.)

[JM] Favorite park (national, state, urban) in the world? 


[EDD] I live and work in the apartment in which I grew up, which is on Central Park, so that’s a park I know and love. But in terms of a favorite park, I think I have to go with one of the few National Parks I’ve visited, and will say Zion in Utah because of its amazingly bizarre and beautiful and mysterious rock formations.

[JM] Love the cap! Go to snack/drink to keep the creative juices flowing?

[EDD] Tea—and the more caffeine, the better. Hot tea on the colder days, iced tea on the warmer days. I’m not a big fan of herbal teas, but my trainer (Ha! I love that I can say, “my trainer!” J) is encouraging me to drink more green tea and so I am. Because I do what he says (he’s quite large and rather daunting). And my favorite snack: berries! Blue, red, black, and any other color berry will do. 

[JM] Something surprising most people won’t know about you?

[EDD] When I worked at Random House, I authored a 2-in-1 Turnaround Book called GOOD MORNING/GOOD NIGHT. This novelty is out of print, but it was fun while it lasted. I also authored several coloring and activity books, including THE CHRISTMAS SURPRISE illustrated by the great Diane DeGroat, and I see it’s still in print!

9780679888765.RH.0.m 51nq9tdrEqL._SL500_-2

And you get to scoop my big news that has even surprised me: I am co-authoring a picture book that will be out in 2016! Rana DiOrio, the Founder & Chief Executive Pickle of Little Pickle Press and I are co-authoring WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE AN ENTREPRENEUR? that will take its place among the award-winning titles in LPP’s What Does It Mean To Be…? series.

[JM] Congratulations and thanks for sharing the scoop on Miss Marple’s Musings. I have reviewed others in this series on the blog  Emma, where can we find you online and are you doing any workshops/seminars this year that we should know about?

If anyone wants to stalk me later this year, this is where you can find me (Note: there’s a proper, legal, healthy way to stalk an editor, and I can cite an author who’s done it brilliantly if anyone’s interested!):

  1. Leading a craft-based writer’s workshop and retreat called “The Art & Craft of Writing Children’s Book Writing” July 5-11 on Martha’s Vineyard: http://noepecenter.org/emma-d-dryden-the-art-and-craft-of-childrens-book-writing-july-5-11-2015/
  2. As an SCBWI Board Member I will be attending—and also teaching at—the SCBWI Annual Summer Conference July 31-August 3, in L.A.
  3. Leading an intensive “Revision” program for the 2015 Better Books Workshop, a Craft-Based Workshop for Middle Grade and YA Writers October 22-25, Marin County, CA: http://betterbooksmarin.com/

HAPPY, HAPPY 5th anniversary to my mentor and friend and here’s to all the wonderful surprises for drydenbks in the next 5 years.

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25 Responses to Happy 5th Anniversary, drydenbks – Interview with Emma D. Dryden

  1. Emma sure is multifaceted and multi-talented! As an SCBWI member since 1992, I can vouch for it being the most excellent organization to join and belong to.

    And I am very envious of Emma having a print from Richard Scarry! 🙂

  2. I’m delighted and honored to be interviewed on your blog today, Joanna. Many thanks for the opportunity – and the great questions! It’s people like you who have shown such support of drydenbks and the services I offer to authors, illustrators, and others in our children’s book industry that have made this anniversary possible!

  3. That was just an excellent interview! And I agree wholeheartedly re: your comments on critique groups and beta readers. Knowing what to ask can make a BIG difference!

  4. Congrats on 5 years, Emma—you’ve been busy! Thanks for another great interview, Joanna. 😀
    p.s. Love the art in your office. Couldn’t ask for more fabulous decor!

  5. Wendy Greenley says:

    Based on feedback I’ve heard about Emma, it didn’t surprise me that I just checked availability at the Tampa retreat and it is fully booked! Maybe this is the year I’m brave enough to go to LA for the summer conference?!

    • If you’ve never been to the National Conference in L.A., you’re in for a treat. It’s overwhelming, though, so I’d definitely advise trying to attend with a friend and figuring out beforehand what sessions, breakouts, and intensives you want to attend, and whether you want a MS critique. The more you can prepare in advance, the richer and less chaotic the experience will be for you!

  6. Congratulations on five years, Emma! WOW, what an interview! I’ve always known (through reliable sources) that Emma is a great mentor for authors. But, now I understand why. It would be amazing to work with someone who really listens to you, is interested in your personal and professional journey, encourages you to search for the writer you want to be, is willing to stick with you through the trials and joy, and pokes through your drawers. 🙂 And, she loves what she does! This is an interview I will read again. Thank you Joanna and Emma for such an exceptional interview. I hope you celebrate tonight!

    • Thank you for your kind words, Patricia–much appreciated! A thoughtful, seasoned editor really should be in a position do all the things for their authors that you’ve listed so nicely here; sadly, though, many such editors don’t have the time to do this when they’re working under the confines of a publishing house’s demands. I’m glad to be able to offer support where I can!

  7. Oh Emma, such a life well lived. What a wonderful office. Love Charley Noble! 🙂 Congratulations on five fantastic years. Excellent interview, Joanna (as always). I agree with you on critique groups, Emma. Love the sandwich method too. Positivity goes a long way before you say the things that need work.

  8. Congrats on 5 years! Love the artwork you’ve got on display. 🙂

  9. Darshana says:

    Congratulations Emma !! It is an awesome accomplishment. I loved thoughts on editorial feedback. Only in the last few months have a I reached a place where I am able to process and effectively use this type of feedback. Now my goal is to be able to provide this type of feedback to my critique partners. I do hope our paths get to cross some day. You are a gem to the kidlit community. 🙂

  10. Thanks so much, Emma and Joanna for such a great post jam-packed with timely and helpful advice!

  11. great interview and insight from someone I’ve greatly admired for decades… and may the next five years be even more full and rewarding Emma! Hope to have a time to visit again one day soon…. hugs!

  12. I’m a little late to the party, but late or not, I want to congratulate you, Emma, on five fabulous years of drydenbks! Here’s to the next five, then ten, then…! This is such an excellent interview, Joanna and Emma. It’s great to get an overview of all you do. I hope you’ve taken some time (or will soon take some time) to go out and celebrate this milestone.

    What you said about trust particularly resonated with me: “to trust the process of writing and revision (and revision…and revision…and revision…!), to trust the process of editorial back and forth, to trust themselves that they can do something they never thought they could do, to trust me as a guide, to trust that the extra time they take with their work is worth it, and to trust that the journey is as important as the goal.” Thank you for those words to live by as a writer.

    Here’s to YOU!

  13. Linda Ashman says:

    Hello, Joanna and Emma! LOVED this interview (and I think I need to get a copy of WHERE WILL YOU BE . . .). Happy Anniversary, Emma–you’re an inspiration!

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