Episode 57! The Children's Industry and Aging: Conversation with Susan Van Metre and Alvina Ling
Welcome to episode 57 of our kidlitwomen* podcast! Every week this podcast will feature an essay about an issue in the children's literature community (Monday) and a discussion about the essay (Wednesday).
In this episode, Alvina Ling and Susan Van Metre discuss Monday’s anonymous essay about aging and the children’s book industry.
On today's podcast you will hear:
Susan Van Metre is the Executive Editorial Director of Walker Books, a new division of Candlewick Press. Previously she was at Abrams, where she edited EL DEAFO by Cece Bell, the Origami Yoda series by Tom Angleberger, the Internet Girls series by Lauren Myracle, THEY SAY BLUE by Jillian Tamaki, and the Questioneers series by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Pete Fornatale, and their daughter and Lab mix
Alvina Ling is VP and Editor-in-Chief at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (a division of Hachette Book Group) where she has worked since 1999. She edits children's books for all ages, from picture books to young adult. She has edited such books as A Big Mooncake For Little Star by Grace Lin; Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown; Dave the Potter by Laban Carrick Hill, illustrated by Bryan Collier; Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin, The Land of Stories series by Chris Colfer, The Candymakers by Wendy Mass, Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, and The Cruel Prince by Holly Black. She Tweets with the handle @planetalvina and is on Instagram @alvinaling. She lives in Brooklyn, New York with her cat, Venus.
Alvina: Hi, I'm Alvina Ling, talking again with Susan Van Metre. Today, we're discussing the anonymous essay, Since There Was No Place for These Women to Go Up, They Had to Go Out. This was an anonymous post about the children's industry and aging, and since Susan and I both work in the children's publishing industry, we thought we might have a lot to discuss here. Just to clarify, neither of us actually wrote this essay nor do we know the identity of the essay's author. So Susan, thank you for joining me again.
Susan: Thanks, Alvina.
Alvina: So I guess I wanted to start with did you see yourself in this essay or have you seen the scenario that the essay's author was talking about in your own publishing career?
Susan: You know, I did not see myself, but I certainly saw editors that I've worked with. I'm almost 30 years in publishing myself, and over the decades, I have definitely seen older editors who I think would have liked to work until retirement age being pushed out the door for a variety of reasons. When I worked at Penguin in the '90s, I saw six children's book editors laid off over the decade and four of them were in their 50s or older, and I definitely felt at the time that there was some kind of expiration date on editors that was invisible and troubling, so I don't know. Have you seen similar?
Alvina: I've only ever been at Little, Brown, and I'm coming up on 19 years. Our publisher who is just barely in her 50s has been with the company for over 30 years. We did have another older editor who was pushed out for a different reason, but is still in publishing, so this wasn't something that I had seen firsthand in my company, but I definitely ... Yes, looking at Publisher's Weekly or just social media and kind of seeing editors leaving, it's definitely something I've seen. I think one thing I wondered was there was one point that the essay made about older women leaving and then the male publishers aging in place, and that I thought maybe is not ... I didn't feel like that was quite accurate, at least not any more.
Alvina: When I look at all the publishers, I do feel like the majority of publishers are women now. I don't know if you feel the same way, but certainly at Little, Brown, HMH, HarperCollins, Penguin, Random House, I feel like all the publishers there are women. I think S and S has a male publisher, Scholastic, but it does seem like maybe that the tide is turning a little bit in that sense.
Susan: Yeah, I have to agree. I feel like when I think of the publisher positions around town, they do seem to be mostly filled by women. I do think that men in publishing are maybe tend to be found in departments like sales where there might be sort of more longevity, so maybe it does contribute to that sense that men are allowed to stay in their jobs into the golden years and women not so much. But that might be more of an editorial and sales divide in a lot of cases than a gender [crosstalk 00:04:10].
Alvina: But I do think it exists in publishing in general, so I think for example CEO positions, I think definitely are those still, when I look at kind of the top three positions at Hachette, I think they are all men, so I think that is where we need some work, but how much of it ... So I'm curious, because I've definitely been pretty open with people I work with or whenever I'm asked that I actually, like I don't want to be a publisher, which is something that was addressed in the essay. I just don't have those ambitions.
Alvina: But I do think perhaps maybe more men do have that ambition. I'm not sure.
Susan: Yeah, that's interesting, or feel more pressure to take that when the opportunity arises, I don't know. You know, I was a publisher when I was at Abrams for six years, and I actually did make the decision to move away from that role because I felt like it was taking me too far away from the editorial work that had gotten me into publishing. I found that I was being a publisher by day and an editor by night, and I could sustain it for a while, but I couldn't sustain it forever, so that was a personal decision that I made to kind of step away from that bigger role.
Susan: But what I will say is I do think that it gave me so much exposure and skill in the business side of the business that it did make me feel that editors and other creative people in publishing can be cut off from the numbers side, from that information, either because they're cutting themselves off from it or it's just not being made available to them. I think that can be dangerous for a creative person because they don't really understand what the contribution they're making is or not to the bottom line, and that can I think potentially put them in a vulnerable position in terms of their future at a company. My wish would be that companies would in general be more open with this information with creatives, not kind of put them in a sort of special corner, but allow them to really see the workings of the business. I just don't feel like there's any danger in that. I think sometimes management thinks there is danger in people having too much information.
Alvina: No. Yeah, I'm all about transparency as much as possible, and that's something that here at Little, Brown, we've tried to be more transparent with authors and agents, and of course there is a discussion of well, we need to be more transparent internally as well, so that is something we're working on.
Susan: You all have some really great reporting tools, right, where authors and agents-
Alvina: Well, you know, getting better.
Alvina: Yes, yes.
Susan: Yeah, good.
Alvina: We're getting there. We're trying. So you mentioned being at Penguin and noticing several older women being laid off for various reasons. Did that ever make you ... So have you ever feared for your own job?
Susan: Yeah. You know, I have to say I don't think you can be in publishing and not have some fear for your job because I think it's ... I saw this cartoon back I think on a work bulletin board back in the '90s when I was a young person in publishing that had a sort of consumptive lady on her deathbed, and the caption beneath it was "Book publishing, ever dying, never dead," and I think there is the sense always that the industry is on its last legs, so I think we've all developed this sort of healthy fear for our jobs, but it's true that it does seem to stagger on.
Alvina: It's funny because, yeah, I think we all get that feeling when we're called into our boss' office of, "Oh, I'm being fired."
Susan: Yeah, exactly.
Alvina: But I used to think, I used to wonder if only women felt that way, but I actually recently was in a conversation with someone, not in children's, but in another department where he was telling me that he was in constant fear of being fired, and like, "Okay, it's just human nature," I guess, or publishing in general, you know, if not, you're afraid of book publishing going down the drain, we're afraid of Barnes and Noble going down the drain, and then resulting in our jobs going down the drain.
Alvina: Anyway, that's happy to think about. Do you have any thoughts on ageism in general in children's publishing?
Susan: Yeah. You know, I do think that ... Yeah, and I'd be interested to hear your thoughts after mine, but I do think that in most creative fields, there's a sense that younger people are kind of closer to the most desirable audience, even if it's not children's books, but movies or television or whatever, and I do think that sometimes that's true. I just read about a U.K. study that says that your musical taste becomes fixed in your 30s and you're less interested in new music, and I think that younger editors are sometimes more open to what's new, following the trends a bit more, but I don't think children's books, I don't think our goal is always to be so trend-driven. I think that we're also all hoping to make that sort of timeless book that is read forever, so I think that it's good to have young people around. I think it's good to have their energy and their opinions and their sense of kind of what particularly teens maybe are interested in right now.
Susan: But at the same time, I think that editing is a really difficult skill to master. I don't even think I've mastered it yet, but I will say that I do feel like in the past five to 10 years, I feel like I've come into my own as an editor. I feel much more confident in sort of what I'm doing and what I'm contributing to books, and that's after 20 years in the business, so I think it is a little bit crazy to get rid of people just as they're sort of hitting their editorial prime. From my perspective, the strongest editorial department has a mix of young and old, and older editors need to embrace younger editors and vice versa. I feel like if we can keep that kind of healthy mix, it will make for the strongest lists, and I guess that's all the sort of ... That would be my sort of ideal scenario, and so I guess I am acknowledging that I do think that there is some ageism in publishing that we have to kind of be on guard for.
Alvina: Yeah. I agree. I think, and this is the point that the essay author made was that I think diversity is important in all ways, so whether it's race or age or gender, I think it's important to have all different voices at the table in acquiring books and editing books. It's funny though, not that I hope I'm not considered old yet, but-
Susan: You're not.
Alvina: I'm definitely one of the older editors, I guess right now at Little, Brown, and I think I found myself, I knew I would get to this point. I'm not a parent myself, but every now and then I'll read a young adult submission, and I find myself relating too much with the parents, and I'm like, "Oh no. It's happened." That's hilarious.
Susan: Oh gosh.
Alvina: But yeah, we need all types. I find where I do think that younger voices are valuable are when we're looking at things like covers. I think aesthetic tastes change, and I think that in that case, maybe more of the people making decisions happen to be older, and I think it's good to get all different perspectives.
Susan: Yeah. No, I totally agree, and you know, what do you think are some things that publishing could do to kind of combat age discrimination?
Alvina: You know, I think the point about internships and entry level positions being more open to older candidates, I think that's interesting. I know when I first started as an editorial assistant, and I didn't start right out of college, but I think I was 25, and one of my first duties was to hire an intern. I remember we had an older candidate and I knew instinctually I'm not going to rule out this candidate just because they're older, but I think it's when you think of someone that is in a more kind of administrative position where they're going to be in some cases getting coffee or just doing filing or just doing mailing and all these admin, sometimes it is hard to hire an older candidate.
Alvina: I feel like in my experience, we have hired older candidates for assistant positions, but maybe this is, and I knew they were maybe older and again still in their 20s, but maybe in their upper 20s, but they looked young, like they looked the part, so I guess that's kind of falling into that TV show Younger that was also a first, so there is ... But yeah, I think just being more open about that. Our summer internship is only for either current students or recent grads, but every now and then we will have a year-round intern that is open to graduates.
Susan: That's good, so that's good that you have the mix.
Alvina: Yeah, and I don't know, I feel like most internships these days are paid because of labor laws.
Susan: Yes, yes.
Alvina: So that's just something I will mention. I think our interns are paid $13 an hour, which is I think above minimum wage, so that's pretty decent, although still in New York, it's tough.
Alvina: Yeah, and other than that, I think ... Well, I'm curious what you think. I think because publishing is a business, you can measure in a way how much an editor is bringing into the company, so you can look at the books that that editor has acquired, and know if that editor is pulling their weight, I guess, so to speak. I do think, I'm not saying this is the case in all cases, but yes, I think the higher you rise, the higher your salary is, which means that the more money your books need to be bringing in.
Susan: Yeah, yeah.
Alvina: And you also need to be paying for your assistant, so there are some maybe non-discriminatory data points that come into play. When we're talking about afraid of losing my job, that's what I'm afraid of is that the older I get, I'm hoping that I'm not going to be more out of touch with the market and what the market wants because I think the truth is the majority of editors are women, so we're seeing women getting laid off. I don't know if that's proportionally? I don't know if women are being laid off at a proportionally higher level as men, so that's just something that I've been thinking about.
Susan: Yeah. I don't feel like I've seen statistics on that, so yeah, it would be hard to know other than to sort of maybe feel it when it's somebody in your department who's been there for a very long time who is more likely to be female to feel like there may be some discrimination at work, but I do think also that ... You know, I said that we need to be more open about the financial so that editors know what they're contributing, but at the same time, it is a group, the books are a group effort, so the success, so I think it's also important to see the success and failure of books as part of the health of the company as a whole and not the responsibility of just one individual.
Alvina: No, that's definitely true. Yeah, and it would be interesting to look at which books are lead titles, which books are getting the marketing support and the sales support, so yeah, there's so many factors coming into play.
Susan: Yeah, for sure, for sure.
Alvina: All right. Anything else here thinking about on this topic?
Susan: No, but I would like to ask you a couple of questions.
Susan: Okay. This is the podcast self-promo closing, and I would love to ask you, Alvina, for your elevator pitch of what you're working on now, either a book or a project that you're particularly excited about.
Alvina: Okay. Well, I guess I'm going to cheat and talk about two books. One I probably don't have to talk about it because it's I guess the host of this podcast, Grace Lin. Her newest book is coming out this August, which might be when this podcast is airing, called A Big Mooncake for Little Star, and it's Grace's first picture book in about eight or nine years, and it's the first picture book that we've worked on together. We've worked together on all of her early readers and her novels, but this is the first picture book.
Susan: Oh, I hadn't realized that.
Alvina: We've worked on it together-
Alvina: Yeah, and Grace, I think that some people forget that Grace actually started out as a picture book illustrator and author, so it's just nice. She's changed her style. It's basically an origin story of the phases of the moon, and it's so gorgeous and it's received five-starred reviews.
Alvina: So that's really-
Susan: That's crazy.
Alvina: I know, amazing, and then the other one is actually not written by a woman, but I think it's worthy of ... Well, that sounded funny. Anyway, the other book I'm excited about is the young adult novel called Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts) by L.C. Rosen, and I call it Dan Savage meets Pretty Little Liars. It's about an out and proud teenager who's gay and he starts writing a sex advice column. At the same time, he starts receiving secret admirer notes-
Susan: Oh my gosh.
Alvina: That progressively become creepier and creepier.
Susan: That's awesome.
Alvina: It's just so, so fun. When we signed it up, we knew it might be controversial because there is a lot of sex in this book, but I just love this book and I'm just really excited for it.
Susan: See, I don't think you're thinking too much like a parent if you're publishing that.
Alvina: Okay, good. Well, to be honest, I was like, "Well, there's a lot of sex in this book, but there's also a lot of sex ed," so that's not a bad pairing.
Susan: It sounds great. So what is your biggest publishing dream? You can think big and goofy, and yeah, the sky's the limit.
Alvina: I know. This is hard because I've thought about ... I think, like you, you had answered in a previous episode that you're living the dream, and I feel that way too, but maybe my big publishing dream is to win the trifecta, so I want to win the Newbery Medal, the Caldecott Medal, and the Prince Medal all in the same year.
Susan: Oh my God. I have to say I love that you're putting that out there.
Alvina: Yeah, I'm putting that out in the universe, but I'll also say because it's also crossed my mind is I love New York, and I also love working in an office, but I think I would also love some day to just have a vacation home somewhere and I could ... Agents do this sometimes. They're like, "Okay, I'm going to be in my house in the Hamptons for two months." It might be nice to say, "I'm going to be working in my house in the south of France," or in Rome or something for six months out of the year, I don't know, just to have that flexibility some day might be fun.
Susan: Okay. You know what? I have to say that the boldness of your dreams has emboldened me to say that I in the previous episode, you gave me a chance to say my dream, and I kind of chickened out, but I would say that I would really like to write a book myself one day. I'm putting it out there.
Alvina: Yay. I really thought that was [inaudible 00:22:46] a year ago. I didn't know you were kinda.
Susan: I know, but now I've committed, so I feel proud.
Susan: You inspired me.
Alvina: Okay. Yay, it's out there.
Alvina: All right. Well, thank you for joining me today.
Susan: Yeah, this was so fun. Thank you so much.
Alvina: This was fun. So this has been Alvina Ling talking to Susan Van Metre. Bye.