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The Training Ground of Series Nonfiction:
A Conversation with Frank Sloan
By Anna Olswanger
Frank Sloan began his publishing career as art director and production manager of Franklin Watts. He moved to London where he worked on a number of publishing projects, but returned to New York in 1976 to become senior editor, later executive editor, of Franklin Watts. In 1989 he became editorial director of Crestwood House, Dillon Press, and New Discovery, nonfiction imprints of the Macmillan Children's Book Group. He is now publishing director at Raintree Steck-Vaughn where he oversees the Thomson Learning line of children's and young adult nonfiction.
Sloan's first book for young readers Titanic was published in 1987 and was listed as a Children's Choice title the following year. His second book Bismarck was published in 1991.
Anna Olswanger interviewed Frank Sloan at a Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators national conference in California where he was a faculty member.
ANNA OLSWANGER: Who published your books Titanic and Bismarck?
FRANK SLOAN: Both were published by Franklin Watts.
OLSWANGER: Did you go into publishing because you wanted to be a writer?
SLOAN: I wanted to be in publishing. Titanic came about by accident. I was in London the day that Ballard first found the remains of the ship. My boss was there and I mentioned to her that this would be a terrific children's book. She agreed, and asked, "Who are you going to get to write it?" I said, "Well, I'll think about that over the next two weeks." And I realized over those two weeks that I wanted to write it. The topic had interested me since I was a kid and I thought this was a chance I wanted to take.
OLSWANGER: Who edited it?
SLOAN: Another editor at Franklin Watts, because I couldn't both edit and write.
OLSWANGER: What about Bismarck--how did that come about?
SLOAN: It came as a follow-up to Titanic, which was a very successful book. Someone said, "Wouldn't you like to do something else?" I said, "Sure," and being ship crazy, decided I wanted to try something a little different, not a passenger ship but a battleship, a warship.
OLSWANGER: Will you write another ship book?
SLOAN: If there's time, but I'm tired of being typecast as a ship lover.
OLSWANGER: Do you like writing?
SLOAN: Yes, but I find it very hard. I was hoping this summer to have some time. I had a couple of things in my head that I wanted to write about, but I find it difficult to do while I'm working full-time.
OLSWANGER: How did you land your first editing job?
SLOAN: I was working at Franklin Watts. My background in publishing has been in children's books, but I was in production. I was in design. At that time, Watts was looking for an editor to do a strong trade children's book project with picture books. Someone felt that my background as an art director would help me tremendously, so that's how I got the job.
OLSWANGER: Were you an art major in college?
SLOAN: Art history, only because I didn't think I could pass my final exams in history which had been my major for three years!
OLSWANGER: Where was that?
OLSWANGER: What's your mission as an editor?
SLOAN: "Mission" makes me nervous. I don't think I have a mission. I feel I have a responsibility to do the very best I can wherever I'm working.
OLSWANGER: In general, do nonfiction editors want to find new authors?
SLOAN: Sure. The hope is that you can find terrific new Milton Meltzers, new Jim Giblins, new Russell Freedmans. And every time you get a submission in, you try to see if there's a kernel, or maybe more than a kernel, of a new person to develop in that nonfiction field.
OLSWANGER: Do you make a point of going to conferences to discover new writers?
SLOAN: It's hard, holding down a full-time job, but I try to. I have found some good people through conferences. And if I haven't found the right people with the right project, I can talk to them about doing other things. I see either the potential for a good writer, or a good researcher who can become a good writer with a little help.
OLSWANGER: How many conferences do you attend each year?
SLOAN: I try to go to about two or three a year. I try to do a regional one. I recently went to Denver, for instance. I try to get a sense of writers' organizations and how they function because I think that helps me as a conference faculty member.
OLSWANGER: At Raintree Steck-Vaughn, do you consider yourself a nonfiction publisher or an educational publisher?
SLOAN: I hope I'm considered a nonfiction publisher. The education side is worrisome. Most of the books I did at Macmillan and what I see coming up at Thomson Learning are curriculum-based, but I don't see them solely as educational. "Educational" tips over too easily into textbook and these are not textbooks. They might be considered supplementary.
OLSWANGER: Will they have bookstore sales?
SLOAN: I don't know. It's tough. Traditionally bookstores don't stock much nonfiction. At Thomson we're talking about the possibility of paperbacks, which would give them more bookstore appeal, but really, the paperbacks are for school use.
OLSWANGER: What's the best way for a writer to approach you? For example, is there a particular cover letter that sticks in your mind, one from the past that got your attention?
SLOAN: I can think of one that sticks in my mind as not getting my attention. People still use it from time to time because they believe I should be grabbed and excited. It's a kind of manic letter suggesting, "DO YOU KNOW THE LIFE CYCLE HABITS OF TREE SLOTHS? WELL, YOU SHOULD, AND HERE IT IS!" I'd rather have a much more sedate approach, an honest, sincere request to do a topic that the writer thinks is viable.
OLSWANGER: If a previously published writer sends you her new manuscript, does that make you think, "Uh-oh, something must have gone wrong between her and her other editor."
SLOAN: I think human nature makes me ask if there's a problem, but I don't let it get in the way. I know perfectly valid reasons why the new book shouldn't be published by that other publisher.
OLSWANGER: How do you know when a nonfiction book is good?
SLOAN: What makes a nonfiction book good is if it is responsible and engages the interest of the reader. I don't mean to put the writing next because I think the writing is important. Certainly if it does the first two things, engages the reader and deals with the topic responsibly, but isn't well-written, I don't want to think about it.
OLSWANGER: Do you think good writing is always published?
SLOAN: Wow, that's a tough one. I probably would have to say it is.
OLSWANGER: In your experience working with writers over the years, can you say what makes a writer grow?
SLOAN: It's interesting in nonfiction--the writing kernel has to be there. The growth, particularly when you are dealing with young writers who are not published, is in that writer's response to his editor's questions, his editor's needs. I will frequently get a manuscript that I'm not happy with, but I will work with the author on it, get it to a point where I'm happy with it and I think the author is. Then I'll try a second time, and in most instances the author will have picked up on what the problems were the first time around. I think that's a terrific achievement for a writer to be able to take direction and then create direction on his or her own.
OLSWANGER: Does ego prevent a writer from taking direction?
SLOAN: I don't think that kind of ego surfaces with nonfiction. It could be brain power. You know, it's probably a little bit of both.
OLSWANGER: Some writers think that nonfiction publishing is in decline. Do you agree?
SLOAN: At the conference we've heard a lot of badmouthing of nonfiction, and I've kept my mouth shut pretty much, but I think there are always going to be different kinds of nonfiction. There's really well-written, high quality nonfiction that trade houses publish, and there's good but perhaps not as magical writing that a lot of series publishers need.
OLSWANGER: You said you found it difficult to write while working full-time. Do you think that's true for most writers?
SLOAN: There are people who have full-time jobs and who write. I suppose it's a question of priority. It may be that I don't really want to write.
OLSWANGER: Did you learn anything about editing while writing Titanic and Bismarck?
SLOAN: I've always had a great respect for writers but I was an editor first, and when I wrote, it gave me greater respect for writers and greater understanding of what problems a writer goes through.
OLSWANGER: What's your day like as an editor?
SLOAN: It's awfully held up in meetings. I recently went through--literally--a two-day meeting. I don't get enough time to do any reading, or any kind of creative thinking. I must say, as I work more on a computer it speeds me up. If I want to look at the next year's publishing program and what I want to publish, I can do it very quickly on a screen. I'm not sure that everyone will call that creative, but for one aspect of my job, it certainly is. And I don't mind the meetings because in my situation at Thomson there are only ten of us. There is a great deal of relaxation. It's like a family. And everyone puts in and everyone takes out, and it's kind of a nice feeling. But you do have to sit in a lot of conference rooms to achieve this.
OLSWANGER: What sort of meetings are you talking about?
SLOAN: They're planning meetings. Last week, for instance, we were pricing all the books on next year's list so that we could get the catalog going. We were also doing a forecast--a long range plan. We sit down and say that we are going to sell 500 copies of this book, and you go literally title by title and make a good stab at what you think you are going to sell and then that gets translated into dollars, and then that gets translated into a grand sales total. It's very business oriented, which I don't mind. Five years ago I wouldn't have known how to do it. Today I do and I think it is a valuable part of the overall picture.
OLSWANGER: So you end up having to take manuscripts home?
SLOAN: Sure. I take them home over weekends. I take proofs home. It's very hard to get quality work done in the office.
OLSWANGER: Presumably people in publishing could work less hours and make more money at some other job. So why is someone like you in publishing?
SLOAN: I love books. I've loved books for fifty years.
OLSWANGER: As an editor, what could make your relationship with a writer go sour?
SLOAN: I think that as in life, you don't get along with everybody you know, or people you work with. You try to. Also, people don't deliver manuscripts when they say they're going to, or when they deliver the manuscripts, there are major, major problems. You're not going to cancel that manuscript just because you're not happy with it. You have to work on it. If an author by negligence, or sloppy work, is creating extra work for me, it's going to make me kind of nuts!
OLSWANGER: Are you comfortable with a writer who wants to help with promotion?
SLOAN: I have done some about-face on this over the years. I think more and more I am comfortable, simply because I know the restrictions of publishing houses' marketing departments and promotion plans. I'm beginning to feel that if an author is professional and can put on a good show, that author should do as much as he or she wants to.
OLSWANGER: What's a "show?"
SLOAN: Author tours, author school appearances. I think one of the delusions, though, is that authors feel they should be on "Oprah." They also feel they should be in the news media, and I don't think that's really a very effective way yet to sell children's books. I do think local appearances sell books. I think they help authors create an image for themselves that can be valuable along the line.
OLSWANGER: Do reviews sell books?
SLOAN: Wow. I don't know. My instinct--my heart--says no. I've seen wonderful books get wonderful reviews, and sell disappointingly. I've also seen books that are ordinary with ordinary reviews sell extraordinarily.
OLSWANGER: Do you ever hesitate to suggest revisions to an established author?
SLOAN: No. As long as the change is something I can back up, not just my personal response, I find established writers are the most reasonable to deal with. They are the most professional.
OLSWANGER: Would you prefer to deal with an agent, rather than an author, during contract negotiations?
SLOAN: It doesn't bother me one way or the other.
OLSWANGER: Are the advances and royalties lower in nonfiction publishing?
SLOAN: They are lower, but not in trade nonfiction. When Atheneum, for example, publishes a nonfiction book, it's going to pay a standard 10% of list royalty. I really can't speak to their advances but I think they will be competitive with other projects. Series publishers such as Thomson Learning, Crestwood, Watts do pay a lower royalty. I think they are coming back on advances a little more fairly.
OLSWANGER: Why do series publishers pay lower royalties?
SLOAN: Because they are selling fewer copies. They are selling strictly to a library market, so the discount is higher. There is less money.
OLSWANGER: Is that why they get such bad press?
SLOAN: I think houses such as Raintree Steck-Vaughn get undeserved bad press because of the cookie cutter look to their books. But series titles have to rigidly fit curriculum needs, which means they get less attention design-wise. Nonfiction should get better press. It's essential to evaluate truths, and series houses supply a good training ground for writers.
OLSWANGER: What was it like for the typical Macmillan author when Simon and Schuster took over?
SLOAN: An author is in a horrible position. There are three or four people here at this conference who have books dangling with the imprints I was with at Macmillan, and I can't answer any of their questions. I just don't know. I assume the books will be published. They are getting no phone calls, no information, and I really feel bad about that. I think that authors are not in a powerful enough position to be able to demand information any more than I am.
OLSWANGER: Are the books you publish at Thomson Learning different from the ones you published at the Macmillan imprints?
SLOAN: There are differences. I am publishing younger material. I am publishing things that go into bookstores, which is a change from what I was doing. It's different in slight, small ways, not overall.
OLSWANGER: Would you ever want to edit fiction?
SLOAN: Oh, yes. And I have. I was lucky enough at Watts. We didn't publish a lot of fiction but we did publish some, and I love it. I read it, children's fiction, all the time. I'm reading Madeline L'Engle right now.
OLSWANGER: Will you do any fiction at Thomson?
SLOAN: I doubt it. We did it at Watts because the Editorial Director and I really love children's fiction, but what we discovered was that if you're a nonfiction house you're a nonfiction house, and it's very hard to get the public to understand that you can do other things. And it's hard to compete with the Atheneums of this world who are really strong in fiction and have the right sales force and the right back-up material.
OLSWANGER: Would you ever leave publishing?
SLOAN: It's funny--when I knew I was leaving the Macmillan group, and for a while I didn't think I would have a job, it never occurred to me not to do something connected with publishing. I got a lot of support from people to become an agent, and then I realized two things. One, I am not tough enough to be an agent because I think an agent does have to be hard-nosed. The other thing is, if I had gone on my own, which was what really appealed to me, it would have taken me about five years to see any income. Let's say you're talking about a $2,000 advance. Fifteen percent of that doesn't pay for a lot these days. If I had been ten years younger, I would have done it without question, but no, I would never leave publishing. I wouldn't know what to do with myself.
Copyright 1998 by Anna Olswanger. All rights reserved. Copyright policy
Other interviews by Anna Olswanger are available at Anna Olswanger Books.
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