By Wendy Hinote Lanier
During the month of August, my fellow Ninja Stephanie Bearce talked with agents who are looking for nonfiction. In the wake of these interviews, I thought it might be nice to include one from the editor’s point of view. Today we are joined by the Managing Editor from Red Line Editorial—an educational publisher. I’ve had the opportunity to work with Nick on several occasions and knew he was a great choice to give us a behind the scenes look into this particular nonfiction market. Here, he answers some questions and gives some good advice for anyone who hopes to publish nonfiction.
Background: Nick Rebman is a managing editor at Red Line Editorial. He leads a team that produces nonfiction books for grades K–6.
What path led you to editing as a career?
I graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 2003 with a double major in history and art—which, it turns out, isn’t the most lucrative thing to have on your resume when you’re looking for your first real job. But somehow, I convinced a big software company to hire me as a technical writer. Twelve months later, I’d had my fill of writing instruction manuals, so I moved from Madison to Minneapolis with no career plan and no leads. I scoured the want ads (in an actual newspaper made out of dead trees) and saw an opening with one of the many educational publishers in the Twin Cities. Within a couple months of getting hired, I knew I’d found an industry I wanted to stay in.
In your current position, do you wear other hats besides the editorial one?
I wear the manager hat, but that’s pretty easy because everyone on my team is fantastic. I also wear the author hat from time to time.
Most of the projects you deal with are work for hire. Is that correct? How does editing a work for hire project differ from a regular trade publication? Or does it?
Yeah, I mostly deal with work-for hire projects. From my perspective, the best part about editing a work-for-hire book is that I can make any changes I want without asking the author. I’m sure that’s the worst part from the author’s perspective—but the reason it’s helpful for an editor is because children’s nonfiction books are usually produced in a series. For example, it might be an eight-book series on the Civil War, a six-book series on natural disasters, or whatever. In most cases, there’s a different author for each book, so the editor needs to make sure each book maintains a consistent tone and a consistent reading level.
How is editing nonfiction material different from fiction?
At the risk of sounding snarky, the biggest difference is that nonfiction has to be true. But finding the truth is often harder than it sounds, and sometimes it’s even impossible. From time to time, I have to cut a really interesting sentence because there’s simply not enough evidence to confirm it. Obviously, that’s not a concern when you’re editing fiction.
Another big difference with nonfiction is that the author’s voice isn’t the star of the show. Broadly speaking, the whole point of children’s nonfiction is to convey information. That means the text should be concise and authoritative. If the author is doing a good job, you won’t even notice the writing style, because you’ll only be thinking about the content. In contrast, a novel might have an entire chapter that conveys no information whatsoever—but if it’s written with a compelling voice that evokes an emotional response, it would be totally appropriate.
What is the market for nonfiction like currently? What’s the major difference between trade nonfiction and nonfiction for the educational market?
Unfortunately, the pandemic has shrunk the market for nonfiction authors considerably, because publishers have postponed the release of hundreds of titles. This has led to a backlog of books waiting to be released, which means development of new titles has slowed.
From an author’s perspective, the major difference between writing nonfiction for trade vs. the educational market is that with a trade book, the author is generally pitching the idea and has much greater control of the end product. In educational publishing, usually the publisher is hiring authors to produce text based on their established specs for a book or series.
What advice would you give a writer about breaking into the nonfiction market?
I have lots of advice, so this is going to be a long-winded answer . . .
First, I’d say you should read a bunch of children’s nonfiction because it’s important to familiarize yourself with the writing style and tone that publishers are looking for. Meanwhile, decide on a handful of topics that you’re most interested in writing about. Maybe it’s history, biographies, and social studies. Maybe it’s animals, the environment, and technology. As an editor, I’m suspicious of anyone who says, “I can write about any topic.”
Next, make sure you have a basic understanding of reading levels (ATOS and Lexile, for example). A book that’s appropriate for a 3rd grader is not appropriate for a 6th grader, and vice versa, so you need to be able to write for your target audience. With that in mind, start thinking about things like sentence length, word choice, the reader’s background knowledge, etc.
After you’ve read lots of nonfiction and familiarized yourself with reading levels, you’re still not ready to submit a sample chapter to a publisher. Before you write anything—and I can’t stress this enough—you should create an outline. Nobody else will ever read this outline, but it’s still important. One of the biggest problems I see, especially with new authors, is that ideas are poorly organized. So, when you’re making an outline, think about the main ideas that your sample chapter needs to convey. In a children’s book, each chapter might have three or four main ideas. Those main ideas will be the bullet points of your outline. Then, come up with a few sub-bullets for each main idea. The sub-bullets are pieces of evidence that support the main idea.
While I’m thinking of it, I should mention sources. As you’re doing your research, make sure that your sources are reputable. (I hope this goes without saying, but Wikipedia is not a reputable source.) Also, don’t rely too much on a single source, because that can introduce bias.
When you’re pretty sure that you have a solid outline, set it aside for a few days. Then look at it with fresh eyes and ask yourself some questions. Is everything in a logical order? Does each sub-bullet support the main idea? Can anything be cut? Chances are, you’ll need to do some tweaking. And that’s good! This is the best time to reorganize the chapter—not at the manuscript stage.
Okay, now it’s finally time to start writing. The chapter will basically write itself if you have a good outline, because the information will already be in the right order. Then, when your sample chapter is nice and polished, it’s time to submit it to publishers.
Remember, editors don’t have all day to look at submissions, so make sure your sample is relatively short . . . maybe 200 words for each level that you want to write for. For example, you might have a 200-word sample for grades 3–4, and another 200-word sample for grades 5–6.
Your sample should not be work that has already been published. As an editor, I don’t want to see a published sample, because that means another editor has already worked on it. In other words, it gives me no indication of the quality I can expect when you send me your first draft.
Finally, don’t get discouraged. Different publishers have different needs at different times. So, just because a publisher doesn’t offer you any work today, that doesn’t mean they won’t have something for you in six months. In the meantime, reread your sample chapter every few months. You’re always improving as a writer, so you’ll probably find things that can be fine-tuned.
Whew, I think that’s it. I hope this has been helpful!
A huge thanks to Nick from the Nonfiction Ninjas! Helpful indeed!
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The Nonfiction Ninjas are a group of writers with diverse ideas and a strong belief in The First Amendment. The views expressed in each post are those of the author and may differ from others in the group.