SPECIAL FEATURE Q&A With Publisher Sarah Odedina

Sarah Odedina, editor-at-large at Pushkin Press talks to W&P Deputy Editor, A. M. Dassu about her role as an editor, the publishing market, what she looks for in a submission and her upcoming workshop to connect authors with publishing professionals.

Sarah Odedina has worked at Penguin Books, Orchard Books, Bloomsbury and was instrumental in establishing Hot Key Books before joining Pushkin Press to build their children’s list. Sarah has edited and published renowned authors such as Neil Gaiman, Louis Sachar and Celia Rees. She oversaw the huge worldwide publication operation of J.K. Rowling’s entire Harry Potter series. She is considered a leading figure in children’s fiction and SCBWI are thrilled to be able to share her insightful interview with you.

Hello and welcome, Sarah!

Q. What made you want to work in children’s publishing?

Before I started working in children’s books I worked in adult publishing and once I made the move I knew that I preferred children’s books. I think that books for young readers are harder to write, that the audience is very exacting, and that the published book has to be so slick and polished to really impress a young reader. Young people notice plot flaws no matter how small and they let you know! I have read quite a few books for adults that I feel could have benefited from a children's editor’s red pen. I also think that it is such a privilege to be involved in children’s publishing because the pleasure that children gain from reading, and getting hooked on reading, is truly one of the most important things. It is a good thing that we do by making books for young readers. It really does contribute to the greater good.

Q. You joined Bloomsbury in 1997 - what was your reaction when JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was signed? Did you foresee its potential success?

I joined just after the book was signed and I knew immediately that this was a book that had truly grabbed the hearts and minds of my colleagues. It is wonderful in a publishing house when everyone is pushing for a book to work, when editorial sales and marketing are all working hard to get the message across the world about one author and their work. It was a unique and special book breaking with a lot of the norms and styles of literature of the time and that really excited me. We knew the book would be a success because we had complete belief in the story and in the author but our aspirations for success were very much less phenomenal than the book has turned out to be. We thought it would win awards and had our eye on the then premier prize - The Smarties. I don’t think it would have been possible for anyone in their wildest dreams to imagine this level of success. Harry Potter broke all the rules and completely rewrote them.

Q. You have worked with some of the world’s most successful authors. Has this made you assess new submissions from debut authors differently?

I always look for the same things in any book: great plot, strong characters, unique voice. Elsewhere had it, The Graveyard Book had it, The Island had it, and my acquisitions by debut authors have it. I don’t have different standards for new writers rather than established ones. Each author has to be creating something that I feel will engage readers - and of course all those successful authors were debuts once upon a time.

Q. How long does it generally take you before you know if a manuscript is for you? Have you ever put a submission down after reading just the first few sentences?

I have known from page 1 (Holes and Boy 87) and I don’t tend to keep going if I am not fairly positive by page 30. Philip Pullman once told me that children don’t read past the first page … so why should I as an editor. If I don’t think that we can make the book work within the first 30 pages I tend to stop. I am quite tough but it is a tough market and there is a lot of competition and while I am very very open to working on a book in great depth, if I don’t feel by page 30 that a book has the potential to work I will add it to the ‘no thank you’ pile.

Q. What’s the best thing about being an editor?

The best thing about being an editor is being in a position to help authors realise their potential and to be the conduit between an author and a reader. It is a privilege and a challenge and a role that involves quite a few hats but the most important one is the hat that allows me to help an author get their book pin-sharp and focused and for the author to feel at the end that they really have written the best book that they could.

Q. What can SCBWI members do to ensure their submission gets Pushkin Press’ (your) attention?

A good submission letter, a concise bio and obviously a really compelling first 30 pages! It is important to have the story start at a point that you want to read on from, not to start with exposition, or weather, or waking up … Start with a bang!

Q. What are you working on at the moment?

I am working on editing three debut novels, one will publish this autumn called The Tunnels Below by Nadine Wild-Palmer, the next in February next year is called Gribblebob's Book of Unpleasant Goblins and then the final one in October 2019 - on Halloween, which is a perfect day for a book in which some of the characters are partial to snacking on humans retrieved from graveyards and that one is called The Dead World of Lanthorne Ghule. I am always on the look out for new books and really enjoy working with authors on their stories.

Q. Is there a particular genre or area that you’re looking to build in your list this year?

I am very very open on the style and genres that I am interested in. I look for strong author voices and the ways in which an author makes something their own, makes it unique and makes it special. Pushkin is known for its literary profile and I feel very at-home with that but I also think that the way that books work for young readers allows for quite a wide definition of literary and it does encompass books like Maggot Moon, Witch Child and Holes - all of which have a great story, compelling characters and very strong plot.

Q. Middle grade books are selling very well at the moment and were the focal point at the Bologna Book Fair again this year, why are YA books not selling at the moment? Is the market saturated? Should authors continue to write YA and wait for it to become popular again with publishers?

I am not sure why YA literature is not selling as well at the moment as it was but I do think that things go in cycles. Perhaps one of the issues with YA fiction is that it is feeling a little bit over-worked and so many of the themes and issues are revisited time and time again. Perhaps we need something very fresh and original? Authors should write what is in them and not what they think the market wants or publishers are asking for. Every time a book has broken out and excelled it has been something utterly unexpected and very different to all else that is going on. That really gives me faith in author-driven stories.

Q. You have organised a star-studded Writer’s Weekend Workshop, what was your reason for doing this? Why are you providing 10% of the places at the workshop free of charge to BAME writers?

I am interested in encouraging new authors and sharing information and advice to help those new authors gain access to the publishing community. I worry that while we all talk about the need for more diverse writers and stories on our lists, as publishers we are not that great at making the kind of changes to our approach to publishing that will allow people through to truly reflect a diverse reading audience.

The workshop will offer a percentage of the places available free to BAME writers with the aim of ensuring that the information shared on the course will be open to as wide a range of authors as possible. We have to try harder to make it better for authors and readers. I see the workshop as one thing I can do to open the doors to our industry. Everyone I have spoken to about the course, or have invited to talk or come to the networking lunches has been incredibly positive. I have to sell a few more places but in the first month since announcing the workshop I have had a wonderful response and over 30 applicants for the free places. I am really hoping to be able to accommodate most of those applicants and if I sell 30 places I think I will about manage it.

And now some quick fire questions!

Q. Favourite place to read?
I particularly like reading in my hammock. Other than that I can pretty much read anywhere if the book is gripping enough.

Q. Favourite character from a book?
Today, Stanley Yelnats. It changes depending on my mood but Stanley does tend to come up fairly often.

Q. Ebooks or paper books?
Paper! Even when buying a quick read it is paper and then I give the book away. I have so many books I can't really keep everything I read anymore (I do try to keep a copy of everything I publish.)

Q. And finally which house would the sorting hat put you in? Hufflepuff, Slytherin, Gryffindor or Ravenclaw?
Oh dear! I have no idea. I would have to leave that to the sorting hat and hope that I wasn't too far away from Neville Longbottom who is about my favourite character from the series.


Sarah came to publishing after starting a PhD and realising that reading and talking about books might not be as much fun as making them. Her career began as an assistant to a literary agent and has encompassed both sales and editorial, which she feels is a good grounding for a long-term career as an editor. It is always good to keep in mind that this is a business. Her most treasured part of her working life is getting delight from stories, which never seems to diminish.

Twitter: @sarahodedina

Website: writersworkshop.blog


N.B You have a fantastic opportunity to meet Sarah Odedina and spend a weekend with her and other renowned publishing professionals in July at her Writer’s Weekend Workshop. You can find out more about the event here.


A. M. Dassu is Deputy Editor of Words & Pictures. You can contact her at deputyeditor@britishscbwi.org
You can also find her on Twitter @a_reflective and Instagram @a.m.dassu

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