I have been reading Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom because I thought it would be useful for understanding one of my characters, who like Nordstrom, worked in publishing in the '50s and '60s. (Nordstrom was the children's book editor at Harper's, responsible for some of the world's most enduring children's books -- think the Little Bear books, Maurice Sendak's masterpieces, Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy and many others.) I have been struck by how little the day to day work of publishing has changed in fifty years. Sure, Nordstrom had to use an operator to place a telephone call in her early days, worked off of carbon copies, and used a telefax to send big news, but the basic elements of making books remains exactly the same. Here are 8 truths that are just as true today as they were in Nordstrom's era:
- The creative process takes time. Nordstrom's authors started books and stopped them, came up with ideas and abandoned them, turned one idea into another as they searched for the best stories to tell and the best shape for their stories. There are not overnight successes.
- Writers need critics. It's hard to imagine that a book like Where the Wild Things Are was ever anything less than perfect, but Nordstrom picked apart all her writers' stories, questioning every word of the story and every line of art. She was ruthless. And it worked.
- Deadlines loom. Nordstrom is forever writing her authors to ask, "Where are your pages?"
- The sales people matter. Nordstrom travels to Boston and Los Angeles, among other places, to attend sales conferences and pitch the books she's working on. She talks about what illustrations to put in the catalog to capture the sales' people's attention, and how to present the stories in the best light.
- The competition is at your heels. We think of today's marketplace as being wildly competitive, but it wasn't so different back in the day. Nordstrom would go to great lengths to prevent her writers or illustrators taking a contract from a competitive house, and she seemed to hate it when a competitive house came out with a book she considered great.
- It's good to win awards. Nordstrom had many Newbrry and Caldecott winners, and there was always much rejoicing because awards almost always mean bigger sales. Nordstrom often spoke about wanting to help her writers and illustrators make enough money to stop doing their day jobs.
- Books need champions. Nordstrom helped usher a book to publication that included the first-ever homeoerotic scene between teenage boys. (She was a staunch believer that books should never speak down to children -- it's very inspiring.) She wrote several letters to leading psychologists in order to get a quote that would lend the book credibility.
- Making books is satisfying work. What comes through Nordstrom letters is, above all, a sense of absolute joy. She obviously loved her work in a very profound way -- and that love is still the only good reason to do it.
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