The Right Answer

By Carol Hinz
Editorial Director, Millbrook Press

From the first day of kindergarten to the day I graduated from college, I loved school. I worked hard on my assignments, and I enjoyed getting the right answers. Even in college when most of blue bookmy assignments were essays, I could still take satisfaction in having the right answer as long as my answer met the standards of the one person whose opinion mattered—the professor. (Right and wrong answers were a little more clear-cut in my math and science classes, but I was an English major, so I wrote a lot of essays.)

I often tell people that editing nonfiction is a bit like being in school—you’re always learning something new. But in one key respect, it most certainly is not like school. In many parts of book making, there are no right answers.

What do I mean by this? Well, what is the right title for a given book? The author, marketing department, art director, publisher, sales director, and I may all have an opinion. We can usually agree when a title is good—it’s attention getting, it tells readers something about what the book is about, and it reflects the overall feel or voice of the book. The same holds true for the overall cover design. But when an author and I are brainstorming titles, we don’t know exactly where the process will take us, and no magic bell goes off the moment we hit upon the title that will become the final title.

On his blog last week, Nathan Bransford asked his readers what makes a good first paragraph in a work of fiction. Not surprisingly, the responses in the comments section were quite varied. There is no right answer here—different readers look for different things from the books they read. No one book is the perfect book for all readers.

Often as a book is nearing completion, as the author, illustrator or photographer, and I a reviewing a book’s layout, new questions may come up. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s easy to reach a point where we can be second-guessing earlier decisions or obsessing over a minor detail. At what point does a change improve a book and at what point is something simply personal preference?

I’m in the middle of reading Jane Smiley’s novel A Thousand Acres right now. When I tell someone I’m reading it, I tend to misstate the title as One Thousand Acres. To me, it just sounds better. But this book won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and I pretty sure that it would not have sold one more or one fewer copy had the title started with “one” rather than “a.”

Every day, my colleagues and I are making decisions about books, from the titles to the design to the illustration style to the type of paper they will be printed on. We’re relying on our intuition and past experiences—how reviewers have responded to previous books, how previous books have sold, any feedback we’ve received directly from teachers or librarians, and our own preferences as readers. From time to time, I have to remind myself that there are no right answers to many of the things we do. All we can do is make the decisions we believe will be best for each book.