Like our workshop, these faculty interviews focus on youth novels. To read all years’ faculty interviews, see our Directory.
Associate Publishing Director
By all indications, Melanie Cecka is a writer’s dream editor. Her track record in the publishing industry is impressive; she loves working with the creative process, and welcomes debut authors who constantly bring “fresh perspectives to the page.”
Melanie’s path to her current career started with a writing major in college, and “vague aspirations of penning the Great American Novel—or rather, the Great American Short Story Collection.” Then, out of the blue, a distant acquaintance at Random House offered her an entry-level editorial position, which seemed “a lot more interesting” than her post-graduation waitressing job. Although Melanie spent her first two years in adult editorial, she decided fairly quickly that she was destined to be in children’s books, which, she says, has been her home ever since.
We are delighted to welcome Melanie to our 12th annual event, drawing writers and faculty of the highest quality—and to new books being published!
“One-on-one time with a writer is invaluable,” Melanie says, referring to the craft and business of writing. “The intimacy of this seminar is especially appealing because it means the conversations can go deeper.”Below, enjoy a preview of our in-depth weekend with Melanie.
I. GENERAL TOPICS
What do you enjoy most about being an editor? What’s your personal (and publisher’s) philosophy or mission?
My journey into children’s editorial took me by surprise in some ways, but really, it shouldn’t have. I was a voracious reader as a kid, and have always felt tugged by the creative process, so working in children’s editorial satisfies my interests in countless ways. Discovering new voices and stories, thinking about art and design, and always, always, thinking about readers, and how the books we publish will impact them, drives me every day. Each phase of childhood brings something new, and the right books are an essential part of shaping intelligent, creative readers and thinkers. I can’t imagine I could ever feel tapped out or restless because the book world is always changing.
Knopf excels at publishing books that are timeless, yet relevant to today’s readers. The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, and Wonder by R.J. Palacio are all excellent examples of Knopf books—the stories touch on different eras, the characters are wholly unique to their situations and settings, but they feel poignant and fresh and memorable with each and every read.
We are also committed to developing careers and publishing authors—whatever they may want to write—which is important because authors can grow and change as much as their readers do. My personal tastes are a good example, since genres or topics I once said “no” to have routinely shown up in the fiction on my list. So for me, publishing isn’t about a wish list or following a core directive, it’s about listening to my heart—as a reader and an editor—and trusting that when a story or a voice keeps pulling me back, it’s probably a book I should be publishing.
How many middle grade (MG) and young adult (YA) novels do you publish per year, and what percentage are debut authors?
Knopf publishes about 70 books each year, and I publish about 15 titles (picture books and fiction). Of the 10 novels I may edit in a year, 30 percent are by debut writers.
Which novel genres are you soliciting, or not?
I am open to all genres and every age group, though am somewhat partial to contemporary realism (MG and YA), and smart, accessible fantasy (MG). I definitely have a weakness for girl-driven stories—which is not to be confused for girly stories. I will look at some grittier/upper YA, but have no interest in New Adult as an area of acquisition.
What’s the outlook on YA novel trends—or is YA evolving past trends?
There are always trends, but I don’t know that we ever fully realize what they are until we’re smack dab in the middle of them—especially because the timetable from acquisition to publication is often 18 months or more. Right now there seems to be a renewed interest in contemporary realism, with great, unconventional relationships (whether romance, or just friendships.) Fantasy continues to have a strong fan base in MG and YA. Historical fiction remains difficult for YA, with a few notable exceptions. And certain genres—horror, science fiction—have devoted niche followings, but haven’t (yet) seemed to break through in a big way to broader readers.
Name some representative MG/YA novels you’ve edited in the past few years. Which aspects appealed to you from the query and/or manuscript’s first lines?
Dragon Slippers, by Jessica Day George. Jessica’s manuscript opened with the line, “It was my aunt who decided to give me to the dragon,” and I was hooked from there. Jessica’s voice is somehow sassy and warm, and her story—about an orphaned girl who is not about to stand around and wait for a prince to rescue her—was so fresh and clever and surprising. You can tell that Jessica loves the world she's created, and though the book is packed with action and adventure, it’s the characters who are driving the story.
The Year We Disappeared, by Cylin Busby. Cylin’s memoir landed on my desk with an unusual request: Did I know an adult editor who might be willing to look at it because she was pretty sure it wasn’t a book for young readers. Thankfully, she was wrong. It was a perfect book for teens. This amazing story of the shooting that nearly killed her police detective father and changed the course of her childhood forever reads like a thriller, but is quietly redemptive in the way that the best fiction is—and is all the more powerful because it’s a true story.
Queries, Craft, Critiques
Many publishers are closed to unsolicited submissions. Do you consider unsolicited queries; i.e., those without a referral (not a workshop attendee, etc.)? What are your usual response times—to queries and to requested manuscripts?
I am not open to unsolicited submissions with the exception of workshop attendees. My response time is probably 8 to 12 weeks—but arguably longer depending on where I am in the editing cycle of my current list. I read constantly and broadly for my division, so the queue of manuscripts in my Kindle (I read the majority of my submissions electronically to spare a few trees) never seems to be less than about 35 titles long.
Are query letters peripheral for you, or are they an important reflection on the author and manuscript? What makes a query irresistible to you—or not?
A query letter is always important to me in that it tells me whether an author understands his or her book well enough to position it, but we also don’t publish query letters. At the end of the day, it’s all about the manuscript and the emotional response I have to it.
How many pages do you usually read in a manuscript before deciding to continue reading, request a full, or reject the manuscript?
I can usually tell within the first 25 pages. If the voice doesn’t grab me, I may skim a few more pages at the halfway point, and then at the very end just to be sure I’m not missing something, but most of the time I will feel a connection (or lack thereof) pretty immediately.