Editor Q&A with Scholastic Senior Editor Emily Seife and Sheila M. Averbuch

Emily Seife is a Senior Editor with Scholastic Press New York and was the person who brought the middle grade thriller FRIEND ME to acquisitions. Find out what drew her to the manuscript, why children’s books are her passion, and why writers are most likely to win an editor’s heart if they follow their own.

Q1: Thank you for joining me on the blog! Is it okay to kick off by asking a bit about how you became a children’s book editor and when you first knew that’s where your heart lay?

Thanks for having me here, Sheila!

I started my career applying for jobs in both adult and children’s publishing, but I knew almost immediately that children’s books is where my heart lay. The books that I read when I was little are the ones that have stuck with me the most. I still can’t believe that I have the opportunity to help make the books that shape, inspire, and create a new generation of readers. I’m thankful every day, especially now, that I get to work with books that are so hopeful.

Q2: Scholastic is the world’s largest publisher of children’s books and celebrates one hundred years in 2020. Any thoughts about how the editorial team is looking to bring the list into its second century and what you’d like to achieve?

It has long been a goal of Scholastic to publish entertaining books that offer both windows and mirrors to young readers. (Take a look at our Power of Story catalog to find some incredible new reads!) These days, we are working harder than ever to make sure that our list is one that reflects the diversity of our country. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but I’m proud to be publishing brilliant authors like Francisco X. Stork, India Hill Brown, Gail D. Villanueva, and Christina Diaz Gonzalez. I hope to continue to acquire and support own voices stories from creators of diverse backgrounds.

Q3: Thinking back to when FRIEND ME first came into your hands: what about the story made you want to acquire it? Is it true what we hear about an editor having a gut feel from the first page that an acquisition was meant to be?

Yes! With so many submissions coming in, a book absolutely needs to grab an editor’s attention right away, whether with spectacular writing or a great hook.

Kudos to you and your agent, because I was immediately intrigued when I read the pitch for FRIEND ME. A social media thriller for middle grade readers? A story that deals with online bullying? Tell me more!! And then I picked up the manuscript, and your writing completely grabbed me. In fact, I read it in one morning. At my desk at work. I rarely if ever do that; most of my submissions are read during my commute—when I had such a thing!—or at home in the evenings. But once I started this book, I was hooked. The characters were real, flawed, and loveable, and the pacing was absolutely phenomenal. Friend Me is a sensitive picture of a girl’s experience getting bullied, but also a nonstop thriller with unpredictable twists and turns.

There are a lot of submissions that I read that I like, that are well-written, or that I even think are worth publishing, but that just aren’t for me. An editor really needs to connect with a project in addition to believing that it can find its place in the market.

“I love character-driven stories, books with a big hook and a big heart, mysteries that genuinely stump me, and anything that can make me laugh. I hope to see all these things, especially from BIPOC or marginalized creators.” – Emily Seife, Senior Editor, Scholastic Press

Q4: During FRIEND ME edits I hugely valued the way you pushed me to keep working until I’d conveyed the main character Roisin’s predicament in the strongest way. Without your guidance, there’s no way the story would be what it became. How do you go about striking the balance with writers during edits: helping them see where improvements are needed without denting their confidence?

Thank you, Sheila! I only sign up books that I absolutely love, and I try to make sure that love always shines through, no matter how rigorous the editorial process.

When I acquire a book, I have to be willing to bring it to our acquisitions meeting, read it at least four times over the course of edits and copyedits and proofreads, and advocate for it in-house. It’s also entering into a new relationship with the author—always scary and exciting, and a big investment of time and energy! I wouldn’t take on all that work if I didn’t fully believe in a project. I hope that the authors I work with know this and enter into our work together excited for a real partnership.

Of course, everyone still needs encouragement along the way, and I always try to call out the moments that make me laugh or bite my nails! Praise is a strong editorial tool, too. Pointing out what is working can help an author see how to fix the trickier bits.

Q5: A lot of our readers are children’s authors. Can you give them any insights into Scholastic submissions: how many manuscripts you and your colleagues consider each year, how many you choose, and finally, what’s on your own manuscript wishlist at the moment?

I’ve never actually counted how many submissions I get a year, but I only bring a small percentage to the acquisitions table. I love character-driven stories, books with a big hook and a big heart, mysteries that genuinely stump me, and anything that can make me laugh. I hope to see all these things, especially from BIPOC or marginalized creators.

Q6: Any final thoughts on common pitfalls that children’s writers should avoid in their manuscripts, or key things we can do that would most improve our craft?

Read, read, and read! Read recently published books so that you’re familiar with what’s coming out in today’s market. That said, write the story of your heart, rather than feeling like you have to chase a trend.

Sheila’s local independent bookshop near Edinburgh in Scotland is the marvellous Portobello Bookshop, which has signed copies of FRIEND ME while supplies last at bit.ly/SMAbuyindie Or, find FRIEND ME at your own local bookshop here bit.ly/SMAorder

Scholastic Senior Editor Emily Seife is on Twitter here. Sheila M. Averbuch is a former technology journalist and author of the middle-grade thriller FRIEND ME publishing November 10, 2020 with Scholastic Press. Find Sheila at www.sheilamaverbuch.com or at www.instagram.com/sheilamaverbuch

The answer to The Social Dilemma is you

The Social Dilemma Netflix dir Jeff Orlowski with Sophia Hammons

If you use Netflix, you may have been nudged to watch The Social Dilemma, but if you use Twitter or consume any media that takes its lead from it, you may be discouraged from switching on this groundbreaking documentary and deprive yourself of the education of a lifetime. Here’s why you shouldn’t skip it.

I’ve written about technology for 25 years, and my heart fell this week as I witnessed the mixed reaction to The Social Dilemma from tech journalists who, unlike myself, are still deep in the industry. From Jason Howell to Will Oremus to Casey Newton, these tech bros have collectively critiqued, scratched their heads and LOL’d at the documentary and its interwoven dramatisation, which shows the effect of social media-fuelled bullying (the performance by young Sophia Hammons, pictured, is superb) and disinformation on a US family. Outside the drama, the rest of the documentary interviews thinkers, critics and former big-tech engineers who ooze techie’s regret.

What frustrates me most are the tech journalists who bemoan the lack of answers in The Social Dilemma – Oremus calls it “a wake-up call with no answer.” That spectacularly misses the point of this work, which admittedly is not pure documentary but rather a hybrid that, like the most impactful art, creates profound discomfort. The Social Dilemma is not a wake-up call, it’s a call to arms, more akin to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

As I watched Jason Howell and Will Oremus snigger because The Social Dilemma offers tips on managing social media manipulation and addiction at the same time it rolls credits, I wanted to throw something. Howell and Oremus argue that these tips (such as turning off notifications), come across as an afterthought, and are laughably inadequate – and laugh they did.

What they forget, from decades of drinking the tech journalist’s Kool-Aid, is that most people don’t know these basics of digital self-defense. They seem to miss the point that the role of The Social Dilemma is to stoke us to find answers, not to hand them to us. This is a dilemma, guys, it’s not auto-complete.

Everyone loves a car crash

The Social Dilemma’s central thesis, superbly described by lead interviewee and ex-Googler Tristan Harris, is that social media isn’t just addictive, it feeds us a customised truth. Here’s how it manages that: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other moreish tech like YouTube are powered by content recommendation algorithms which are so highly optimised using artificial intelligence that they feed us increasingly outrageous content to keep us engaged.

As Harris says, an AI that observes our eyes going to a crash at the roadside will conclude that humans love car crashes. And because AI doesn’t inherently understand truth or humanity, it only recognises its own objectives, so feeds us “engaging” content without compunction, up to and including serving us a personalised version of reality.

And users who’ve been duped don’t know they’ve been duped. That means you.

This is the real problem that The Social Dilemma points to: social media is a Trojan horse that hasn’t just allowed Greek soldiers to pour out and overwhelm us, it’s changed our perception of reality so we barely noticed the topless towers of Ilium burning around us.

Check your own symptoms

As fellow interviewee and Surveillance Capitalism author Shoshana Zuboff points out, the technologies behind tools like Facebook are designed to operate outside our perception, so that even if we do think online manipulation exists, we believe it to be an alt-right or ultraleft problem and ignore our own symptoms.

The worst thing about criticism by Oremus and others who blast The Social Dilemma – Silicon Valley insider Casey Newton calls it “ridiculous” — is that they’re stopping people from watching it and making up their own minds. “You’ve saved me an hour and a half.” “I was going to watch this but won’t bother now.” These are typical of the tweets underneath both the considered and the hot-take critiques of The Social Dilemma.

And so the self-blinding continues, because a hot take becomes truth that becomes gospel, and disagreeing with gospel is heresy. Otherwise reasonable humans who might have intended to watch the documentary suddenly become viscerally opposed to it – unaware that they and their viscera are under the influence.

What we have is a kind of societal psychosis in which not only do we profoundly believe things which may not be true, we don’t believe that we are among those being duped, stoked and gamed for profit. Societal psychosis is bad, especially in an election year. You don’t need to be an American like me to be affected by the fallout if the US’s deep fault lines fracture into Civil War.

So, democracy lovers, take action. Because the only answer to the social dilemma is you.

Watch this documentary and make up your own mind. Implement basic digital self-defense (disable all notifications, enable two factor authentication, don’t bring your telephone into the bedroom: use an alarm clock, embrace encrypted and no-trace tools like Signal and Duck Duck Go). Check your outrage before you click, react to or spread any content on social media: ban yourself from hot takes or tweeting while fired-up. Pressure lawmakers for new legislation where needed and regulatory authorities for enforcement where laws exist. Outlaw the big-tech business model – prediction products fed by our data, which use manipulation to keep our attention with lies so they can sell us stuff.

And start listening to people who don’t agree with you, and to people you’d decided to ignore. Before democracy and civil society are just #memories.

Sheila M Averbuch is a children’s author and former technology journalist. Her debut middle grade thriller FRIEND ME (Scholastic Press) publishes 10 November 2020.