Friday, July 20, 2012

Andrea Davis Pinkney: How I Got Into Publishing

Guest post by the Vice President, Executive Editor at Scholastic. She has been named one of the "25 Most Influential Black Women in Business" by the Network Journal and is one of the "25 Most Influential People in our Children's Lives" cited by Children's Health Magazine.

Andrea Davis Pinkney
I fell into bookmaking completely by accident. After graduating from Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications, where I majored in journalism, I pursued my one big career dream, which was to work at a high-profile magazine. Fortunately, that dream came true ― and it led me to children’s publishing!

Soon after my last day of college, I went straight to midtown Manhattan, and got a job in the editorial offices of Mechanix Illustrated magazine. It didn’t matter to me that the magazine was all-things-automotive. In my mind, I’d “made it”. I was working in publishing and living in New York. There was an unexpected bonus to the job. I met my husband, children’s book illustrator Brian Pinkney, who worked in the art department of Field & Stream magazine, across the hall. 
Learning to generate new ideas constantly, and looking for ways to pitch and position these ideas [...] would help me become a book editor.
In addition to meeting Brian, two important things happened around this time.

While I was at Mechanix Illustrated, I was also writing for several major women’s magazines and the New York Times. One of the gifts of being a magazine editor and writer is learning to generate new ideas constantly, and looking for ways to pitch and position these ideas, in the hope that a magazine wants to publish your articles. I didn’t know it then, but this practice would help me become a book editor.
I would call publishers and say, "Send me your best African American children’s books [...] .” That’s when I first saw there wasn’t a lot to choose from.
After Mechanix Illustrated, I went to Essence, the premier magazine for African American women. Essence needed an editor who had experience writing about cars, and could produce their annual car guide. I was hired as the Senior Lifestyle Editor. It was my job to oversee and gather the players to produce the editorial content for the Lifestyle section of the magazine. I was also charged with pulling together an annual holiday gift section that featured children’s books and book reviews. We wanted to include a rich mix of African American children’s literature in Essence, so I would call publishers and say, “Send me your best African American children’s books ― we’ll feature them in the magazine.” That’s when I first saw there wasn’t a lot to choose from.
Andrea and her husband, illustrator,
Brian Pinkney.

At the same time, Brian, who was still my boyfriend, was starting to illustrate picture books. When I saw the work he was doing, it intrigued me. The journalist’s “idea mill” kept churning in my brain, and I started to nag Brian. I would pester him with suggestions for book series, picture books, and novels. Day after day, I urged him to bug the publishers he was working with to publish more black books.

I also kept notebooks filled with ideas, and created a file of topics that I thought would make great books featuring African American subjects. Alongside these ideas, I put the names of possible authors and illustrators. One day, I presented my notebooks and file to Brian, and asked him to take them into one of his publishers.

That’s when Brian stuck it to me. He said, “Why don’t you become a children’s book editor?” My immediate response was, “No ― I’m a journalist.”

But with each year of working at Essence, trying my hardest to create a robust children’s book guide for African American parents, I was becoming more and more frustrated!

What happened next is where serendipity served up a big dose of glitter. I attended the Book Expo America (BEA) conference, where I met Willa Perlman who, at the time, was the new publisher at Simon & Schuster Children’s Division. I have a vague memory of blurting out my children’s book ideas, and I remember telling Willa about the struggles I was having at Essence in trying to fill the book review section and annual gift guide with an ample sampling of quality African American children’s literature. 

The notebooks that helped Andrea
land her first job in publishing.
Willa invited me to lunch the next week. I came with my notebooks and file of ideas and my list of authors and illustrators who I thought could bring these ideas to fruition. I also brought plenty of Essence magazines so that Willa could see there was a vibrant and eager customer base who would buy these books.

That’s when a small miracle happened. Willa offered me a job! I loved editing and writing for Essence and pitching articles to other magazines. But I started to see Willa’s invitation as a way to help bring more black children’s books to parents and kids.

My very first day at my new job in children’s publishing was humbling. At Essence I’d taken my work environment for granted. I went from a place where everyone was black to an office setting where practically no one was. I remember thinking This is different. It’s not what I’m used to. It’s a little strange, but okay. Adding to this, I immediately felt the impact of having no experience in the field and no track record. Coming to work with some notebooks and files filled with ideas was one thing, but now I had to turn those ideas into actual books! 

I did two things that got me started:
  1. I called every writer I knew from magazine publishing, and said, “Hey, wanna write a children’s book?”

  2. I somehow got my hands on a list of children’s book literary agents, and started to make cold calls to set up meetings.
It was slow-going at first. Other editors seemed to have great contacts, and the shelves in their offices were overflowing with books they’d acquired and edited. Thankfully ― and it’s one of the things I most treasure about children’s publishing ― everyone was very nice and super-helpful in showing me the ropes. And, one book at a time, the shelves of my office began to fill up. So did the children’s literature coverage at Essence magazine (especially since some of the books I was publishing were written by Essence staff members)!


  1. Oh, wow - we have all of this crossover now from adult writers getting into YA. Had no idea that this is how a few children's book writers got their start - from being at Essence at the perfect time! That's excellent!

  2. Thank you for this. You cannot know how much it means to me to read your story.

  3. What a fascinating story. I am endlessly intrigued by how way leads on way and how one chance meeting can change a life's direction. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  4. What a great story about how you got into children's publishing! Thank you for all you have done, and continue to do, to ensure that African-American children have books they can relate to, and for the opportunities you provided for African-American writers. My children have much more access to great books by and about African-Americans than I did.

  5. This is fascinating. Thank you, Andrea, for sharing such depth with us! (I heard you interviewed on Emma Walton Hamilton's Children's Book Hub some months ago.)

  6. Thank you for this post, Andrea. I love the photograph of your notebooks filled with ideas! It's such a powerful reminder of how jotted down ideas can become reality with lots of hard work and a dash of serendipity.