Chapter One Keynote Address by Tara Weikum - The State of the Market

Tara Weikum delivering her Keynote Address

Tara Weikum delivering her Keynote Address

The state of the market for illustrators and authors with Tara Weikum, Vice President of HarperCollins USA.

The SCBWI delegates were very excited to welcome Tara Weikum to the stage. She is the vice-president of Harper Collins USA, as well as editorial director of HC children’s books. She has worked in publishing for over 20 years and publishes middle grade and YA (teen).

Tara told us that Harper Collins is the second biggest publisher of children’s books. They publish about 500 books a year including backlists and are celebrating 200 years of publishing this year.

Tara’s team of six people publish 10-15 books a year. Her passion has always been for YA.

She shared some of her favourites. For example, ‘Big Mouth Ugly Girl‘ by Joyce Carol Oates, ‘Inside Out and Back Again’ by Thanhha Lai, and showed us the covers of other junior fiction and teen fiction.

A few years ago Tara said she only had a few middle grade on her list. However, in 1996, the National Book Foundation began a category for teens. Now just about every publisher in the states has a category just for teens. YA had been very popular but there has been a tipping point and middle grade began making new ground. For example, ‘The One and Only Ivan’ has sold over 1 million copies. It was on the bookseller list before it won awards. Tara didn’t publish Ivan but is working with Kathryn on a new series in 2018.

Several factors have helped improve sales for children’s books.

  • The Times began a children’s book list and there are now six lists. It enabled the children’s list to become more competitive.
  • There has also been teen movies adapted from books which has resulted in lots more sales.
  • Social media also promotes books and enables authors to promote to their target audience.

During the years there was a downfall in selling children’s books, some booksellers blamed Amazon for the fall out in bookstores. Just recently, however, Amazon set up stores in America. E-books sales were also blamed, but recently there has been a downfall in this market. Based on research e-books peaked in 2014. Some books sell well in e-books, but now e-books are not so cheap. There is also screen fatigue, a lot of people like holding a book in their hands. Tara said they still expect to see some growth with ebooks but not like it has been.



We were all interested to know what was the biggest trend and groaned when Tara said colouring books are still selling extremely well. They are even selling colouring-in books to go with children’s books. We perked up when she said highly illustrated books such as The Dork Diaries and graphic novels are bestsellers, as well as novels and non-fiction with girls as main characters. Also books about science and computer coding. In 2014 people tweeted on the Internet about the lack of diversity in children’s books. Since then a hashtag and a formal organisation are addressing that issue and more diversity books are being published.

We Need Diverse Books #weneeddiversebooks


Tara ended with the following wise words. Don’t follow trends". It’s a good idea to read outside of your area, even if you are not writing those books.”

Someone from the audience asked whether American publishers were interested in publishing Australian stories. Tara answered that most publishers in the States only work with agents. There are hundreds of agents in the States. Agents are keen to take a chance with Australian authors, but there is a barrier if something doesn’t feel American. It depends if the humour and characters etc cross-over.

Maria Gill Roving Reporter





Chapter Two: Denouement and Resolution - Masterclass for authors with Tara Weikum

Vice President of Harper Collins USA, Tara Weikum

Vice President of Harper Collins USA, Tara Weikum

Listening to Tara speak about how to approach a revision after an editor has provided feedback was riveting. I took as many notes as my typing fingers could muster.

While Tara’s talk was based on her personal approach to editing, she provided us with universal truths about writing and revisions.

Tara approaches each manuscript differently. She speaks extensively with the author and aims to provide feedback that fits their needs.

She doesn’t make notes on the manuscript; she prefers to write an editorial letter.

Tara’s editorial letters:

  • Can be 20 pages, and they can be intimidating - not a sign your story is awful, rather a sign that the editor has a passion for your work, they are invested and want to make it as strong as possible.
  • Can be 3-4 pages - it varies depending on the book.

Tara usually writes her comments under subject headings, e.g. character development, pacing, voice …

The letters contain suggestions - not absolute changes. However, if she believes certain changes are necessary she discusses this with the author before signing them. Sometimes changes are deal breakers and she needs to be certain that she and an author have the same vision for the book and can work together to achieve it.


Tara suggests authors think about plot in terms of jacket copy:

  • How you would right your own jacket copy?
  • Can you describe your story in a succinct and compelling way?
  • What is the core story?
  • Which plot line is the reader meant to care about the most?
  • If you can write your own copy then you (and your editor) will have clarity about the plot.

Tara said editors are concerned authors will think they don’t ‘get’ the story if they question the plot. Instead, editors are trying to find out why a story is written a particular way and if there is a reason for the way a story unfolds.

Revision is more difficult if a story has layers of mystery and subtext, because any problems might not be obvious. Tara approaches these edits by pointing out that something isn’t working and she’s not sure why. Then it up to the author to think ‘what can I do to make this clear?’


Tara suggested we make sure our stories start in the right place. Beginnings need to include a set up and story thread that will lead the reader into the second chapter. The set up not just dumping reader in the middle of the action.

Number One Problem

The most common problems she sees is … telling vs showing. A way to think or fix the telling problem is to ask yourself:

  • ‘Can I show this through action and/or dialogue?’
  • ‘Would this scene be stronger if I show why?’
  • ‘By summarising this part does it keep narrative flowing?’ Closely followed by ‘If this isn’t adding to the story or moving it forward, then can I get rid of it.’


Voice can be elusive to edit, and it’s difficult to tell someone why a voice doesn't work. A problem with voice is usually caused by a conflict between the character on the page and the character the author is trying to establish.

Tara suggests an author figure out the reason why you write a voice in a certain way, if you know the reason then you’re more likely to develop an authentic real character.

Some things to think about when writing a teen voice include:

  • word choice - the way teens communicate, and
  • focus on what they care about.

Some other great points Tara made during her talk included:

  • When you receive feedback from an editor decide what makes sense for your story.
  • With critiques, sift through what is going to work as you contemplate a revision.
  • Editors want to collaborate.
  • You may not agree with everything you hear.

If you don't have a contract with an editor and they write to you, take what they say seriously because they would only do this if they believe a story is worthwhile.

Tara tries to get as much feedback as she can in an editorial letter so the author doesn't have to go through another revision thinking they could have fixed it the first time.

She never turns down something she loves, even if it needs a lot of revision. However, the authors writing ability has to be strong.

She pauses if significant changes are required to a manuscript e.g. an ending. Tara asks the author if they will go through a revision with her before she decides to take the story forward.

Finally, editors only sign up books they love because they need to sustain their passion for a story through the gruelling acquisition process.

Sketch attributed to Liz Anelli

Sketch attributed to Liz Anelli

Thank you Tara for the insights into your editorial process. We hope to see you over our way again soon.

Melanie Hill Roving Reporter