Margaret Quinlin Talks with Roger

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Longtime Peachtree publisher (and former owner) Margaret Quinlin moves over to Margaret Quinlin Books, one of two new Peachtree imprints (the other being Peachtree Teen). Margaret is inaugurating her list with a new book by Carmen Agra Deedy, the author of one of Peachtree’s first children’s books, published by Margaret in 1993. Seems like a good time for reflection, yes?

Roger Sutton: Your journey to children’s books took you through all kinds of other kinds of publishing first.

Margaret Quinlin: And I’d wanted to be an architect! I got sidetracked in publishing, the accidental profession, but I loved it. Conceptually, it’s not unlike architecture, in that you’re building things, and you can think about books in architectural terms — at least I can.

I started out working in educational publishing. When I joined Peachtree, the company was reeling from the loss of its editor, who had left to start another company. The owners were a lovely family; the mother, Helen Elliott, had started the company and wanted to publish Southern authors. Her children took over the company after she died. Publishing is a tough business, and as much as they wanted it to be a success, they didn’t know enough about it.

I fell in love with the company. Back to the idea of my wanting to be an architect — I love the idea of building things. I worked as hard as I could to try to help Peachtree find buyers, but it wasn’t going to happen. At one point, the owner said, “If you can figure out a way to buy the company, we’ll sell it to you.” And that’s what happened. I took over the company in 1990. It was in serious financial difficulty, on the verge of bankruptcy. I worked like a dog. I did everything possible to keep it moving forward. And on top of that, it was the middle of a recession. It was kind of insane that the company survived.

Over time, something I’ve realized is that organizations are actually very resilient, and you just have to have faith that they’re going to keep going and do whatever you can to make that happen. One of the early things that happened was this young storyteller named Carmen Deedy came into the office with her manuscript.

RS: She’s terrific. I love Carmen.

MQ: I do, too. You could see the brightness around her, even then. She had just started doing storytelling and had crafted a story called Agatha’s Feather Bed. And illustrator Laura Seeley had come to us with a manuscript — a finished book, practically — The Book of Shadowboxes. It was an ABC story in verse. Because I had a (very limited) educational background, I thought, why don’t we try this? That’s how we got our foot into the area of children’s books.

RS: I like your idea about editing and publishing as a kind of architecture. What happens to that metaphor if you extend it beyond a book, to a list or a publishing house?

MQ: They call it a publishing house, don’t they? And it has many rooms. To a certain extent, it has to have some cohesion, or you would expect it to, anyway, in order to be defined as an entity, or to be considered successful in the world of architecture. When you go into a book, there’s this spatial quality to it. It’s the way in which your mind takes up the imagery that is set out. As a list or a house, you can move to the different rooms, and hopefully they are united in some way. Over time at Peachtree, we collected people to work there, and they stayed. Kathy Landwehr, who was my critically important colleague for so many years, is VP and associate publisher at Peachtree. I’m still working with Vicky Hollifield, another wonderfully talented editor. Bit by bit we pieced together this culture, this group. What underlay it was our love of creating books and making them as good as they could be.

RS: Didn’t you also weigh it more heavily toward children’s and YA, whereas before it had been regional and general?

MQ: Yes, the list was regional and general, and we started doing children’s titles. We were a small company, and it’s just not sensible to try to do too much; we realized that and started narrowing. We were drawn to children’s publishing, we enjoyed it, and we were having some successes with it, so we just kept doing more. We never gave up our backlist, and occasionally we did something in the adult arena, but for the most part, we got deeper and deeper into children’s books.

RS: How long before you sold the company?

MQ: I sold it to Trustbridge in 2018. I bought the company in 1990, so close to thirty years.

RS: Was it emotionally hard to sell?

MQ: From about 2010 on — we had a recession and there were personal things (my mother was ill and passed away in 2016), and I was exhausted. I hadn’t thought about selling, but when I was approached, it was like a siren song. It was the timing of it; I spoke with Trustbridge for about two years before I sold the company. I liked the people, and they seemed interested in creating something special. I guess I lost faith because I began worrying about all sorts of things, like what if the many talented people at Peachtree left. This was a change for me because I’ve always been so optimistic.

One of the things that Trustbridge wanted was to grow Peachtree. They felt our scale wasn’t sufficient. I understood that, but then the pandemic came along and really got in the way. At the beginning of 2021, they decided to bring the back-office functions of Peachtree and Holiday House together. And reasonably so. You can’t really grow if you have a warehouse that doesn’t have sufficient size.

RS: Basic architecture.

MQ: Exactly.

RS: I see Peachtree is getting bigger, with a new imprint, Peachtree Teen. Was that something you began?

MQ: Yes, Kathy and I. We’d been talking about that for several years, and we found a fantastic editor, Ashley Hearn. She’s so in tune with the young adult audience. Her books are off to a very strong start. It’s completely different from what we had done — we tended to be a little more cautious in the topics we took up. So, we stepped far away and went forward with Ashley. Jonah Heller is the other editor who’s working on that list.

RS: Your imprint, Margaret Quinlin Books, is that a Peachtree imprint?

MQ: Yes, so now we’ll have two imprints within Peachtree.

RS: How do you see your own list growing? What’s the architecture going to look like? How’s the house, Margaret? You gave me this metaphor, and I’m going to run it into the ground.

MQ: I’m trying to decide what kind of house it will be. I hope it will be warm and welcoming. I like the idea of doing a few books really well. The thing for me is the visual. The quality of the package, the way the book is designed and illustrated — those are all really important to me, and I think they convey important information. With today’s young readers, the visual component is especially important. That’s not to diminish the value of the words by any means. I will be looking for really captivating writers of texts and creators of visual images. I hope the imprint will end up being something distinctive and unique. But it will be an extension, probably, of my own character and interests. I haven’t thought of a book on architecture, but it’s not out of the question.

RS: It’s pretty neat that you got Carmen Deedy back to inaugurate your list, with Wombat Said Come In (illustrated by Brian Lies).

MQ: It is, yeah. I love Carmen. She’s like a sister. We did a lot of wonderful books together. Martina the Beautiful Cockroach. 14 Cows for America. The Library Dragon. The Last Dance, which was something we did really early on. Over the years, we approached every book as a new adventure and learned our craft as editor and author in our working together. It was around the time of the pandemic that we fell back into talking regularly. That’s how Wombat came about.

RS: I love Wombat. I’m also reading one of the teen books, The Ghosts of Rose Hill. I couldn’t read everything on the teen list, but I started with that one, and now I can’t stop.

MQ: I know. It’s quite compelling.

RS: Will you be doing fiction on your own list, or are you going to keep it to younger?

MQ: Middle grade, perhaps, and probably illustrated middle grade, but not YA, no. There are plenty of talented editors doing YA at Peachtree, so it wouldn’t make sense to have that kind of overlap, and I don’t think my strengths are there. I do love middle grade.


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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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