I often get emails from people looking to break into children’s publishing. I don’t have all the answers, but I do have some general advice I find myself giving again and again. Below are three steps, in order of importance, that I think writers should focus on:
1) Write a Really Good Book
First time writers don’t sell books based on partial drafts or outlines. They sell finished manuscripts. And there are a lot of finished manuscripts in the world. That means the first step is completing a book and revising it until it is airtight. Don’t expect an agent or editor to look at a sloppy manuscript and see the potential–that same agent or manager has hundreds (not an exaggeration) of other manuscripts to consider, and they’ll take the one that demonstrates the greatest professionalism and craft. Taking an example from my first book, Peter Nimble, I did about 15 complete re-writes before showing it to an agent … and then did another 3 drafts before the book went to an editor. I have yet to talk to a professional author who didn’t go through the same level of revision before finding a publisher.
2) Join SCBWI
The “Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators” (SCBWI) is a national organization with local chapters all over the country. This group is a fantastic place for both professional and aspiring writers and illustrators to gather and discuss craft and business of children’s publishing. The annual conferences are often attended by agents and editors who are looking for new books. I have a number of author friends whose careers were launched when they met an editor at an SCBWI event who requested to see their really good manuscripts (see above point).
3) Query Agents
If a lot of industries, the “it’s who you know” rule applies. Not so in publishing! Book agents read and consider manuscript submissions from unknown writers all the time–that’s their job. Nearly every writer I’ve ever met was pulled out of the “slush pile” from an agent who discovered them. Your job is to query agents who will best understand your work and be in a position to sell it. This means doing a bit of homework, by reading the Writer’s Market and finding agents who are looking for material like your book. The internet is awash with resources about how to approach agents. A good place to start might be Kidlit.com, a website run by children’s book agent Mary Kole. She answers questions about the dos and don’ts of querying better than anyone!
The above steps aren’t a guarantee of any success, but they are a good place to start! Also, I might as well link to this brief but eloquent video of Neil Gaiman talking about step one (which is really the only step that matters):
Recently, both my designer and cover artist have posted blog pieces talking about the process of making the Peter Nimble cover. Illustrator Gilbert Ford walks through the process on his blog, including showing an early idea for a die-cut cover with psychedelic eyes! Abrams designer Chad Beckerman continues the conversation, talking not only about the illustration ideas, but also the process behind settling on a typeface and selecting paper/foil for the hardcover casing — definitely worth checking out!
After a brief and incredibly productive hiatus, I’m back in blogger mode!1 This last week was an exciting one, as it officially marked the debut of Peter Nimble. Well, pre debut.
Every year the American Library Association holds an annual conference wherein a million librarians descend on an unsuspecting town.2 A post about ALA is basically a post about hanging out with amazing authors, librarians, editors, and illustrators. Instead of name-checking all the swell people I spent time with (save that for Twitter), I’ve decided to write a post about the five things I learned from my time at ALA:
1) Always Wear a Name Tag
For many years, I have considered myself too cool for name tags. In the same way that I refuse to run across busy streets (why run when you can walk slow and scowl?), I also refused to wear name tags. This changed at ALA. As I was about to pocket my name tag, a woman beside me saw it and exclaimed “You’re taller than I thought you’d be!”3 This woman was author Jo Whittemore, and she promptly introduced me to the Texas Sweethearts author clan. Within seconds, I was on my way to lunch with a half-dozen YA novelists who had plenty of good advice for a nervous newbie. That never would have happened without the name tag.
I also noticed that wearing a name tag seems to improve conversation. I forgot to wear it to a few events, and those were the same events where small talk stayed small — never really moving beyond “Where are you from?” and “Oh, the humidity!” I realize now that the purpose of a name tag isn’t to help identify yourself on a handshake, but to help five minutes after the handshake. It allows the person talking to you to casually glance down and remind themselves who you are … and the less time they spend thinking “What’s his name again?” the more time they can spend actually having a real conversation.
2) Ugly Ducklings Abound
I had a chance to to talk with a number of authors and illustrators about how their careers started. More than a few of them had published in obscurity for years before hitting it big. Some were trapped on the midlist. Others had their aquiring editors change jobs, leaving their books orphaned at the house. A few were even dropped outright. This really hit home when I heard Brian Selznick talking with Horn Book editor Roger Sutton. He alluded to a frustrating period during which he could only get hired to draw biographies of dead presidents. From that dark period came Hugo Cabret — a book that changed both his career and (arguably) children’s literature. This was but one of probably a dozen stories I heard with the same trajectory.
This is a good reminder for me as I’m about to send a book I love out into the world. This industry can be a real crap shoot. Sometimes great books can fall through the cracks. Sometimes terrible books are huge hits. The key thing for a writer is to keep believing that the greatest story they will ever tell has yet to be written.
3) Stay Humble
Related to the above lesson, I noticed how much of an impression it makes when a successful author hasn’t lost sight of the fact that they were once merely aspiring. This lesson was perfectly illustrated when I had the privilege of eating dinner with Abrams authors Tom Angleberger and Jeff Kinney.4 Jeff is a HUGE author. He’s pretty much ruled the publishing industry for the last few years. When he met both Tom and I, he asked us the same question: ”What was it like when you got the call saying you were going to be published?” It was clearly a go-to question for him, and one that speaks to his character. For him to ask other authors about “the call” not only graciously indicates that he considers us his peers, but also acts as a reminder that all the Wimpy Kid success he’s enjoyed is actually just gravy. The dream-come-true part of his life has nothing to do with bestseller lists, merchandising, or feature films … it is simply that he got to be published at all.
4) Don’t Tell Lauren Myracle Anything
One night at a party, a woman with whom I had been chatting mentioned that she thought I resembled Seth Rogen — not the most flattering comparison I’ve ever gotten.5 Even worse, my wife hates Seth Rogen, and she often uses his name as a sort of shorthand to describe all that is wrong with mankind. I mentioned this unfortunate comparison to YA author Lauren Myracle at the Newbery Banquet. Lauren is not one to pass up this sort of information (by “this sort of information,” I mean information that will allow her to mock you), and she promptly brought it up to the whole table — at which point I was forced to sit through a serious debate over whether or not the comparison was apt. Then she started bringing other people into the mix. For the rest of the night, I had strangers coming up to tell me I looked like this actor. The highlight was when an older librarian tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I was “Steph Rogaine” …
I have a henceforth enacted a “Don’t tell Lauren Myracle anything” policy; I would advise you all to do the same.
5) Librarians Love Free Crap
This weekend marked my first ever Peter Nimble signing event! Before the big night, a few experienced authors warned me that signings for debut authors can be humbling — nobody knows you, so why would they want to wait in a line to talk? This is probably true, but none of these authors knew that my publisher had armed me with a secret weapon: free crap!
The above picture is of the special eyeball tote that Abrams was giving away with copies of Peter Nimble. Within about thirty seconds of the doors opening, I had a line around the corner – all eager to get a bag. Here is a picture of my first ever signature for librarian and blogger @Jenbigheart:
The second day was even better, and we ran out of ARCs after 20 minutes! Even after the books were gone, people were running up to the booth asking about the eyeball bags.
Never again will I doubt the power of SWAG. Speaking of, for those of you who missed out on scoring a free copy of the book, know that I will be doing a ton of Peter Nimble giveaways this month, so stay posted!
- While I cannot promise that I will never take breaks from blogging, I can promise that I will only take breaks in order to write new books for you to read — as was the case this month. ↩
- I think the actual number was something under 30,000. But still, that’s a lot of ladies in glasses. For a video-look at the weekend, check out Travis Jonker’s post here. ↩
- I get this a lot. Apparently I look short in my headshot. ↩
- Tom’s kindness to me on this trip cannot be understated — he is truly a Gentleman among men. ↩
- For the record, the most flattering comparison I’ve gotten is “they guy who plays Darth Maul” … which I’ve gotten repeatedly. ↩
Today is the third day of Share a Story – Shape a Future 2011, an internet superfest designed to promote literacy. Each day this week bloggers all over the world will write on a specific topic — today’s topic is “Unwrapping Literacy 2.0.” Now I’ve already written a bit about the pros and cons of e-books from a publishing angle, so today I thought I’d discuss things from a young reader perspective. But first, a little background on reading development …
When I finished grad school, I took a job as a reading teacher for a company called the Institute of Reading Development. Our curricula were modeled after Dr. Jeanne Chall’s stages of reading development. Each stage is fascinating and worthy of discussion, but today I want to focus on stage two: “Confirmation & Fluency.”
This stage usually spans the 2nd and 3rd grades — just after readers have mastered phonetics and can now read silently. During these years, their primary mission is exposure: kids simply need to see as many words as possible so that their sight vocabulary can grow to match their spoken vocabulary. If reading development were a video game, stage two would be nothing but grinding.
The books children read during this phase are specifically designed to let the brain go on autopilot. They often feature simplistic characters and repetitive plots — think of The Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew. These are sprawling series books that could be read in any order because, ultimately, nothing ever happens in them.1 And that’s okay; such books provide an essential service to young readers: they deliver a massive amount of unchallenging yet engaging content that equips readers to move on.
These kinds of books remind me of something Neil Gaiman said at ALA in January about parenting: “It’s odd, because you spend all this time creating this brilliant, fascinating person … and if you’ve done your job right, at the end of eighteen years they leave you.“2 Similarly, if stage two books have succeeded, then a reader need never go back to them — and if they do decide to return, they might not like what they find.3
I think it’s appropriate that so many of these series books are mysteries. Mysteries are, by and large, not much fun to read once you know whodunit. Put the two things together and you’ve got a perfect marriage between form and function.
So what does all this have to do with “Unlocking Literacy 2.0?” Well, I tend to wonder whether an e-reader is a perfect device for disposable books — especially if young readers are able to pay for a subscription service that gives them access to all the Magic Tree House (or Tom Swift or Goosebumps or Boxcar Children) they can handle without burdening them with the physical remainder.
Then again, what’s the fun of reading a book if you can’t put it on the shelf when you’re done?
* * *
That’s it for me. If you want to read more about Literacy 2.0, go visit Danielle Smith at There’s a Book.
About a week ago, I got an email from my publisher requesting an author headshot. As you might imagine, I immediately began to freak out. I have been dreading the author photo for months now. First off, I’m not even sure whether I approve of the concept. As a reader, I sort of hate knowing the face behind the story. Secondly, cameras and I don’t really get along. The hilariously-deadpan photo from my “About Me” section? That was me trying to look approachable. And now I had to take a photo that would live on the back of Peter Nimble forever! In desperation, I reached to friends via Twitter and Facebook asking for tips and advice. Here’s what I got:
A) “Laura F.” suggested I put my hand under my chin so people know I have a heavy brain.
B) When I asked my agent what to do, he mentioned how much he loved J.R.R. Tolkein’s author photo and wondered whether I could do something like that.
C) “Go Sleeveless!” was the advice from my friend Kyle
D) Matt B. suggested I try and mix in a little Oscar Wilde.
E) John E. recommended I show off some of my other skills by flashing a yo-yo1
F) Several friends warned me against holding any books, so I decided to use them to prop up my elbow in the hopes it might further underline the heaviness of my brain (see “A”)
G) Knowing my love for Shel Silverstein, “Rob O.” wondered whether I should grow a beard like my icon.
H) My wife, not wanting to waste her weekend, recommended I hire Olan Mills to take the photo.
Put them all together and here’s the result:
It might be hard to see behind the glasses, but I also threw in a little “blue steel” to win over moms and lady-librarians. Overall, I’d say it looks pretty damn good … glad to know my friends are looking out for me.2
This week Borders booksellers filed for bankrupcy. This is a really sad thing, but it has been coming for a while now. I started to suspect something was wrong at the company about a year ago. It happened one afternoon when I simply needed to track down a copy of Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit. So I hopped in my car and drove to nearest Borders. Back then, I generally preferred Borders to Barnes & Noble because the staff was a) more knowledgeable and b) less likely to try and sell me a Nook. Anyway, when I walked into the store, here’s what I found:
That’s right; they had fifteen different Dickens titles, but no Martin Chuzzlewit. So I got back in my car and headed on over to Barnes & Noble:
Out of just three Dickens books, one was Martin Chuzzlewit. What’s the moral of the story? Barnes & Noble is staffed by secret mind readers.
Don’t feel bad, Borders. No one can compete with that.
2) A reader, Lisa, asked me how I thought Google Books fit into the piracy equation. I thought I’d take a crack at it here: Presently Google Books does not frighten me. Though their scan-first-get-sued-later approach is worrisome, they seem to be pretty careful about not sharing full documents from the private domain — only showing what is allowed under fair use laws. (Of course, for older open-domain books you can find the whole texts, which is a boon to scholars and society alike1.) Even if Google Books went evil, I still wouldn’t worry too much about them; the second they start giving away copyrighted material, every publisher in the world will start suing. Rather, my fears of piracy are all connected to the file “sharing” model in which individuals are the perpetrators. When file sharing becomes normal for books, there will simply be too many complicit in the crime for publishers or authors to protect themselves.
3) Speaking of file sharing, a good friend of mine, Kirby Fields, recently wrote an amazing article for Pop Matters magazine that chronicles his own life as a file sharer. It’s more of a memoir than an opinion piece … he takes us from his childhood recording jingles off the TV to his adult days swapping Mp3′s. It’s an engaging, slightly nostalgic look at piracy. Go read the piece — then give Kirby a book deal.
UPDATE: Author and friend Ernessa T. Carter left a really great rebuttal to my “books aren’t CDs” argument in the comments section … check it out here.
Yesterday, I talked a bit about some e-book fears that no longer worry me. Today, I’d like to talk about one outstanding issue that does frighten me. A lot. We already discussed a few ways in which publishing shouldn’t be compared to the music industry, but there is one aspect where the comparison does work: piracy.
Book piracy is nothing new. In the 19th century, America had very few rights protecting authors. Charles Dickens famously made a personal crusade out of slapping the wrists of adoring fans who had purchased unlicensed copies of his books. Even back then, American readers were incredulous: We gave you fame! Why are you complaining about money?
I think this attitude is coming back with the younger generation 1. Screenwriter John August recently posted a link to composer Jason Robert Brown’s website, in which Brown documents a debate he had with a teenager girl who was pirating his music. The conversation is fascinating and infuriating. You should go read it right now. I’ll wait.
Are you back? Are you terrified?
For those writing MG and YA fiction, “Brenna” is our readership; her opinions on the subject are ones that will directly effect our ability to provide for ourselves and our families. After reading that exchange and many others like it, I spent a few days being consumed with fear. So far as I can tell, it is an issue that no one in publishing wants to deal with. At ALA last month, I talked to a number of people in publishing who were all about e-books. Publishers are more than happy to speculate about how these devices will “change” their industry … but no one seemed willing to engage on the subject of piracy. The most I could get was some quiet muttering about DRMs … as though this technology could somehow protect books where it had failed with software, music, and movies.
It is unrealistic for publishers and authors to rely on tech companies to protect their interests. The fact is: Apple and Amazon will only protect the rights of authors for as long as it is profitable — because making profit is what businesses are designed to do. Similarly I think the ideological battle against a culture of piracy is un-winnable. Too many people in our culture have already bought into the “information wants to be free” philosophy2.
The problem with the “information wants to be free” model is that it’s not capitalist. It’s a great model … in a world where artists and thinkers are not expected to live off profits from their ideas. But that would require substantial support from the government or private benefactors3. Until that happens, though, the government has a responsibility to enforce the rights of content creators. Which they don’t do.
So where does that leave content creators?
I thought I’d take the next two days to reflect on e-books and The Future of Publishing. Many writers, agents, and publishers I’ve talked to view e-books as an existential threat. Today I’d like to play devil’s advocate and discuss a few reasons why I think (or hope) that e-books aren’t really a big deal. (Tomorrow I’ll be talking about the things to do scare me … a lot.) Let’s look at a few common complaints:
1) Reading an e-book isn’t reading!
This objection is pretty much limited to young readers. The fear seems to have been sparked by two recent newspaper articles about the rise of “enhanced” picture books1. Many people have wondered whether these e-books are really be more like video games or cartoons than books. Illustrator and artist Meghan McCarthy wrote a great piece on her blog talking about how the “enhanced” edition of P.D. Eastman’s Go, Dog. Go! makes a point of not showing words at key points of the story — creating an experience that is not much different from watching television.
I agree with her comparison, but not so much her conclusion. I do not think that these e-books present a new challenge to literacy. Converting picture books into television has been going on for decades … just ask LeVar Burton. Millions of children (myself included) watched Reading Rainbow and still learned to read. As with television, this is much more a question of parenting than publishing: the same kids who are allowed to watch too much TV are the same ones at risk of “reading” too many enhanced books2.
2) There’s just something better about ink on paper!
I wholeheartedly agree with the above statement — no glowing screen will ever compare to the look, feel, and smell of words on a physical page. That said, I think e-books have some very real advantages over traditional books. Not only are they more portable and ecologically responsible, but features like searchable text, instant definitions, hyperlinks, and clickable footnotes give them an undeniable edge3. For society as a whole, e-books are without question the better path forward.
So where does that leave us physical book lovers? I think that in the future, people who buy and read physical books will be very similar to people who listen to music on vinyl today. There is still a market for vinyl records, but it is a smaller one that is limited to collectors and fetishists. Frankly, I’m okay with that.
3) E-books will destroy the publishing industry!
Just a second ago, I compared people who collect books to people who collect music. Similarly, a lot of people have looked at what happened to the music industry as a sign for Things To Come in publishing. This usually leads to the following (terrifying) comparison:
physical books = compact discs
A friend recently pointed out a logical fallacy in this equation: books, unlike recorded music, don’t require an apparatus to enjoy. Recorded music is beholden to whatever technology a person owns (be it tape deck or iPod), and like all technology, those devices are bound to become more advanced and replace their predecessors. This point is not minor, as it reveals what the true books/music comparison should be:
e-books = all forms of recorded music
In the above scenario, the future of physical books looks suddenly brighter. In fact, it’s Amazon and Apple who need to fear what’s to come. The Kindle and iPad will inevitably be replaced by something newer. Physical books, however, will remain unchanged … as they have for over 600 years.
So that’s three e-book fears allayed. This post was largely me talking myself off a ledge. Feel free to let me know why I’m wrong, or any other points I may have missed. Tomorrow, I’ll be taking the other side of the debate and discussing the one looming change that I do think could destroy publishing. Until then . . .
UPDATE: you can read my followup post here.
- 1. The first was a New York Times piece discussing troubling trends in the sales of picture books; A few weeks later the Wall Street Journal wrote a piece about how publishers are poised to start creating “enhanced” picture books for e-readers. ↩
- 2. which begs another question: who the heck lets their five year-old have an iPad? ↩
- 3. Just ask any undergraduate English student forced to slog through Chaucer one word at a time … not that I’m still bitter or anything ↩
If my casual google search for “penguin canada, lynne missen” is correct, this news has yet to hit the internets …
UPDATE: a smart reader (read: my mother) observed that the press release is marked “January 20, 2010.” I’m pretty sure that’s a typo, but if not then I’m actually the LAST person to learn this news. Which would be par for the course.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
LYNNE MISSEN APPOINTED PUBLISHING DIRECTOR, PENGUIN CANADA YOUNG READERS
Toronto, January 20, 2010 … Nicole Winstanley, Publisher, Penguin Canada, announced today that Lynne Missen will take on the role of Publishing Director, Penguin Canada Young Readers, effective January 31st.
Missen will take responsibility for the publishing strategy and editorial direction of Penguin Canada’s illustrated children’s, middle grade and young adult titles; including brand and licensed properties.
“We are very excited,” said Mike Bryan, Penguin Canada President. “Lynne’s appointment comes at an exciting time, as the growth of commercial middle grade and teen fiction series continues unabated.”
Nicole Winstanley commented, “I am thrilled to have the opportunity to work with Lynne. Her dedication and commitment to publishing the very best in children’s literature is recognized by authors and agents in Canada and throughout the world. Lynne’s industry knowledge and keen judgment have led the authors she works with to great critical and commercial success and I am confident that under her leadership, the children’s program with grow and thrive.”
Lynne Missen said, “I look forward to this new challenge, working with Nicole and the great team at Penguin Canada, and following on the success of Penguin’s international Young Readers divisions.”
Lynne Missen has been editing books for over twenty years, and children’s books for the past thirteen. In 2002, she joined HarperCollins Canada as children’s book editor and was promoted to Executive Editor, Children’s Books, in 2004. Lynne has worked with bestselling and critically acclaimed authors such as Kenneth Oppel, Susan Juby, Eric Walters, Arthur Slade, Kit Pearson, Helen Dunmore, John Marsden, and Lemony Snicket.
The authors on her list have won numerous awards, including the Governor General’s Award for Children’s Fiction, the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award, the CLA Young Adult Book Award, the Saskatchewan Book Award (young adult), the Arthur Ellis Award (Juvenile Fiction) and many children’s choice awards. She has been nominated for the Libris Editor of the Year Award three times in the past five years.
Missen will oversee the highly anticipated publication of Lesley Livingston’s Once Every Never in July 2010. In the novel, Livingston, the critically acclaimed author of Wondrous Strange, introduces Clarinet Reid, a typical teenager who unknowingly carries a centuries-old Druid Blood Curse in her veins. With a single thoughtless act, what starts off as the Summer Vacation in Dullsville spirals into a deadly race to find a stolen artifact, save a Celtic warrior princess, and right a dreadful wrong that happened centuries before Clare was even born.
She will also shepherd Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, by Canadian screenwriter Jonathan Auxier (for publication in Fall 2011); Queen of Pyres, an epic series inspired by India’s swayamvara ritual, a sorcerer king and the reincarnation of his seven deadly queens; and The Wildlings, a three book series from Charles de Lint, to Canadian readers.
I should also add that she once edited a fine collection of Canadian ghost stories that included a piece from my favorite adult author, Robertson Davies (among others). Welcome to the Penguin family, Lynne!