Sunday, March 29, 2009

What a Yahoo You Are Not (maybe)

I wanted to say a little something about yahoos, while we're on the subject. I know a lot of authors, and I know quite a few of them well enough to have a window into who they are personally, and the quirks of their creative processes.

And in their little ways, they're all yahoos. There's the one who believes her house is haunted by the ghost of a jazz musician, who only shows himself in the occasional scent of cigarettes in one room. There's the one whose writing room walls are covered in plastic insects. There's the one who always wants to argue with me about serial commas.

I recognize and embrace the fact that people are not homogeneous. We all have our oddities and weirdnesses, and creative people generally are more likely to see the value in their own quirks.

So if you've been looking at my injunction to prove "what a yahoo you are not" and thinking, "Crap, I think maybe I am a bit of a yahoo," that's OK.

It's not that I don't expect authors to be weird. Only to be high-functioning enough to recognize gradations of weird (eg that their collection of images of people sticking their tongues out is less "weird" than the collection of pickled roadkill in their basement), and socially-adjusted enough to know at what point in a relationship to reveal each weirdness.

Cover letters are not the place to bring across your oddities, but once I love your writing and have the sense that you wouldn't be a complete embarrassment at a cocktail party, you can start showing me some of the less-for-the-public aspects of your life if you like. Though, since clarity is never a bad thing, I still don't want to see pictures of the way you "dress up" for your husband. Ever.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Autobiographical Portion of Our Program

When submission guidelines ask for a bio of the author to be included in the submission packet, what are editors looking for in general? I have no previous publications to list in the bio, I'm still trying to get that first publication.
1. Don't be cute. At this stage, the bio is about information, not personality. (The bio that eventually goes on your book's backflap might have some touches of personality, but that's later.) So don't tell me you're a "former kid" or that while you're not an expert on a subject, you have "a lot of theories" about it.

2. Don't be weird. Discretion is the better part of valor. You're making a good first impression, so don't over-share. If you're a mother, it's ok to say you're a mom and leave it at that. If you're a mother of seventeen children (twenty-two if you count your husband's other wife's kids), then it's ok to say you're a mom and leave it at that.

3. Try not to veer off topic. I really don't care how many pets you have. Or their names. Or their recent surgeries.

4. Tell me if you are a teacher (not a homeschooler), a librarian, a bookseller, or if you work in publishing. I do not care if you are a nanny, professional clown, swim coach, or ventriloquist. I don't care if you're a fricking play structure-- it's not about how many children you come in contact with, it's about how many children's books you come in contact with.

5. Tell me if there's anything that will help you market the book-- a blog, a lot of experience giving entertaining presentations, whatever. Keep this to the things that will look good on paper-- if you happen to have a cousin with a van/loudspeaker setup, you're going to have to talk us through how driving through the city streets broadcasting "Come And Sit On My Lap and Other Stories! A Magical Trip to the Funny Spot!" is going to help, and that's a conversation for later, possibly with our lawyers.

6. If you are writing nonfiction, tell me if you're a specialist in the nonfiction topic you're writing about. Do not tell me you're in insurance if your manuscript is about caterpillars or teddybears. And if your manuscript is about insurance, well, your manuscript had better not be about insurance.

7. Tell me about your previous books published at houses that paid you for your work. If there aren't any, say "I am not previously published."

8. If you can't say anything else, tell me what inspired you to write about this subject, while strictly adhering to rules (1) and (2). Do not tell me that writing about unicorns is your "dream vision." Do not joke that the idea for your novel about mail bombs came to you after a particularly vexing experience with a publisher's submission process. Do not tell me you're writing about china dolls because you have a collection of 379 of them from around the world and they line the walls of your writing room and with them watching you, you "never have to feel alone."

As I have said before, every query, every cover letter, every submission, is really just trying to get across two big things: (1) How great your manuscript is. (2) What a yahoo you are not.

If you can get those two things across, you don't really have to worry about anything else.

Peeps (or Snarks) From Readers

I'm very surprised we haven't heard an EA peep (or snark) about the Newbery / Caldecott / Printz et al from you. I thoroughly suspect that you are the editor of some of the top winnas. (or are miffed that your books *aren't* some of the top winnas). C'mon---let's hear something of your thoughts....
Ahem. As you have guessed, I have many thoughts about the books that won-- as indeed I do every year. As you've also guessed, I can't share some of those thoughts and stay anonymous. So I thought I had better not share any of them on this blog. But if anyone else has thoughts to share, please do.

In Which I Wave the Magic Clue-by-Four

I'm working to become a children's book illustrator and would like to know how to set up meetings with art directors/publishers. I'm planning a trip to New York and Boston but don't know how to go about contacting publishers in these cities.
I'm glad you asked this question! The answer is no.

It would be a wonderful world if we had time to meet with every hopeful writer or illustrator who wanted to visit our offices and talk to us in person. It would also be a world in which there were about 15 more hours in every single day. And a world in which we were a hell of a lot less scared of stalkers.

We get regular phone calls from people who just happen to be in town! and thought they'd call us up! and see if they could drop in to show us their work!

Most of these people are simply not a great fit for our publishing list, and so are a waste of our time. And a few of them are CRAZY.
I've sent out a bunch of postcard samples of my work.
That is a good idea.
Generally the publishers websites and the book "Children's Writers and illustrators Market" advise against calling the publishers.
Reading publishers' websites and CWIM is another good idea! You're on the right track. Now all you need to do is believe what you've read.
I'm also wondering, should I bring printed copies of each of my self published children's books with me or incorporate the best images from each book into one portfolio? Thanks for any advice you can offer.
You should do none of those things. You should not visit publishers. You should not introduce yourself as a self-publisher.

Instead, you should (a) mail samples to publishers and (b) create a web portfolio. If CWIM or any of the other fine resources out there have other advice, take it.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

In Which I Wave the Magic Query Wand

I recently created an 30 page early reader children's book and have begun the process of looking for an agent.
There's the first problem. Don't talk about number of pages. Talk about number of words.
1a.) Is a hard copy of a query letter recommended over an email? Can you clarify what is preferred?
There's your second problem: I don't know the answer to this, because I don't know who you're querying. Everyone is different. Some agents prefer hardcopy; others prefer email. You should find out what the agents you want to query would like from you.
1b.) I work in the internet industry and was wondering if I could create a very simple website with a flip through of the book that would show all copy and images. Within an email query, I could paste a URL that the agent could click on to take them to the site to review the work. It seems like a very simple way to show the agent the book and what I'm all about and save time on both sides as the review would take five minutes instead of the mail it in, wait in the pile, usual procedure.
Take it from me, you are not the first person to think of this. But if you'll take my advice, you may in fact be the very first person to think better of it. I promise-- cross my heart and hope to die!-- that the method of querying that each agent requests (whether hardcopy, email, or hot air balloon) is what is easiest for them.

If you can think of a method that seems like it would be easier than the requested method, what that really means is that you think it would be easier for you in that position. But they know what is easiest for them.

Show them you can play ball. Show them you can read instructions, and did a modicum of research before querying. Show them you want to work with them. What many a querier shows agents is, instead, that he only wants to work with himself.

Wish granted!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

You Don't Want to Read This (you can tell from the title)

How much weight does a title hold in a query?
I ask this because I find that even though I LOVE my manuscript I have yet to name it (and I feel that maybe I'll know my title by the time I hit the turning point so I'm being patient). In order to find it easier in Word I gave it a really basic name that I am totally unmarried to. But when I select a name that I totally love, I realize it may be a 50/50 shot of still being the title by the time it hits the shelves (maybe the odds are even less). Plus something I may think sounds FANTASTIC may be really nauseating to the agent.
I see a hell of a lot of bad titles. And that's ok! In the realm of 'things we can fix' this is an easy one.

But occasionally I see a title at the top of a manuscript that's so ill-conceived and promising of all the skin-crawling wackiness that the slush can offer that... I'm done reading.

My readers-- who are very imaginative-- could not come up with any title more awful than what I see in slush. As clever as they are, they have the handicap of sanity.

But if anyone would like to attempt to come up with a truly slush-worthy title, have at those comments!

Slush and Punishment: Illustrated by My Child!

Except no, it wasn't.

It's a story about the emotional lives of a moose's antlers.
With badly-copied illustrations from If You Give a Moose a Muffin. The child seems to have "illustrated" the happy faces on the antlers.

Next up, a nice story about a naughty pencil named "Plagiarism".

Slush and Punishment: Shnookiedoodlepoo

Talk about being stopped dead by the title of a manuscript.

Of course now I wish I'd read a bit more so I could tell you what it was about, but at the time I was attempting to fling this manuscript as far away from me as possible. Only to find that the next manuscripts were "Shnookiedoodlepoo in the Sandbox" and "Shnookiedoodlepoo in Hot Water."

Friday, March 20, 2009

Parent Ex Machina

Some of you will be familiar with the term deus ex machina. But for those of you who aren't, the OED says:
"A power, event, person, or thing that comes in the nick of time to solve a difficulty; providential interposition, esp. in a novel or play."
It's not a good thing. It's cheating.

The term comes from the time in performing arts when, if the plot had gotten hopelessly away from the main characters and the playwright had utterly written himself into a corner, suddenly GOD INTERVENES. In the form of a figure lowered into the scene in a basket. Yeah, seriously.

So the hero is suddenly face-to-face with the dragon, and oh whoops, that's right, he lost his sword to that boggy tart in act 2, crap, I didn't think of that. So all he has now is a salad fork... well, shit. Oh! I know! GOD INTERVENES and turns his fork into a bazooka! Ta-dah! That's some good plot writing, huh?

No. It's some crap plot writing, and the reason is that the only satisfactory way for a conflict to be resolved is for THE PROTAGONIST TO INTERVENE. That's what your damn protagonist is for!

Now, in children's books, this is a particular problem. It's especially tempting, because children experience outside powers that providentially interpose themselves all the time-- they're called parents. Parents swoop in to solve kids' problems, give them things they couldn't have gotten by themselves, and save them from danger. That's real life.

But it's not real storytelling. So the next time you're tempted to lower a parent or other powerful adult into your plot to make things easier, DON'T.

To paraphrase G. K. Chesterton,
We don't tell children stories to teach them that there are dragons. Children know there are dragons; they meet them every day. We tell children stories to teach them that dragons can be slain.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Current Events in Slush

Squirrels: So 2007.
Geese? Over.
Timmy: Subsiding.

Currently: Chihuahuas. With photos.

Honestly, how many times do I have to tell people? Your dog is mind-bogglingly adorable to you. To everyone else, it's just a photo of some dog. If asked to use an adjective, I would go with "short". And possibly "brown".

Though a couple could easily have been asking for "vacant-looking", "lopsided", and "about to bite someone".

Don't. Write. Stories. About. Your. Pets.

Thursday, March 12, 2009


Following up on the QueryFail brouhaha, my fine colleague Erin Murphy (an agent) comes in with an example of someone who roundly deserves any finger pointing that comes his way.

She writes:
I have been queried via email by a man writing as [redacted], whose email ID says [redacted]--so I'm not really sure who he actually is. He has queried me at least once a month since November for an adult historical novel--the same novel in every query.

In November and December I sent him form rejections, which state clearly that I only represent children's books and outline my submission policy. After that, I just deleted his inquiries.

I just got another, and this time I sent him a firm reply asking him to remove me from his email list and stating how many times I'd heard from him already.

This is what I got back:

"I know you would like to be left alone. But you are a literary agent, and I have a job to do. And I do apologize for any future queries that you must receive.

"But until [my novel] is published, you will be queried."
I've withheld his name(s), but be assured that industry professionals are sharing it freely, so that no one accidentally ends up working with this [redacted].

Monday, March 9, 2009

All the Ways You Can't Make People Behave

The internet allows such free communication. It gives us the opportunity to open our minds to countless others, and it gives us the unfiltered thoughts of all the wide world.

The problem, of course, is that a bunch of the world has intellectual cooties.

As proven by QueryFail and the subsequent rancor over at Nathan's place.

If you didn't follow the twitter event last week, it was a few agents twittering in real time as they read queries and rejected them.

Some people felt it was educational and hilarious.
Some people felt it was unprofessional and an outrage.

But here's the thing: then some of them tried to talk to each other.

Honestly, people. When (a) two diametrically opposed factions meet and (b) at least one of them is really angry and (c) neither of them has weapons, you're really only going to end up with (d) name-calling.

You're all poopy-heads.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Wonderful Bookclub Books! Cheap, Badly Bound, Wonderful Bookclub Books!

In your recent posts you have alluded to the costs per book and how small the profit margin can be in children's book publishing. In light of this, i am curious about how book publishers work out deals with the scholastic book club. Does scholastic simply license the titles and make their own printings?
Scholastic's Book Club division is a whole separate arm of the company. Sometimes it will buy bookclub rights from a publisher (even another arm of Scholastic) and print its own bookclub edition of the book. Sometimes it will take existing stock from the publisher.
Book club prices are substantially less than what one might pay in a bookstore, how are such prices possible? When i order picture books via these bookclubs I never know whether I will receive a "normal" paperback picture book or one of the "stapled in the middle not glued" picture books which fall apart quite quickly in my classroom library. I assume this type of binding is done to keep prices down, does it really make so much of a cost difference?
Oh yes. Especially when you also use cheaper paper.

The idea of the Scholastic Book Clubs is to make children's books available at prices that children could conceivably afford. In poorer areas, this is a blessing, and studies have shown the important psychological difference that owning a book makes to children. (Which is not to say that learning to borrow books and use libraries aren't damned important skills.)
Do the authors/illustrators make the same money per book sold via these bookclubs as they do through the regular market place?
No, not usually. But it's good exposure for the book, and the SBC editions only sell in the bookclubs. For those of you unfamiliar with this, bookstores cannot order bookclub editions. The Series of Unfortunate Events books, for instance, were available in paperback through the bookclubs a long, long time before they became available in paperback editions to bookstores.
Last question: Is there any listing or way of knowing which publishing companies have "deals" with scholastic to sell their titles through the bookclubs?
Pretty much all of them.
I often hold off on purchasing new titles if I know they will be available more cheaply (or free with points). This works fine for books published by scholastic itself (ex. I held off purchasing Hunger Games, until it appeared in a bookclub flier), but how do I know what titles from other publishers will be available?
You don't! Ha-ha!
No, really, Scholastic decides which books it takes, and you find out when you get their catalog. Sorry.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Definitions for the Perplexed: Sell-In and Sell-Through

Many would-be authors are under the quaint misapprehension that all you have to do to get even the most niche-audience books on bookstore shelves is to publish it.

We know better, don't we. Bookstores have limited space, and that means two important things:
1. They aren't going to keep anything in stock if it isn't selling.
2. They aren't going to even try to stock something they're sure they can't sell. (Yes, it's possible they're wrong about that. Quel dommage.)

"You mean... bookstores refuse to stock a book?" you say. "Isn't that... censorship??"

No, it's business. And bookstores are supposed to know their clientele, and what will make an impression on them and what won't. (Also what will get them so het up they'll stop patronizing the store.)

refers to how well the publisher has been able to get books into stores. Good sell-in means retailers have shown enthusiasm for the book and have ordered it in approximately the quantities we had hoped--or better.

Good sell-in is a promising sign of how the book will do in bookstores (because bookstores are pretty good at knowing what their clientele will like), but it's not a sure sign. In a returnable industry, all publishers have had the experience of getting terrific sell-in only to receive most of the books back in returns, because they did not sell through.

Sell-through refers to how well the stores have been able to get books into the hands of consumers. Sell-through (which is difficult to track, except through unreliable Bookscan) means those books have really sold, and are not coming back. We can go to the bank with that money, instead of waiting around with it in our hands, to see if the bookstore is going to demand it back.

It's a tough, tough business, and it's only tougher these days. Do everyone a favor and go buy a book, ok?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Definitions for the Perplexed: Bookscan

Is wrong information better than no information?

For many publishers, the answer is yes.

Bookscan is a service that started in 2001, and gathers information from bookstores about what books are sold every week. Not all bookstores report to Bookscan. They have about 13,000 retailers reporting to them from across the country, and then they use the figures from each one to extrapolate about the retailers in each area from whom they don't have sales numbers.

So the sales numbers Bookscan reports are a guess. But on top of that, Bookscan is also only recording the sales of books in bookstores... which does not include any sales direct from the publisher, through school or library accounts, through bookclubs, etc etc etc.

A particular book's Bookscan sales number can often be half what the book's true sales numbers are-- and are sometimes more like a third or even a sixth! Bookscan is not terribly reliable.

Publishers know this, but at the same time, they have no other way to find out how the books at other publishers have sold. So in this case, incomplete information (and who knows how incomplete) is better than no information, at least to a publisher's mind.

"Wow, that's... boring," you say. "What exactly does this have to do with me?"

Well, I'll tell you. When an editor is getting ready to make an offer to you, she'll look up your past published books' Bookscan numbers, and she'll base that offer on those numbers. Modest numbers = modest offer.

Unless. Unless you've included in your past publishing information the real numbers from your royalty statements. Your publisher's numbers are always going to be higher than Bookscan numbers.

So keep track of your sales, huh? And let the acquiring editor know how your books have really done, because she'd rather raise confidence at the publisher with your past sales, and she'd rather pay you more if she can justify it.

And agents? I'm talking to you, too.