Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Succinct Advice

I have written five self-published books, primarily because I know the poetry and short story collcetions are difficult to get 'published' by an unknown and I simply enjoy having them inprint for myself and friends and because the relisioug/spiritual books are too controvercial for most Christian publishers and who else is interested in publishing them. But I have a novel coming up and I want to make it available to lulu pre-publishing for those currently interested in it (and keep the rights) and also query it to publishers. Will they see my previous self-publishing and pre-publishing of this novel as a bad thing?
It will depend on the editor/publisher. If the manuscript is excellent, some may be willing to overlook your self-publishing.

They will not overlook run-on sentences and typos, however.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

How can I become a children's book editor?

I've been getting this question a lot recently.

1. You'd better be seriously interested in children's books. Not "I could be interested if I got a job in children's books". Interested NOW.

2. And that would mean that you're reading a lot of children's books --brand new ones-- NOW.

Wait, wait, you say. Isn't there on-the-job training? Why do I have to familiarize myself with children's books before I even know if I can have a career in them?

Because in spite of the low pay and long hours, we still have a lot of highly qualified people interested in being editors. And the highest qualification is the kind of book-industry knowledge that takes reading hundreds of books to acquire. Good sense about books is not something we can teach. Either you have it or you don't, and it will be much more apparent that you have it if you can speak intelligently about the books that are our current competition.

The times I have hired people, it's been pretty easy to cherry-pick the good ones. After tossing the badly-written cover letters, I ask the rest of them what they've been reading. People who are a good fit for the job have been reading a lot of children's books (and a lot of different kinds of children's books), and have a lot to say about them.

3. You'd better not have any fantasies about office work.

If you can't stand a lot of tedious paperwork, you don't want to work in publishing. We give our interns plenty of mind-numbing paper shuffling and form filling out to do, because if they make it to Editorial Assistant, it's only going to get worse. Eventually, it will get better... a little... and years later. In the meantime, you'd better be able to cope. I still have plenty of that sort of thing to do, and I do it as cheerfully and efficiently as I can so that I can get to editing and reviewing new manuscripts sooner.

4. Internships are a good way to get your foot in the door.

So have a look in your area for a publisher you could intern with. No, you can't be an editor remotely. If there are no publishers in your area, you'll have to move to where they are. Consider moving to New York. We're almost entirely here.

5. So is the Columbia Publishing course or other similar courses.

Good luck.

Writer's Block Is a Problem of Butts

I am a 26-year-old woman and work as a Feature Writer / Reporter for the Daily Star in Dhaka, Bangladesh. I have always been passionate about writing, but lately I feel as if I am going through this block which is simply lasting for too long. Not many writing workshops take place here. What can I do to improve my writing skills (reading skills as well)?
No doubt my readers can suggest writing exercises and even some online workshops. And I'm sure there are online comparative literature courses.

But what will improve your reading skills? Reading. Read the types of things you want to be writing.

What will improve your writing skills? Writing. As Jane Yolen says, "Butt. In. Chair." If you're experiencing writer's block, it may be that you can't write what you want to write yet, but it's perfect malarkey to think that you can't write. Sit down and start writing, whatever it is that comes out.

Friday, April 17, 2009

There's Good News and There's Good News. Which Do You Want First?

EA, can you talk about reviews? How important are they to the success of a children's book? Do all the "big ones" (Horn Book, Kirkus, SLJ, Booklist?) count the same, or are some more influential than others? How about bloggers like Fuse #8? And does it matter how well the review is written? I've been a little shocked by the low quality of reviews written by many teachers and librarians--misused words, poor grammar, incorrect details, and a general miasma of vagueness and confusion.
So You've Gotten a Good Review. The Good News Is:
The "big ones" (Horn Book, Kirkus, SLJ, Booklist, NYT, PW, BCCB) do make a difference.
People read good reviews and tend to remember them. In the constant storm tide of new books, we're all looking for the ones that we should flag mentally as standing out.

Some review sources are read more by a certain demographic than others (more booksellers read PW; more teachers and librarians read SLJ). But it's hard to say that one is more influential than another. Any good review from the top reviewers gives the publisher's Sales and Marketing people a chance to go back to accounts (like B&N, eg) and say, "Hey, did you see this review? Are you sure you don't want to stock some more?" Good reviews can boost sales. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don't but at the very least it's an opportunity.

Of course, we've all seen some books get terrific reviews and sell a paltry few thousand copies, which is hard and frustrating. But if the book added to the publisher's name and image with good reviews, that's some salve to the hurt of not earning out.

So You've Gotten a Bad Review. The Good News Is:
Nobody cares.

No, really. You're the only one.

It's all kinds of hard for authors to believe, but your editor sees a bad review and shrugs. No, not because she has other books that she now understands are more worthy of her love. Because every one of us has seen reviewers in pissy moods skewer a book that we know doesn't deserve it-- and most importantly because we know that bad reviews don't hurt sales.

This is because people read bad reviews and tend to forget all about them. In the constant storm tide of new books, we're all looking for the ones that we should flag mentally as standing out-- and we simply don't have the RAM to remember the ones that are not supposed to be stand-outs. What this has meant to more than one book is crappy reviews followed by a stint on the NYT bestseller list. Because the book turned out to appeal to a lot of people, and none of them could remember that they weren't supposed to like it.

Bad reviews don't matter.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Art for Art's Sake...
Is Fine if You Don't Want to Be Paid

Adam Rex's Frankenstein books are also broadly categorizable [as a picture story book]. A little further afield is everyone's favorite genre-buster The Invention of Hugo Cabret which had already spent time on the NY Times bestseller list before it won the Caldecott.

All of which is my way of saying that it makes me a little nutty to hear all this talk of categories as if these things were as fixed as the elements on the periodic table. They're not. Terms change; requirements are absolutely inflexible... until they flex.

I understand that bookstores and libraries have to shelve populations, not individuals. But figuring out how to do that is their job, not mine.

The most interesting and creative work being done in our field right now is by people who aren't lining up with established formats: Brian Selznick, Shaun Tan, Adam Rex... even Kevin Henkes, who's a master of the 32-page picture book, has been doing all kinds of interesting things with smaller page counts.

Writing strictly to specification is a way to get ad copy, not art.
I agree. But I would like to expand just a bit on a couple points:

It gets tricky when any writer compares him/herself to bestsellers and award-winners.
For one thing, you cannot predict what will be a bestseller or an award winner.

And for another thing, you shouldn't compare yourself to anyone who is doing something brilliantly unless you understand all the things they are doing brilliantly in it. Not sure you do? Look up the reviews / commentary on the book in question and ask yourself if you noticed the things that critics call out for praise when you were reading the book. If you didn't, you're not in the same league.

That's not to say that you might not be at the top of some other league-- but it does say that you shouldn't be comparing your work to those people's.

And in terms of the statement "I understand that bookstores and libraries have to shelve populations, not individuals. But figuring out how to do that is their job, not mine." -- I agree again.

Figuring out how to do that is their job, not yours, not mine. But it is your job and mine to be at least aware of how booksellers decide to shelve books, and what that means or doesn't mean to the books we work on. Because whether we like it or not, sometimes it has a meaningful impact on books we love.

I meet a fair number of authors who find the prospect of understanding the workings of bookstores, the intricacies of the industry, and the subtle differences in age groups and reading levels of children too daunting to even think about. And I sympathize... a little.

I'm not making assumptions about this writer. But for writers in general: Some people take the attitude that they're in the business of creating art, not understanding their audience. Some people take the attitude that they're in the business of speaking to children, not understanding bookselling.

To them I say: those aren't businesses.

A very scant percentage of writers does manage to create art that speaks to children and sells without understanding their audience or the market. But they are taking shots in the dark.

Thinking you can be a good children's author or illustrator without knowing your audience and the market is like thinking you can be a good archer without knowing where the targets are, let alone hitting them.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Cloudy with a Chance of Meaningless Terminology

Is a submission labeled as a "picture book" or "picture story book" that comes in at 2,000+ words dead on arrival? How important is this categorization? I feel like the word count is justified, and still leaves creative space for illustrations. I just want to make sure it gets a fair read. If it wasn't good enough, writing-wise, I could deal with that.
Know where I hear the term "picture story book" all the time? Authors.
Know where I don't? Publishers.

"Picture story book", in authors' minds at least, indicates a longer illustrated text. How much longer seems to vary per source, so it's very vague as publishing terms go. It's also kind of meaningless: do shorter picture books not have stories? Why couldn't you call Tuesday a picture story book, since the story is told in pictures? Is Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (890 words) a picture story book? Is Ivanhoe (6,022 words)?

After countless conferences, critiques, and pitch sessions, the impression I've developed (without making any assumptions about your work) is that "picture book" is a format, and "picture story book" is an excuse for not caring who's going to buy your book.

No matter what kind of book you're writing, you should always be thinking about your audience and your competition.

1. Audience
Let's just say for the purposes of this discussion (and leaving aside my own personal antipathy for the term) that by "picture story book" we mean a text in which not all of the plot points can be illustrated.

That means to me that this is a question of how old your audience is and thus how much patience and reading skill the audience brings to the reading.

The children who need a fairly high illustration-to-plot ratio are either (a) impatient listeners / pre-readers or (b) low-to-moderate fluency readers.

The children who don't need a fairly high illustration-to-plot ratio are either (c) listeners / pre-readers who have had a high exposure to read-alouds and have developed the patience and attention span for them or (d) high fluency (independent) readers.

Now here's the rub: there are fewer children in category (c) these days than there used to be, and the kids in category (d) tend to feel picture book formats are "for babies". So while I wouldn't say that longer-text picture books are "dead on arrival", they have to be extremely well targeted and thoughtfully written.

2. Competition
Which books published in the last five years have a format, word count, audience age, and author recognition level* like your book?

If you can find some published at reputable houses, great!

If you can't, that should mean something to you.

*Never use books by celebrities as competition! Never!
Am I right to suspect that writers with no publishing credits have a very, very small chance of landing an agent?
Thus it would be smarter to submit to editors/presses first?
No. The chances of landing a publisher from the slush pile are just as low.
If a contract were offered from a publisher, is there sufficient time to query and attract an agent?
If by "sufficient time" you mean a week, then yes. I would expect a response from any author I'd made an offer to in that time.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Self-Publishing and Self-Editing

I'm currently working on my first MG manuscript and I plan on cleaning it up and querying it once it's finished. In addition to this novel (and past projects that I've set aside), I participate in National Novel Writing Month every year. The results are usually self-indulgent fun little novellas that I write primarily to entertain my friends who also participate. They're not things I would ever consider selling. One of the "prizes" for completely NaNoWriMo is a free proof copy of your novel at Lulu (this year it's through Amazon's CreateSpace). I usually order the free proof and then publish the book through Lulu so that my close friends can also order a copy of my book and I can order a copy of theirs.

My question is this: will these little forays into self-publishing have an effect on eventually querying/potentially publishing my MG novel or any other future projects? The NaNo novellas are not children's books and haven't been marketed aside from an e-mail to my NaNo writing group announcing that they're up and available. I wouldn't, of course, mention them in my query, but Google has the ability to pull up all sorts of things these days.
This is the sort of explanation for self-publishing that makes perfect sense to publishing professionals. It says you have a realistic idea of the range of your work (some of it is just for fun; some of it is professional enough to send to publishers) and a realistic idea of what self-publishing is for (mostly just personal use).

As self-publishing gets easier, cheaper, and more wide-spread, even editors with a congenital prejudice against it are going to have to accept that it doesn't necessarily mean the author is a nitwit.

What editors are justified in worrying about is if your badly-edited and crappily-illustrated self-publishing efforts are on Amazon or some other easily-accessed place. Then they could be seen as negative publicity-- readers who might truly enjoy the book you published with Holt (eg) could be turned off by the book you published at Lulu, if they see both books in the same place.

You're building a name for yourself, remember-- and you want the qualities associated with that name to be consistent, whether it's "fun / character-driven", "literary / romantic", "suspenseful / humorous", etc. You don't want to confuse people with "fun / ugly", "literary / boring", or "suspenseful / like a bad acid trip".

And you know who's particularly good at quality-controlling an author's work? It's usually not the author.

Nowadays Love Is a Matter of Chance, Matrimony a Matter of Money, and Divorce a Matter of Course

A while back a publisher offered $500K+ for a deal. They had treated me like the scum of the earth when they published my first book, so I was not wildly keen. Everyone told me, yes, but the reason they treated you like the scum of the earth is that you had no agent. If you have an agent it won't be like that, they will have nice manners, you will get paid, it will be completely different. I hired an agent.

What happened was, the agent and agency staff immediately jumped on the bandwagon and started treating me like the scum of the earth. The agent did haul ass into negotiations, yes, but neither the agent nor anyone else at the agency would do anything I actually asked them to do, and meanwhile, bizarrely, my editor seemed to think that having a power lunch with my agent constituted being nice to me. He could still stand me up for meetings we had arranged, because he had been nice to my agent.

At the time I hadn't spent much time online, knew nothing about nice deals, very nice deals, major deals, whatever. I had assumed that the deal must just be a crap deal. $500K+ seemed like a lot of money to me, but that was just my ignorance. The reason everyone was treating me like a piece of shit was that, by publishing standards, a deal for upwards of half a million dollars was crap. Much later, obviously, I found Publshers Marketplace and discovered that, um, K? Not only was this not a crap deal, this was, by publishing standards, the top deal for which they bother to have a category.

So what I wonder, obviously, is what a writer has to do not to be treated like a piece of shit. If a major deal is not enough, what does it take? Does an agent want a million-dollar deal to treat the client with professional courtesy? Two million? Three million? It would be nice to know.
I'm sorry you've had this experience. It's not the experience everyone has, but it's not a total anomaly, either.

The bottom line is: first, get an agent who will treat you the way you want to be treated. This is accomplished by (a) talking to the agent enough to get a sense of what kind of person the agent is and (b) asking for present clients of that agent who would be willing to talk to you about how they've been treated.

Bear in mind that the agent you have described is no doubt a terrific fit for some authors. What counts as "treating me like shit" to you is not the same for other people. Likewise, the agent who would be the right fit for you would be a bad fit for other authors. So when you talk to a prospective agent's other authors, ask specific questions that will give you a sense of how the agent will respond to the situations / issues that mean the most to you.

Once you have a good agent who is on the same page with you, that agent will be able to match you not only with publishing houses which will appreciate your work, but with specific editors who will treat you nicely.

It should be said that you may not be able to find an editor who (1) loves your work (2) treats you nicely and (3) can pay you that much money. Two out of three is as much as you can reasonably hope for.

If you get three out of three, keep your mouth shut about it; you'll only make other authors hate your guts.

They're Just Not That Into You(r Manuscript)

I've written a children's book. About a year ago, I submitted my polished draft to publishing houses and agents. The book truly captures the child narrator's voice and experience, but it deals with difficult subject matter and I knew it might not be the most marketable thing ever. Still, I felt like every response, every rejection was a badge of honor.
I received a wide range of responses. Scrawled notes along the top of my manuscript copy, form letters, and even a real letter with a personal "I'm sorry, good luck." The ones that responded with personal acknowledgement thrilled me, as I felt like they were validating that the book was good, even if it wasn't for them.
Then, one day, the phone rang. I had been having a very bad week at work, so was a bit cranky at the unknown caller who mispronounced my name. My grouchiness dissipated when they told me that their small publishing house liked my story and thought it fit in with their other works. They were interested in my book! They didn't know exactly when they might be able to put out a new book, but they wanted me to know. Can I say it again? They were interested in my book!
I hung up the phone and did lots of happy dancing.
That was our only contact. No agreements were ever reached and I know it was just a preliminary call. But at what point can I send the book out again to a new round of publishing houses? Would it make sense to contact this publisher again and remind them that, at one point, they were interested in my book? Can I ask them if they still might be? Keep in mind, this was months ago. Perhaps I should have already contacted them for followup?
I was thrilled to hear of their interest, but would like to find someone who is interested enough to actually publish it, not just someone who will call me once and then leave me waiting indefinitely for some additional news or plans. I can get enough of that sort of thing in the dating world!
You can send it out to other publishing houses NOW. You're absolutely right to feel that this is not the most promising way to begin with a publishing house, so while it may yet work itself out at that small house, don't stop submitting.

You could remind this publisher of their interest, but months of silence tell another story. And what was that about not knowing exactly when they might be able to put out a new book? What, are they waiting for stock space to free up in their garage?

Submit, submit, submit.
I submitted a book proposal to a publisher in June. They loved it and sent me a contract immediately, but then they decided they were not a large enough house to exploit the project as it should be. They suggested a larger house and a specific editor, and I sent the proposal package on to him with a cover letter telling him that the editor at the previous house had suggested sending it to him personally. That was in July 2008. I have heard nothing, even though the second publisher's web site says they respond in three months. Would it be rude/pushy to write to him and inquire? Would it be rude to submit it to other publishers? I don't know if they are actively considering it or it's sitting at the bottom of a slush pile.
It would not be rude or pushy to write and inquire. But you shouldn't necessarily expect an answer to your letter from the people who aren't responding to your submission.

It would also not be rude to KEEP SUBMITTING. Keep submitting.