Tuesday, May 26, 2009

CSK: Redux

First, I want to thank everyone who has participated in this conversation. The people who have commented here, who have commented on other blogs, and who have emailed me directly have all helped me think harder about this, and explore the issue that was bothering me—and which I now see should really be approached as several issues.

As you know, I’m not the first to raise these concerns.
Marc Aronson, Esme Codell, and Mitali Perkins have all been a part of this discussion ahead of me, and Andrea Davis Pinkney’s thoughts are not to be missed.
I hope, however, that I have something to say that will add a little this debate.

As the primary award for black authors/artists and black topics in the industry, the CSK weilds a psychological force on the industry's ideas about who deserves recognition and for what, and I think that by trying to serve two masters, the CSK is in effect diminishing both its objectives.

Issue 1: There Are Too Few Black Authors and Illustrators in Children’s Books
No argument. But… thus, we need an award honoring black authors and illustrators?

When I think of this question in terms of other people, I see little harm and much value in the practice. I respect and admire the motivation behind wanting to laud outstanding members of a community that has a lot to be proud of—and which yet struggles with incohesiveness and disadvantage. I know the people who support the CSK are not my—or anyone else's—enemies. They are smart, sincere, and proactive people—people I am proud to call colleagues.

But… it's naive to think that the only effects the CSK has are the ones outlined in its description and mission statement. And when I think of this in terms of myself—putting myself in a parallel scenario, for instance being given an award for being a woman in a particular profession—then I do see the harm.

Women compete separately from men in athletic competitions because in terms of athletics, women have a handicap. Basing the CSK on race, I think, runs the very high risk of implying that the people contending for the award are handicapped in some way, so that they must compete separately. The prejudice that black people face in America today—whether the instances are deliberate or unwitting—is not their handicap. It’s America’s. I think it’s very important for all of us to keep making that distinction. Black participants in this debate can certainly never forget it—but they must remember to keep sending that message to others. Separate is not equal.

But let’s say that the CSK committee wishes to continue the practice of honoring black authors and illustrators separately. If the primary purpose of the award is to do this, then the CSK is doing itself a disservice in only allowing black topics.

If the goal is to have more black authors and illustrators in children's books (which I think is a wonderful goal), then that goal would be best served by recognizing work in any topic by black authors and illustrators.

Issue 2: There Are Too Few Black Stories in Children’s Books
Again, no argument. But if the primary purpose of the Coretta Scott King is to honor the publication and exploration of black topics, then the award is doing itself a disservice in only allowing black authors and illustrators.

If the goal is to have more multicultural and/or multiracial children's books published (which I also think is a wonderful goal), then that goal would be best served by recognizing work on that topic by any author/illustrator.

Issue 3: But Isn’t the Real Problem That There Are Too Few Minorities in Publishing?
This is a multiple choice question.
a. Yes.
b. God, yes.
c. Hell, yes.
d. Are you f***ing kidding me? Yes!

I would posit that it's this more than any other thing that keeps the number of minorities represented in books low. As many of you have intuited, this is not because the people in publishing are racist themselves—at least, not deliberately. The people I work with are kind, hardworking people who want to be responsible—socially, environmentally, personally. But that’s not to say they couldn’t use a little help.

Let’s be clear, though—the CSK, whether in its current form or in any other possible form, is not going to have any impact on this problem.

Want to do something about this? Initiatives to address the ludicrous dearth of anyone but upper-middle-class white people in children's publishing would be a tremendous thing for the industry. As has been pointed out before, internships are the gateway for many beginning editors, and no publisher can afford to pay its interns a liveable wage, if they pay them at all. Thus many people starting out in publishing are leaning on their families—and it’s relatively wealthy families that can support their children as they get started in publishing.

I would highly recommend a grant program for minorities who are applying for internships in publishing. Yes, that’s discriminatory, and can be called racism (or reverse racism, if you like). But I wouldn’t be against it. I think such an initiative would speak directly to what we all see as a problem.

If somebody wants to set up a grant program like this, I will pledge $1,000 of my own money toward it.

Issue 4: It’s Not That You Don’t Know What It’s Like To Be Black, It’s That You Can’t Know What It’s Like To Be Black
Here, I think, is one of our biggest problems, and the negative effect that the CSK doesn’t want to admit it’s having on publishing.

There are still plenty of people who think this—as one response to my original post wrote, “…hell, the CSK doesn't have to suggest that you cannot understand what it's like to be black in America unless you are black (for the record, that's not what the award suggests). I'll say it, because it's true.”

In a wider cultural sense, our progress towards a less divided nation is hurt by the attitude among many black people that others cannot imagine what it is to be black—and that to try—to want to go beyond sympathy to empathy—is not only foolish, it's disrespectful.

We who know the tremendous power of books to allow readers a complex and world-expanding experience of another person's point of view should know better than that. And we who hope for a world in which there is no separate-but-equal have to understand that the first thing to go has to be the 'separate' part.

I can bear witness where people outside of the publishing industry—and indeed where black people within the publishing industry—cannot: there are many people who are afraid to attempt to publish a book that describes current-day black experience without a black person to vouch for its authenticity (implicitly or explicitly) because of this attitude and the scorn and rejection such a book risks before it.

I strongly recommend inviting more people of other races into the fight to make black people an equal part of the American dream. Many people have posed the question of whether there is any intrinsic value in white people writing about non-white people. To them I say, Are you kidding me? The more people who are not like you want to know what it is like to be like you—and the more you praise and celebrate them for the effort—the better our world is going to be.

Many of the upper-middle-class white people in children's publishing would love to be more involved in this fight. But as the preeminent award around that issue, the CSK is implying that the only people worth recognizing for their efforts to tell black stories are black people, and the only stories worth recognizing black people for are black stories.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Blog Interviews: For Kids, By Kids

Merry, one of this blog's longtime readers, is doing an author interview on her blog on Thursday.

The author: Erica Kirov
The fun part: adults and kids are asking questions

Merry writes:
Erica is multi-published, under several pennames, and on the 28th we’ll be discussing her latest release – the first in her middle grade series: Magickeepers: The Eternal Hourglass
Erica will be hanging around in the comments section, and the entire discussion will be moderated and kid-friendly. It’s a great opportunity to learn about a fabulous new novel and talk with the author.
If you’re a reader or writer, a fan of middle grade or a parent who might like to introduce their kids to the author – I’d love to see you there.
To learn more about the books and author, the website is : http://www.magickeepers.com/
Kids come up with some great questions. I was at an event where one kid asked, "If you could be any kind of bubble gum, what color would you be, and what special powers would you have?"
You've got to admit, it's better than another question about where writers get their ideas.
I encourage everyone to get over there and ask an interesting question.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Come Learn From the Experts! If You Haven't Learned Your Lesson Already

Publishing veterans Diane Mancher and Karen Mender are launching Self-Publishing Book Expo, an event that will focus on self-published books and the companies that produce them. SPBE will offer attending authors a place to exhibit and sell their books to the general public--and agents and publishers . . .
This is as far as I got before I snorted so hard I dropped my sandwich (and it was a good sandwich!). "Agents and publishers" are going to attend, are they?

Then again, I might be tempted to go (in disguise) just for the stories I could bring back. But only if I can get in free.

The website is here http://www.selfpubbookexpo.com/

The All Access Pass

And what's your take on this frenzy of social/business networking, anyway? I'm on Facebook, JacketFlap, LinkedIn, Filed-by-Author, Goodreads and Twitter, mostly just so I can say I am. I feel it would take all day EVERY day to effectively exploit the various platforms.
It makes me tired just thinking about it. It's enough of a commitment for me to maintain a blog. But you guys tell me: Should I tweet (or facebook, or etc)? Why?

Monday, May 18, 2009

Who Needs Friends When You Have a Writing Community?

I’m a regular reader of your blog, and I was wondering if you could help us put the word out about an effort to help out this amazing woman. An online auction is being held in May to help her with medical bills associated with her stage 4 colon cancer. I’ve pasted info about it.below. The URL is: http://bridgetzinnauction.wordpress.com/

This is Bridget. Three things happened to Bridget in February:
1. She got an agent for her young adult novel.
2. She got married.
3. She found out she had Stage Four colon cancer.

More at April Henry's blog (which is good to read anyway)

Submissions: Quick Answers

When a publisher states that they are accepting submissions for "spare of language picture books for young readers" does this mean they are expecting illustrations also? I realize that under "normal" circumstances publishers don't want illustrations with manuscripts, but does this qualify as a normal circumstance? My confusion lies in the fact that for these types of books the photos/illustrations are such an integral part, if not dominating aspect, of the book...
No, you're welcome to just submit text.
I have submission paralysis. My picture book has only one word per page, which sounds crazy, but the irony between the illustrations and the words is what makes the story intriguing. When submitting the MS, is it reasonable to include brief 5-10 word descriptors in parentheses next to the actual written word for the page? It makes sense to me, but I'm sure it could cause someone to throw my MS out their window, followed by a blog entry of "what NOT to do." So...what SHOULD I do with this format?
Including brief notes on the illustration only where absolutely necessary for understanding the text is acceptable. It's unlikely that a manuscript will be acquired this way, but it's possible. (Once Upon a Banana.)
I have a picture book manuscript that (cross my fingers) is ready to submit. I've targeted a publisher, but then I hit a dead end. I feel I should send it to a specific editor, but have no idea how to get a contact that will be a good fit for my story. Is it kosher to call a publisher and ask for names? I just feel like that is way out of line.... Any thoughts are greatly appreciated!
My readers may have some specific suggestions... but it my experience having an editor's name doesn't make your manuscript more likely to be read by that editor.
If an author submits a ms to Editor A at "Big Deal" publishing house and it is rejected, is it reasonable for the author to resubmit the same ms to Editor B at the same publishing house thinking that Editor B, being a different person, might have a different opinion of the ms?
If you're talking about the same imprint, a no from one person is meant to be a no from all of them.
When I read in submission guidelines that I can expect to receive a response in four months and six to eight months have passed without word, I am not surprised. I am, however, uncertain how to proceed. Do editors resent follow-up letters at this point? I have sent several and get immediate rejections. I'm left to wonder, were they considering my manuscript and decided I wasn't worth the trouble?
Are we calling follow-up letters eight months later "trouble"? Because any house that thinks that's troublesome is not worth your trouble. I would assume your letter just lit a fire under them.
I've written a picture book manuscript and used it as a visiting author at local elementary schools. I do storytelling and creative writing lessons with the children based on the format of my book, and the visits have been very well received. The teachers say they can't wait 'til my book is published because they want to use it in the classroom. My question is this. Should I keep submitting to regular publishing houses in the hopes that this will be successful with the general public, or should I target educational publishers and what I perceive to be a more limited audience?
This is a question that can only be answered by someone who knows what your manuscript is about and how appealing it would be to a trade audience. There's generally more money to be made in trade publishing, but if your topic/treatment won't be of interest to parents, then educational publishing may be the way to go.
Remember when I asked you a while back about whether an email follow-up would be proper to a top editor at a very top house who had requested the manuscript? You said you wouldn't mind, but snail might be safer. Well, I waited 5 months and sent a very nice letter. That was March 13th and I haven't heard anything yet. I'm not going to follow-up again for a long time, but do you think it's a good sign that I haven't heard anything? (I enclosed a SASE with the letter, which she could easily have used.) Perhaps agents who have it have contacted her, I'm not sure. I've had some very close calls with this so far. Any thoughts about the follow-up process to ease me through the weekend?
No, I don't think 5 months with no word is a good sign. But it could be no sign at all: sometimes (especially with top editors) no response for ages means they haven't even read the manuscript.

But what's this about agents (plural?) who have the manuscript contacting her?
I'm afraid we may have an instance for a light tap with the clue stick.
1. Don't send your manuscript to agents and editors at the same time.
2. I certainly hope there isn't more than one agent who thinks they're representing this manuscript? Agents don't share.
3. If not, you aren't under the impression that agents who don't officially represent you would be sending your manuscript to editors? They would never do that. Reputable agents, that is.
My publisher is a well-known and highly respected company. Yet they move at a glacial pace. My first nonfiction book with photographs took them years to publish (though it looked lovely when it finally came out). Now they keep procrastinating on my second book. It would have been a new and exciting subject if they had published it when it was supposed to come out (i.e., years ago), but now several adult books have been published on the same subject so mine looks less exciting at least from my viewpoint. They already paid me the entire advance (partly due to an accounting mistake that they did not want to bother to correct), but I am still upset that although they are saying it will come out in 2010, little has been done on it, and I am beginning to think it will get postponed again. What to do?
Look at your contract for a "failure to publish" section. Have they exceeded their time limit? You could threaten to pull the book. Depending on the contract, you might have to pay the advance back in that case, though, so don't threaten unless you're willing to follow through.
Is the market for mid-elementary picture books much smaller than the market for younger-aged picture books? I've tested my book over a few months with different age groups, and while the younger kids still enjoy the story, it's really ideal for 2nd, 3rd, 4th graders. It's a bit longer (1700 words) and, while ultimately uplifting, it does deal with death. Should I attempt to categorize it in a cover letter, or just let the editor read and decide for his/herself?
It's a smaller market, yes. And the market for books about death for that age group is quite small. So I would suggest when you describe it, you do your best to convey the widest possible audience for it--while still being realistic, of course. You don't want to make the mistake of a recent submission I saw, in which under 'age group' the author had written "cats".

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The CSK Is Dead (Long Live the CSK)

The Coretta Scott King Award will celebrate its 40th anniversary this year.
Established in 1969, and given annually to outstanding black (the committee's page says African-American) authors and illustrators, it's been a meaningful way to invite black people into the children's book field and highlight their contributions.

Who among us thinks Coretta Scott King is a pretty awesome person? Who among us thinks it's a great thing that the CSK award got started?

Everyone? That's what I thought.

Now, who among us thinks it's still a good idea?
Who among us thinks it's getting highly ironic that an award started in an effort to honor and continue Dr. King's efforts in working for peace and civil rights only honors one race?

Now, lots of people do not understand what it means to be black in America. They understand racism in the abstract, but they don't understand racism in action.

One of the things being black in America means (for example) is being a bright young woman who graduates from an Ivy League college and goes on to a successful career in a highly competitive field, and who has three family members who have died in police custody.

That's racism in action.

And one of the things being black in America means is that the vast majority of heroes and heroines and 'regular people' of all types in books, in movies, and in TV shows, look nothing like you.

That's racism in action.

So there's a need to encourage stories, books, TV shows, films, etc that show all kinds of races as heroes, as heartthrobs, as neighbors. Encouraging people to see the world from points of view other than their own is a wonderful thing. Encouraging people to see people of all races as simply people is a wonderful thing.

But that's not what the CSK is doing. If the CSK were in charge, male writers wouldn't be able to comment on what it's like to be a woman. The CSK is saying that you cannot understand what it is to be black in America unless you are black.

Giving an award for creating art about the experience of race is a wonderful thing. But giving an award for creating art and being a particular race?

That's racism in action.

I am sure none of us are among those cheerful idiots who feel that electing our first black president means that racism is dead.
Racism will be dead when we can elect a president of any race without talking about race once in the process. Racism will be dead when whole generations grow up without any real idea of what racism means.

Racism will be dead when the only race that people recognize is the human race.

But we are never going to get there as long as standing up for civil rights means standing up for just one race or another. Yes, we must act in acceptance of what the world is, right now. But the world will never be more than what it is right now if we do not also act in hope for what we want the world to become.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Criticism, Commentary, and Calmness

I read various blogs where YA books are reviewed, often thoughtfully, sometimes with added snark (Reviewer X). Sometimes in the comments the author will chime in to thank them profusely for liking the book, or maybe defend themselves a bit, in a non-confrontational way. Is it acceptable for authors to do this? From what I've seen it curtails any further honest discussion of their book (especially if someone didn't like something).
Acceptable? As with many aspects of the internet, what people can do, they will do.

You're right that conversations on blogs sometimes get more polite and less honest when it becomes clear that the author is a reader. There's not much to do about that.

But authors should strive for a detached relationship with the criticism and commentary their works will encounter. You knew when you wrote the book that most people wouldn't appreciate it as much as you do, right? Or in the same ways?

It's important to remember that this is one of the magics of creating art, and one of the heaving frustrations. Ideally, your work will mean something personal to your readers, and that necessarily means it will be something different from what it meant to you.

So try to let go. Be philosophical about it, and remember the author's prayer:
God, grant me the courage to offer myself to others, the wisdom to let my work be what others most need it to be, and the serenity to hope that it irritates the jackasses of the world at least as much as they irritate me.

QueryFail, AgentFail, EditorFail, and Prom Dates

An unnamed author to Janet Reid:
Querying agents is like asking someone to the prom. You want the one asked to feel special, not like "I'm only asking you because none of the popular girls would go out with me." To stretch the metaphor, I give a big #agentfail to agents who complain about the number of queries they get. Oh really? 500+ guys have asked you to the prom this month? And you just can't decide which of them to go with? Gee, must be tough being so reputable and popular. Sure, I appreciate that agents have a hard job, but so do I. Quit whining. (Er, them, not you, Janet :D)
This is a good analogy. But maybe not a great one.

It is meaningful for editors and agents to remember the compliment many authors are paying us when they query.

(This is sometimes hard to do, because some of the people querying us are not complimenting us. They clearly know nothing at all about us--whether that's proven by spam emails or through querying something we don't represent/publish. Those queries are the equivalent of the guys who shout propositions at you from moving cars.
Those queries aren't "I think you're pretty and interesting; will you go out with me?"
--they're "Hey you, with the tits!")

It's also meaningful for authors to remember that it's not 500 in a month. It's more like 1500. And like any highschooler, we have a lot of other things to do besides going to prom and dealing with hopeful dates. So it's tough on both sides.

It's fine to expect some sympathy from agents and editors. As long as it's ok for us to expect some sympathy from you.

And There, Hanging from the Car Door, Was a Bloody, Severed.... Rhyme Scheme

I just found your website, and find it to be very helpful. However, I haven’t been able to find the answer to one particular question I have: exactly how does one format the manuscript for a RHYMING picture book - that is, one with stanzas. Do I format it like a poem (single spaced within a stanza, and double spaced between stanzas), or double spaced with 4 spaces between stanzas. Your answer would be GREATLY appreciated.
It doesn't matter. Leaving a break where you anticipate page breaks might be a good idea, and would make sure you've considered how the manuscript will page out in a standard picture book length.

I would suggest you don't format it in running text, like that's going to make the rhyme scheme more subtle or something. Remember that many editors are very sensitive and skittish around rhymed text, so it's not a good idea to present them with something that doesn't look like it's going to rhyme but surprise! it does. To many editors, it's like finding a spider in a candy box. Shock and horror? Not the response you're going for.

Yes, some editors like spiders. But even so, be sure there's a good reason for the manuscript to be in rhyme. "I like it that way" is not good enough.