Monday, November 16, 2009

No Excuses

I’m a professional illustrator, I’m from Italy and I work in the UK as a video game artist. I usually just write short stories, nothing too complicated o convoluted. I tend to get bored pretty easily so I’m not exactly the kind of person who can manage to stick to a novel for a decade. (I usually write in Italian so please don’t take my English as an example) So, I recently wrote two short books. The first one is a collection of my grandma’s recipes. I know it’s not something that will change the course of literature, but honestly my initial purpose was purely emotional. I have been told people don’t live forever so I just wanted to gather all her recipes before, well, it was too late, so to speak. Then I realized that maybe a book about the recipes of an elderly Italian woman could have some commercial relevance, at least in Britain. After all the entire kingdom is famous worldwide – as admitted by its own inhabitants - for its not-exactly-top-of-the-range food. Italy on the other hand is famous for the opposite reason so I figured that someone might be interested in it. Anyway, the book is written in a humoristic style, there are a few anecdotes about my grandma’s life and persona (they’re relevant because both vital parts of her cuisine) and as opposed to most cooking books I planned to include a few of my own illustrations rather than the usual photographs of pasta and meatballs.
I'm a children's book editor, so please bear in mind that I'm no expert in food publishing for adults. The things I am thinking now are (and anyone actually in food publishing, feel free to correct me):
  • There are a TON of Italian cookbooks available in English already. You have some heavy competition.
  • People are more likely to buy a cookbook for its ease, its appetizingness, its novelty, or its personal charm than its type of cuisine.
  • So that means not only must the recipes be excellent, the stories must be very charming.
  • And it means the publisher who picks this project up probably will want pretty pictures of the food. But they can handle that photo shoot.
Assuming that the stories are charming enough to make people want to spend some time (and money) on the book, this is an excellent example of a situation in which getting your work edited in advance of submission might be very good for it. Your English is a little bit rocky, and so getting a freelance editor to clean it up for you might help the publisher to whom you send it to see its potential.
The second work is a 500 words picture book. Being an illustrator I couldn’t help picturing the story in my mind in images first, the words came after or at least simultaneously. Let’s say that initially the plot was just an excuse to put together a consistent series of colourful images I would have fun working on, and that at the same time could entertain my toddler girl.
Since I’m not a book illustrator (if we don’t mention the pointless Repair Your Car by Yourself which I illustrated when I was seventeen and for which I wasn’t even credited for) I did some research and I learnt (from you, btw) that editors don’t like authors to submit manuscripts that are already illustrated (or at best they don’t care if they are).
Hence my questions:
Does the same “rule” apply when an author-illustrator submits a manuscripts with his own pictures?
Maybe. Since you are paid for your illustrations, there's a chance that your art is professional enough for you to be considered as an author/illustrator. But the part where you say "Let’s say that initially the plot was just an excuse to put together a consistent series of colourful images" is a big red flag. I've gotten submissions that started as a colorful (but unconnected) series of images, with a text that tried to connect them with something approaching a narrative. Tried and failed. Anytime you're doing something in your bookmaking "as an excuse" for something else in your bookmaking, I strongly suggest you rethink whether there is any excuse for it.
Is it likely (on the unlikely assumption the story is accepted) that the book might get published but illustrated by another artist? To be honest it would be really awkward to be a professional illustrator who gets published for something he did primarily for fun that eventually gets illustrated by someone else.
It's possible, yes. If you couldn't stomach that and are unwilling to consider that option, make that clear in your cover letter.
Does the fact that the story is closely linked to the images decrease the chances of it being published? (assuming the story is good enough but maybe the style is somehow wrong etc.).What I mean is, does the rejection of the illustrations usually imply the rejection of the manuscript in its entirety in this case?
If you say in your cover letter that you'd be willing to consider someone else illustrating your story, then the editor will bear that in mind.
I’m finishing all the illustrations anyway, but do you think in general, when it comes to picture books, an author/illustrator should submit only sketches?
An author/illustrator should submit mostly sketches and a couple pieces of finished art. This is because (a) the art will almost certainly not be accepted just the way you originally envisioned it--that's why publishers expect to see sketches before final art. And (b) we cannot assume what qualities will carry over from an artist's sketches to their final art, and what qualities will only show up in the final art. So you have to send samples.


Thomas Taylor said...

Hey, the UK has the best cooking in the whole world!

Well, er maybe. But I think the illustrated Italian cookbook with anecdotes about grandma has a good chance in a food obsessed place like Britain -- we might not know how to cook it, but we LOVE eating it.I know people who would be interested in that (as readers, I should add). Submitting it in the right way might be a nightmare though.

I write and illustrate picture books. I would say that your illustration style would have to be very appropriate for the very young if you want to be the illustrator as well as the author of your story idea. Being a video game artist may or may not be a help, but I would tend to think not. I'd suggest a lot of homework, if you haven't done it already.

good luck with it, anyway.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm. Well, *I'd* buy your cookbook based on your Italian grandma's receipes. I'm hungry just thinking about it, in fact.

I couldn't say for sure, but cookbooks are almost harder to get published than pic books. And that is pretty hard. Unless you are one of the Food Network divas complete with an irritating personality like Rachel Ray or the Guy Ferarri (sp), it might be a tough market. Their books get center stage and are promoted heavily. Even legitmate chefs like Lydia Bastanovich (sp) has her own show on PBS.

Oh, or you could marry Jerry Seinfeld, and come up with an "original" hook of how to get more nutritious food into your kids, beating out your competition who had the idea/follow-through first, but I digress.

Here's where I'm confused -- you plan to use your own illustrations rather than the "usual" photographs of spagehtti and meatballs. I don't get this. I love books but have a very limited budget (for every one cookbook I buy I could buy three paperback YAs). So, if I'm going to spend upwards of 30-35 bucks on a cookbook by someone I've never heard of, I NEED pictures, so I can see how the dish is supposed to look.

Terry said...

I'm a cookbook author and a children's book author - an unusual breed! A few comments - first of all, you say that British food is "not-exactly-top of the range." I'm American, and I can tell you that these days, the cookbooks coming out of England are filled with sophisticated, superb food. The standards for cookbooks, regardless of where you are writing from, are very, very high.
Secondly, cookbooks as memoirs are popular, but to succeed you must have a strong, appealing, consistent voice and very good recipes. It's rare that the amateur cook/writer can pull that off. Possible. But it takes a lot of work and attention. I agree with EA that an outside opinion by an editor who works in the cookbook field is essential before you try to shop it around.

Maryann Cocca-Leffler said...

RE: The cookbook. I, for one, would buy it! I happen to be Italian and understand your desire to get your grandmother's recipes compiled so that you may pass them on to a future generations. (I wish I did).I also understand when a book becomes more than a book, but family legacy. I wrote & Illustrated BUS ROUTE TO BOSTON (Boyds Mills Press 2000)& Clams All Year (BMP 1998). Both are my "Italian" family childhood stories which are now being shared by generations of readers. Both books are still in print and though they were very personal stories I have discovered that they have hit "home" to many families. I hope you get the opportunity to publish your grandmother's recipe book. Good Luck.

Sylvia said...

I recently bought an e-book that a middle-age Chinese-American put up for sale on his website, a collection of his mother's recipes.

I *think* I paid about USD10 for it, I don't really remember. I do recall that the recipes he listed on his website looked good (i.e. I had a chance to try before I bought) and I liked the way he talked about his mother.

It was just a pdf file with a few photos and lots of text. His English wasn't perfect but that wasn't really the point. The recipes were interesting, authentic, had funny asides of ingredient substitutions and (this is important) I felt good about doing it. I felt I had helped justify the time that the man had spent, writing down all these recipes.

So if you can sort yourself out a website with some of the recipes and illustrations and anecdotes, this could be a good candidate for self-publishing.

Nancy Coffelt said...

I've written and illustrated my own picture books, illustrated for other authors and had my stories illustrated by other artists. It was a bit of an adjustment at first to hand over the "art reins", but now I can honestly say that I'm fine with having my words assigned to another illustrator. It's actually quite fun to see another artist's vision of my story.

And I hope the authors I illustrated for felt the same way.

Ebony McKenna. said...

Maybe you should write and illustrate this as a blog instead? Build a following for stories about your grandmother and the way she cooked, use your illustrations, your family stories and secrets.

If it gets a following, maybe - maybe - a book might follow.

But you have to put in the hard yards first and that's where a lot of people lose patience and tenacity to keep going.

Best of luck to you. said...

Maybe you should write and illustrate this as a blog instead? Build a following for stories about your grandmother and the way she cooked, use your illustrations, your family stories and secrets.

Ebony, you nailed this one. This would be a terrifc blog. Wow.

Unknown said...


Bus Route to Boston IS AWESOME. I read it with my daughter (born 2000) when she was still little enough to be read to. How wonderful to come across your comment here.

As for the cookbook idea, I think it sounds great, but I know nothing about cookbooks, so grain of salt (HAHA.) Ahem. Although our anonymous author/artist should try writing with more confidence about his skills and accomplishments. "I know it’s not something that will change the course of literature" and "Let’s say that initially the plot was just an excuse to put together a consistent series of colourful images I would have fun working on" are weak. Cut the first sentence altogether and rephrase the second as "My book began as a story I made for my daughter" or something similar. Don't sell yourself short before you've even had a chance to show your work.

Maryann Cocca-Leffler said...

Don- Thanks for sharing my book.
Your daughter is almost 10! (the book was also "born"in 2000!) Where did those 10 yrs go?
(Wish Filenes basement was still around!)-Maryann

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