Sunday, March 28, 2021

The publisher's secret handshake ...

Over the weekend I taught a day long workshop on Writing Children's Picture Books (at Selwyn Community Ed. - there's another one in August - you can check it out here) and early on in the day one participant mentioned that she felt the picture book publishing industry here was a closed shop.

One of the topics I had intended to address over the course of this year was 'the publisher's secret handshake' - the idea that it's who you know (and not what you write) that can make things happen. The idea that there is a shortcut to publication or that having some previous connection is all you need. I've been thinking about it a bit in light of that comment on the weekend so we may as well tackle it now.

If you are a keen picture book writer and you have not yet got a manuscript over the line and had a picture book published the industry can definitely feel like a closed shop. You see the same names cropping up on the book shop shelves. Publishers are only interested in publishing already published people. Why can't I get a toe in the door? Why did I receive another rejection?

Seeing the industry as a closed shop can help soften the blow of a rejection. It's not me, or my story, its that you already have to be on the inside to get published. If only I knew the secret handshake my book would be in shops by now. 

While I do think it's a tough industry to get into, and to stay in, I really don't believe it's a closed shop for the following reasons.   

1) Every published writer has a first book. I wasn't on the inside before my first picture book was published. I was definitely on the outside not knowing publishers and with no special connections (and I'm not exactly on the inside now either - I still submit manuscripts like I used to and get rejected more often than not). And every year I see first books come out and debut writers enter the scene.

2) Previously published authors may get published again because the work they did on their writing craft to get them to their first publishable manuscript has also probably benefited their subsequent manuscripts. I like to think the stories of mine that become books have been good enough to do so, not because the publisher recognises my name when my submission hits their inbox. The only influence my name might have is if readers have liked my previous books in sufficient numbers. But it's the story that won them over. And subsequent stories have to be up to the same standard.

3) Seasoned writers with many books to their name get rejected all the time. No amount of knowing the publisher or shaking their hands in a peculiar manner will make the publisher ignore the financial imperative inherent in trade publishing. Publishing is a business and the bottom line is, can they sell enough copies of this book to cover the cost of producing it and ensure the continuation of the business. No amount of love for your story will overcome that imperative. The business must pay its bills and they achieve this by selling sufficient units of their product. Nearly everything I have written has been on spec. With no guarantee that it will get published. Despite my publishing record I do not have a key to open the publishing door. My story must get there on its own merits.

4) The industry in New Zealand is not a big one. There are not as many picture book publishers here as there are in Australia, or the US or UK. Less new books are published annually and print runs are smaller. Our population wouldn't sustain more publishing houses, longer publishing lists or larger print runs. And the sad truth underlying this (probably in all countries, not just this one) is that there will always be more authors than there are publishing opportunities. It is a tough industry because it is finite. And it is tough for every writer. You are not alone in your struggles.

5) Some publishers that previously accepted unsolicited manuscripts have closed their doors to submissions. The key one here is Scholastic. Most of the other publishers remain open most of the time, sometimes with provisos. As the biggest publisher of picture books in New Zealand, Scholastic's changed stance might seem like it's made things a closed shop. However they have ensured there are alternate opportunities, primarily through the Storylines Joy Cowley Award and their Valentines Day submission window. And every year they publish wonderful first books by new people through those avenues.

6) If your manuscript is dazzling and does not compete with another book of theirs (because why would they sabotage their own product), a publisher will say yes. That is it. Write good stories. Polish them till they gleam, and then find every opportunity you can and try every one. And if that story doesn't find a publisher, write another one. Viewing the industry as a closed shop can limit your own growth as a writer. If you feel that the only thing stopping you getting published is outside forces you can forget that the written content you are trying to find a home for is 100% under your control. That written content is what the publisher cares about. Keep working on your craft, keep trying new things, keep an eye out for new opportunities. And yes it's true that great manuscripts can be passed over but it is rare for this to keep happening if you keep putting fab saleable stories out there.

Note: yes there are celebrity authors who don't fit this narrative. There will always be celebrity authors. Don't let them distract you from making great art that a publisher can't resist.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

I write picture books but I cannot draw. What should I do??...

[Disclaimer: This is a post for picture book writers who are seeking traditional publication. If you are intending to self publish, you WILL need to find an illustrator.]

I thought I would tackle another of the topics I listed on the blog at the end of last year. WHAT YOU NEED TO CONSIDER ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATIONS FOR A PICTURE BOOK WHEN YOU ARE NOT AN ILLUSTRATOR.

A common mistake I have come across over all the years I have been writing picture books, is picture book authors without any illustrative skills, desperate to find an illustrator. They believe that they need to take this step before submitting their manuscript to a publisher.

I have insufficient artistic skills to illustrate my books. I am a writer. My skill is with words. So far I have had eleven picture book stories picked up for publication.  And I have some advice for you if you are worried that you cannot illustrate the picture book text you have just written and you have no idea where to start to find someone to draw the pictures for you.

You do not need to do anything about it.

Your job as a writer is to create a compelling picture book story. That is ALL you need to do. You do not need to find an illustrator before you submit your story anywhere. In fact, apart from a couple of circumstances, publishers would prefer you left the job of finding an illustrator to them. No, really! Especially when you are starting out, it is unlikely you will know, or know of, the illustrators working in the picture book business anyway. The people who DO know them are publishers. Or they know how to find them, much better than you do. Publishers are also way more skilled and experienced when it comes to matching the right illustrative style with your story. And this is really important when it comes to making your story shine.

So don't worry about finding an illustrator. You do NOT need to do this (unless you are self publishing - see above). 

However ... HOWEVER ... you do need to think about the pictures when you are writing your story. Because the bottom line is, a picture book has both pictures and words. And they are both crucial to making a successful picture book (except for wordless picture books which are a separate diabolically crafty thing which make me redundant and I am not going to mention those again in this post). So, what should you be thinking about as you write your brilliant text?

1) The illustrations need to vary from page to page in order to engage the reader. Your text needs to require a change in the pictures. So, is there action moving the story along or some other form of variation going on (changing emotions, seasons, new characters, interactions with different characters). And has your pagination of the text supported this? (Don't forget to have an even spread of text across your pages - if you have heaps more words on one page versus the next to enable the pictures to be different from page to page, you might want to rethink your text a little).

2)  Will the pictures inspired by your story be appealing to the target audience? Will they be relatable, cute, informative, exciting, surprising? 

3) Is there room for an illustrator to add in extra content? (The answer you want here is YES). Don't forget, you don't need to spell everything out with words e.g., hair colour, if it can be shown in the illustrations. Educational texts might include more of these words so emergent readers can connect the word with what it represents, but this can be relaxed somewhat in a trade picture book. Illustrations can tease out layers of meaning and add texture to the story in their own right. So don't feel the need to explain everything :-)

4) Is your twist/theme/concept/action illustratable? Can it be depicted? Is it physically possible? Will it look like what its meant to look like? My next picture book, My Elephant is Blue, created some real challenges for the illustrator, with several pages requiring the elephant to be in a particular pose/position. Luckily she resolved the issue beautifully but it's important to remember our grand plans can't always be properly depicted. Don't just plan for pictures to be different from page to page, make sure there is actually a picture that can go with those words.

5) Be open to things looking different to how you thought they would. Be open to the idea that you might not be the best person to advise on or control how the artwork looks. We are not always the best judge of how things should appear illustratively. My skill is with words. The only times we get involved in directing the illustrations, are when meaning is at stake, or we need something in the illustration to make the text work (something that must be seen but not mentioned). To this end, I will add in illustration notes if I want something to be in the pictures that I haven't written. But I don't say anything else, and will only give information about style and illustrative detail, if asked. I never want to influence the illustrator unless they want me to. And I am always open to ideas, advice and suggestions. It's a leap of faith, but I have to say, this has worked out pretty well for me so far. I know I become part of a team when a picture book text is accepted. And every member of that team wants the book to succeed. 


Thursday, March 4, 2021

I don't remember agreeing to get on this roller coaster...

It has been a weird old week. We returned to level 3 here in Auckland at 6am on Sunday after things got a little hectic with a new covid community cluster (the rest of the country was in level 2). Since then things seem to have been wrangled back under control and I am hopeful we might reduce levels in the next few days. In the meantime I was busy writing the content for a talk I would be doing via Zoom on Thursday night. It was a talk about giving talks and all the associated admin. I was keen to make it comprehensive and ensure it was the right length to fill the two hour space once question time was factored in. It was ironic that I would be feeling and doing all the things I was outlining in my talk. If nothing else I can confirm the content was sincere and authentic. 

A very nice group of people dialed in for the talk and I hope they found something useful amongst all the info I shared. I was mighty pleased they stayed engaged for the whole presentation. That's an awful lot of listening in a tricky environment.

A while back I applied to be a picture book mentor on the summer programme of the #WriteMentor scheme (check it out here) and recently discovered I'd been successful. This international scheme matches mentors up with new writers keen to polish their work before an agent showcase in September. Mentee applications are open 15 and 16 April. There are lots of wonderful people offering expertise and advice so go check it out. It's great that things like this can continue through technology when so many other aspects of daily life have been constrained.

This week I also had a really nice initial response to a new submission, and while it may still come to nothing it felt very encouraging. Especially for this particular story. And things are getting close to done on illustrations and the cover design is imminent for my picture book Batkiwi coming out in July with Scholastic, Izzy Joy Te Aho White illustrating (and fingers crossed I can share a pic soon). It looks fabulous and the illustrative tone is perfect for the story. It's super cute too!

Then today there was a swarm of earthquakes off the East coast of New Zealand's North Island, including one sizeable one and then two bigger ones at the Kermadecs. Civil Defense alerts were sounded for potential tsunami action and I have to say, although the threat is now significantly reduced I found it all a bit stressful. Thankfully the Sapling posted up some picture book reviews this afternoon including a truly lovely one of my picture book Moon and Sun, which cheered me up. I am always grateful when a reader recognizes all the extra elements I have snuck in to the story and is enthusiastic about the result. It's here if you want to check it out. 

And I was recently reminded of this poem - one of my favourite poems as a child. I have always loved the moon so I guess it's no surprise I wrote a picture book about her.

                                                    Walter de la Mare


Slowly, silently, now the moon
Walks the night in her silver shoon;
This way, and that, she peers, and sees
Silver fruit upon silver trees;
One by one the casements catch
Her beams beneath the silvery thatch;
Couched in his kennel, like a log,
With paws of silver sleeps the dog;
From their shadowy cote the white breasts peep
Of doves in a silver-feathered sleep;
A harvest mouse goes scampering by,
With silver claws, and silver eye;
And moveless fish in the water gleam,
By silver reeds in a silver stream.