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.


Angela S said...

As a former panel member of Storylines Notable books I can tell you there are many books by previously published authors who didn't get a rating from any of us, despite previous successes ( and they were accepted by publishers, wow) so that could prove or disprove your point Melinda. On the other hand there are a few new publishers and self publishers who have risen to the top so there is always room for quality and diversity.

Melinda Szymanik said...

I guess in the industry there will always be several different measures of success, and for the publisher the business model is still the imperative. And for judges, readers and publishers personal taste cannot ever really be taken out of the equation - after all, not all good books win awards. Writing the best book you can also means different things to different people :-)