Writing objectives for your characters creates strong protagonists with nuance and drive. Remember, you want to focus on writing a proactive protagonist into your novel. Character objective is a top notch way of doing that. Here’s what I mean by that, and how you can use this powerful idea to move your story forward.
What is Character Objective?
Character objective is easy to understand: It’s what a character wants. Objective also goes hand-in-hand with character motivation. The reason why a character wants something. If you don’t know this about your protagonist, you are in deep, deep trouble. Writing objectives should be top of mind. Why?
All characters should want something. Wanting is universally compelling, we can all relate to it. When I know what a character wants, I am that much more excited to root for them. When I understand why they want it, that feeling only grows. (Making a reader care is one of the cornerstones of how to hook a reader, after all.)
Writing Objectives That Compel Readers
The act of writing a character objective is a bit more tricky. Here are some things to keep in mind:
Establish the objective ASAP. Don’t leave readers hanging. Within the first chapter, make sure the character has at least an initial objective that they’re pursuing. This can tie into their bigger picture want and need as a person, or it can be something short-term. But let’s show them wanting something.
Make the objective specific. “To feel happy” is a very vague objective. It is too broad, and doesn’t have a clear way to know whether it has been achieved or not (since “happiness” is so nebulous). “To help Mom get her job back by impressing her boss” is much more specific.
Let your character imagine the possibilities. Add nuance to the objective by letting your character think about the ramifications. What happens if she does get Mom’s job back? How does she plan to impress the boss? What happens if the gambit fails?
Add stakes. Create a sense of ramifications for success and failure, and don’t forget to add nuance here, too. Maybe if Mom gets her job back, that will solve a lot of problems, but then she’ll be away from home. If Mom doesn’t get the job, maybe the family will fall into dire straits, financially. What might all that mean for your character and plot?
Weaving Character Objective Into Story
Finally, let objective translate into a larger sense of story. This is where the rubber of writing objectives meets the road. Let the character come back to the objective often, mentally. Dream about it. Worry about it. Take action toward it. The latter should then translate into plot.
Start with a strong sense of objective and let the character work toward it. Make it important. Give it layers. Not only will this help your character be more compelling, but your entire narrative as well.
Still struggling with character, objective, motivation, or creating a truly three-dimensional protagonist? Hire me as your novel editor and get in-depth, personal advice from an experienced publishing professional.
I got a great question the other day about authorial voice and third person voice from an editorial client. He was writing in alternating close third POV chapters with a cast of several characters. Basically, he was telling his story in third person from several character perspectives. Even though everything was in close third person, he was still dipping into different character heads per chapter. Would that influence the voice? Basically, he was wondering what the difference was between authorial voice (his natural voice as a writer), the third person voice of his overall narrative, and how (and if?) close third is influenced by character voice. A lot to unpack here!
Basically, it’s a balance. There is the author’s own voice, and then the narrative voice, which is informed by POV character, at least slightly. Or at least it should be. Because if your third person narrative voice is the same from Character A Chapter to Character B Chapter, then why bother segmenting the narrative into separate characters?
This writer made the choice to use different close third POV characters. The modern trend is to “flavor” your POV chapters with narration that reflects the POV character at least somewhat, even in third person. This obviously happens more conspicuously in first person because then the entire voice is assumed to be the characters’.
But in third person, you wouldn’t write a third person grandfather POV with the exact same language as you would their grandchild’s POV chapter. Overwhelmingly, I’ve heard agents and publishers comment about adding voice and style to close third person POV that at least takes the character whose chapter it is into account. The consensus seems to be that they should be able to open your book to a random page and know which character’s POV we’re in based on voice, even if they can’t see the chapter heading, and even in third person.
So let’s break it down further.
This is the voice of your character. In first person POV (“I said”), that is also the voice you’re writing in. In third person, it is widely preferred in contemporary fiction to let your character’s voice inflect the narrative, especially if you are writing in close third person on that one character. This basically means that you are writing in third person (“He said”) but only go into the experience of one character, usually your protagonist.
Other opportunities to express your character’s voice come in dialogue, where they are literally speaking, and interiority and direct thought, when you render their exact thoughts on the page. This is when you will want to think about voice, which words they’d choose, how they’d say them (syntax), and the content of their self-expression. It’s good to consider these elements for each character you put on the page.
Sometimes, the narrator him or herself is very intrusive and becomes a character in the story. The classic example is the narrator of the Series of Unfortunate Events, written under the pen name of Lemony Snicket, but really by Daniel Handler. There are people acting out the plot but the story is told by a first person raconteur character as well. This is yet another type of voice to consider.
Third Person Voice
If you are writing third person, you are either in close third (your POV is limited to one character), alternating (you hop from character’s head to character’s head but in a more structured way, like my client who asked this question) or omniscient (where you float around and “head hop” at will into the experiences of a wide cast of characters, like The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon, but note that omniscient third is widely considered the most difficult to pull off and not a good fit for every market).
This means you are also now thinking about narrative voice, your baseline voice for telling the story. Unless you have a Lemony Snicket-type narrator, but in third person, to account for, your third person narrative voice is going to be more neutral. I would still recommend tinting this voice to share elements with your character(s) if you are writing in close third, alternating, or omniscient. Per my example above, a chapter in third person voice that focuses on a young child should not read like a chapter in third person that explores an older man’s more wistful or reflective (or bitter!) experience.
If the voice sounds the same on every page, even in third person, despite going into the experiences of different characters, this is an issue. You may not be exploring or inhabiting your characters deeply enough. They should affect your voice. Not as much as they would in first person, but enough to have some bearing on the writing.
Another thing to note is that narrative voice can change from book to book. Your snappy YA romance is not going to be written in the same voice as your coming of age MG. It just shouldn’t be. Those are completely different categories, character ages, plots, and reader expectations. So it’s important to realize that narrative voice, whether first or third person, changes according to the characters used and the story being told.
Finally, there’s authorial voice. This is the element that doesn’t change, your signature. Are you known for clever dialogue, like John Green? Froth and fun, like Meg Cabot? Heartfelt honesty, like Judy Blume? These are classic examples but when we read these authors, we know what we’re in for, no matter what the book. That’s because of authorial voice.
If you’re just developing yourself, don’t worry. Authorial voice is something you discover, not force into existence. It falls into place much later in the writing journey, and sometimes people can’t predict what their signature is until it emerges.
My client, though, was wondering if authorial voice should dominate the third person writing, or if he had to make allowances for character to creep into the narrative. Especially since he was writing in alternating chapter close third person, I told him that character had to lead the day. Authorial voice will emerge, but it should not be your primary storytelling concern. Especially if you are choosing to render multiple POVs.
The overall voice with be yours (authorial voice), and that sense of voice will get stronger, the longer you write. But I would encourage my client, and anyone reading, to add lenses of more stylized voice/narration that are going to be unique to each POV character.
Struggling to develop voice? It’s usually the last writing and storytelling element to fall into place. With me as your novel editor, we can work toward your own narrative style together, in a focused, supportive, and actionable way.
For over a year, I have been working with Laura and Jon over at Writing Blueprints to create the Manuscript Submission Blueprint, a system of information that gives you everything you need to know to assemble a manuscript submission to literary agents and/or publishers.
Now, you may or may not know the following about me: I do not commercialize this blog lightly. I get requests oh, probably every day for guest posts, contributor posts, advertising links, blah blah blah. The blog gets a lot of traffic and is prominent in the children’s book space, so plenty of people find it … and they all want me to help them sell stuff to you.
In 99.99% of cases, I say no. In fact, I only directly sell three things on this blog (and I try to keep it as unobtrusive as possible): My book, my editorial services, and any webinars, events, or conferences I’m personally involved in. You will notice that all of these are my things. I also use affiliate links to Amazon and Writing Blueprints. But that’s it. Otherwise, I only recommend a book or a resource if I find it myself and love it. Never because someone else asks me to boost it.
Why? Integrity. Because I genuinely love writers. I genuinely love to teach and be a helpful resource. And I genuinely love to help children’s book writers make their dreams come true. I also really care about having your trust. I can’t do that if I’m shilling for anyone who emails me. Instead, I write long and (I hope) enriching craft articles for “nothing” in return and that’s exactly how I like it. I could’ve monetized this blog halfway to Mars by now with ads and guest posts. But that money wouldn’t be worth it because the blog wouldn’t be true to itself, true to you, or true to who I am.
So when Laura and Jon approached me to create the Manuscript Submission Blueprint, I was naturally skeptical. Were these Blueprints good stuff? Truly helpful and informative to writers? Were they fairly priced? Did writers get good value for their investment? Was there a ton of useful information, and was it quality? Was the system easy to use? I took a few of the classes and … loved them! Like, I was blown away by what was being offered for the price. In short, Writing Blueprints met all of my fussy criteria, so I agreed to develop the Manuscript Submission Blueprint.
The Manuscript Submission Blueprint is ALL ABOUT MANUSCRIPT SUBMISSION TO AGENTS AND PUBLISHERS. From the process of researching your market, to composing a query letter, to putting together various submission requirements, to actually getting out into the world. It is everything writers in any category and with any kind of project (not just children’s!) need to know to get their work out into the world, told from the perspective of yours truly, a former literary agent with ten plus years in the publishing business.
Practically, it is a longform class that you can take at your leisure in your own home. It consists of videos, written materials, handouts, even a spreadsheet. It’s set up like an online course that you can start and stop whenever you want. (In fact, the interface they use is one of the things that really drew me to creating a Writing Blueprints system. It was really easy for me to use as I test drove some of their other Blueprints.) You pay one price to buy it, and then you own access to it forever. You can use it and watch it and rewatch it.
This has been a labor of love I started in November 2017 (watch out for several different haircuts, ha!). I recorded about ten hours of video instruction, wrote 35+ handouts, interviewed the amazing John Cusick for bonus material, gave feedback on sample query letters, developed two webinars, and much more.
Now it is FINALLY available. I really put a ton of work into it, and I am very proud of how it turned out. I hope you enjoy the Manuscript Submission Blueprint!
Picture book illustrators need an illustration query to break into the field. You have several extra considerations when crafting an illustrator query letter and starting to pitch your illustration services, so here’s how you will want to approach the topic of pitching yourself and your art.
Getting Work as An Illustrator
There are several ways to break into picture book illustration. The first (and best) is to create a picture book project from scratch. A lot of picture books these days are sold as author-illustrator projects. Why? This makes things easy for a publisher. They deal with one creator, the art and text tend to have more complex interplay, and they don’t have to go through the arduous process of matching a text to an artist.
But you can also try your hand at an illustration query if you want to enter a publisher’s stable of potential illustrators (they all have one). This is the more circuitous route, with (often) less pay-off. If you don’t have a picture book project ready to go, though, this is what you’ll have to do. The bare minimum you need is a portfolio.
Picture Book Illustration Portfolio
Before you think about writing an illustrator query letter, you will need to assemble some materials. A strong illustrator portfolio needs to be available and viewable online (more on this later). As a bare minimum, it should contain:
6 to 8 fully finished illustrations
Different styles, if you have them
Different compositions, if you can, with some close-ups, and some wide angle scenes
Different subjects, from settings to characters
A special focus on characters and faces–portraying emotions is key for picture book illustrations
If you don’t have this kind of work available yet, you aren’t ready to pitch your portfolio around. Concentrate there, first.
Making Your Illustration Portfolio Available
There are two main ways to showcase your illustration work. The bare minimum is an illustration portfolio that’s viewable online. Many websites, like Wix and Squarespace, can help you put together a visually appealing, easy-to-navigate website for cheap. (I personally use Squarespace for my editorial website and a WordPress blog hosted independently for this website. I highly recommend Squarespace for ease of use. I’ve been using WordPress for over a decade and am comfortable with it, but it tends to have more moving parts.)
Since most literary agents and publishers don’t accept unsolicited email attachments, having your work hosted online so you can direct them to a website is key.
Mailings and Other Opportunities for Illustrators
The other approach is to target literary agents, artist reps, and publishers with postcards. (Artist reps are specialized literary agents who work with illustrators. Some illustrators opt to get a literary agent, and those are usually illustrators who are also interested in writing their own books. Some, who are interested primarily in illustration work, target art reps instead.) Use a website like Vistaprint (though do spring for better quality paper so that your art is reproduced faithfully and in more vivid color) to print postcard mailings. (I recommend Vistaprint for the first few mailings because they’re cheap and run promotions, but for quality reasons, you’ll want to move on from them eventually.)
Use books like Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market to find and target literary agencies, artist representatives, and publishers (aim for the art director role at houses) with your postcard mailings. Showcase one to three of your top pieces and include a way to contact you on the back of the postcard.
A third way to showcase your art is to go to conferences that feature portfolio showcases or join the SCBWI, which has an area for illustrators to create galleries. There are a lot of other places to showcase art online, like creating a portfolio with Deviant Art, for example, but the SCBWI and conferences with illustrator opportunities are very targeted to the publishing business.
(For every activity you do, consider what you want to get out of it. Are you looking for representation for your art? Are you looking to connect directly with people who might be looking for illustrators to hire, like self-published authors? Are you looking to do all kinds of illustration, from editorial to picture book, or to target picture books exclusively? Some of these questions and answers are beyond the scope of this blog post, but food for thought. More thoughts on illustrating your own children’s book here.)
The Illustrator Query Letter Made Simple
If you are pitching a picture book project along with your illustration talents in the query letter, you will want to follow my advice for the picture book query, but also add a paragraph that contains any illustration credits you have (magazines, blogs, etc. count!) and links the recipient to your online portfolio.
If you have a dummy of your picture book, you will need to transmit it somehow since, again, most agents and publishers don’t accept unsolicited attachments. Have a PDF available and upload it to your website, but don’t make it widely available. Instead, put a direct download link in your illustration query (or make the file password protected and send credentials). You can also use tools like Google Docs and Dropbox to generate a link to a file, but make sure the links don’t expire.
If you are just sending an illustrator query letter to literary agents, art reps, and publishers that pitches your general talents, you will want to keep it very simple. You don’t have a story to pitch, so instead give an abridged resume of your experience and a link to your online portfolio. Easy peasy! What will really set you apart here is a strong sense of your publishing history (so work on getting illustration jobs) and your online portfolio (so spend valuable time developing it).
I work with illustrators, too, as a picture book editor, so don’t hesitate to reach out for feedback on your art!
Questions about comp titles in a query are common, because book comps can either be a powerful part of your pitch, or a bit potential pitfall. Here are some more thoughts on whether to use them, or not, and how. (My original article on comparative titles is here.)
Comp Titles in a Query and How to Use Them
The conventional wisdom about book comps is that, if you have good ones, use them. If you have outlandish ones that communicate your delusions of grandeur (I’m Rick Riordan meets Suzanne Collins!), skip them.
The purpose of strong book comps is to make a realistic comparison between your work and someone else’s. Ideally, the author or book you’re choosing is thoughtful, rather than just a runaway bestseller. It’s always best to give reasoning for your choices, if you can. For example:
Both of these comps are older than I’d use (see below), but they came easily to the top of my head because they’re both so very specific. Here are some more considerations, gleaned from questions asked over the years:
Age of Book Comps
It’s best if your comp titles are recent, published within the last three years or so. This does double-duty and communicates to the literary agent or publisher not only your comparison, but that you’re keeping up with the marketplace.
But don’t despair if your perfect comparable title (an alternate term for “comparative title” that you’ll sometimes see used) is older. If you simply must weave The Giver by Lois Lowry into your pitch, pair it with a more recent comp and ta-da! The best of both worlds.
Relevance of Comp Titles in a Query
Per the “reasoning” point, above, your comp titles should be relevant to your current pitch. It’s okay to compare your middle grade historical to a young adult dystopian comp onlyThe Hate U Give if you give a specific rationale. For example, The Sun is Also a Star by Angie Thomas and by Celina Yoon don’t have a lot in common in terms of premise. But they both explore societal pressures and race in different ways, and those are connections you can draw for an unlikely “meets” comparison.
As long as you’re thoughtful about it and guide the literary agent or publisher on why you made the choices you did, and the choices make sense, you can do whatever you want here.
Similarity to Your Book
You can get away with book comps that aren’t really similar to your book, except for an element or two. But what if your comp titles are too The War That Saved My Lifesimilar? This is a fine line. If you’re pitching a story about a disfigured girl whose mother hides her away during World War II and using by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley as a comparative title … uhhhhhh … you’re maybe calling too much attention to the fact that your idea already exists. And then you may have to justify how yours is different or better. It’s a better idea to pick books that are similar but not eerily so.
Picking Comp Titles from the Agent or Publisher’s List
Some smart writers customize their comp titles in a query to reflect books represented by the literary agent they’re querying, or the publisher they’re submitting to. This can be an effective strategy. Keep in mind, however, that agents and publishers won’t want to cannibalize their own lists. So if the book you’re pitching is too close to one the agent represents or the publisher has published, this might actually be a liability for you. Their loyalty will always be to the author and project that already exists in their portfolio.
Number of Comp Titles
The ideal number of comp titles in a query is two or three. I recently read a query with six book comps mentioned. That writer had clearly done their research, but they need to tone it down. Two strong comps are better than four lukewarm comps and way better than six comps that just all happen to be in the same category. The more specific the better, so you don’t want to dilute your pitch by citing too many other books.
How to Find Book Comps
This is a quick answer: Read! (Here’s my argument that reading not only exposes you to your market, but helps develop great writing voice, which every writer should care about.) Read in your category. Read outside your category. I will never, ever, ever understand writers who refuse read because it pollutes their process. Spinning in your own echo chamber is fine, but it also tends to produce (ironically) derivative fiction because the writer doesn’t know enough about what’s out there to realize that they’re repeating common tropes, using cliché language, or not exposing themselves adequately to what’s possible.
Reading is a delightful way to get to know the publishing landscape, discover new voices, add fresh ideas to your own writing toolbox and, yes, discover book comps that you can use in your pitch.
As a freelance manuscript editor, I not only work on your book, but I help every client with their pitch, query letter, and book comps, too. Let me set you up for success in submission!
This is a quick reminder that I have two upcoming webinars in the month of December, Writing Irresistible First Pages and Rock Your Writing Goals. In January, I’m launching a Submission Blueprint with Writing Blueprints, so I’ll be doing a webinar to support that. In February, I’m participating in WriteOnCon. So I’m skipping my own webinars those months, until a planned webinar on interiority in March. That means these December webinars are it for the near future. Join me!
Very informative, I learned a LOT about what the first pages should accomplish. – Dena Pawling
Mary is an approachable expert. She turns a daunting task into something I can do with confidence. – Shelley G.
Saturday, December 8th, 11 a.m. CST: Writing Irresistible First Pages WITH CRITIQUE
A paid webinar that includes comprehensive notes on the first two pages of your novel. This webinar is geared to novel writers of all categories, from middle grade to fantasy. Not only will you hear a wealth of information about how to write successful, eye-catching first pages, but your novel opening will be privately critiqued with helpful feedback. The cost of this webinar with the included critique is $99. The webinar will last one hour and thirty minutes.
Mary’s webinar on Writing Irresistible First Pages was incredibly helpful. Mary is very versed in the subject matter and presents lot of terrific useful information at a good pace. Thank you, Mary! – Charlotte Hebert
You have one month to submit your pages after the webinar date. The submission will be up to two double-spaced pages with 12 pt font and standard 1″ margins. Notes will be returned within three weeks of receipt.
I found this webinar extremely helpful and packed with valuable info. Thank you so much! I feel much more confident to proceed with revising my first chapter. – Amy G.
Saturday, December 29th, 11 a.m. CST: Rock Your Writing Goals Webinar
A fun and motivational free webinar just in time for those New Year’s Resolutions. Let’s spend an hour together this last weekend of December and do some creative brainstorming for the year to come. The webinar will last one hour.
This webinar is for all writers, at all skill levels. I’ll discuss creativity, actionable steps for achieving your writing or publishing goals this year, and send you off into 2019 with a bang!
Today, on what would’ve been her first birthday, I’m remembering my daughter Nora Pepper. For those of you who don’t know, Nora was born with a very rare birth defect on this date, November 30th, in 2017. It was a complete surprise to us because her condition didn’t show up on prenatal imaging or testing. Unfortunately, hers was a terminal diagnosis. She died on December 16th, 2017.
The Taboo of Baby Loss
We had a little more than two weeks to create memories as a family, and include our son, Theo, then 21 months, in Nora’s short life. During that time, we hired a professional photographer, the wonderful Sarah Wroblewski of Sarah Ann Photography, to come take pictures in our home. Now that Nora is gone, these pictures have become touchstones for our family that we will treasure forever. That sounds like such a cliché, but in this case, they really are all we will ever have. They mean everything to us.
We had our favorites made into a photo album. (In the blur of grief, I just sent a big batch to Shutterfly and used their “I don’t care, just make me an album” service. It actually worked out better than expected!) Our photographer gifted us with an absolutely stunning album as well. This morning, we sat together as a family and showed both off to Theo, then talked about his sister and how much we love and miss her. The photos will be part of our tradition on her birthday for the rest of our lives.
The last year has been difficult but, ultimately triumphant. Theo is an utter joy to us, now a wild and rambunctious 2.5-year-old. We savor even the most mundane moments with him in ways that we didn’t before. My relationship with Todd, my husband, is stronger than ever. I’ve done a huge amount of inner digging, and grown into a person I never would’ve been without this experience. The editorial business is thriving and I get to do what I love every single day.
Another facet of the last year has been connecting with other loss parents. The “Dead Baby Club,” as I jokingly call it, is a club nobody ever wanted to be in, but we are. After I posted about Nora’s death, I heard from so many of you who’ve lost pregnancies, babies, or children. Nobody talks about this kind of shattering loss. Children aren’t supposed to die. It breaks the natural order.
But they do. Sadly, so sadly, they do.
When this tragedy happens, parents sometimes feel alone because it’s too terrible, too impossible to talk about. The world wants to shield its eyes and pretend. There’s a cultural taboo surrounding the topic. So, all too often, we suffer in silence, except when we meet another family in our shoes.
This has gotten me thinking about community, and reaching out to other loss families who have experienced the unimaginable. I remember what it was like to be broken open in the most vulnerable moment of my life, sitting there in the hospital that Monday evening, and learning that Nora would absolutelydie. There’s just not a lot of support for a family on that horrible day.
As the anniversary of Nora’s birth and death rolls around, and I’m thrust back into these memories, I want to tell you about a cause that means a lot to me, if you’ll listen. This year, my family has made a donation in Nora’s honor. I’d love for you to join us, if you feel at all compelled. While I can’t personally be there to support families facing baby loss as it’s happening to them, there’s an organization that does just that.
And it does something else incredible. It provides them with tangible memories of a life gone too soon: those same kinds of photographs that mean the world to us now.
A Request in Nora’s Honor
Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep is a nonprofit organization that you may never have heard of. I hope that’s because you’ve never needed them. They service any parents in a hospital setting who are facing stillbirth or neonatal death. They provide a network of photographers who will come at no charge to the family, at all hours of the day and night, and take pictures of the baby and family. These pictures are usually heart-wrenching. But beautiful. And oh-so-significant to families who may only get to spend a few precious moments with their babies.
My family didn’t personally use their services. We brought Nora home initially, because we didn’t know exactly what was wrong. We had photographs taken there. But if we’d spotted her condition earlier, we probably never would’ve left the hospital. From experience, I know how amazing it is to have pictures of my baby. I never thought I’d lose a child. But families experience it every day. Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep serves them in their time of most desperate need. It supports photographers who volunteer their time and talent to step into the worst moment of a person’s life. Think about walking into that room for a moment.
Please excuse me for using my platform for a cause. But I want to help Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep and enable them to do their very important work, if I can. If you feel so compelled, please make a donation to Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep in Nora Pepper Macdonald’s name, or the name of any other child who survives only in your heart.
We’re thinking about you today and every day, baby girl!
Picture book manuscript format flummoxes a lot of aspiring children’s book writers because there is so much potential variety. In my career, I have seen hundreds of examples of picture book format. To help you stand out in the slush as polished and professional, I’ve developed a picture book manuscript template handout that I’ve used over the years to really streamline and clarify the process for writers.
Picture Book Format
Picture book manuscript format tends to vary WIDELY. Some writers have it down. Others think they’re paginating correctly if they allocate a separate manuscript page to each line, resulting in a 32-page Word document that contains 300 words. What if a picture book manuscript template existed? It would certainly streamline things. As is, some writers include illustration notes, others stay far away. How do you paginate a children’s book? How do you format illustration notes correctly? This resources answers those questions (and here are more thoughts on illustration notes in your children’s book manuscript).
Remember that picture book format is just one small component of a successful children’s book submission. You also have your picture book query letter, and, well, the most important thing: an awesome manuscript! Don’t focus so much on picture book manuscript format that you lose sight of character, plot, and writing style. Those are going to take you a lot further than a nice-looking, polished file … but the latter certainly doesn’t hurt.
As a picture book editor, I work with writers on all aspects of the picture book craft, from creating a compelling children’s book manuscript (in proper picture book format, of course!) to nailing the query letter. Contact me for personal, actionable advice on your project.
It’s my pleasure today to feature a picture book self publishing case study for a change of pace. Full disclosure: Shelby Wilde is an editorial client of mine from earlier this year. We worked on this picture book manuscript together and discussed her career next steps. She decided to self-publish her project, and did, in my opinion, a wonderful job with it.
I don’t often feature client work on the blog or do interviews, but I chose this project because I think it’s extremely well done and I think Shelby has some great insights that will be useful to other writers considering self publishing, especially picture book self publishing. (For any writers in this boat, I highly recommend the Self-Publishing Blueprint from Writing Bluerpints. It’s a comprehensive online class on the ins and outs of becoming an indie publisher. I watched the whole thing with great interest.)
Here, she shares her experience with deciding to “go indie,” the unexpected things she learned, and her lovely book. A long article, but a must-read. Hear about it directly from Shelby, below. I will pop in occasionally to comment with takeaways over the course of the interview!
Deciding to Self Publish
When I decided to self-publish SCAVENGER SCOUT: ROCK HOUND, I spent months researching the process. I knew I would have to pull out all the stops in order for the book to compete with the quality of traditionally published books on the market. I chose to have hard cover books printed in China, which I would then sell through Amazon. Hard cover format is the preferred format for children’s picture books.
There is another self-publishing path called Print on Demand (POD). I did not choose that option because there are very few POD options for hard cover books and the quality is not where it needs to be, in my opinion. Traditional publishers have set the bar high when it comes to the quality of children’s books and self-publishers need to meet and exceed consumers’ expectations.
Kidlit Takeaways: Picture book writers have the self-publishing options of choosing to print physical books in softcover, hardcover, or both (a big investment upfront as you have to buy a print run of expensive books), POD (no upfront investment but quality control can be an issue), or ebook (despite being easily suited to illustrated content, ebooks do not offer the same reading experience for parents/children as physical copies).
Shelby’s point about competing with traditionally published books is spot on. I tell this to my clients all the time: You can do whatever you want when you self-publish. But you are selling to customers who are used to spending money on traditionally published books, and standards are high as a result. You need to offer them something equal or better in order to convince their dollars to come over to the indie side!
Self Publishing Case Study Interview: The Decision to Go Indie
What is this book’s “origin story”?
SCAVENGER SCOUT: ROCK HOUND was inspired by my daughter, who is a rock hound—she loves hunting for rocks. One day she sat me down and started telling me stories about how she acquired each of the rocks in her collection. In her stories, she debated with dragons, haggled with mermaids and convinced aliens so she could take home her treasured rocks. The combination of fantasy and reality inspired me, and I know it is something that captivates kids.
How did you make the decision to self-publish and why?
Early on, I considered the traditional publishing path for SCAVENGER SCOUT, but soon after the manuscript was completed, I realized I felt a strong connection to the main character. I wanted to guide her story through the publishing process myself, overseeing every aspect. Another reason I decided to self-publish is that I wanted to select the illustrator. If you choose the traditional publishing path and sell your book to a publisher, they will select the illustrator. Because I was so connected to the character of Scout, I wanted to be able to choose the style of illustration that would bring her to life.
Kidlit Takeaway: Choosing to self-publish gives you ultimate control over your project. Control you would lose with traditional publishing because the publisher does have final say on issues like title, format, illustrator, etc. But with great power comes great responsibility, and it behoves you to do your due diligence and make strong, marketable decisions.
Self Publishing Logistics
Describe the process of preparing the book for publication. What was unexpected? What did you learn?
When it comes to preparing the book for publication, selecting the illustrator is only the tippy top of a very large iceberg. The most important thing I learned is something that should have been obvious to me: When you decide to self-publish, you will need to wear all of the hats that a traditional publishing house does. You will need to hire an editor (or editors—did you know there are different kinds?), an illustrator, a book designer (or your illustrator may be able to provide this service), a printer, a shipping company, storage space (if you are having your books printed and shipped to you, instead of ebook or POD). The difference is that the publisher has a team of people who are specialists in their areas and you have just … you. A writer. The learning curve is steep, but it is doable as long as you’re willing to put the time in.
One unexpected challenge was dealing with long timelines. Traditional publishing cycles are long: it typically takes two years to bring a book to market. Self-publishing is a little bit faster—mine took 11 months from start to finish, but still not quick. You have to have a lot of patience. If you have ever created something to sell, the last thing you have is patience. You can’t wait to get it out there. And even though you are a small, nimble company (yep, you need to get a business license if you want to self-publish), you are stuck with a lot of timelines that you don’t own. It takes weeks to months for the illustrator to complete their illustrations, months to print and ship the books, months to promote the book before launch.
Another unexpected challenge: Advertising budget: I didn’t think much about funds for advertising when I was in the planning stages. It’s just a fact that if you want a product to sell, you have to advertise it. Advertising is a skill and it costs money. It’s also relentless. If you stop advertising, you will see an immediate drop in sales. While it’s true that even if you sell your book to a traditional publisher you will still have to market it, at least you’ll have some support from the publisher.
Kidlit Takeaway: The leap from writer to publisher can be a rude awakening. Self-publishing isn’t just a shortcut to making your work available. You are responsible for many things you’ve thought of–and haven’t yet! Shelby also brings up a great point: budget. Do you have one? Picture books are especially expensive to self-publish (as opposed to a novel made available on Kindle, for example) because the biggest expense is the illustrator. To hire a good one, you have to pay thousands of dollars (five figures isn’t unusual). Otherwise, it will show. Unfortunately, readers do judge a book by its cover. Layout costs more money. Then, if you’re creating a physical book, you have to pay for expensive full color printing on a bigger trim size product. Shipping. Storage. Shipping to the consumer. And that’s before you even think about marketing. Picture book self publishing comes with sticker shock!
Describe the process of launching the book. Any lessons there?
This is another area where you have to understand that publishing is a business and you have to do all of the same things that traditional publishing houses are doing in order to compete. Among the activities you will want to put on your launch list: blog tour, social media ads, frequent social media posts, giveaways, partnerships, cross promotion with coordinating products, press release, media interviews, email blasts. Just like the production of the book, launching the book involves skill sets that writers don’t often have: public relations, media relations and marketing. The most important thing I learned when I launched my book is that you have to start months in advance.
Kidlit Takeaway: Marketing is a skill in and of itself. But all writers, whether indie or traditional, have to learn it at some point. The good news is, you are allowed to take small bites. That’s why I like the tip about starting months in advance–you’ll want to give yourself plenty of runway to learn.
Self Publishing Marketing and Career Path
What’s life after independent publication like? How are you currently involved in marketing the project?
I have completed my launch communication plan and have now moved into the “Keep the momentum going” phase. Frequent social media posts, cross promotion, blog tours, book reviews, giveaways, email blasts, etc. Once you self-publish a book, you are now on the hook for marketing the book forever. That sounds daunting, but you have to think of it like any other product. Products don’t sell themselves. You have to put yourself out there as the author, put the book out there through ads, all to keep the stream of people flowing to your book. I enjoy the marketing aspect so it’s fun for me, but it is also time consuming.
Kidlit Takeaway: Ah, the old “art vs. business” debate! A great reminder that any book, even a traditionally published one, becomes a product. And then you sell it forever. The good news is that every positive review, blog post, interview, etc. gives you additional traction, but you always have to be proactive about creating opportunities. Unfortunately, “if you build it, they will come” is not a realistic adage in the age when hundreds of thousands of books are being traditionally and independently published per year.
What’s on the horizon for you? Would you self-publish again? Why or why not?
When I wrote SCAVENGER SCOUT, I also wrote a sequel so I have committed myself to self-publishing that book as well. I anticipate launching in Q2 of 2019. Once SCAVENGER SCOUT Part 2 is out, I will definitely have my hands full managing the printing, shipping and inventory that will come with both books. I am just one person and I’m not interested in becoming a small publisher. I have three other completed manuscripts that I’ve decided to pitch to agents in hopes of getting a contract from a traditional publisher. Choosing the self-publishing path means you are choosing to focus on the business side more than you will focus on the creative side. I want to have more time to spend on writing so I’m happy to let a publisher handle the logistics, even if it means lower profits for me.
Kidlit Takeaway: The takeaway I hear from clients all day every day is that writers are very surprised that they have to become publishers/marketers/businesspeople when they self-publish. They are not just writers. In fact, writing often falls to the bottom of their To Do list. Shelby’s point here is a great one to remember. It’s echoed in Teresa Funke’s excellent and very in-depth online class on self-publishing via Writing Blueprints: each project has its own life and potential. For some projects, self-publishing is the way to go. For other projects, you can always try traditional. Having these options means you can learn about them and choose the ones that are right for you on a project basis, and on a career basis! The bigger message is this: Successful, tenacious writers have more than one project in the pipeline!
Looking to make the jump into self-publishing? My editing services are perfectly suited to writers preparing to go indie. Get professional eyes on your work so you create the strongest product possible.
While I’m no longer a literary agent, I still want your query letter submission for an upcoming project! Aspiring writers are desperate for feedback on example query letters, and to see what their peers are working on. Reading real, live queries is one of the best ways to learn about query writing. But a lot of writers don’t have a venue to share their letters or read other people’s work.
I’m looking to change that. But I need your help!
UPDATE: I am still looking for submissions in the nonfiction (not nonfiction picture book), adult memoir, adult literary fiction, adult fiction, and self-published categories. My children’s fiction query needs have been met! I am also looking for a short nonfiction book proposal example if anyone wants to share.
Are you currently working on a query letter? Have you successfully used a query letter to get literary agent representation or a publishing deal?
I am seeking submissions of successful query letters AND query letters in progress to use for a teaching resource. For query letters in progress, I will provide feedback on every letter that I select for inclusion in this resource as my token of gratitude for your participation. Everyone whose query is selected will receive access to the teaching resource.
I’m especially looking for queries in the following categories:
Memoir or creative nonfiction query (for any audience)
Nonfiction query (in any category, eg, business, reference, parenting, etc.)
Short nonfiction book proposal example
Self-published project query
UPDATE: I am still looking for submissions in the nonfiction (not nonfiction picture book), adult memoir, adult literary fiction, adult fiction, and self-published categories. My children’s fiction query needs have been met! I am also looking for a short nonfiction book proposal example if anyone wants to share.
The queries will be used for a paywall-protected teaching resource only,they will not be published or distributed widely on the blog. Since this is a project in progress, I will provide more concrete information only to people who are selected. You will need to provide written/signed permission for me to reproduce your query letter and provide annotations. (If you don’t want to give permission, that’s not a problem, this post simply isn’t for you.) If your query is in a category that I have already filled, or it does not fit the needs of the project, it will not be selected and I will, unfortunately, not be able to provide the complimentary critique.
If you are submitting a successful query letter that has earned literary representation or a publishing deal, please mention that. You are welcome to crow about your agent’s name, book title, etc. I can include your name and project title in the resource, or omit identifying information. The teaching resource will be released in early 2019.
Query Letter Submission Instructions
Please send your query letter as a Word doc or docx attachment (not a PDF, because I will annotate in Word) or share via Google Docs to:
The updated submission deadline is December 14th, 2018. I will respond to every submission. I will ask until late January to turn around on query annotations, so, unfortunately, the query critique opportunity is not for queries you’re planning to go on submission with, like, tomorrow