The Good Old Days

I recently received a beautifully written question. (If you have questions of your own that are of a general nature, and not necessarily specific to the manuscript you’re working on, check my sidebar for how to contact me!) My reader, Cate, had a lot to say about the golden days of children’s publishing. I know many of you are probably wondering the same things as her, so I’ll let you read it, and then I’ll answer.

Here goes:

A little over a year ago I read Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, and was amazed that somebody had been able to look at that manuscript and draw To Kill a Mockingbird out of it – and was struck by the fact we probably wouldn’t have TKAM today if it hadn’t been for Tay Hohoff. Then I forgot about it, until recently, when I was reading a collection of Ursula Nordstrom’s letters. She told about receiving a collection of random notebook entries, called the writer in to discuss them and how they could be developed into a book, and was taken aback when the writer finally said, “I’m sorry you don’t like them,” since she’d just spent an hour and a half talking about them. The writer was Louise Fitzhugh and the pages turned into Harriet the Spy. Ursula Nordstrom also talked about going to FAO Schwartz and being so impressed with a window display that she asked the designer, a kid from Brooklyn, if he’d like to “draw some pictures” for her. That was the start of Maurice Sendak’s career. Then last night I was looking at a collection of letters by Margaret Mitchell, who said that (contrary to popular legend that says her book was rejected umpteen times) Harold Latham of MacMillan tracked her down on a trip to Atlanta, persuaded her to let him see her incomplete first draft of Gone With the Wind, and had to buy an extra suitcase to carry it back to NYC with him.

You know where I’m going with this, right? It seems like the relationship between editor and writer has changed a lot over the past few decades. I’m wondering if you can address that – why the change, and what expectations are realistic these days. I’m also wondering if you have any thoughts on the fact that some of our favorite books might never have existed if they came along today?

***

Oh Cate, Cate, Cate, sweet Cate. I hear you, loud and clear. I also think you know what I’m going to say.

In the good old days, a lot of crafts used to be much more obscure, or at least prohibitive to most people. If you wanted to make a video, or take pictures, you had to afford or borrow cameras and film. If you wanted anyone to see your work, you had to schlep it around on media that you carried in your hands, and you had to sit them down, and you had to show it to them. Flash forward to now. Now my dogs could have a thriving YouTube channel with millions of subscribers, and I could film, edit, and post their content all from one gadget. While wearing pajama pants.

Publishing used to be a niche industry. It wasn’t until the paperback revolution that books started selling to the masses and actually making money. It turns out there was a market for this stuff! That revolution didn’t come to children’s books specifically until the 1990’s. If you’ve read Ursula Nordstrom’s letters (and if you haven’t, you absolutely should), you will get a sense that she was seen as the red-headed step-child at Harper. Children’s books weren’t sexy, they didn’t bring in the big bucks. They were…quaint. And then Harry Potter showed everyone what a “dumb little kid’s book” could do. In terms of cold, hard sales numbers. Enter the commercial revolution, kidlit phase!

Editors used to have to track writers down and squeeze books out of them. Develop their careers. Foster their talents. Deal with their eccentricities. Take the train to Vermont and trudge through the snow to their cabins in the woods, if need be, to get good books. Believe it or not, it wasn’t always thought of as glamorous to be a writer. Kids didn’t aspire to it. People didn’t dream of it. “That’s my weird old aunt Emily Dickinson,” folks would say in an embarrassed whisper, “she’s a writer.” So editors wouldn’t have thousands–yes, thousands–of submissions coming to them per year. They’d have to go out and make submissions happen.

Trust me, I would love to have a kindly editor come to my house and say, “Mary, I know that you’re having an existential crisis and have written five pages in the last six months, but I really think there’s something there. Why don’t I advance you a little money so you can pay for that cabin in the woods and some quiet time to create?” I would love it.

But the crux of this new age is that publishers and platforms are swimming in content. They no longer need to make content happen. It comes to them. Their jobs now are to cherry pick good and marketable content. Today’s editors are overwhelmed with submissions. Sure, they do tremendously important editorial work with their stable of authors, but those authors are brought to them on platters. The tough truth is that editors also spend their days attending powwows with marketing and sales people. Doing administrative work. Meeting with agents. They often edit–which many would consider to be their actual jobs–on their own time. Any effort they spend to massage good books out of people becomes a second job.

Furthermore, your weird old aunt Emily Dickinson would have someone standing over her, in today’s market, asking her where her next poetry collection is because the last one didn’t perform as hoped, and we’d really like to get on a book-a-year-schedule, kthnx. Today’s most successful writers are expected to produce. With minimal hand-holding, if possible.

Sad? Yes. True? Yes. That’s why more and more writers are choosing to work with developmental editors before they get to the publication phase. In this new reality, you are just not going to find the same editorial relationships as you did in the good old days.

Agents and Editors With Their Own Books

I opened up the blog for questions last week and got an interesting one from Frank:

Why is my social media filled with juvenile editors, agents, and art directors pimping their own books? Is this unethical as they are on salary or commission to help sell and promote the books they work on with their clients? I hardly see them promoting for anyone but themselves. What is this saying to those clients and anyone else trying to get published? This seems backwards (and gross).

Now, there’s a lot to this question. Remember that I was once a literary agent with a book of my own to hawk. So I don’t know if I can get on board with some of the more judgmental language here (“pimping,” “backwards,” “gross,” etc.). But I’m sure a lot of aspiring writers have seen this and wondered about it, so I thought I’d take a stab at my experience with this particular perspective.

First and most importantly of all, let’s break down an assumption that Frank makes: “…they are on salary or commission to help sell and promote the books they work on with their clients.” Yes and no. Yes to “sell” and no to “promote.” An agent’s primary job is to scout talent, get a manuscript ready for submission, and sell rights and subrights to the manuscripts to agents and other entities that will exploit those rights. Agents sell rights, basically. That’s it in a nutshell. This is how an agent makes their money, and how they earn money for their client. An editor is employed by a publishing house to acquire properties that stand a good chance at selling to the publisher’s customers (book resellers, mind you, not quite readers), getting that property into shape, organizing all of the moving parts involved in bringing that book to market, and doing some limited promotional support. An art director’s job is similar, but with the visual elements of a property. These are the jobs they are paid to do.

The great fallacy about modern publishing is that it’s anybody but the author’s job to promote a book. As some of you know, for the most part, a book will only get limited promotional assistance from the publisher. It is, largely, a writer’s job to promote their own work. In fact, a writer’s “platform” (or ability to reach potential customers, online and through other channels) is a large part of any acquisitions conversation these days. So an agent’s, editor’s, art director’s, etc. actual job is to get the book where it needs to go in the publication process, but not necessarily to sell it once it is released. That job goes to the marketing department and the reseller who has purchased the book to sell to customers. Everyone benefits if it sells well, but, really, promoting the book is primarily the creator’s place.

Remember, also, that agents have X clients, editors have X authors on their lists. While all of those lovely people are important, an agent or editor must practice fairness. I see many agents and editors broadcasting about a book when a) it is acquired, b) when it is about to publish, c) when there is other news happening with the creator of it, and d) when subrights are exploited, it goes into paperback, etc. etc. etc. This is at least two and possibly four or more mentions of a project. Anything above and beyond this may start to seem one-sided if the agent/editor isn’t also doing it for their other clients.

There’s also audience to consider. And this is a big one. Who follows agents and editors on Twitter? Other publishing people and aspiring writers, mostly. It starts to sound like an echo chamber after a while, because these people are very interested in one thing (getting published and publishing behind-the-scenes), but the people who are buying that new work are not really in this loop. So if an agent is tweeting relentlessly about a client’s picture book, the true audience for that picture book (parents, booksellers, librarians, children) might not be plugged into their stream.

So, an agent (editor, art director, etc.) has many considerations when they tweet. Is there something timely going on with the project? If not, they may sound like they’re spamming people about it after a while. Who is listening? Are they being fair to my other clients when they tweet about this project and not others? And finally, frankly, the agent is the agent, not the marketer. I fully expect a publisher’s marketing squad to be tweeting nothing but book news from that house. Because that’s what they’re being paid to do.

Here’s where we get into the part of the conversation that Frank considers gross. All these agents and editors have their own work that they want to talk about. I can see how it looks like conflict of interest. But here are the realities of what the landscape looks like from the agent or editor’s POV. First, most of the people in publishing are in publishing because they love language and/or writing and/or art. I’ve met a few people who work in publishing that haven’t been interested in creating books of their own, but they are in the minority (in my experience). Second, agents and editors are a dime a dozen these days. Anyone can get into it, often very easily. So how do they differentiate themselves? How do they get out there? How do they attract submissions? Those are, after all, their bread and butter. The more visible you are, the more people submit to you.

Self-promotion is everywhere these days. Authors do it. Agents do it. Editors do it. Art directors do it. I did it when I was agenting and simultaneously promoting my book. So I obviously have a certain tolerance for this blurry line. I would say that, as long as an agent/editor/art director is also making an effort to promote their client projects in a fair and balanced way when it’s appropriate to do so, they are free to advance their own careers. When aspiring writers and that agent/editor/art director’s clients see this, I should hope that they learn an important lesson about how necessary self-promotion is, even for those on the “inside.”

If you don’t like it, seek out the people who don’t do this.

Writing Rhyming Picture Books

Rhyming picture books were the bane of my existence as an agent, honestly, because not many people are that great at writing rhyming picture books. I had one rhyming PB client out of maybe fifteen PB “generalists.” And yet 8 out of 10 picture book manuscripts that came into the slush were in rhyme. That’s a pretty big disparity, right?

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There’s not a lot of demand for rhyming texts, so you need to be writing rhyming picture books that stand out.

The Problem With Writing Rhyming Picture Books

Part of the issue is that a lot more picture books used to be in rhyme than are being published now. So some writers still have this idea in mind that PB = cutesy rhymes. To those writers, I would suggest a trip to the bookstore, so they can see what’s being actively published now. Last week’s post on paying attention to the market would apply a little more heavily here…

Whether it’s a misconception that you have to write rhyme to publish a picture book, or an affinity for rhyme, or a misconception that young kids can only communicate in rhyme, I’d like to discuss this controversial topic with a little more clarity.

Now that I’m a freelance editor, I actually love working with rhyme. Why? Because I have creative writing training, know my poetics, and can identify rhyme issues a thousand miles away. I’m not bragging, but I am here to ruin your day a little bit: Rhyme involves a whoooooooooooooole lot more than putting cute words at the ends of sentences. Yet a lot of people who choose to write in rhyme don’t seem to make that connection.

How to Find Unique Rhymes

First of all, most of the end rhymes I see in manuscripts are about as inspiring as “cat” and “hat,” and I’m pretty sure someone else has already cornered that market. The point of rhyme isn’t to find a word that works and wedge it in somehow, the point of rhyme is to delight, impress, and surprise. If I see an unexpected rhyme in a manuscript, that immediately tells me that the writer knows what they’re doing.

A big mistake I also see is letting rhyme dictate story, not the other way around. Writers become so fixated on getting those rhymes in that things become arbitrary. Why is her name “Dorange”? Because you had to rhyme with “orange”? Okie dokie… Why is he sitting on a wall? Who does that? Oh, so he can have a great fall? Gotcha. But are you writing in service of your story or reaching for a rhyme? If the story falls by the wayside, you are choosing style over substance, and that’s problematic. The integrity of story must come first.

Rhythm and Rhyme in Picture Books

Yet another consideration is rhythm. This is where the poetics training really kicks into gear. Shakespeare didn’t just write in iambic pentameter to torture college students. There is actually a lot of (please forgive me, for I am about to sin) rhyme and reason to rhythm in poetry.

If you haven’t read your rhyming manuscripts aloud and counted your syllables at least once, what are you doing reading this blog post? Make haste! Because if I try reading your rhyming manuscript aloud, and the rhymes are fine, but your syllabic counts are all over the place and I’m tripping over my tongue with each line, this is what it looks like to me:

7 syllables
6 syllables

7 syllables
8 syllables

9 syllables
7 syllables

Books Teach Us How to Read Them

Whyyyyyyy? Why are you making my head hurt? What’s the pattern? Books, especially poetry books, teach us how to read them. Rhyme is a pattern. It says, “You are about to learn that if one line ends with rhyme A, the next line will also end with rhyme A. Then the next couplet will introduce rhyme B…” The rules are right there. So if you’re going to go through all that trouble with end rhyme, why would you not consider your rhythm, too?

I think that reading your work aloud will be extremely illuminating to you if you’ve never even considered counting syllables. The trick here, of course, is actually reading your work as it’s written, not reading your work with the rhythm that you want to impose on it.

It’s amazing how writers tend to snap into their ideal rhythm when reading, even if that’s not exactly the rhythm they’ve written. Better yet, have someone else read your work to you. Where do they falter? Which sentences trip them up? It’s an incredibly illuminating exercise.

The Odds Against Rhyming Picture Books

Now, you might think that I’m just being a stickler. Or that having the letters “MFA” somewhere in my personal history have put me on a high horse. Here’s the real poop on rhyming picture books, and I know you’ve heard this before: Most agents and editors don’t love them. When I was an agent, I didn’t love them because I didn’t know a lot of editors who loved them. When you’re an agent, it makes a lot of sense to really love stuff that sells well, because then you’re providing great service to your clients and making money.

And I’m betting that editors see a whole lot of rhyming manuscripts, too. Maybe not 8 out of 10 submissions, but maybe 5 out of 10. And let’s say that their houses are pressuring them to acquire more quirky/funny picture books along the lines of Peter Brown and Mac Barnett. So they only have room for 2-3 rhyming PBs on their lists each year.

Examples of Great Rhyming Picture Books

Then there’s the idea that there are people out there who really, really, really, really know how to write rhyme. My example in this category is always BUBBLE TROUBLE by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Polly Dunbar. I took one look at that text and never wanted to try writing in rhyme, because I think it’s just such an accomplished, virtuoso rhyming text.

If there are writers out there who are carrying Margaret Mahy’s torch and talents for rhyme, they are going to get those coveted and limited PB acquisition slots. Because they know what they’re doing. And the editors who want to work with them are going to hold them up to Mahy-like standards, since that’s an example of rhyming done extremely right that’s already out in the market.

Make Sure You’re Doing a Good Job

As you can see, there are a lot of considerations to writing in rhyme. And finding a good end rhyme to shoehorn in there is just the first level. If you are at all curious, college poetics textbooks are always enlightening, even if you have to also invest in some toothpicks to prop your eyelids open. Long story short, poetry is an ancient art form that has tons of rules and ideas all its own. It’s a system. And if you’re going to bind yourself to a system, you better know the system.

Within the system, you might just find a lot of freedom and creativity. Otherwise, if you don’t know it well or you’re just playing around with it because you think it’s what you have to do, it’s a set of handcuffs that will start to chafe pretty quickly. And it’s likely that you will not be truly competitive.

If you’re writing rhyming texts, don’t freak out. Just make sure you’re doing an excellent job. I mean, that’s good advice for any type of writing, or any pursuit, really, but I’ve found that it especially applies to getting rhyme past gatekeepers. Because rhyming PB texts often come from good, but misguided, intentions.

Hire me as your picture book editor and we can dig into your rhyming text together. All picture book edits include feedback on other picture book ideas you might have!

Secrets to a Good Fiction Logline

When I talk about crafting a fiction logline, I mean a quick and effective sales pitch for your story. It is the same as the “elevator pitch” or your snappy “meets” comparison (Harry Potter meets Where the Wild Things Are!). However, not everyone’s book fits the “meets” way of doing this, so they’re left with constructing their own short sentence to encapsulate their work. That’s where things often get hairy.

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An epic novel pitch session is about to go down.

Most Writers Struggle With the Fiction Logline

If you think queries and synopses are hard, loglines are often a whole new world of pain for writers. Boiling down an entire book into four pages? Doable. Into a few paragraphs? Questionable. Into a sentence or two?! Impossible.

Or not. The first secret to crafting a good logline is that you should probably stop freaking out about it. If you can get it, good. If not, you can still pitch an agent or editor with a query or a one-minute summation of your story at a conference or if you do happen to be stuck with them in an elevator. Nailing it in one sentence is more of an exercise for you than a requirement of getting published.

How to Write a Great Fiction Logline

That said, my surefire way to think about loglines is as follows:

1) Connect your character to your audience

2) Connect your plot to the market

Let’s examine this. First, begin your logline with your character and their main struggle. This is a way of getting your audience on board. For example, with Hunger Games, Katniss would be “A girl hell-bent on survival…” or “A girl who volunteers herself to save those she loves…”

Now let’s bring plot into it. When you pitch your plot, you always want to be thinking about where it fits in the marketplace. At the time that the first Hunger Games was published, dystopian fiction was white hot as a genre. That’s not so much the case anymore, but if I had been pitching this story at that time, I would’ve definitely capitalized on the sinister dystopian world building.

To connect the plot to the market, I would’ve said something like, “…in a world where children fight to the death to keep the population under the control of a cruel government.” This says to the book or film agent, “Dystopian! Right here! Get your dystopian!”

Putting Your Novel Pitch Together

So to put it together, “A girl volunteers herself to save those she loves in a world where children fight to the death to keep the population under the control of a cruel government.” That’s a bit long, and not necessarily elegant, but it definitely hits all of the high notes of the market at that time, while also appealing emotionally to the audience. (Volunteering for a “fight to the death” contest is a really ballsy thing to do, so we automatically want to learn more.)

Notice that here, even the character part involves plot (it focuses on Katniss volunteering).

Fiction Loglines in Character-Driven Novels

If I’m working on a contemporary realistic novel, the “plot to market” part is less salient because we’re not exactly within the confines of any buzzy genre. That’s fine, too. You should probably be aware early on whether you’re writing a more character-driven or plot-driven story. The Hunger Games nails some strong character work, but I would argue that it’s primarily plot-driven, or “high concept.”

With character-driven books, the former part of the logline construction becomes more important. Let’s look at Sara Zarr’s excellent Story of a Girl. The title is pretty indicative of the contents. It’s literally the story of a girl, and the girl is more important than necessarily each plot point that happens to her.

With character-driven, I’d spend most of my time connecting character to audience. I’d say, for example, “A girl from a small town struggles with the gossips around her who refuse to forgive her past mistakes…” This is the girl’s situation for most of the book, and part of her biggest “pain point” as a person. Then I’ll need to indicate the rest of the plot with something like “…must step out from the shadows of her reputation and find out who she really is.”

Notice that here, even the plot part involves character (it focuses on the more subtle work of figuring herself out rather than, say, battling to the death).

Both are solid loglines because both communicate the core of the story and the emphasis of the book (plot-driven vs. character-driven, genre-focused vs. realistic). Try this two-step exercise with your own WIP.

Want help with pitches, queries, or your submission package? Hire me as your novel editor.

Agents vs. Editors

I’ve had a few writers recently come to me with questions similar to this one (summarized):

Help! I am querying agents and publishers simultaneously and I’ve noticed something strange. All of the agents seem to say complimentary things about the writing but reject my idea. Some have even said that they wouldn’t know how to sell it and that there’s no market for it. One went as far as to say, “Give up already, nobody is going to buy this.” Meanwhile, the editors I’ve reached out to rave about the writing and say that it’s a really good idea. Does this happen often? Who’s right?

I’m going to try and address this intelligently without insulting too many people. Agents and editors are different and represent different steps in the publishing process. Agents can often be accused of taking more mainstream projects with an eye toward the market and current trends. That comes from the way that agents make money: They want to attract as many buyers to your project as possible so that you, your project, the agent, and the agency get the most favorable outcome, which usually tends to happen to “bigger” or “commercial” projects that inspire a bidding war. Then they want to use this momentum to sell even more rights, like foreign and film. They take a percentage of the sale (sometimes with a salary, sometimes working only on commission) so they have to do a lot of big sales in order to profit.

Editors, on the other hand, often seem more sympathetic to more marginal projects without paying as much attention to market trends. They know that their publishers service many audiences, including schools and libraries, and that there are many different slots that a potential book can fill. They are willing to look at things that aren’t as immediately marketable and see their potential. They also don’t have to hustle for their money. Sure, they are under pressure from their bosses to acquire profitable projects. But they have more job security they can take more time and be more charitable with feedback for things that come across their desks. (This is not to say that editors don’t work hard. They work incredibly hard! But they, in general, are also more secure financially because they work for large companies that pay a salary.)

Before you think that I’m calling agents mercenary art-killers and editors starry-eyed idealists, though, here’s another layer of complexity: In the real world, it is very difficult for either party to get what it wants. Blockbuster commercial projects that will go on to sell in the six- or seven-figures come around once in a blue moon. Everybody wants one, everybody fights for it when it appears, but only one agent gets it. The rest of the time, agents have to see the potential in more challenging concepts. And as fun as it is to hold a huge auction, it’s just as fun fun to sell a “quiet” book to the perfect editor who immediately “gets it.” Finding this fit is a lot more work for often less (monetary) reward, but it feels amazing, too.

And while an editor may love the idea of doing a book for a very limited audience or with a totally out-there subject matter, they have to answer to their bosses, their pub boards, their finance guys, their marketing departments, etc. etc. etc., and they sometimes get brought back down to earth by a “no” that comes from above. So while the editors in the sample question all seem to be much more amenable toward marginalized concepts, I didn’t hear that any of them were offering to buy the manuscripts in question, either. Liking something and saying nice things about it is very different from putting cold, hard money on the line. We all go into children’s publishing to help get amazing books into the hands of worthy young readers, but these aspirations often butt right up against the fact that publishing is a Business-with-a-capital-B. And sometimes a book with a challenging subject matter, or one without “high-concept” commercial potential will take more work to see in print.

Agents do have to focus on more commercial concepts sometimes to stay afloat. And editors have to jump through a whole lot of hoops and “sell” a book to their team before they can make an offer. For books where the potential to profit isn’t obvious, that means it will take time to place them witheither and agent or an editor. I don’t think it’s right for anyone to say “Just give up, this is a fool’s errand!” But I also don’t want to say that every book will get published, because some ideas are jut too far out there to invest in in a competitive market.

Part of trying to get published, however, is understanding the process. Here I hope I can offer some insight into why agents and editors sometimes seem at odds when it comes to their decisions. It’s never quite as black-and-white as it appears. A caveat: This post is NOT about drawing a line in the sand and saying “this type of book is commercial and this isn’t.” Part of the gamble of publishing is to look and imagine and take chances. I will never tell a writer that this idea categorically won’t work and that idea is a guaranteed bestseller. It doesn’t work like that. There are no certainties. My core message has always been that writers who focus on the craft and learn about the publishing business are setting themselves up for greater success. This post is instead about addressing a disparity between agent and editor responses that several writers have noticed, and trying to explain the possible reasons.

Nonfiction: Book or Article?

A reader wrote in over the weekend to ask:

I wrote a nonfiction article for a kids’ magazine. I sent it recently, haven’t heard back yet. Because I’m completely fascinated with the subject I wrote about, I sat down and wrote a different story on the same subject that ideally would be a nonfiction children’s picture book. I’ve sent it to just one agent a few days ago. No here’s my dilemma: I know all the “first-time rights” and “all-rights” lingo, but I’m wondering that, 1. does it apply because the mag article is different than the picture book story, and 2) in the 1-in-billion chance that the agent wants to pursue my book, do I need to jump up and shout- wait!- a magazine might publish a different-but-same-topic article I wrote. I feel like this could be potentially sticky…and I’m just wondering if there’s any justifications for my worries.

An interesting question! Here’s my response:

Rights to a book are pretty heavily connected to the text of a book. A lot of authors publish NF articles in their subject area before writing a full-length book about it (and lots of people pitching NF book proposals are told “This is more of an article” because there’s not enough meat in their topic/angle to support a full book).

In children’s, you could wander into a bit of a gray area because I’m imagining that both texts will be shorter and will cover a lot of the same information–i.e.: both overview biographies or both simple explanations of a scientific principle, etc. This is where you will want to pay close attention to the text and make sure that you’re not publishing a close replica.

If your article vs. book angles are very different, like one is an overview and one covers a much more specific area of the subject, you have nothing to worry about. But if the topics are close and lightning happens to strike twice in the form of a magazine acceptance AND a book publishing opportunity, there is nothing wrong with strategically delaying the article until you can share your concerns with an agent or editor. As opposed to the book manuscript and publishing plan with your acquiring editor, the article will be a lot easier to edit in a way that still meets the magazine’s purposes.

A larger point deserves to be made here: If you have a magazine editor, agent, or book editor on the hook and they like your work or area or expertise (in the NF world especially), there is nothing wrong with communicating openly, asking thoughtful questions, or attempting to get that person to work with you if something like this should come up. Your magazine editor might be perfectly willing to publish a slightly different article or time the article differently (delay it while negotiation is in process, run it closer to your book’s publication date to build momentum, etc.) in case you happen to get a book contract.

The good thing about this potential scenario, of course, is that being published in various venues on a subject will help you leverage yourself as an expert on a certain topic. As you build your career, you’ll actually want to seek out these types of situations and get your name out there. I know some of these questions are stressful, but try and think of this as a potential positive, because it very easily could be!

We’ll Know It When We See It

At every conference we attend, with every interview we do, and for every bio we fill out, there’s one question that always makes its way into the mix: “What are you looking for?”

It came up on a panel this weekend at the excellent San Francisco Writers Conference, as usual. It’s what writers are very curious about, naturally. Because, if they know what agents and editors want, they can supply…right?

Well, I hate this question. And I said so. And the smartass answer–“I know it when I see it”–isn’t helpful. My actual answers on the panel were “Good stuff done well” and “Literary spark and commercial appeal.”

I’m not trying to be coy here. But I think that fellow agent Taylor Martindale‘s answer to a different question illustrates my point perfectly. When talking about books we were excited about, she said she recently sold a YA novel about a girl whose mother has a nervous breakdown and thinks she has become Amelia Earhart. Taylor had just sold the book and, to be honest, it sounds really interesting.

It’s a rare agent or editor who knows exactly, in very specific detail, what they’re looking for. Sure, some editors will say, for example, “I am looking for Dexter for teens.” They tell everyone they know. This actually happened in 2010 with one editor, and they got their wish. Their very specific request inspired author Barry Lyga to write the forthcoming I HUNT KILLERS, which comes out in April and, if you don’t mind me saying, is mind-blowingly great.

It’s much more common to get a vague answer like my panel responses. I bet Taylor Martindale never went on a panel at a conference and said “I’m looking for a YA about a girl whose mother has a nervous breakdown and thinks she’s Amelia Earhart.” I never went on a panel and said “I’m looking for a picture book about a bird who befriends a snowball” (WHEN BLUE MET EGG by Lindsay Ward, which was written up in last week’s New York Times), or “I really want to read about a boy who stumbles into a parallel universe to try and reclaim the love of his life” (THROUGH TO YOU by Emily Hainsworth) or “I really want a story about a Polynesian volcano goddess with a bad tempter” (WILDEFIRE by Karsten Knight).

In fact, when we meet with editors, they very rarely get super specific about what they’re looking for. We’ve all been shocked and delighted about what has grabbed us in the past. So I, personally, never say never and leave the possibilities wide open. Most of my colleagues in agenting and publishing do the same. When I meet with editors, it’s less about what they say they want and more about learning the flavor of their imprint and hearing them talk about books that have excited them. Are they focusing on the characters? The plot? The writing? Do they like to laugh? Cry? Fall in love? Basically, I’m trying to get a more general picture of their sensibilities, then match projects to them on that level. Of course, if they have specific requests, I keep those in mind, too, just in case I ever have a perfect match.

You are the writer. It is your job to come up not only with a really well-written story, but with an idea that’s going to resonate in the marketplace and grab attention. That’s becoming more and more important, and I’m sure I’ll blog about this a lot later. (Not being vague…it just has a lot to do with the Big News I keep talking about.)

A lot of writers say in their queries: “I am happy to write whatever you need.” No. With the exception of work-for-hire projects that houses commission writers for, it’s on your shoulders to provide the idea and execute it with aplomb. That’s what will sell. And if it’s awesome, many different agents and editors will be a fit for it, because we’re all looking for, basically “Good stuff done well.”

So I hope you can understand why “I’ll know it when I see it” isn’t a copout answer.

Preaching a Picture Book Moral

Are you excited to impart a picture book moral? Read on! I’ve been thinking a lot about picture books because I recently taught a Writer’s Digest webinar craft intensive all about them. Now that I’m digging into the critiques for the webinar, I wanted to reinforce a point that I made about preaching in picture books, or about didactic stories.

picture book moral, didactic picture book, preaching in picture book, picture book lesson
What is this picture book moral nonsense? Entertain me!

The Problem With an Overt Picture Book Moral

The kinds of picture books that make most agents and editors squirm are the ones that come to the page with a certain agenda. The writer wants to teach the reader something about life. Now, don’t get me wrong…the best picture books all contain big, universal ideas. They all aim to leave the reader with an emotional experience or a realization.

The difference between masterful picture books and those written by writers who maybe haven’t honed their craft quite yet, though, is that the masterful picture books get their point across without preaching overtly.

An Example of Preaching and Moralizing

For example, if you want to write a picture book about a stubborn girl named Tally who learns that sometimes compromise is good, too (because what parent wouldn’t like to teach their kids this lesson?), you would never write:

And then Tally learned that she could let her sisters choose the movie once in a while, and it would still be a lot more fun!

You may have a lesson in mind, but it has to be uncovered by the reader in the context of a) a character’s experience, and b) a larger story. If you find yourself coming out and saying the lesson, you are hitting it too much on the nose and it’s very likely that your story is skewing didactic.

Basically, you’re working too hard and being too obvious. The best picture book lessons are subtle, and they inspire the reader to come to their own conclusions without hitting them over the head.

How to Tell If Your Picture Book Is Didactic

Here’s a simple litmus test that I’ve been asking writers to apply to their picture books:

If you remove the lesson at the end, does the story stand alone?

For example, if Tally’s entire picture book is about how she won’t compromise and she won’t compromise and finally, is surprised when her first compromise works out well, then the plot serves the lesson. It doesn’t stand alone. If we took out the moral of the story, we would take away the plot because each event has been in direct service to the obvious ending.

How to Impart a Picture Book Moral Without Preaching

The best picture books are good stories (a very basic definition of “story”: a memorable character faces and overcomes conflict, is changed by the experience), first and foremost. The big picture idea and the overall lesson of the book is then delicately layered over and under the plot.

But if we take the lesson away and your plot crumbles, you’ve been leaning too heavily on only using your book to prove a point. Find your character. Find your conflict. Go back to the drawing board and stop attacking your moral so directly.

(There are, of course, obvious exceptions. Teaching picture books that discuss sharing are a hit with some institutional publishers, and people need them for teaching aides, etc. Also, you are free to teach if you are writing non-fiction, obviously. Here I’m just talking about story-driven picture books for the trade market.)

Are you worried that your picture book isn’t hitting the right note? Hire me as your picture book editor and I will help you stay on message while telling a great story.

How Literary Agents Work With A Picture Book Author-Illustrator

This post is for my picture book author-illustrator friends out there, and the question comes from Siski:

I’d like to know more about agents and how they go about repping author/illustrators. I read an awful lot about query letters for authors but how does an author/illustrator query?

As we do with our authors, agents help author-illustrators develop their projects, work up a submission plan, and connect our clients with potential editors.

picture book author-illustrator, literary agent, art rep, illustrator rep, how to write and sell picture books, picture book illustration, picture book craft, how to sell children's books, how to publish picture books
How literary agents represent picture book author-illustrators, and what they bring to the table.

The Picture Book Author-Illustrator and Literary Agent Relationship

The nature of the editorial work is a bit different. I’ll be the first to tell you that I am not an artist. (Despite a very promising banana still life at age three that remains framed in my mother’s…closet. Ouch.) But my mom is actually a rather well-known fine art painter. I’ve spent my entire life around art and almost every fall, I would go on tour with her and hang out in even more galleries. I may not know how to pull what’s in my mind and get it down on paper visually, but I do know what I like (and what’s good) when I see it.

With author/illustrators, I comment on issues of composition, image choice, character, expression, color, etc., but the art mastery has to be there before I sign an author/illustrator or illustrator. All of my illustrators came to books from being artists first, writers second. It is much easier to hone the picture book writing side of a creator’s craft (though it’s still very difficult to write a timeless, smash hit picture book) than it is to teach them art.

Not Everyone Can Be An Illustrator

That’s why I don’t recommend writers take up art and try to become illustrators. Unless you are gifted visually, it will be very difficult to compete with all the illustrators on shelves today or in BFA or MFA programs. Aspiring illustrators should spend a few hours in the picture book section of a bookstore and see what the professionals are doing.

Even the most deceptively simple styles have a lot of artistry going on behind the scenes. Adding writing to an illustrator’s toolbox is a lot easier (and more feasible) than adding illustration to a writer’s.

So for me to take on an illustrator, I need to be wild about their illustration style and talent. They also need to have at least one really fun or commercial story idea that we can work with. If the writing isn’t stellar (yet), I know I can work with them just like I would my author clients in order to get things into shape.

How Author-Illustrator Project Are Submitted to Publishers

Submissions work similarly with author/illustrators, except I’m often sending out a full sketch dummy, anywhere from two to five mock finishes (full color renderings of sketches), and the manuscript text. I will either send this in the form of a physical, mail submission, if the art works better when you can spread it out in front of you and really dive in, or as a digital PDF file.

The other part of how I work with an author/illustrator is trying to rustle up illustration work. This is very tough going for most agents, and most illustrators, because a lot of illustrator-project pairing is a matter of luck and timing. Not all editors are equally patient or talented when it comes to stretching their imaginations for either a text or an art sample.

This isn’t a slam on editors…far from it. Matching text to art is quite a skill, and that’s why some children’s editors don’t even have a lot of picture books on their list, because working with art isn’t something they love to do.

Some will see an artist’s sample postcard and, if it features a dog, think of their text that also needs a great dog character. A match is made! Some editors will leave a text sitting unmatched until the last possible moment, then see a great postcard that crosses their desk and…again, art alchemy! Others will fall in love with an artist, keep their postcards on hand or a link to their online portfolio in their favorites, and hunt tirelessly for the right text.

Selling a Book Is All About Timing

Most illustrators and editors swear that it’s all about when an art sample crosses their eyes. The right sample at the right time will get hired. Others think it’s about consistency…if they see an artist a certain number of times, they will start to think about them for jobs.

My job is to work with my artists to create the perfect sample image, portfolio, and postcards and then get them out there. For some clients, my colleagues and I do postcard mailings. I also do digital art mailings, the ABLA Artists of the Month email blasts that go out every month and feature two artists the agency’s client lists.

Editors love having both hard copy postcards and links to online portfolios, so we try to do everything we can to get illustration jobs as well as sell the client as an author/illustrator (get them a book deal where they do both and there’s no other name on the cover).

Build Your Picture Book Author-Illustrator Online Portfolio

As for getting people exposed to your work: Yes, you do need an online portfolio, absolutely. It can be simple and you can pay someone to do it, but make sure you can update it easily with new images. I’d say you need about ten to twenty really strong examples of your characters, some micro scenes that focus really closely on one or two things, some macro that get a wide scope of action in one picture, some setting, some animals…really show off your range.

It can be difficult to break into the picture book author-illustrator market, or it can be very easy. The takeaway is that agents and editors do prefer author-illustrator projects by a wide margin. If you don’t have a dummy already, get to work!

I absolutely love working with author-illustrators, and am happy to provide art notes. Hire me as your picture book editor.

 

How to Get an Illustrator for Your Children’s Book

If you’re like many people writing pictures books, you might wonder how to get an illustrator for your children’s book project. Robert recently wrote in to ask the following:

Is it ever possible for an author and illustrator to collaborate and then submit to agents/publishers? I know it’s not the norm and I know having my best friend illustrate my books makes me look amateur. Here’s the thing: we are true collaborators from the beginning of the project to the end. He helps me invent the characters and even comes up with plot elements and I dictate to him exactly how a picture should look at times. I know publishers have their own in-house illustrators and that it is unconventional to say the least. But I couldn’t ever publish without him. Do you have any advice as to how we should proceed?

I get this question a lot at conferences.

How to get an illustrator for your children's book, getting an artist for a picture book, should I hire a picture book illustrator
How to get an illustrator for your children’s book.

How to Write and Publish a Picture Book: The Process

Here’s how the picture book pipeline usually works for authors:

  1. Get representation for a text or an offer from a publisher.
  2. Sell text to publisher.
  3. Have publisher match your text to an illustrator.
  4. See illustrations, have varying levels on input.
  5. Publish.

Here’s how it usually works for illustrators:

  1. Get representation for your illustrations or get interest from a publisher.
  2. Wait until a publishers has the right project for you.
  3. Sign a contract to work on the project and turn in sketches and finishes.
  4. Do revisions.
  5. Publish.

Approaching Publishers With a Picture Book Project

Now, Robert wants to know what happens if a publisher is approached with a project that has both text and illustrations already in place, but from two people. (If a project with both text and illustrations came from one person, that person would be called an author/illustrator, and, in my opinion, art and text from a single creator would be a more compelling sale if both the art and text were really strong. Most of my picture book sales have been for author/illustrators.)

Note one inaccuracy about Robert’s question: major publishing houses (and even small ones) hire out illustrators, they do not have in-house artists. Most have in-house designers and art directors, but designers do not do illustration work. They work on putting together a book’s cover and packaging (unless it’s a picture book, in which case the illustrator usually provides the cover image).

The Risk of Hiring a Picture Book Illustrator

I say you run one big risk with this situation, whether you’re approaching an agent or a publisher: what if one component is better than the other? And since you have a close relationship with your co-creator and love the project as is, you may have trouble seeing that.

If you give somebody a package of text and art, that person will assume that this is how you want the book produced. They’ll see how you’ve executed the project and will have a bit more trouble imagining it any other way. So if you give an agent or an editor a complete picture book dummy with both text and art, and one or the other isn’t working, the agent or editor will think, “Gosh, I really wish the text (or art) was stronger, but I guess this is how the creators envision it, so I think I’ll reject.”

How Literary Agents Work With Author/Illustrator Projects

Of course, both text and art could be perfect, could work harmoniously together, etc., in which case the agent could offer representation to either or both of you and the publisher would issue each of you a publishing contract. And, of course, the project may not work as a whole, but a wonderful agent or editor with lots of vision could see each component part and imagine how it might work independently.

But I find, more often than not, that the situation Robert describes involves two people who may not be well-matched in terms of talent. And that’s the risk. If you’re dead set on publishing this project with your collaborator, that’s fine. But you could be cutting yourself off from the possibility of either selling the art or text separately — if you happened to be flexible. If you don’t happen to be flexible, it could mean not selling at all.

How Literary Agents Represent Picture Books

When I submit, I prefer to submit just text, just art, or an author/illustrator package by an author/illustrator client who has a great grasp of how their two mediums (art and text) play together. I would be reluctant, for the above reasons, to consider an author and illustrator team if the combination wasn’t perfect. I’d also be reluctant — again, unless I had a great match in mind — to pair a text with, say, one of my illustrators, and present both to the publisher.

The publisher has the final say in terms of which illustrator and which writer will compose a picture book. That decision has to do with the publisher’s own relationships, with the prestige of either creator, with how the publisher’s sales and marketing people react to either component, etc.

Keep in Mind When Publishing Picture Books…

In a market where picture books are not doing well and most titles are not getting picked up for distribution by the major chains, publishers often find themselves pairing a debut author with a name illustrator or vice versa to make the project viable. If you’re insisting on a debut text paired with a debut illustrator…you may not have the most compelling case.

My biggest bit of advice is: be flexible. If an agent or editor wants either text or illustrations from you, consider it. How willing you are to entertain other illustrators (or authors) for this project really could mean the difference between published and not.

Hire me as your picture book editor. I can provide art notes, too, if you’re thinking of submitting an illustrated project.