How to publish a children’s book, how to catch the attention of a publishing gatekeeper, and what children’s book editors are looking for. These articles focus on marketing and selling your children’s book, fiction, novel, early reader, chapter book, middle grade, and young adult novel. What literary agents, editors, and publishers want.
Starting a novel with aftermath (the reaction to a big event) is hugely temping. After all, writers are inundated with the advice to “show, don’t tell,” start with action, raise the stakes, etc. etc. etc. It puts a lot of pressure on starting a novel!
Starting a Novel With Aftermath Is Jarring
The other day, I was working on a an editorial project, and found myself not quite invested in the opening. I should’ve been. The novel beginning was a high-stakes trial. But there’s often a problem with stakes that are too high: it’s harder for the reader to get emotionally attached. When we’re screaming about the end of the world from page one, the reader is trying to muster up an insurmountable level of caring.
So when this client project opens with a trial, the real issue is that the conflict is already behind us. There’s no time to fill in context, let the reader discover who the character is, or foster emotional connection.
The interesting deed is done, the problem has happened, and now we’re knee-deep in aftermath.
How to Begin a Novel
Instead of taking this dramatic approach (or writing a prologue that’s high stakes right from the get-go), think about the balance of action and information. You want to present the reader with a compelling character who has a manageable problem. Donald Maass calls this “bridging conflict.” The problem is manageable enough that we’re not completely overwhelmed with high stakes. Nonetheless, the problem matters to the character. As a result, we start learning about the character and what their objectives, motivations, priorities, etc. are.
We see them in the middle of this problem, trying to work through it. This is much more compelling than seeing them after the problem has already happened. We see them getting invested or emotional or upset. Our attachment to them grows. Then the initial problem is either solved, or it grows into the larger problem that’s going to carry the entire plot.
By this point, the reader should have an emotional foothold not only in the problem, but in the character, and as a result, the story.
Start Your Novel With Action…But Not Too Much
Without introducing a smaller problem and the character first, you’re going to have a hard time selling the reader on the major plot points you’ve cooked up. So it’s important to start your novel with action, but maybe not too much action.
And as you layer in that action, make sure to layer in context about character. When we start with a trial, for example, I am much more interested in what happened, who did what, and most importantly, why the crime occurred. The dry legal procedural stuff? It’s near the bottom of my list. My curious reader mind wants all sorts of other fodder.
Go where you think your reader wants to be. Court rooms are inherently full of tension, sure, but when you start in one, you’re trying to harness tension you didn’t earn with plot and character first.
Are you nailing your novel beginning? Wondering how to start a novel? Let me be an expert pair of eyes on your first pages. I’ve read tens of thousands of novel openings, and bring that experience to my editing services.
Over the holidays, I received a great question from Jenny. She makes the very valid point that there’s so much focus on life before publication, because so many writers are striving to take that crucial step, and then there’s, perhaps, a dearth of information about what happens after. Here’s her question:
There is much information out there about the “publishing process,” what happens if/when you get “The Call,” and the time line of events that follow from contract to publication. I often find myself wondering what happens AFTER that. Should I be so lucky as to receive a contract for one of my picture book manuscripts, what would life look like for me, after the final product is ready to sell? You speak often of authors being required to become marketers to push their book once they are created. I can see where that is a crucial step, but what are the logistics of that? How much travel is involved? Are new authors flitting about, across the country selling their books? How much is accomplished electronically? What does ‘real life’ look like for a newly published author, trying to make a name for herself?
First of all, let’s dispense, for the moment, with the notion of an author flying around the country on “book tour.” In most cases, that is not going to be your reality because publishers are investing less and less in these brick-and-mortar-heavy strategies, especially for debuts. If you have the sort of marketing plan for your book that includes a book tour, you will be in the minority. And then you don’t have to worry about the logistics as much, because the level of marketing that includes a book tour will also include a support person on the publisher’s end to walk you through the finer details.
So let’s toss the idea of a book tour out for a moment. Sad, but true, you’re likely on your own. So here is what the life of a writer who has a book out (or is about to have a book out) looks like. There are two kinds of marketing you’ll be doing, passive and active.
Setting up a simple informational website for your book, series, and/or yourself as a writer. Most of the content here is going to be “set it and forget it.” You can add a blogging function, to be discussed later.
Set up a profile on GoodReads, flesh out your Amazon Author page, create a Facebook Page (rather than just your personal feed). The first two are rather static, the latter is more active. Make your book cover your profile image.
Create paper marketing materials if you wish, postcards of your cover, etc. Have them at the ready.
Create ways of people online to message you (via your Facebook page, for example), put a contact form on your website, and set up a mailing list submission form that collects email addresses on your behalf. I use Vertical Response, for example. It’s not going to knock your socks off with responses right away, but you’re building your list, regardless.
Start being an active participant on publishing blogs, blogs specific to your book’s category (there’s a lively YA writing scene), Facebook pages (there are groups and communities for everything). When you’re active here, contribute to the conversations going on instead of just spamming people about your book.
Look for timely articles that have to do with your book’s category, or your book’s subject matter. Post these on your blog, on Twitter, on your Facebook page, and in your relevant communities.
Generate lists of contacts with youth librarians and bookstores with good children’s programs, starting in your area, and then branching outward. Your publisher may be able to help point you to resources for doing this. You can start reaching out by mailing those postcards you made.
In the same vein, talk to buyers and event planners at bookstores and literary festivals, universities, schools, etc. in your area. Pitch them something of value instead of just “an appearance from wonderful me!” Say your middle grade deals with a character who moves around a lot. Call schools and say, “I’d love to give a talk on Thriving in a New Place.” Or however you want to brand it. You’re more likely to get speaking opportunities if you have something to offer, instead of simply a sales pitch for you and your book.
Make connections with other writers who are being published around the same time, writers who you admire, and writers who are still looking to break in. They will be your allies and a great wealth of information, as long as you don’t just talk about yourself and spam them with sales messages.
Join and get involved with the SCBWI. They will often have authors speak or do workshops at regional conferences.
Reach out to journalists who have written articles about your book’s subject matter. Again, you should figure out what your hooks are. In the middle grade example, it’s that your character is an army brat and moves around a lot. That’s a topic you might be able to speak about. That’s a topic people might be interested in. So get on the radar of people who are writing about it. Offer yourself as an expert. It might seem weird to think of yourself that way, but once you’re quoted in one article, it becomes easier to get quoted in another one. Start small, with a blog or local website. From there, approach more journalists.
These are examples of what an author who’s about to be published or has recently been published should be doing. As you can see, a lot of this work isn’t going to pay off in obvious or immediate ways. By building a network of journalists, you aren’t going to get on the cover of Time next week. But the more seeds you plant, the more chance you have of something coming to fruition.
Ideally, you’re doing this a year before your publication date. Basically, as soon as you know that you’re slotted for Winter 2018, you start putting plans in place to do some of this stuff. You don’t have to do it all at once. And some days, you’ll have other things to do.
But you should hold yourself to the standard of doing some marketing every day. Reply to a message that comes in via your website. Post something interesting from Twitter to the YA writer’s Facebook group. Craft a blog post. Send five emails to librarians in your area. Call and ask to speak to the book buyer at your local bookstore. Call the English department of the university that’s having a literary speaker series. Maybe it won’t pay off, but maybe it will.
Most importantly, you’re getting in the habit of marketing, and of selling subtly, and of positioning yourself as an author with something important to say, not just a book to hawk.
For more marketing ideas, don’t forget to check out the Book Marketing Power Bundle from Writing Blueprints. It’s a wealth of ideas and information. I’ve gone through the program myself and can’t recommend it highly enough. The money and time you invest in marketing will only pay off exponentially in the long term, you just have to know what you’re doing, so you’re working smarter, not harder.
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.
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.
I’ve been thinking a lot about marketing. Every week, I get emails offering guest posts, articles, contests, programs, services, etc. The well-meaning writer always says that they’re offering me an opportunity. My blog is pretty humble, but I do get a fair amount of beautiful, wise, talented readers. I’ve been around a long time. It’s not surprising that I come up on search engines and in rankings for people who are looking to market their whatever.
On principle, I turn their offers down. I don’t want to use this blog to sell stuff. (Other than the occasional reminder about my book and services, of course. A girl’s gotta eat!) I don’t want to feature someone’s guest post, unless they’re someone I know personally or professionally and I like their idea. I don’t want to flood my readers with a product or app when I know the average writer struggles with the very idea of scraping together enough focus to practice their craft.
The last thing I want to do is sell my website out. I don’t want to give people guest post slots (with a few notable exceptions over the years). This is my blog, and you come here for my articles. I’m not going to dilute my voice or credibility by letting John Doe publish his “101 Tips for Classroom Success” article (more on this example later). I’m not going to muck up my Resources page by putting any product or service that comes my way. Those are resources I found and loved on my own. They are tried and true, in my eyes. That space can’t be bought.
It’s not an “opportunity” for me. It’s marketing people doing their marketing thing. I get it. How do you get attention for your goods or services? This game has changed completely with the advent of the Internet, and the advent of analytics for said Internet. Now, in addition to trying to score hits in traditional media, people with something to sell are contacting tastemakers with lots of followers. All in the hopes of a mention, a link, and a boost.
I’m not against this practice at all. I sent hundreds of emails when my book came out. I market my editorial services once or twice a year to my mailing list. But I think that the focus of any good marketing piece is, “What’s in it for me?” That’s the question I’m always asking as someone with a blog that gets a certain number of eyeballs. Because I want to always deliver value to my readers. I want them to come here for information, not marketing and sponsored posts and all sorts of other garbage.
And THIS, ladies and gentlemen, this is what makes book marketing so damn difficult!
I’ve just spoken as a person turning down a lot of solicitations. Now, it’s true that I get requests to market people’s individual book projects. When someone writes to me and says, “I wrote this book, I’d like for you to help get the message out,” in my head, I ask, “What’s in it for me?” The answer, again, in my head, is always, “Um, a good…book?” And 99% of the time, that’s just not compelling enough for me to amplify your message. The one exception is the recent guest post I did about a book that was published via a crowdfunding platform. Why? Because I found the process compelling, the writer is a client of mine, and I wanted to hear how it was going.
I wanted to hear how it was really going, mind you. When she sent her first guest post draft, it was full of hearts and unicorns about how great everything was. I wrote back and pushed her to give me the peaks and valleys, the obstacles, the real story. Because I owe you more than a fluff piece. You’ll notice that the article in question wasn’t about the book at all. It had something for my audience about a new publishing platform.
As the curator (major cringe for that word now that everything is “curated” and “artisanal”) of this site, I was asking, “What’s in it for me…and my readers?” That particular guest post passed the test. As did another series about a Kickstarter funded graphic novel that didn’t make it.
There is, I believe, a lesson here for those of you who are looking to market your own work. Because the hard truth is, even once you’ve achieved the major milestone of being published, your work is not done. You have to become a marketing person. And almost everyone will give you the advice of finding people who are tastemakers in your respective subject area, and reaching out to them to pitch your work.
I have the biases I’ve expressed above. I happen to have high standards for featuring stuff. If you want to succeed with someone like me (and believe me, it’s a bigger success to place your story with someone who has standards than with someone who loves free shit and will blog about anything), you need to ask yourself, as if you were the tastemaker, “What’s in it for me? What’s in it for my readers?”
Usually, it’s not going to be just your story. But something interesting about your story. You wrote it entirely on a train. It’s the first novel written by AI. You were declared medically dead and it came to you while you were out. What is interesting about it? What is something I can blog about and find exciting? What is something my readers might like? Pitch from that angle.
And here’s a second bonus tip. Remember how my example article, above, was something about the classroom? Well, my blog is Kidlit.com, and my search terms are (among other things) children’s books. You might be totally justified in thinking that this blog is a resource for children, or about children’s books themselves (like a review site), or about children’s reading habits, or whatever. But you would be wrong.
My site’s audience consists of passionate writers who aspire to write or are actively involved in writing children’s books for publication. It’s a very specific audience. So if you don’t do your research on my site, see the words “kid” and “lit,” and email me a great opportunity to hawk your children’s educational resource for you, you will fall flat.
Marketing is a numbers game. You have to send X emails to get something from even 1% of your targets. It’s discouraging. But if you approach it from the angle of pretending to be the site owner and asking, “What’s in it for me?” AND if you target specific sites which have an audience in common with you, you will have more luck.
AND A THIRD BONUS TIP. As writers for babies, children, tweens, and teens, your marketing audience (most likely) isn’t actual children. There are very few places where children under 13 can legally be online. Your marketing audience is the people buying stuff for those children, and the educators and librarians of those children.
Having a literary agent is great. I’ve been one, and I hope it was a good experience for my clients. It was a wonderful, frustrating, humbling, and incredibly educational experience for me. The publishing game is not for the faint of heart! But thinking about agents always gets me thinking about expectations.
What will an agent do for you? What might an agent do for you if they have certain specialties? What is unreasonable to expect of an agent? First, I’d like to discuss what an agent won’t do.
What An Agent Won’t Do
It’s nice to want an agent you can get along with. Someone who answers your anxiety-riddled midnight emails. Finally, a publishing insider on your side! But is this reasonable to expect? I see a lot of writers wishing for a BFF relationship with their representative. And I understand this impulse. But you have to remember that your agent is your business representative. They are not really around to answer all of your anxiety-riddled midnight emails. In fact, if you make the mistake of treating an agent as a best writing friend, you may drop on their priority list. I’ve seen many agent/client relationships go south because the writer didn’t understand professional boundaries.
The best agent for you may not be the funniest agent on Twitter. Or the one with the best blog. At the end of the day, you want an agent who is going to sell your work and get you favorable terms for your primary contract and any subrights that get sold. Yes, this is a little less “love connection” than a lot of people are dreaming of. That’s okay.
Agents are also not editors. While some do heavy editorial work, it behooves you to approach an agent with a polished, professional manuscript. Agents do not get paid to polish up their clients’ work. They sometimes do it because polished work sells more frequently and (sometimes) for more money. So if they see it as a good investment of their time, they will work with you. But to expect it is unreasonable. If you want to submit with a rock solid manuscript, it’s often in your best interest to partner with an experienced critique partner or developmental editor. I’m not just saying that because I am one, but it’s important to note that even agented writers use me for help with manuscripts that their agents say aren’t quite ready yet.
Agents get paid when they sell books and subrights. That’s it and that’s all. If I was looking for an agent for myself, I’d rather have one who is sitting at their desk right now, selling and negotiating and reviewing contracts, than one who is slogging through draft three of someone’s picture book essentially on spec (because the book hasn’t sold yet and there’s no guarantee it will). The more an agent sells, the more experienced they are at their core competency, and the more they may go on to sell–for all of their clients.
It may come as a surprise to some but not all that an agent is not, for the most part, paid to read the slush, full requests, or even client submissions. Most agents do this outside of their workday, which is spent meeting with editors, pitching things, traveling to conferences, and negotiating deals.
What An Agent Might Do
All this being said, an agent will probably ask you to make editorial tweaks because they have a clearer sense of what the marketplace is buying and what kind of pitch will work. Dystopian manuscripts, for example, are pretty heavily trafficked. So they might ask you to tone down on the dystopian element and bring up the volume on the romance. This is the sort of editorial work that is reasonable to expect. Some agents go above and beyond, offering very detailed notes, but they are the exception, not the rule.
Writers also ask if an agent will help them market their work. This, apparently, is a rather controversial topic. I was surprised to hear that people expect agents to do their marketing for them, but I suppose this way of thinking makes sense. An agent will very likely shout about your sale and/or release from the rooftops, but this is a matter of personal promotion as much as it is a matter of helping you out. If you have an agent who is proactively doing some marketing on your behalf, you are lucky. But it is not really their job to do so. They’re likely doing it because they want to promote their deal-making prowess and sell some subrights.
Finally, many writers are surprised to learn that they’re probably not going to get flown out to NYC to have lunch with their agent as soon as the ink is dry on their representation agreement. In fact, some people never meet their agent in person. Only if the agent comes out to their city for a conference, or they happen to be in the agent’s city, will a meeting happily take place. Otherwise, most business is done over email and, occasionally, the phone.
What An Agent Will Do
By this point, I think you’re starting to realize what an agent’s job really is. It’s not to be your buddy. It’s not to be your therapist. It’s not to be your developmental editor. It’s not to be your PR person. It’s not to take you out to lunch. It’s to sell your rights on your behalf in a way that’s most advantageous to you.
In this regard, an agent is extremely valuable. They’ve likely negotiated deals (or their agency has) with every publisher and they’ve developed top notch contracts at each house. They likely have leverage. They likely know what they’re doing with that 30-page document that, to you, will read like legalese gobletygook. They’ll be able to help you navigate crucial business decisions that could impact your career for years.
This, in and of itself, is a whole lot of work. In my opinion, anything else you get is delicious gravy.
There are no new stories in the world. I’m sorry, but there really aren’t. Every story ever told can be boiled down to archetypes. So where does that leave the story you’re writing right now? No, not in the trash can. Don’t worry! But, it does leave you with some work to do on that story if you want it to stand out.
In the last few months, I have had a lot of clients come to me and say, “Mary, I’ve written yet another boarding-school-for-wizards story. I know it’s probably not a great idea, but I can’t just not write this novel. It has gripped me. Yet the odds seem so high against a story that’s been done and done and done, maybe to death. What do I do?”
There are a lot of stories that would fit in this category of “overdone.” A lot of them happen to be “high concept” stories, instead of, say, contemporary realism. Examples: Birthdays that bequeath magical powers. Vampires. Dystopian worlds. Time travel. Apocalypses. Schools for those kids with magical powers. It’s not that these stories are bad, it’s that they were trendy at one point or another, and now the shelves are full of them. And for every one that’s published, there are probably a thousand more in manuscript form that didn’t make it past the agent or editor’s slush pile.
And yet there are still extremely well-meaning writers who want to toss their hats into these crowded arenas. And that’s okay. Now, some agents will flat out say, “No vampires. Don’t even try. I don’t want to see it.” And that’s okay, too. But I’m here to say that all hope is not lost just because you want to write in a familiar category.
So, how do you go about defusing that resistance you’re likely to encounter, and standing out? Well, the devil is in the details in your case. Truly. Let’s take everyone’s favorite dead horse: vampire books. (Though it has been so long since the Twilight days that you may be able to sneak one in at this point.) The biggest mistake that people make when writing in a familiar category is that they don’t innovate. They take for granted that everyone knows the basic deal about vampires, and they don’t even think to build on that or turn it on its head.
Since you’re smarter than that, dear reader, I really want you to think about what could make your vampires, or the world they operate in, unique. And instead of being more general about it, be specific. Design all of their powers from scratch. Maybe these vampires can only recharge on the blood of those with a certain virus that makes them vulnerable. Some poor people have this virus naturally. Other unfortunates catch it. Criminals are injected with it and pawned off as vampire fodder to keep the beasts away from the more desirable members of the population. Now you have a slight dystopian tinge to your vampire story. And your protagonist, lo and behold, comes from a family tasked with keeping the vampire menace at bay. Then he’s in a terrible hovercar accident (another specific detail of the world-building) and ends up…catching the virus that makes his a prime vampire target. Now his family turns their backs on him because they cannot be seen as vulnerable, etc. etc. etc.
This is literally the first thing that came to mind, but I was trying to establish a world and a spin on the familiar vampire story. What I’ve tried to do here is come up with specific details about the world, a new twist on how vampires function, and something interesting and high stakes that will provide plenty of plot fodder for the story.
If you find yourself working on a familiar-sounding premise and worrying that it looks like everything else that has come before it, this is the thinking you must be doing. What is unique about your idea? If it’s a kid with powers, how specific and interesting can the powers get? If it’s a school for wizards, what world-building details will make it stand out? Don’t just have them go to the same boring classes and do the same boring training exercises. What else can be part of the curriculum? What can you bring to your chosen genre that will turn it on its head?
Don’t be lazy. Treat your vampire or wizard or love triangle or sorcery summer camp like nobody has ever heard of such a thing before. Forget everything you’ve ever known about mermaids and unleash your imagination, populating your water-based world with creatures and details and magical rules that set new boundaries. Free yourself from the conventions of the genre and take some risks.
Yes, you may have a harder row to hoe, and you may get bounced by your dream agent because they have five other similar projects already. So a certain level of psychological preparedness should happen on your end. And yes, you’ll have to take some care when pitching the project. But you don’t have to abandon ship.
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.
I often work with clients who are writing a blend of fiction and non-fiction in their picture books. This is a tough proposition to publish. Let me explain what I mean. The book features characters and a plot, and also a sizeable number of facts. For example, a girl finds an unusual frog, learns that it belongs in a rain forest, and journeys there to return it. In the process, we have a character with a strong objective, plot points, as well as a lot of interesting information.
In theory, this is a great idea. We have all the charm and imagination of fiction, as well as that all-important educational value. So what goes wrong with this type of manuscript? It lies in the non-fiction part that the writer is attempting to attach to the fiction. There are two problems that usually arise. Too much information, and too little.
When there is too much information, that means the character and plot elements of the fiction part are too thin. The issue is usually that a person really wants to write non-fiction, but they worry that it won’t have enough pizzazz in the marketplace, so they try to spice it up with a protagonist. There are characters, but they don’t do much of anything, for example. It’s if we had Dora the Explorer but we didn’t know anything about her. She just had a name and a little bit of a personality, but she was only really there to have a learning experience. A glorified tour guide, if you will. In my original frog premise, it would be if the girl just went to the rain forest (without a frog or a mission to return it) and walked around, learning about the various plants and animals. There’s technically a fictional “frame” on this book (the girl whose eyes we are seeing things through) but it’s mostly non-fiction.
My recommendation, in that case, would be to rewrite the manuscript as straight non-fiction. It’s going to be easier to place, anyway, if it’s easier to categorize. A fact-based look at the rain forest (or any other topic) without any distracting character element is the bread and butter of school and library NF picture book programs. The lesson? You don’t have to tack a character on to a manuscript if your passion is non-fiction. If you are qualified to write factually on a subject, do your best at that and pitch it as NF.
When there is too little information, it raises a lot of questions. It would be if the girl went to the rain forest, had some really awesome adventures, but only learned about one plant and two other animals. Why that plant? Why those animals? Why those facts about that plant and those animals? If your goal is to teach, why not teach more comprehensively? Why pick only five facts to span the course of a book?
I recently encountered this issue in a client’s premise. (I’m going to change the details of the premise for the sake of confidentiality.) The writer a century’s worth of decades, let’s say the 20th century. And their character stopped in each decade for one page. They learned one thing about each decade. Why that thing? Out of everything that happened in that decade, why that one thing? The educational element was too thin.
If you’re going to cover a topic (the 20th century), then you need to pick a specific angle and really dive in. A picture book on the 20th century isn’t going to sell that well, no matter how charismatic your characters are. It’s too broad. Now, a tour of the Roaring 20s? Getting there. Maybe just the music of the Roaring 20s or the fashion of the Roaring 20s? Very specific. A character recreating the fashion of the 1920s for a fashion show? Bingo. That represents a good blend of fiction and non-fiction.
I would say that a good blend of fiction and non-fiction is the Magic Schoolbus franchise. The class is always up to something. There’s action involved, a mystery to solve, etc. The learning happens almost “under the table” as they pursue an objective. But the books are chock-full of information, and they represent a very comprehensive look at a particular topic.
If you find yourself stuck halfway between fiction and non-fiction, make sure you have enough substance for each category, otherwise, you may be better off committing fully in one direction or the other.
A note: This post was written in February and programmed here to fill a hole in my programming. Normal blog posts will resume in the next few weeks, but I just wanted to put some fresh material online!
Recently, I worked with a client who had written, by all accounts, a middle-grade novel. It has fantasy elements, an eleven- or twelve-year-old protagonist, rich themes that have to do with the coming of age time period, etc. etc. etc. But my client hadn’t really thought of the work as MG. Instead, he’d envisioned it as a crossover, perhaps close to THE BOOK THIEF in terms of potential market reach. Basically, he wanted to tell a story and then let the market decide where it fit.
We ended up having a lot of very interesting talks about this idea. Long story short, however, that’s not really how it works. When you’re writing something, you want to have some idea of where it will fit, per my recent “Writing With Market in Mind” post. If you gently leave it up to the publishing gods to decide, you may not get very far. First of all, agents and editors like writers who pitch their projects confidently and know at least a little something about the marketplace.
For all intents and purposes, the project in question seems very MG, even if that was never the client’s conscious intention. And if it walks like a MG, and it quacks like a MG, if my client doesn’t pitch it as a MG, he’s going to get some raised eyebrows. Furthermore, if he doesn’t pitch it as a MG, it may just get slotted into that category by agents and editors alike anyway. If he were to query adult fiction agents with the project, as I’ve described it, I guarantee most would say, “This isn’t my wheelhouse, this sounds like MG. You should be querying children’s book agents.”
You can always say, as my client did, “Well, I sure would like to tap the crossover audience and sell this to children and adults, please and thank you.” Wouldn’t that be nice for everyone? Most people would love a crossover hit like THE BOOK THIEF or THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME. Selling the same book to two different markets? Yes, please.
The problem with a crossover is that you can’t aim for one, however. I have said this before and I will say it again (and again and again). The only person to decide that is a publisher, and most won’t take the risk of trying to publish across categories. This strategy is reserved for only a tiny fraction of all books that go to print. And sometimes, a crossover only becomes a crossover when it’s published in one category first, then the other, and it happens to gain traction in both.
What I’m saying is, it’s a lot easier to set some lobster traps than it is to drag the whole of the sea. At least with the former strategy (picking a concrete category), you will probably catch some lobsters. With a wider net, you may catch everything, but there’s a big chance you’ll catch nothing, or a whole lot of garbage.
Many beginning writers think that putting, “This book will appeal to everyone from age 1 to 101!” is a huge selling point. Who wouldn’t want to sell to everyone from 1 to 101? That’s, like, billions of people. Why wouldn’t a publisher want to sell billions of books? Unfortunately, this line of thinking is delusional. Any marketer will tell you that your catchment area is too big. What a one-year-old likes is very different than what a 101-year-old likes and that’s actually a good thing.
So I advised my client to either a) become okay with the idea of pitching his story as a MG, or b) edit the story and weave in several elements that would give it more appeal to the adult fiction marketplace. This isn’t too far-fetched because there are a lot of books set during the “coming of age” period that go on to publish in the adult realm. That 9-12 or 13-18 age range isn’t just for children’s novels. The revision route is obviously the taller mountain to climb, but, if it fits the client’s vision for the book better, then it’s what has to happen.
The jury is still out on what this client will choose to do, but I wanted to bring the situation to everyone’s attention, because it contains some valuable truths about “picking a lane” and thinking about the category of your own work.
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?
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:
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!