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We here at PubCrawl try our best to elucidate different aspects of the industry for you via our posts and podcast, but we are also available to answer questions (as best we can) if you email us or send us an ask through Tumblr. PubCrawl alumna Alex Bracken used to do a feature for us called Ask Alex where she would answer more industry-focused questions, and we’ve gotten a few about publishing programs.
Hi, I hope I’m directing this question to the right place—I’m a graduating senior English major and I’m potentially looking at two options in Professional Publishing programs for the summer, NYU SPI and the Columbia Publishing Course. Does anyone have any insight into what the differences are between the two? From what I can tell, Columbia seems more focused on book publishing: is this true, and can anyone testify to whether this helped you more as a writer? I know that Columbia doesn’t provide a professional certificate and that NYU does, but I’m not really sure what a professional certificate merits. Overall, I’d be extremely grateful for insight from anyone who employs students from these programs (or doesn’t) or anyone who’s attended or had experience with either. Thank you!
Hi Bev, I have not attended a professional publishing course, but I have known several people who have, including our very own Alex, who wrote about summer publishing programs here. In her post, she says that it appears that Columbia focuses more on book publishing while NYU focuses more on digital/magazine publishing.
As for whether or not this has helped anyone as a writer, I can confidently say probably not. Both of these professional programs are focused on the business of publishing, not the craft of writing. However, if you are looking for insight into how the industry works, they ‘re incredibly useful and enlightening. A few of my editor colleagues attended these programs before and after they began working in publishing, for various reasons, and they say the mileage they’ve gotten from them depends on the work they’ve put into it. Another one of my editor colleagues used to teach a seminar about editing at NYU.
As for who employs students from these programs, I do know that the Big 5 routinely recruits from these programs; one of my good friends went to CPC and she was hired based on her interview from their job fair. I would say both publishing programs are about equal in terms of post-course hiring; like any industry, the connections you make are just as important as what you learn about it. In addition to publishing courses, I would highly recommend internships. Each of the Big 5 and other midsize and small presses offer them, as well as literary agencies. I got my start in publishing via an internship at a literary agency; I did not attend a publishing course.
Hi Pub Crawl! I was recently accepted to Columbia’s Publishing Program at Exeter College and can’t wait to get started! It’s might hope to find a career in book marketing or publicity. However, I’m a little concerned and have a couple of questions I hope you’ll be able to answer… 1) I just graduated with a Bachelor’s of Business Administration, so I don’t exactly have an extensive education in literature studies. How essential is it to be familiar with the classics and/or things like common literary themes, narrative structures, critical theories, etc. when you work in publishing? 2) For the past couple of months, I’ve been trying to learn as much as I can about the industry (that’s how I found your amazing blog!), but I was wondering if you might have any recommendations for other sources? Thank you so much! Sorry that this is such a long message. Love you guys and your posts! Best, Liv
Hi Liv, many people who work in publishing did not major in literature in college. Some majored in communications, and others majored in the sciences. It is not essential to be familiar with the “canon” of literature to work in publishing; all you need is a genuine love and enthusiasm for books. I was an English major in undergrad and I can tell you that as an editor, I employed exactly zero percentof the knowledge I gained in class. Academic criticism has no place in publishing. And even some of literary terms you might have learned in school mean something different in the business, like genre. I would also argue that studying writing and not literature is far more useful in the industry, in terms of narrative structure and tropes. As an editor, some of this would be important, but to be honest, as an editor, I was more concerned with whether or not the book I was editing was a good story (if fiction) and/or written in a clear, engaging, and readable way (if nonfiction).
As for other sources on the industry, I would recommend you check out the archives of Kristin Nelson’s blog Pub Rants. She is a literary agent, so much of her advice is author-focused, but she also has incredibly useful information about contracts, royalties, and money. If you’re interested in an editorial perspective, I would recommend you check out Cheryl Klein‘s website, where she’s posted some of her speeches and talks, and will be coming out with a nonfiction book about editing and writing.
Hope this helps, y’all! If you have any more questions, let us know in the comments or via email and Tumblr!
Over the past several months, this industry has seen many publishers go south. I'm referring to them closing for various reasons and/or getting exposed for not paying their authors. First, let's be clear that I'm not going to name any publishers or speak ill of any either. The intent of this post is to simply inform authors and help them in seeking a publisher for their work.
One question that seems to pop up a lot in writer forums is how to know if you're signing with a "good" publisher. To be honest, sometimes you can sign with a great publisher and then that publisher is bought out, which changes everything. Other times you sign with a publisher that has good intentions but winds up going under. And other times still, things look great on the surface but there's another world happening behind the scenes and it's not good in the least.
So what's an author to do? The best advice I can give you is to find out which authors are with the publisher you're interested in and then contact those authors to hear what their experiences have been like. I have people do this with me all the time, and I'm very honest about my experiences, both good and bad (and yes, there have been bad ones). Also, if you notice an author has left that publisher, find out why. Keep in mind that nondisclosure agreements might keep some authors from dishing the gory details, but that should also send up a red flag. Nondisclosure agreements are set in place for a reason. As a writer, you should question that reason.
Please, research and contact authors to find out what's really going on outside of the public eye. Protect yourself and your work.
*If you have a question you'd like me to answer from the other side of the editor's desk, feel free to leave it in the comments and I'll schedule it for a future post.
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.
Little Pickle Press is an award-winning creator of high quality, high impact media and products for children and teens.
From our founding in 2009, we’ve done things differently. Here are seven steps we’ve taken to lead—and BE—the change we want to see:
1. Be Responsible.
Print all titles, not just the environmentally-themed ones, on recycled paper, with soy inks, in the Americas.
And lose the dust-jacket on picture books. They’re not kid-friendly, or necessary.
2. Make every project count.
“Media For A Better World” isn’t just a slogan, it’s a guiding principle.
From Your Fantastic Elastic Brain, one of our growth-mindset picture books, to Spaghetti is NOT a Finger Food, a chapter book highlighting the challenges – and triumphs – of an 8-year-old boy with Asperger Syndrome, to Breath To Breath, a powerful YA novel-in-verse inspired by the true story of a survivor of child abuse, every Little Pickle and Relish Media story makes a difference for the better.
3. Give Back.
Forge partnerships with organizations that promote the same values we do in our titles.
Like how we donated 15% of net sales of What Does It Mean To Be Kind? print books to the Great Kindness Challenge, along with thousands of e-books to schools who participated in their spread-the-kindness challenge. And how 15% of net sales of our Farm2Table app go to KaBOOM!, to support their efforts to bring active play into the lives of kids growing up in poverty in America.
Teaming Up: What Does It Mean To Be Kind? written by Rana DiOrio and illustrated by by Stéphane Jorisch, three-time winner of Canada’s Governor General Literary Award for Children’s Illustration, and The Great Kindness Challenge that reached over 5 million students!
Farm2Table is an iPad adventure that helps kids explore where their food comes from. It’s based on The Cow in Patrick O’Shanahan’s Kitchen, written by farmer and agriculture writer Diana Prichard and illustrated by Heather Devlin Knopf. For this app, we teamed up with KaBOOM!, who believes that “cities need to be designed with opportunities to play everywhere.” Patrick would certainly agree!
We’re early adopters of technology, focused on what can make things better. Even our submission platform with Authors.me changes the game, with an eye to empowering authors throughout the submission process.
5. Be Kind.
It’s our mission: “Little Pickle Press is dedicated to creating media that fosters kindness in young people—and doing so in a manner congruent with that mission.” And kindness, as our founder Rana DiOrio explains, “is not simply being affable. …We define ‘kindness’ as treating others as one would wish to be treated in similar circumstance, and we consider it the foundational concept upon which civilization was built and the key to society’s future.”
So when we heard about Library For All, and how they’re using technology to spread literacy in Rwanda, Haiti, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cambodia, and Mongolia, we donated our entire digital library to the cause.
Students reading Library for All titles in Cambodia
6. Walk the walk.
From who we partner with to the wheat straw paper in my printer, as a B-Corp, everything we do and every decision we make is driven by sustainability, and the question, what’s going to make our world a better place for us all?
7. Be Grateful.
What we’re doing is working. We’ve won awards (85 so far), and our titles have gotten some great reviews (Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry’s said What Does It Mean To Be An Entrepreneur? “inspires young dreamers to find the courage to be doers.”)
Maybe most of all it’s hearing from kids, teens and their caring adults about how our stories have made a difference to them that lets us know we’re on track.
Comments like this one about our picture book Ripple’s Effect, from John A.,
“Just recently I was chatting with a first grader about his experience being bullied. It's hard to get over those kinds of hurdles as a child. What a great book for kids who are smart, fun, and joyful except when they are around ‘sharks.’
"Every child can be a great influence but the power of a positive kid in the midst of adversity can change lives. Children's literature needs this book. I'm glad it's here.”
And we’re grateful for the opportunity to share with you.
How Do I Decide? is a concise, definitive resource that will guide you through the decision, allowing you to ignore the noise and hype and focus on the right path for YOU. This is a fair and balanced approach that avoids favoring one choice over the other—and instead shows you how to determine which best fits your own situation.
About 50 pages jammed full of insider information, How Do I Decide? gives you the facts you need to make an informed choice. It walks you through the various steps of the publishing process so you can determine which road best suits your personal goals, temperament, and level of previous publishing experience.
How Do I Decide? is brief yet comprehensive, and includes:
• an overview of the current publishing landscape
• an outline of the path to publishing
• a user-friendly checklist to help you figure out your path
• pros and cons of traditional publishing
• pros and cons of self-publishing
• An eye-opening infographic that’ll help you decide
• A “quiz” to streamline your decision-making process
• Additional resources with links to further information
The e-book is only $2.99 on Amazon. Check it out if you’re considering which path to take!
Hi all! Stacey here with Lizzy Mason, Director of Publicity at Bloomsbury Children’s Books. This is the second of our two-part series on How and When to Catch The Elusive Publicity Department. Last month, Lizzy provided a typical publicist’s timeline. Today, she gives us her thoughts on everything from swag to freelance publicists. Lizzy, take it away.
Swag—Fact #1: people like free stuff. Fact #2: it doesn’t really help to give people free stuff that they won’t use and that people won’t see. So even if your book is about, say, bird watching, are you really going to get sales of your book by handing out expensive swag like binoculars with your book’s title on it? (Hint: no.) The best swag is simple. Bookmarks, pins/buttons, postcards, tote bags, and posters. If you want to make a few more expensive items for giveaways closer to on-sale, that’s cool too, but make sure it’s something people will use. I have a dozen sticky note pads, lanyards, and bracelets (even suntan lotion and a manicure kit) that will never see the light outside my cubicle walls.
Blogger Requests—Do not forward blogger requests piecemeal to your publicist. Yes, we’re known for being organized, but we’re also dealing with massive amounts of email. (Currently, I have more than 24,000 emails in my inbox. Not including the ones I’ve filed.) Keep an excel spreadsheet of requests (include name, blog name, address, email, and stats) and send them all at once about 5 months before on-sale. If someone requests an ARC after that, start a new list or refer them to your publicist (check with them first to be sure that’s okay). Also, please don’t put your publicist’s email address on your website. There should be a general email you can use for the publicity department or publisher.
Events—I don’t recommend doing events before on-sale unless you have backlist you can promote. In that case, bring your fancy swag for the new book! But if you don’t have a book to sell, it’s really just not worth it. People have short memories, even if they take your bookmark with them to “pre-order when they get home.” Save your time, money, and energy for when you have a book you can sell.
If you want to do events locally, check with your publicist for help arranging them. It’s best if we know what you’re doing. For several reasons, but mostly because if we know about an event, we can be sure the store orders books and gets them on time. Local bookstore events can be a great way to support the book, but don’t expect that the bookstore will bring a crowd for you. They’ll do their part with promotion, but you should be inviting your friends and family.
Are you traveling anywhere within the US around your publication date? Let your publicist know and they may be able to arrange an event. Especially if you’re going somewhere where you know a lot of people who may come out to see you.
Regional trade shows are another great way to meet the booksellers at bookstores in your general region. There are eight indie bookseller fall trade shows: NAIBA, NEIBA, SIBA, MPIBA, Heartland Fall Forum (for MIBA and GLIBA), SCIBA, NCIBA, and PNBA. (Google those acronyms!) Ask your publicist if you could be pitched for a signing, especially if it’s within driving distance. Your publisher may be willing to cover travel costs if it’s further away, but don’t expect that they will.
Announcements—Don’t announce anything without telling your publicist and marketing team. Sign a new deal? Going to a festival? Got a blurb? We can help with these announcements and determine the best time to make them. And, even just from a bandwidth perspective, it’s worth combining efforts.
Balance—Yes, the squeaky wheel gets grease. It’s true. But it’s all about balance. You want to walk the fine line between being a squeaky wheel and being overly persistent. So don’t email your publicist every time you have an idea. Gather your thoughts and put them into one email, then give him/her at least a few days to get back to you. Sometimes we have to research something or get an answer from another department. Silence does not mean we aren’t thinking about you. Also, anything you can do on your own, especially research, do it!
Freelance publicists—There are some amazing freelance publicists, but some are better than others, and some are better at working with your publisher than others. If you want to see what else a freelance can do to supplement your publisher’s plans, by all means, check into it. Some agents work with freelancers regularly and can suggest a few, some of your author friends might have recommendations (or warnings), and your publicist might even have some thoughts. I don’t always think it’s necessary, but it depends on what the publisher is doing. Definitely talk to your publicist, your agent, and your editor before hiring a freelancer.
Also, one last thing to know: I hate saying no. I hate it in my personal life, I hate in my professional life. I have trouble even saying no to my cat. Seriously, that’s why she’s so fat. So please respect the “No.” When I say we can’t cover your travel costs or pitch you for something, there is a reason. And I hated saying “No” just as much as you hated hearing it. Please don’t make me say it twice.
Congratulations on being published and good luck! I hope to see you at an event, conference, trade show, or festival one of these days!
LIZZY MASON is the Director of Publicity at Bloomsbury Children’s Books. She previously worked in publicity at Disney, Macmillan Children’s, and Simon & Schuster, and graduated from Manhattan College (which is in the Bronx) with a degree in Journalism and a minor in English. Lizzy dedicates whatever spare time she can to reading and writing YA fiction. She lives with her husband (and his comic collection) and their cat Moxie (who was named after a cat in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials) in Queens, NY. Follow her @LizzyMason21.
By Nicholas Eskey San Diego publisher IDW have grown steadily beyond their beginnings of comics. Though comics are still their main focus, the company in recent years has expanded beyond that and into other forms of entertainment. At this year’s Wondercon, IDW Entertainment represented by Dirk Wood, Vice Present of Marketing, David Hedgecock, Managing Editor, […]
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.
Self-publishing can be a fun, exciting, and rewarding endeavor. But get ready for an eclectic collection of hats, because you’ll be wearing many. It’s important to realize you’re selling a product that should be of the highest quality.
Here are some tips and resources to help you through the process.
By the time you’re ready to publish, you should have already gone through developmental editing of concept, character, and plot issues. Now, you need a proofreader/copy editor.
Don’t rely on a random friend or relative. Keep self-published books a strong and respected force in the market by having your manuscripts edited professionally or by a trusted, experienced critique partner. (Whenever you hire an outside service, be sure to have a contract.) See my list of editors from author recommendations.
Tip: Other indie authors can be a great resource for any self-publishing questions.
Your cover should be unique while blending with other books in your genre (a fine line to walk).
There are three cover options:
DIY: Royalty-free images are available online, such as this site, which you can use to design your cover.
Do you need an ISBN (International Standard Book Number)?
Not necessarily, but most retailers and publishers require one. (Amazon.com does not.)
With an ISBN, your book will be more discover-able by readers, bookstores, and libraries.
Currently the price for an ISBN (purchased through Bowker) is $125—not cheap. And you need one for the ebook and paperback of each title. If you plan to publish several books, you can buy them in bulk at greatly reduced prices; they never expire. Some businesses buy ISBNs in large quantities so they can then sell them at reduced cost.
There’s some controversy about the validity of these or “free” ISBNs, so obtain one from a reputable source. See Joel Friedlander's article on ISBNs and the ISBN website.
Formatting and Publishing
Depending on where you decide to publish your book, you may need help formatting your manuscript. It’s free and easy to publish ebooks through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), and they accept Word docs. Amazon’s print service, Createspace, is free and requires only a PDF. They also offer professional publishing services.
Smashwords is an ebook publisher, accepts Word docs, but has a style guide that must be followed.
Smashwords has distribution agreements with all major online retailers and with Baker&Taylor, which libraries use to purchase books.
Draft2Digital publishes ebook and print books. They accept simple Word docs with no style guide to follow. They offer editing and cover design as well, and distribution agreements.
Get your books noticed through accounts on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest, Instagram, and other social media sites.
Join some young adult author and reader groups on Facebook and Goodreads to meet and learn from other YA authors, and to expose your books to readers.
Create a website. Pay someone or DIY with sites such as Wordpress.com and Wix. This article showcases some “stellar” author websites.
It’s tough for indie authors to get reviews. Ask for reviews on your website and social media. Put a request at the end of your books. Here’s one list of bloggers who review books. Though the title says middle grade literature, most will also review YA books.
Do a blog tour (usually done when your book is newly published), and many of the bloggers will review your book. These businesses, among others, handle blog tours. Some specifically target YA audiences, but be sure to pick a blog tour company that lines your book up with YA bloggers.
Advertise. Occasionally having a sale on your book and advertising can help boost visibility. Advertising prices and results vary. Most, if not all, of these promotional sites have YA categories. Missing from the list, but popular with authors, are The Fussy Librarian and Bookbub (expensive, but results can be worth it).
Self-publishing has lost its earlier stigma of “vanity publishing,” and readers are embracing indie authors and their books. Indies have discovered the advantages of self-publishing: control over content and cover design, higher royalties, and quicker time to market.
Do the research, put out a quality product, work on marketing, and you can find success and satisfaction as an indie author.
Linda Covella’s varied background and education (an AA degrees in art, an AS degree in mechanical drafting & design, and a BS degree in Manufacturing Management) have led her down many paths and enriched her life experiences. But one thing she never strayed from is her love of writing.
Her first official publication was a restaurant review column for a local newspaper. But when she published articles for various children’s magazines, she realized she’d found her niche: writing for children. She hopes to bring to kids and teens the feelings books gave her when she was a child: the worlds they opened, the things they taught, the feelings they expressed.
Years ago, a friend told me that getting published was the easy part. It was staying published that was difficult.
I laughed a little. I died inside.
I was still trying to get published the first time, let alone a second or third time, and I wasn’t having a whole lot of success.
But perseverance won, and eventually I did get published. And because I was one of those annoying overachievers, I’d already written first drafts of the second and third books in my trilogy by the time I turned in my first book, which meant that I had some free time.
I wrote another — unrelated — book, revised it a bit, shared it with a few critique partners and my agent, and when I had another stretch of free time, I went back to it to make the manuscript shine.
But something was wrong. There were huge parts of the book that I loved, but I knew it had problems, and I wasn’t sure how to fix them. I knew the book wasn’t strong enough to give to my publisher, so I put it aside to wait for a spark of brilliance to tell me how to fix it.
That book is still waiting. I had to move on. So I finished writing my first series (again), and I wrote another new book. I gave it to critique partners. I gave it to my agent. I revised the snot out of it. And I thought it was ready, so I gave it to my publisher. They said they didn’t think this was the very best followup to my first series.
I started thinking about that thing my friend had said years before. I started wondering if maybe she was right. I’d been published! People liked my book! But I’d put one new book aside because I knew it wasn’t ready, and I’d had to put the other new book aside because my career wasn’t ready.
But because I had no desire to starve to death and a very strong desire to keep my career in motion, I wrote yet another new thing (while finishing working on my first trilogy). All the necessary people liked it and approved it, and that book became my second series. (For those wondering if that pattern continued, it did not. There were no books between that one and what will be my third series.)
I’m sharing all this because I think a lot of writers believe that once you’re published, you can hand in new books and a couple of years later, they appear on shelves. Not true! New books must go through the same rigorous acquisitions process as the first one, but this time with sales records of your previous books as a key factor in what the publisher decides to do.
I know a lot of authors who’ve written new things after they’ve been published, and for one reason another, had to trunk them. Maybe they knew from the start it wasn’t ready. Maybe their agent said it wasn’t ready. Maybe their publisher said it wasn’t ready.
And you know, there’s no shame in that. Trunked manuscripts — no matter what stage of your career they were written — are still useful creatures. There are no wasted words in writing, even if those words never make it to the bookshelves. All that experiences goes into the next new thing, which will be even stronger than the last ones.
We all have trunked manuscripts. Lots come before getting published the first time, but they happen after, too. For a lot of writers.
And it’s totally okay. Just keep writing. Keep looking forward. (And hopefully one day, you can resurrect the trunked manuscripts you particularly love. That is my plan!)
Let's face it. The publishing world is changing. I've been a hybrid author for a while now, releasing books both through self-publishing and through traditional publishing houses. Honestly, there are pros and cons to both, and I feel you have to do what is best for you and your book.
I decided to branch out into writing adult, because I'm not writing enough age groups already, right? ;) Well, when I sat down to do my taxes (Eek!) I realized my self-published Ashelyn Drake books tend to sell better than my traditionally published Ashelyn Drake books. Hmm… It could be the age levels affecting this. It could be a lot of things, actually. Oddly enough, Ashelyn Drake sells better on Barnes and Noble than Amazon, too. (Don't ask me how I feel about B&N doing away with the Nook. I'm still crying over that.) But I've decided that my first Ashelyn Drake adult titles will be self-published.
You can ask my agent how I feel about self-publishing. It makes me crazy nervous. Even though I've done it before, I panic. Why? It's a LOT of work to self-publish. A LOT. But if sales are better, I think that work is worth it. Does this mean I'll self-publish all my adult titles? Nope. I'm a hybrid author and I don't see that changing, because like I said, there are pros and cons to self-publishing and traditional publishing.
But I feel really good about self-publishing Lies We Tell. Did I just title drop? ;) Scared? Yes. But good at the same time. I'm weird like that. And since Lies We Tell is with my editor now, it might be coming your way sooner than anticipated.
*If you have a question you'd like me to answer from the other side of the editor's desk, feel free to leave it in the comments and I'll schedule it for a future post.
Why do we write middle grade and young adult books? Perhaps we love to play with words. Or we admire the honesty and realness of kids—and never quite grew up ourselves.
These reasons also apply to those of religious faith, but we have an added motive—to inspire children, deepen their faith, or help them live a better life. These ideas can be part of both religious and mainstream market books.
Writing faith themes in children’s literature can be fulfilling and fun. My first middle grade novel—Picture Imperfect, published by Ashberry Lane—came out in 2015.
Writing this book (and prior failed attempts) taught me a few things about writing middle grade fiction from a faith perspective.
1. Choose an appropriate theme.
People of faith believe life has meaning and God speaks through our circumstances. Naturally, we want to express the truth, as we see it, through our stories. But keep it kid-appropriate. (Forgiveness and loving others are great, fire and brimstone not so much.)
As a child, I loved reading books that inspired me and gave me hope. Now I love writing those books. In Picture Imperfect, my young protagonist, JJ, faces many challenges, including an annoying live-in aunt, a runaway cat, and her great-grandmother’s death. But she grows and finds God through the challenges.
2. Put story first.
Concepts of faith and moral values should emerge organically from the story. Nobody—least of all a child—wants to have a message hammered into them. And forcing a theme onto a story rarely works. I’ve tried it—that book never sold.
Picture Imperfect started out being about a girl discovering faith through her beloved great-grandmother. As I wrote, that element remained, but the focus shifted to JJ finding her place in the family.
Susan & middle grade author Angela Ruth Strong, 2015 Oregon Christian Writers’ summer coaching conference
3. Don’t preach.
Show, don’t tell is the Golden Rule of writing, and it applies equally to faith-based writing. Let the characters’ experiences and interactions demonstrate the underlying concept. While hints of it may appear in conversation, keep it light. Children would rather discover meaning for themselves than have some wise character explain it.
Picture Imperfect does have a “mentor” character with the occasional pithy saying, but the character's life, more than her words, helps JJ discover the importance of faith.
Susan's book launch with critique partner Sandy Zaugg
4. Use symbolism and metaphor.
The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis (1949-1954) is a clearly Christian series, yet never mentions God. In Picture Imperfect, the stained-glass windows of a small church illustrate the protagonist’s longing for God. These tools must be used carefully, of course. An allegory heavy with symbolism may turn off readers. But a gentle touch can add depth.
Not Back to School Day (Portland)*
5. Portray all faiths positively.
Faith themes can work in both the religious and general markets, although emphasis will differ. Even nonreligious books can add diversity by including children of different faiths, whose religion is a normal part of their lives.
A final thought
Believers, there’s no need to force spiritual themes into your stories. Your faith will naturally come out in whatever you write.
Cynsational Notes Susan Thogerson Maas grew up on five green Oregon acres, coming to love the plants, birds, and wild critters of the woods—who often find their way into her writing. She has written part-time for 30 years, selling devotionals, homeschooling and personal experience articles, Sunday school curriculum, and children’s stories.
Picture Imperfect is her first published middle grade novel. She is currently working on another middle grade novel, along with a nature-based homeschool unit study.
Susan chose to publish with Ashberry Lane, a small Christian publisher, due to the supportive, caring environment it offers. The mother-daughter publishing team works closely with the authors, and the authors work together to promote each other’s writing. In today’s publishing world, most authors end up doing much of their own marketing, but Ashberry Lane’s family atmosphere provides both physical help and spiritual encouragement.
*with Christian Tarabochia, Sherrie Ashcraft.
Ashberry Lane family (Aug. 2014): from left: Sherrie Ashcraft (publisher), authors Sam Hall, Angela & Jim Strong, Bonnie Leon, Susan Maas, Camille Eide; cover designer-board member Nicole Miller & editor Christina Tarabochia
Are you the kind of writer who has several book ideas (or even written several books), possibly in different genres? If so, you may be wondering where to start. Which book should be the first one you write, or pitch to agents and editors?
It’s a question worth asking, and you’d do well to put some serious thought into it. Here are my thoughts:
Spend some time on each idea, one by one. First work on a rough outline of what the book would be. List the themes and topics you’d want to cover. Ask yourself: is there enough material here for a whole book? Consider whether you’ll be able to gather the information needed to fill a book on this topic. Is there enough to say?
Marketplace: Are there other books on this topic? Too many? Is there room or need for another one? Can you identify a hole in the market that needs to be filled? If there are no books on this topic, consider why. Is there a need but no one has filled it yet? Or is this something that people don’t want to read a book about?
You: Consider whether you’re the right person to write this book. Do you have any qualifications that would cause book buyers to trust you? Do you have a platform with which to sell this book?
The idea itself: Try to be honest. Is it unique, or derivative of many other books you’ve seen? When you talk with people about it, do they seem to get it? Do they respond with excitement, curiosity, inquisitiveness?
Put all your information together and a picture should emerge of each idea’s viability and chances of selling.
Where is your heart? Others might have different advice, but I think you need to write the novel that is most on your heart and mind right now. Always save your book ideas in a file, and add to them when the muse strikes. But write the one that’s speaking to you.
Get some input. You could carefully craft a one-sentence hook for each of your book ideas, then show them to a group of friends or fellow writers, asking them to rank the ideas in order of interest. This might help, if there is some similarity in their answers. Perhaps a clear winner will emerge. But you might get a variety of responses. So again, you’ll need to choose the book you are ready to write. With fiction, the idea is important, yet secondary to the writing.
What about market trends? You do need to know what’s going on in the marketplace, but be aware it can change at any moment. What editors are looking for today might not be what they’re seeking eight months from now when you finish your novel. So don’t chase trends.
The first book sets you up. If you haven’t sold any books yet, be aware that branding is important, so the first book you sell will set you up to begin creating your brand. Make sure that first book is something you want to write, and make sure it begins establishing a brand identity that you’ll continue.
Do you have a variety of book ideas or entirely written books? How will you decide where to start?
It wasn’t until the book came out that I searched for it in online stores and discovered there was a Jayne Ann Krentz novel by the same name.
That’s when I learned my first rule: Try to make the title unique.
Even having a similar title can be a problem. I was aware that Wendelin von Draanen had written Flipped (Knopf, 2001) before I called a novel of mine Flip. (I couldn’t resist. The title fit the story so well.) I didn’t think it would be a problem.
I also didn’t think we’d ever be on the same panel at a conference. To this day, I still run into people who confuse the two books.
I didn’t have that problem with Dunk, which was about a boy who wants to work as a clown in a dunk tank. I checked. There wasn’t a previous book with that title. But the title presented another problem. I’ve met people who never picked up the book because they thought it was about basketball.
I guess there might have been people who picked it up for that very reason. Inevitably, some of them would be disappointed. My second rule: Avoid confusing potential readers.
A title has to work with a broad population. My novel, "Flux Sucks," was renamed at the last minute, out of fear that “sucks” might keep it off the shelves in some communities. The hastily created new title seems to be a good one. Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie works well, I believe, because it is intriguing, and it can have multiple meanings.
I think the same holds true for Character, Driven. My main character, Cliff, is both driven to succeed in life and love, and driven by his friends because he lacks a car of his own.
The title also hints at the metafictional nature of the narrative.
I think my most successful title, in terms of marketability, caused a different sort of problem for me. The story collection, In the Land of the Lawn Weenies and Other Warped and Creepy Tales (Starscape, 2003)(excerpt), inspired such brilliant cover art from illustrator Bill Mayer that I decided the next collection also needed a Weenie title story. It was a smart move.
There are now seven Weenies collections, with an eighth coming in September. But it is a mixed blessing. Some people don’t take the books seriously, for that very reason. I’ve seen them referred to as “garbage books” by one blogger, who I suspect never looked beyond the cover, and a friend told of hearing a parent tell a child who’d snatched up a copy at a book fair to “pick a real book.”
Happily, the millions of copies in print remind me that, all in all, it was a good decision to run with the Weenies. (Not to mention the endless jokes I get to make when authors gather.)
I have a chapter book about a boy who is cursed to speak in puns. The title, Punished!, actually came to me first, inspiring the book. (I also wrote a sequel, Numbed!, where the same characters lose their math skills. That, too, began with the title.)
I never tire of saying to kids who select that book at a school signing, “I’m glad you got Punished!”
I feel it’s an excellent title. But I made a mistake when I went for emphasis. Some online book sellers aren’t set up to search for an exclamation point. So neither Punished! nor Punished will produce that book.
If you search for the keywords Punished and Lubar, you’ll find the book, and some alarming bondage photos (just kidding), but the truth is that people are often better at remembering titles than authors. So a title should be both memorable and searchable.
I hope I chose wisely this time. As a title, Character, Driven is memorable (I hope), searchable (I tested the comma, and found no problems), and confusing only in a fun and ironic sort of way.
Is it a good title? I think so. But that’s really a question for the marketplace to decide. And that would be you. So let me know what you think. Or just smile and nod knowingly if we ever cross paths.
I also recently finished my first books with an educational publisher, My Brain (Inside My Body) and My Stomach (Inside My Body) (both Amicus, 2015).
So how did working with a trade publisher differ from working for an educational publisher? What’s the difference between the educational press and the trade press? Educational publishers prize consistency and predictability. Trade publishers seek surprise and novelty.
The differences start at the contract level. Educational publishers generally pay a work-for-hire fee, a straightforward amount without any expectation that the writer will participate in marketing. Clarity and predictability are the hallmarks of the contract. Trade publishers offer royalties and expect the writer to be heavily involved in marketing. There’s the possibility that a book will sell very well, but there’s also a risk that it will tank. The contract leaves room for wonderful (or not-so-great) surprises to play out.
Both my educational press and my trade press publishers were thorough-going professionals who love books and language and who insisted that every word be right. Both of them demanded careful, thoroughly-documented research. But despite those similarities, their editorial priorities differed.
When I started work on My Stomach, I dreamed up a hilarious way to deliver information about the digestive system. It differed in structure from the manuscript I had just finished for My Brain, but it was so funny I was sure kids—and my editor!—would love it.
She didn’t. She decisively rejected it, explaining that I needed to stick to the structure I’d used in the other manuscript.
Now that I have the books in hand, I see her point. Part of the attraction of the Inside My Body series is that the books within it are consistent.
Any reader--including frazzled teachers looking for materials to hand to twenty-odd clamoring students—can quickly figure out exactly what kind of information she’s going to get and how it will be laid out in the book.
Practicality. Predictability. Consistency.
My trade press editor, on the other hand, told me that she was initially attracted to my manuscript because it took a familiar subject—national parks—and looked at them in a new way. I tell the story of the creation of the National Park Service through the eyes of Tie Sing, a Chinese American trail cook, whose story, up until now, has always been peripheral to the stories of the main players.
During the editing process, my editor encouraged me to consider adding a historical character who is an even smaller presence in the historical record than Tie Sing.
At first I was dubious I could find enough information to credibly write him into this nonfiction story, but I dug around and found mention of him in historical documents and saw him (literally) on the edges in some photographs. So I added him!
The story this trade editor helped me craft is one that hasn’t been told before and one that I hope astonishes and delights my readers.
Novelty! Challenge! Surprise!
There’s a place for both kinds of books. Sometimes all a frazzled second grade teacher needs to make it through the hour is a series of books she can hand out to her students, knowing she can count on the reading level to be what they can handle, and the content to be what they need for a particular assignment. Hooray for educational publishing!
But sometimes that teacher needs a book she can read to her class to carry them all to an astonishing new place. Hooray for trade publishing!
Let's first distinguish between the terms "independent" and "small" publishers.
“Independent publishers” (IPs) are publishers that are not part of a larger corporation (e.g., the Big Five).
“Small publishers” are defined in the 2007 Writer's Market as those that average fewer than ten titles per year. So, while all small publishers are independent, not all independent publishers are small.
Having a book put out by a large publishing house, without question, offers some powerful advantages, including greater market reach, publishing industry relationships, more staff, and bigger budgets (and advances), than are often the case for smaller publishers. That said, there are significant benefits to working with independent publishers.
1. Access – Arguably the most important advantage of independent publishers is their relative ease of access. While most of the large publishers can only be queried via a literary agent, that restriction is rarely present with independent publishers. This makes independent publishers particularly appealing to newer writers who aren't represented by agents.
2. Relationships – independent publishers' smaller size tends to promote a closer relationship between the author and the independent publisher than may be possible with a large publisher. I feel comfortable contacting my editor and publicist at Pelican whenever it's necessary. This ease of interaction promotes a more pleasant working relationship.
3. Influence – By virtue, at least in part, of the closer relationship, authors may also have more influence with independent publishers than with large publishers. Independent publishers may be more likely to solicit and consider author feedback on cover design, artwork, font choice, etc. That said, trust your independent publisher to know its business.
4. Author's Efforts More Visible – This is the big fish in a small pond phenomenon. An individual author's promotional efforts and resulting sales are more visible and account for a larger percentage of sales at an independent publishers than at a large publisher.
5. More Flexible – Independent publishers, by their nature, and more flexible than large publishers. This can enable them to focus on niche or regional markets, and offer a home to a book that would not be considered by a large publisher. Independent publishers don't invest as much on a single book, and can thus more easily take calculated risks on innovative or unusual manuscripts.
6. Longer-Term Perspective – The philosophy of independent publishers is more aligned with a marathoner than with a sprinter. Slow and steady wins the race. Pelican keeps its books in print indefinitely.
7. Speed – Independent publishers can use their smaller size and greater flexibility to produce books faster than a large publisher. This was particularly true for my experience with Pelican, since I had complete artwork accompany my manuscripts (note: that is neither typical nor recommended for non-author-illustrators).
8. Stepping Stone – Independent publishers are quite capable of producing top notch books. A well-written and commercially successful book put out by an independent publisher may offer an effective stepping stone for authors' careers, including gaining access to literary agents and, with their help, larger opportunities.
Before you lend an imp a penny, there’s something you should know—such a simple act of generosity could set off a side-splitting chain of events! A colorful picture book full of mythology, mischief, and magic, When You Give an Imp a Penny shows us just what happens when an accident-prone—but well-intentioned—imp comes along asking for favors!
The same writer/illustrator duo that brought you Monster Goose Nursery Rhymes brings to life a comedy of fabled proportions.
Once you have your manuscript and/or proposal ready, you need to prepare a query letter. You then begin sending your query to agents. (See How to Write a Query Letter. You may also want to Google it – there are hundreds of posts online about query letters.) Don’t attach your manuscript or proposal to the query; you’ll send that only if requested.
Please don’t contact literary agents with random questions, requests for advice, or asking for an education on how to get published. Approach literary agents with a query letter once you have a properly prepared manuscript and/or proposal. Don’t phone agents, or write them asking for a phone call.
Wait! Most agents have a website (and/or blog) on which they list their Submission Guidelines. As you use the resources above to identify agents who might be right for your work, it’s important to read their individual guidelines and submit accordingly.
*Attention Non-fiction Authors*
→ Be aware that author platform and credentials are of primary importance. It may take years to build the kind of platform necessary to interest an agent or publisher. Read all my posts on platform HERE.
→ You also MUST thoroughly examine the comparable books already available on your topic, and be ruthlessly honest with yourself. Does your book say anything that is fresh, unique, and not already well-covered in books within the last five years? If not, go back to the drawing board. Find a fresh hook or angle.
→ Does your topic typically require credentials or degrees to be credible? If so, do you have them? If not, ask yourself what you DO have (besides personal experience) that overcomes your lack of credentials. Are you really funny? Do you have a blog that gets 5,000 hits a day? Have you won awards or major accolades in your subject area? Make sure you have something special to recommend you to a book-buying audience. If you don’t have it, go create it, or give up the idea of traditional publication.
*Attention Fiction Authors*
→ Please do not send the first draft of the first novel you’ve ever written. It’s important to study the craft of writing fiction, as well as getting outside help in editing and polishing your work before calling it ready. You may want to join a writers group or get a critique partner.
*The Final Word*
If you truly want to publish with a traditional publisher, all the resources are available and many of them are free of charge. Good luck!
Lately I've been writing book proposals for other people, and when one went out, two publishers responded right away. One offered a decent advance; the other wanted the book, but didn't want to pay for it.
"I've never sold a book for nothing," the agent wrote.
The editor was indignant; wanted the book and whined about uncertainty. The agent said that acquiring mss. ought not to be going for certainty (buying mss. that are like other best-selling books etc.) but "betting on the right horse."
I love that idea! And not just because it reminds me of John Steinbeck saying, "Publishing makes horse-racing look like a stable, secure business."
Betting on the right horse is a good way to think about my own books, too -- though for me it's like owning a horse as well as betting on one. If you muck out the stalls etc. yourself, owning a horse is a lot of work. And so is writing a book. You have to really love the creature to make all that work worthwhile, whether it wins the race or not.
The cover has been unveiled for Mindy McGinnis’ forthcoming book, The Female of the Species. We’ve embedded the full image for the jacket design above—what do you think?
According to Epic Reads, this will be McGinnis’ first contemporary young adult novel. Prior to this, “Mindy’s book have all been either historical and dark or post-apocalytpic and dark.”
In a blog post, McGinnis revealed that this project also features “my first attempt at writing a male main character and my first book with multiple POV’s.” Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint at HarperCollins Children’s Books, has scheduled the publication date for September 20.
First Second Books will publish a biographic graphic novel profiling Siddhartha. The story for Little Sid will explore his childhood prior to his “enlightenment” into the Buddha.
Ian Lendler will write the story and Xanthe Bouma will create the artwork for this project. The release date has been set for Winter 2017.
Here’s more from the GeekDad blog: “Before he became The Buddha, Siddhartha was a regular man. And before Siddhartha was a man, he was Little Sid- a regular kid. Well, as regular as you can be if you’re a prince who gets everything his heart desires. But this opulent lifestyle leaves Little Sid feeling dissatisfied, so he ventures out of his castle in search of a more meaningful life.” (via the First Second Books tumblr page)
Ethan Young has signed a deal with Dark Horse Comics.
Young aims to create a science fiction story for a young adult audience. His new graphic novel series will be called The Battles of Bridget Lee. The first volume is slated to come out on Sept. 21.
Here’s more from the press release: “There is no longer a generation that remembers a time before the Marauders invaded Earth. The remaining human outposts have been quiet since they fought back the alien aggressors, but there are stirrings of another attack. Bridget Lee, an ex–combat medic now residing at the outpost Farfall, may be the world’s last hope. But Bridget will need to overcome her own fears before she can save her people. Her legend begins here.”
Due to slow sales and a changing market, I’d lost both my publisher and agent—and I was devastated. Also, a science fiction/mystery YA that I’d been positive would sell when it went to acquisition meetings at major publishers had ultimately been rejected.
After over 35 published YA and middle grade books, I was on my own.
Here’s what I wrote in my journal:
“I feel so sad when I think back on how high my hopes were but now everything has led to this point of failure. I am so sad...discouraged...mourning the loss of dreams.”
I moped around for a few days, doing things like eating chocolate, reading comfort books and hanging out with my family. But I couldn’t sit around—I had to write.
So instead of giving up—I got busy.
I researched publishers that accepted unagented manuscripts. I polished then submitted my manuscripts—including a few pictures books. This format was new to me since I’d mostly written novels, but I’d sold one picture book--Snow Dog, Sand Dog, illustrated by Jess Golden (Albert Whitman, 2014) and that gave me hope. So I wrote more picture books.
One of these, Cash Kat, seemed like a good fit for my friend Danna Smith’s publisher Arbordale, so I sent it to them. A year later they offered me a contract—and now Cash Kat (2016) is a beautiful hardback picture book, illustrated by Christina Wald! It teaches how to count money and celebrates the special bond kids have with their grandparents.
More books I submitted on my own sold: Never Been Texted (Leap Books, 2015) and Curious Cat Spy Club series to Albert Whitman (2015). The third book in this CCSC series, Kelsey The Spy, comes out April 1—and I can hardly wait.
And remember that YA science fiction/mystery I’d tried so hard to sell? Well, it’s coming out in September 2016 from CBAY Publishing under the new title of Memory Girl.
Instead of my career being over, it’s taking a new shape.
Being discouraged is part of the writing game. Most writers deal with the lows of rejections, losing agents or editors, low sales numbers and having books go out of print. A writing career is like riding a roller coaster, going up and down then up again.
Here are some tips to help you ride the painful downs:
It’s healthy to grieve a disappointment or loss—but then get busy.
Network! Writer friends give great advice and publishing tips.
Small publishers can offer big opportunities.
Keep busy writing: books, articles, reviews. Name recognition counts.
Try new genres! You never know when magic will happen.
If you aren’t in a critique group, join one—or start one.
Don’t give up—as long as you’re writing you are a writer.
Rhyming picture books were the bane of my existence as an agent, honestly. 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?
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.