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Recently at the New Yorker, tetchy old fogey and lousy former film critic David Denby has published a lament about how few teens are reading books these days. He has one great overheard line—a student saying “Books smell like old people”; and he builds in a few caveats (“It’s very likely that teen-agers, attached to screens of one sort or another, read more words than they ever have in the past”); but mostly he is describing a decline of western civilization via smartphone. “If teachers can make books important to kids … those kids may turn off the screens,” he wraps up, making clear his real issue here: a favored primacy of one form of technology (ink on paper) over another (e-ink or pixels on screens).
Here’s the thing: He’s casting a transitional period … [more]
There have been some great posts this week about the diverse books movement. Jacqueline Woodson’s 1998 article in the Horn Book, titled Who Can Tell My Story has been revived. Ellen Oh’s salient post Dear White Writer takes on diverse books and white privilege. There are numerous other articles and posts I could point you to; the discussion about diverse books is wide, intense, difficult, eye-opening, enraging, encouraging, and exciting.
In the last year, as the conversation about diverse books has picked up steam, a noticeable shift has taken place in my query box. It’s a shift that happens each time the trends change in publishing. Paranormal gave way to dystopian, which gave way to horror, which gave way to contemporary, which has recently given way to…diverse books?
The We Need Diverse Books campaign … [more]
By: Editorial Anonymous,
So, the last time I emailed you, I had the hype but not the trophies. Now I’ve got both. Why is it that American editors ignore writers from New Zealand who aren’t Margaret Mahy or Joy Cowley. Down under, our buyers (readers) are piranhas. But, unfortunately for NZ authors, they are tiny piranhas.
I also review the YA books which that come out of the US and the UK and most of it, which, yeah, I know, sells, is actually formulaic which my students (I’m a high school teacher) turn their noses at – preferring to read ADULT literature.
Is this a ‘mam, this is a gentlemen’s club…’ kind of thing? Cos it sure does feel like it.
If you mean actual 'gentlemen', then no. The majority of publisher staff is female.
If you mean 'we just don't like New Zealanders', then no. We're seeing a lot of very talented and very profitable novels coming from the southern hemisphere, and there's no prejudice that I'm aware of, unless it's a prejudice for Australia/New Zealand, not against. (And while I realize that Australians and New Zealanders do not see themselves as in the same category, to US publishers, you are.)
If you mean 'Americans are just stupid and you can't sell anything smart to them', well, I can't say for sure, can I? We certainly can't match you for sheep jokes.
With an award under your belt and great reviews, I would start to wonder if your agent is sending the book to the right people. Authors over here sometimes have to leave their agents because things just aren't working out. You may be in that position, too.
At the same time, sometimes a book that can make a big splash in a smaller publishing market would be in danger of disappearing in a larger one. Without having read your book, I can't hypothesize, but good luck.
|A very fun book.|
|My caricature of Audrey|
Author Audrey Vernick is unflinchingly honest and gasp-for-breath funny, in real life and on the page.
When I first met her we were at our literary agent's writer retreat in an idyllic setting near Boston, with a reservoir perfect for kayaking, woodsy paths ideal for writerly contemplation, tables on the patio just right for manuscript inspiration. And a wide, green lawn that I kept hearing hosts frolicking baby foxes early in the mornings -- but I never saw them even though one morning I did get up very early to jog.
This was a lovely backdrop for meeting Audrey and other stellar members of our agent's client list.
At such events my strategy is to memorize names and analyze people quickly.
Instantly I pegged Audrey as sort of a sister.
To me this means she can take endless ribbing (and get even) but she also has a huge heart. She's deep. Compassionate. She plays fair. By now she knows some of my worst faults and insecurities but never uses them against me.
We drove for ice cream one night --
|Erin Murphy, literary agent, and Audrey Vernick, literary author|
4 Comments on Meet Children's Books Author Audrey Vernick, last added: 7/21/2011
and Audrey's group got lost. (Probably her fault.) We gave up looking for them and drove back to the retreat center, but I remember worrying -- not for their safety, but for us. Audrey's little, but she's a big part of any party.
It was on this trip that I came to know Buffalo, of Publisher’s Weekly starred-reviewed Is Your Buffalo Ready For Kindergarten?
Unlike a lot of people in the publishing industry, I regularly review the books I read on Goodreads, and it has sometimes gotten me into trouble. I’ve been a Goodreads member since shortly after it was founded, and I have a lot of friends there whose opinions I follow. And who follow me. Some people in publishing feel no one in our industry should be on Goodreads at all; one editor noted that he won’t buy books from people who have given a negative review to one of his books. Others see it as a betrayal of our small community, that we should all be cheerleaders all the time, and to ever be otherwise is to be an Enemy of Books.
Well, I think that’s a lot of malarky, as Joe Biden might say. Goodreads … [more]
It’s a grand day for books, and we’d like to extend our warmest congratulations to the extremely talented 2016 ALA award winners! … [more]
Hey, I'm as insecure as the next artist. I used to be far more insecure than anybody I knew.
My sister-in-law said her husband felt guilty for even being born. Move over, brother-in-law: I did too.
And nobody gave me enough reason to feel otherwise until I turned 40. That's pathetic -- The great Scarecrow might have said: I should've thought of it for you. The Tin Man might have rejoined: I should have felt it in my heart.
But apparently, like Dorothy's return home, this is one of those things one must find alone.
It's still a struggle. I still think I sometimes don't deserve good things. (When my kids were little I used to cry at night because things were so good -- my kids were wonderful and healthy, I had a good job... and I was sure it couldn't last. I cried over what might happen. As my kid would say, that's messed up)
The best way to get rid of the insecurity is to do something you love -- and keep doing it, and do it so well that others notice.
Suddenly you have an excuse to still be alive.
I've done it. My Ellie McDoodle books are a modest success. Thank you, Universe and everyone in it, especially my fans, my agent, the wonderful people at Bloomsbury, handsellers at bookstores, and all the writers and illustrators who nudged, pushed, yanked, prodded, bumped me up along the way. And the teachers who didn't write me off as an insecure mess, which surely I was.
So now I am happy.
But now I get these fellow illustrators and kids' book writers bawling in my ear, "We don't get any respect for what we do! The world despises us! We're not real writers!"
Well, speak for yourself.
At this point in the game I'm calling it artificial insecurity.
If someone's not respecting the hard work and education it took to get to the skill level you're at, then
1) they have an axe to grind (a spouse wishing you'd bring in more money, perhaps?)
2) they are jealous, wishing they could do what you do, better than you
3) they are ignorant and in need of a whack on the side of the hea-- no, a little education.
So what's your answer to them?
Here are some responses you may use, free of charge.
- I'm sorry honey that my work in this field didn't pay off yet. Disrespecting my work and my goals isn't going to bring you and me closer together and it's not going to help pay the bills faster.
- I deserve a shot at a career that makes me happy. So do you. This is mine. Find yours.
- Children's books teach our next generation. Don't even suggest that's not a worthy and honorable goal.
But please don't tell me and your fellow creatives that this constant insulting of our industry means the crabbers are right. Because they aren't, and I refuse to be brought down by ignorance.
When you walk around with a "Kick Me" sign on your back, people will gladly kick you. They think you want it, so they're just being helpful -- and besides everyone's got a little bit of a sadistic streak aching to come out in socially-acceptable ways.
Just don't extrapolate your personal insecurity onto everyone else in the profession.
My work pays my bills. Nobody gets hurt from what I do. I'm breaking no laws. I'm not inspiring evil, or even bad manners.
Some schools and libraries treat me very well. From reading my books, some kids are inspired to write and draw and read more, and to sketch in nature. Some adults are inspired to find a new career or create something unusual. That's impressive. You can't tell me kids' book writing and illustration is an inferior profession. I just plain don't believe it.
I know you're concerned, now. Just my raising the issue makes you wonder if I am truly at peace with this. Well, I'm developing the
My complaint is a simple one.
Look at the picture there on the right.
See the stack of books to the right? See the stack of books on the iPad? Which one reminds you of the stories still to be read, the books you want to reread; which one literally occupies a space in your conscience (as well as on your bookshelf)?
But I’ve found in my experience that when I look at my iPad, I don’t see books. I see an iPad. On the device is Middlemarch, a Jonathan Ames novel, a Charlie Huston mystery, a couple of P.G. Wodehouse books, and a half-dozen nonfiction books I thought I wanted to read once upon a time.
This could just be a sad side effect of the way I consume books: Some people buy and read books on a strictly one-at-a-time basis. Me, I tend to buy three at a time and leave them on the bedside shelf so that I have an array of choices when I finish one book and move to the next. Today I’ll put up Mockingjay and then go back into the final hundred-and-fifty pages of Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. And then I’ll browse my shelf to see what matches my mood, and that’s what i’ll read next.
But I don’t “see” anything to read when I glance at the iPad. And when I open the iPad, I am distracted by the many other applications available on it. So instead of making reading more of a presence in my life, it has the opposite effect: It makes reading just one more media application. Provided I even remember the dozen or so books I have downloaded on the device.
I love e-readers—honest, I do. Before I had the iPad, I read on a first-generation Kindle, which comically ugly and poorly designed, was still a damn sight better than carrying around a satchel full of books and manuscripts. And the iPad’s reader is pretty spiff, as are the other reading apps—GoodReader and Nook—but the iPad (and before it, the Kindle) don’t fit into my head and consciousness in the same way.
Am I alone in this? Or is anyone out there finding that these e-readers make books out of sight and out of mind?
If you are the sort who, instead of writing your pages, dithers on the web, checking up on the news and reading blogs and watching Orson Welles drunk outtakes, then you may well have seen Jackson Pearce’s screed against book pirates. Some background: She’d tweeted a few days ago that she must subsist off of ramen because she is broke, and meanwhile her books are being downloaded illegally. People responded to the tweet (apparently in support of book piracy—arrrrr!), and she answered those people with this charming video in which she costars with a pirate puppet.
But to my mind, both she and the people she’s answering are missing a bigger question, which is this: If those downloaded copies of the book(s) weren’t available on a pirate board, would the people who download them instead have purchased copies? That is, what is the actual impact of these downloads on sales?
There’s no way to be sure, of course, but I’d argue that the effects are negligible or positive. And that, considering that piracy is unavoidable, best then to find ways to make it work to one’s advantage—such as using a Creative Commons license. (For a better explanation of all of this, see Cory Doctorow’s post at the Guardian—which additionally has some startlingly frank talk about how artists should not expect to make a living from their art; in short, don’t quit your day job.)
The thing is, people who download illegally? They aren’t going to buy the book anyway. They’re just not. (Or a few may, but the lion’s share never will.) They are part of the culture of ferreting out uploads and taking what’s available. They are never going to wander into a bookstore real or virtual to buy the book. I know several of these people—they have files of all the latest movies and albums and like to boast about what they’ve “got” recently.
They are habitual thieves of a sort, but never mind that: They do talk up what they’ve got. They are one part of word-of-mouth. A scurrilous part, surely, but a group whose activities and talk may well spur awareness of a project—whether album, film, or book. As Doctorow has said elsewhere, his biggest fear isn’t that people will download his book for free, it’s that they will have never heard of it.
If the piracy of intellectual property is unavoidable (as it seems to be), then the only recourse is to create art that creates fans—people who are willing to support it. I have had friends “slip” me downloads of albums that I then went out and bought (in some cases—as with Frank Turner—six copies over time, more than paying him back for the brief time I “pirated” his album). I’ve become a fan, and it was because of that first sample. It may well have to be this way for authors, too.
What do you think? Is free the way of the future? How are authors going to make a living once everything is digitized and available for the price of a little bit of poking around the internet?
Looking for a little light reading/book chat/way to procrastinate whatever tasks are on your to-do list today? Head on over to the excellent Mother.Write. (Repeat.) blog, where I’ll be answering reader questions about all things books until 5pm. today.
If you're an author you should subscribe to Google Alerts, regular notices which tell you who is talking about your work (and, more importantly, whether it's happy talk).
I subscribe, and that is how I found out about a promotional book catalog quote by a well-connected English teacher which starts out, "Greg Heffley and Ellie McDoodle, move over—".
Maybe I should be annoyed.
Ellie doesn't want to move over.
She wants all the sales she can get, and she doesn't want to be edged out by snotty-nosed newcomers.
But there's plenty of room for lots of good books, and maybe strong competition keeps me on my toes.
I'd definitely rather see lots of great books in the Ellie McDoodle format than lots of copycats -- even if it means fewer sales.
Ellie McDoodle won't move over, but she's okay with sharing the limelight.
I can't speak for Greg Heffley, though.
By: Editorial Anonymous,
Well, that's interesting. But before you go thinking this will answer all your questions and make your life perfect, let's remember what we know about Bookscan, ok?
I have at last come around to the beauty of the e-reader.
Back in the long ago of 2008, I bought the first Kindle to use as an aid to reading manuscripts. It was nearly four hundred dollars, which boggles the mind even now. Why? Because Kindle 1 had serious problems: it was a poorly designed, clumsy device with page flip buttons in all sorts of weird places; it had problems with poor contrast and refresh rates on page flips; and it broke just after its year-long warranty expired. The latest iterations look pretty spiffy, but Kindle 1 was so awful and the customer service so terrible that Amazon forever lost my business.
After it broke down, I bought an iPad, but I never really used it for reading books. Wasn’t keen on the iBooks interface, with its silly animated page flips. Wasn’t about to give Amazon the satisfaction of downloading more books to its Kindle app.
Then I went on a work retreat/holiday, and I downloaded some books to the Nook app for the week. I read three of them. And now I don’t want to read books on anything else. In fact, I came home to find four books I’d ordered waiting. I returned them to the seller and downloaded them instead. This is how it will be from now on: I plan to get rid of many, many physical books. First big haul to sell at the Strand will be this morning before lunch. And you know what? I won’t miss ‘em.
I completely sympathize with those who fetishize physical books. God knows I do: I have a collection of signed first editions that I will never part with, and other books that I just feel some strange sort of cathexis for that goes beyond all reason.
But most other books I don’t need in physical form. For example, most nonfiction. I am a political junkie and consume books like Game Change and The Bridge like butter-slathered popcorn, but such books are topical and quickly outdated. Why keep an actual copy? And journalism such as the great David Grann’s collection of essays The Devil and Sherlock Holmes? I can’t wait to read it, but I don’t need to own it.
Sadly, this is true of most novels, too. Most novels are disposable unless they truly touch me in some way. In those cases, I’ll buy a hard copy of the book. (That’s how I operate now when I read a book in paperback and adore it—I end up tracking down a hardcover to add to the library.) But good as most novels are, few are so great that I want them lying about forever.
And now I can carry twenty books with me easily, and choose between books depending on my mood. I can switch from Patton Oswalt’s collection of essays Zombie Spaceship Wasteland to the most recent Newbery winner, Moon Over My Hammy—er, Manifest. And then I can reread William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition just for fun.
It’s amazing. My digital reader is making me read more and buy more books.* And I am never going back.
Has anyone else out there experienced a similar Saul/Paul conversion?
*Though not True Grit. I returned the physical copy I’d purchased and dragged along on vacation, where it went unread. But when I went to download it, discovered that the nookbook version costs more than the paperback on line. Really, Overlook Press? Is that how you want to play? Well, fine: I’ll read something else before I’ll pay more
By: Editorial Anonymous,
(1) How is publishing different for nonfiction children's books? (For example, a science topic for middle grades)
It's SO different! It's furrier, for one thing, and sometimes it's purple!
Ok, so I didn't really understand the question. There aren't a lot of differences, aside from submission (see below) and the need for fact-checking. Were you thinking of something else?
(2) I know for adult nonfiction, authors are not expected to write the whole book before submitting. Is that true of children's books as well or do editors expect the complete manuscript?
If it's chapter-length nonfiction, then yes, usually those are sold based on sample chapters and an outline.
(3) Are nonfiction titles a harder sell to publishers/bookstores?
They certainly can be. Some nonfiction sells great---The Dangerous Book for Boys
, for example. But a lot of nonfiction (especially chapter-length nonfiction) only does well if it's very
well supported by teachers and librarians, and as you may have heard in the news, they have NO MONEY TO SPEND ON BOOKS right now. But that's ok, because we didn't want those kids educated anyway. Who cares if they'll be old enough to vote soon? Most adult Americans NOW don't know what "nonfiction" means, and everything's just fine, right?
Kirkus reviews, which has been around for 75 years, is ended. And apparently its brother, Billboard, is in trouble too. (Maybe because Billboard gave Taylor Swift the Artist of the Year title
? Hey, my kid's a big fan, and after what Kanye did to Taylor at the MTV awards, she deserves a great year)
When Kirkus gave my first book a "not bad" sort of review, my editor said that's a good thing; Kirkus was "known to be persnickety." I liked that quote and used it often, especially to console other writers who received less-than-glowing reviews.
Kirkus was, to me, a curmudgeonly uncle whose favor I was always hoping to win before he died.
And best of luck to the staff, who I hope find new jobs soon. We've been doing the Unemployment Shuffle at our house for most of the year. You learn the steps quick enough, but it's not much fun.
Posted on 12/23/2009
Is there an average number of copies a picture book needs to sell before it's considered a success? How about a MG or YA novel? Or can a book's success be more accurately judged by whether it has earned back its advance? Or simply sold out its first printing? Please do not infer from this question that I've spent a lot of time lately staring at my royalties statements, as book sales mean not half as much to me as the smiles of my readers blah blah blah etc.
You can think of a book's success as based on sales numbers. Certainly a book earning out its advance is something to be desired, but the advance and the print run are linked, and the print run is an idea of how many books the publisher hopes to sell in approximately a year. So the advance comes back to sales numbers, too.
Past that, though: No, there isn't an industry average for any type of book. Sales goals vary widely publisher-to-publisher and within publishers book-to-book. The thing to compare your sales to is the first print run.1st year: sales are 1/2 or less of the first print run:
This is a disappointment to your publisher. If the book was a small investment, the attitude in the office may be "ah, c'est la vie"; if the book was a very large investment, the attitude in the office may be "whose mistake was this, dammit, and whose neck is corporate going to wring?"sales are around 3/4 of the first print run:
Publisher response may range from "that's not so good" to "hey, that's not so bad".sales are approximately the first print run:
Publisher response ranges from "nice work" to "go us!".sales are above the first print run:
Publisher response ranges from "that's great" to "OMFG! Wearegeniuses!!".2nd year: sales bottom out:
with the exception of a few very topical books, this is not expected and not appreciated.sales dip, but are above 1/3 of the first year's sales:
that's pretty normal.sales are close to the same as the 1st year:
awesome.sales are above the 1st year sales:
holy shit! quick, how did we do that? do it again!5th year:book is still in print:
congrats. have a bottle of champagne, because this is getting less common.10th year: book is still in print:
congrats! have a case
of champagne, and invite all your friends over.20th year: book is still in print:
shh. stop celebrating, you'll just make the other authors bitter and envious.
(Also note that if your book's sales were not quite
as high as your publisher hoped, but the book got some very positive review attention, that may still be chalked up as a "win".)
Let us remember, however, that one of your rights and privileges as someone not working in a publisher's padded cells is to distance yourself from the capricious mood swings, self-congratulation, and finger-pointing of the industry. Unless you fought your publisher through every step of the book-making process or in a fit of hubris took an advance
It feels natural to follow a post about what books I really enjoyed in 2009 with a post about the sorts of books I’d love to sign in 2010. And yes, I am actively seeking new talent! In other words, GIMME GIMME GIMME.
My interests as listed on the Upstart Crow website serve as a general outline of my tastes. Yes, I like books for boys. Yes, I’m crazy for middle grade. Yes, my tastes get a little more specific when it comes to teen. No, I’m not interested in signing the next Twilight, even though I’d love to swim through piles of money like Scrooge McDuck. No, I don’t currently represent picture books (please hold your rotten tomatoes until the end of the post).
If you really want to send a project that will make me drool, the following list should provide some guidance. I’m seeking books that are:
- Genuinely hilarious: Humor is tough. I get it. It’s also incredibly subjective. I’ve found, though, that because I say I’m looking for funny books for boys, I tend to see lots of submissions featuring farting, barfing, barfing that smells like a fart, or kids farting on barf. Sure, those things can be funny (even writing that last ridiculous sentence made me chuckle), but it takes more than gross humor to sustain an entire book. I want the sort of humor that makes me read sections out loud to annoyed friends and family. I want humor that arises out of witty dialogue, well-realized situations, and general madcapery (I just made that word up). Some books I read recently that really made me laugh include M.T. Anderson’s Whales on Stilts, Josh Lieb’s I am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to be Your Class President, and the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books.
- Sports-themed, but about more than just sports: I started writing specific information and examples before realizing the topic of sports books will require a separate post. Simply put, I want books that are about more than just the featured sport and stay away from common clichés like the triumph of the underdog or the awesome-athlete-who-falls-from-grace-and-then-redeems-him/herself. More in a later blog update!
- Classic: While this can apply to teen, I’m speaking more about middle grade here. I have a soft spot for books that feel like they could have been written thirty years ago without too many major adjustments. These types of stories often withstand the test of time and don’t become dated as easily as stories fully dependent on technology, trends, and dialect from 2010. Think about Harry Potter: aside from some technologies from the Muggle world, Harry and company could have lived in the 1970s just as easily as the late 1990s/early 2000s.
- Re-envisionings of a classic story/mythology: I’m crazy for the Percy Jackson books for how they pull from and send up Greek mythology, and I’m generally a sucker for works that reinvent or reimagine classic works.I’d love to be able to pitch a project by saying, “It’s King Lear set on a farm in Iowa from the daughters’ perspectives” (Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres) or “It’s Beowulf…WITH MONKEYS!” Okay, maybe not that last one, but you get the point.
- Steampunk: I know, I know, this is a buzz word being bandied about and could be a trend that comes and goes, but there’s something fun about steampunk books that I’m fi
Oh, Jeff Bezos. There was a time when I was a true believer. I bought the first generation Kindle relatively early on—March or April of ‘08, thereabouts. I was impressed (or flattered, anyway) by the letter from you that came with it, complimenting me on being a daring early adopter, one of the few, the proud—
Mind you, it did work for just over a year. Sure, the back came off all of the time, and the clumsy design meant I was always turning pages by accident (seemed like every edge of the damn thing had a page flip button). Sure, reading off of a gray screen is nowhere near as fine as reading off of a crisp page, but hey, it’s a new technology! It’s trailblazing of the sort that heralds a new era! It’s—well, how the future looked back in 1982! Sure it’s a homely little device, but who besides Steve Jobs ever said technology should be pretty and appealing?
For my four hundred bucks, I got about thirteen months of use out of it before the screen froze up. Now half of the screen is one of those cutesy sleep screens, and half of the screen is functional—there are still books and manucripts there, half-legible behind the stuck phony prettified image of Emily Dickinson.*
When it froze up, I shot Amazon an email. I was told that the warranty was only for twelve months and to call them to be walked through a hard reboot of the device. I dawdled on making the call, because I was launching a business and so on, and everything else in life fell by the wayside.
Finally I called. Rebooting? Didn’t really work. But I was informed that, despite being out of warranty, I could send in my Kindle and another hundred bucks to Amazon, and they would send me a refurbished Kindle. Which, judging from how these things work, would last about a year. Could I get a further discount on the new Kindle, which is already discounted to $260 or so? No. I could only get the old, tired, lousily designed first generation. Because that, my friends, is the reward for early adopters.
So instead, I used my Kindle to support my off-kilter kitchen table and decided to wait for the Apple iSlate. Yes, it will be a backlit screen that will tax the eyes, but a person can dim that to a point where it will be less bothersome. And page flips can be done with a dragged finger. And doubtless I’ll be able to edit on it. And I can’t help but think that there will be many, many, many options for downloading books that will allow me to avoid Amazon’s proprietary e-book system entirely. And customer service at Apple is a wonder; when my first iPhone went on the fritz, the service guy there said, “Hmm, did you drop it? It looks like there’s a dent here.” I said, “Umm …” And he said, “Let’s just say that you told me you didn’t drop it, and I’ll give you another phone.”
And just like that, they won my business for the rest of eternity.
*That digitized image of Emily Dickinson featured on the Kindle save screen? It is a bastardization of the only known photograph of ED, which is of her in a black dress with her hair pulled back. Shortly after her poems became popular after the turn of the century, she was included in an anthology, but the editor didn’t like the original image—thought it was too severe. So the image was doctored—she was given ridiculous bangs and a fluffy white collar and dress. When the ruse was discovered, there was an outcry and the image was removed from circulation by most self-respecting publishers. Leave it to Amazon to unearth this horror and to repeat exactly the judgmental, pru
In 1974, one of the great editors in the history of children’s books, Susan Hirschman, launched Greenwillow Books. She had left Macmillan (a long-ago and vastly different company from the one that exists now) for reasons of principle, and was asked by William H. Morrow (a long-ago and vastly different company from the one that exists now) to create a new children’s line.
The name of the imprint came from a picture book by Elizabeth Coatsworth (called Under the Green Willow); the logo was inspired by the book and created by art director Ava Weiss; and the inaugural list, in 1975, included many of the giant talents Hirschman had published elsewhere—Ezra Jack Keats, Anita Lobel, Tana Hoban, and others—making Greenwillow’s debut one of the richest and most fully-formed the industry has seen before or since. (I am cribbing freely from the masterful Minders of Make-Believe by Leonard S. Marcus, which, if you care at all about the history of children’s books, you should go out and read. Seriously, it’s worth the ducats.)
And the publishing program hasn’t slacked off since that first list.
Greenwillow’s author roster reads like a Who’s Who of notable children’s books creators since the seventies: Kevin Henkes, Lynne Rae Perkins, Paul Fleischman, Anita Lobel, Peter Sîs, Aliki, Douglas Florian, Chris Crutcher, Diana Wynne Jones, Jack Prelutsky, Naomi Shihab Nye, James Stevenson, Arnold Lobel, Paul Zelinsky, and on and on. There are so many beloved books, by so many adored creators, that it is hard to believe that Greenwillow is only thirty-five years old.
Morrow was later purchased and absorbed by Harper Collins, who, recognizing a perfect thing when they saw it, kept Greenwillow Books as a very nearly autonomous imprint within the company. These days, Virginia Duncan runs the imprint, with a half-dozen brilliant people on her team, and they maintain Hirschman’s dedication to publishing tomorrow’s classics.
To celebrate the anniversary, the group has created an anniversary blog with tons of fascinating and informative guest posts. Well worth bookmarking to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of just what goes into many of the very best books in the business.
Back at the start of this year, Jonathan Galassi wrote an awesome editorial for the New York Times about the value that a publishing house actually provides for a book and an author—those ineffable quality enhancers that make a book cost more than its printing, paper, and binding. Editing. Marketing. Publicity. Design. Attention to detail. Vision.
Galassi’s piece is the perfect counter to those who suggest publishers are going the way of the T-rex, that authors need only throw their manuscripts onto the Kindle. Seventy percent royalty rates! these people crow. Take that, Legacy Publishers! My audience will not be bound by the old paradigms! And then they—I don’t know, twirl the ends of their moustaches while they count their doubloons.
But is Amazon’s self-publication plan truly the first death knell for traditional publishers? One writer friend who has worn an THE END IS COMING sandwich board for the past thirty years sees it as— Well, here’s what he wrote:
The big six are irrelevant long-term, even medium-term. Why would I sell my book to them so they could place it in some projected Apple e-book store? Amazon is offering a 70% royalty. Can the Big 6 plus Apple offer that? No. Because the downward price pressure will squeeze out any superfluous element in the supply chain. And that’s the publishers.
But I’ve borne witness to the fruits of self-publication, and I can testify to you all that it is no threat to books from publishers. It’s the opposite in fact, and some kind of spectacular ugly. An anecdote [that Will Entrekin astutely points out below isn't entirely salient]:
Long ago, when I was desperately poor and pretty much willing to whore my talents out to anyone, I worked for the idiotically named iUniverse, a print-on-demand vanity press. Among its investors were the Author’s Guild and B&N, so it had the appearance of legitimacy; some titles even got distribution to B&N stores. But it was a vanity press, and even the appearance of legitimacy could not disguise the fact that 99.9% of its list was nearly unreadable dreck.
But the people who ran the outfit wanted to create a filter, something to offer the illusion to potential authors (and readers!) that there were some quality controls in place. This is, I’d argue, the issue and where traditional publishers come in: Quality control, and giving an imprimatur of some base quality to a book.
That’s where I came in.
To help potential readers sort through the hundreds of yahoos who published their books through iUniverse, there was something called Editor’s Choice. Or Editor’s Seal. Or Editor’s Paycheck. I don’t recall what the program was called, as I never saw a manuscript or finished book after my review of 100 pages.
I was paid some amount of money—seems super miniscule in memory, but maybe it was fifty dollars? seventy-five dollars?—to read 100 pages and fill out a form providing possible revision direction, and “approving” the manuscript. A couple lines of tepid praise along the lines of “The reader is aware of the author’s painstaking labor every step of the way.” Or whatever. You get the idea.
Only the most egregiously incomprehensible books were rejected, and those were almost more work to reject, becaus
(First entry in an occasional series in which we bandy about useful terms for the industry. Want to contribute your own? Please email your entries to email@example.com. This first is inspired by Michael Pollan’s useful thoughts about food.]
Book-like product. These are high-profile (and high-priced) projects: Books that are purchased by publishers and published but that are not sold to the traditional book audience, or are sold on some appeal that is extra-literary.
They may be books “written” by celebrities (such as the recent deal for Hilary Duff, or Lauren Conrad’s two novels, or Jerry Seinfeld’s Halloween “picture book” from a few years back). Or books that no one outside of the celebrity’s following (mostly non book buyers) would purchase. (Think of Madonna’s The English Roses. Or Glenn Beck’s picture book.)
Such projects are written and bound and jacketed and look like the rest of the books a publisher may have in its catalogue, sure. They may even read wonderfully well. But make no mistake: They are Something Else. Book-like products don’t behave in the marketplace like regular old books, and so should never be used as a point of comparison in discussions of the marketplace. Publishers spend more money on these projects, and the projects have a much higher profile in the world. But neither the advance nor the buzz about the book have any bearing on regular old books and publishing. And these kinds of projects have been around for as long as publishing has been a business.
Instead, book-like products should be seen as a lucrative side-line that publishers engage in to help them earn in the marketplace. For all it matters, Usually, the book-like products come out of different branches of the publisher that don’t really mix with the more literary minded part of the company, and for all their bookishness, may as well be jigsaw puzzles. Or Beanie Babies. Or Colorforms.
All of which is to say, we shouldn’t get up in arms because Hilary Duff (or Lauren Conrad or Madonna or Britney Spears or whichever glamorpuss of the moment) got a big deal for a book-like product. That is just one more of the crappy products that orbit her celebrity, and its success or failure affects the real book marketplace not at all.
But am I going far enough in defining this category? Or too far? What about books that become phenomenons and leave the rest of publishing behind? Surely they no longer count as representative of anything useful, right?
It is springtime here in New York, and as happens every spring, young hearts turn to thoughts of the Bologna Book Fair.
Or my old heart does, anyway. Every year, children’s books publishers and agents from all over the world gather in Bologna to buy and sell the rights to published and forthcoming books, to catch up with each other about trends, and to eat some truly excellent food. It is four days of constant meetings from nine to nine (some over drinks and dinner plates, true, but meetings nonetheless). From these meetings, many sales of properties are made to far-flung territories.
This can be a great benefit for a writer, the sale of individual rights to different countries. It means that the writer receives separate advances for each territory, and that each of those advances earns out on its own schedule. So even if the publisher in the US stumbles and the book does poorly here, it may still sell well elsewhere and the writer will still earn royalties. These separate income streams make it easier for a writer to actually make a living from writing.
Which is why we hold on to foreign and other subsidiary rights when we sell a project to a publisher. It can mean taking a smaller advance up front, or the outright rejection of an offer, and it can make us unpopular with certain publishers. Why? Because the publisher, of course, wants these rights, too.
When the publisher controls those rights and sells a foreign license, the advance for that foreign sale—and any royalties paid—are first applied toward paying back the publisher for the advance given to the author. Conceivably, a book could earn back its advance for the publisher without ever selling a single copy in the US. Good for the publisher, not so good for the author.
Not long ago, I had a conversation about this very subject with an editor, in which she explained her position. Namely, that an author should want the publisher to keep rights, because that makes it “easier for the publisher to earn back the advance and makes the writer more profitable for the house.”
Which sounds nice on the face of things, but has all sorts of buried sentiments and assumptions lurking within. Let’s unpack that sentence, so that we can see how very wrong-headed it is.
For one thing, the implication is that the publisher will be happy with the author and continue to publish that author happily for the next forty years if the publisher earns back its advances by recouping the money through foreign sales.
But that’s just not true. Foreign sales matter almost not at all to a publisher’s decision to publish future titles by an author. If the author’s books bomb at home and continue to tank domestically, while the publisher will be happy it recouped its advance in the foreign sales, it won’t feel any love for the author. The publisher will have covered its bets on the author, but it will also likely stop betting on that author at all. And the advance, while it may be large, is a mere fraction of the cost of bringing a book to market. So collecting some foreign advances (typically smaller) will do little to offset the actual cost of publishing a book.
So let’s say the publisher fumbles the publication in this market, but the book is a hit in France—well, the entity that most benefits is the publisher, not the author. Which, to that editor’s mind, makes perfect sense. The publisher, after all, gambled; why shouldn’t it earn back its money first?
But why should the publisher expect that the author will support the publisher? If anything, it should be the other way
If there were a Ten Commandments of Publishing, “Thou Shalt Be Patient” would definitely fall somewhere between “Always Revise, Ye Children” and “Sippeth Much Coffee.” I don’t know how many times I’ve had to say “these things take time” or “we need to be patient” or “hey, what’s over there?” before bolting in the opposite direction over the course of my young career, but it’s been plenty.
Chances are, if you’re going to be serious about getting published, you’re going to be expected to wait at different points: to figure out the plot, to find time to write, to hear back from your critique group, for an agent to respond to you, for the coffee to finish brewing, for revisions to be completed, for an editor to read your manuscript, for an offer to be finalized, for the contract to be negotiated, for the cows to come home, to receive an editor’s notes, for the publishing house to pick the perfect cover, and for the release date to finally arrive. Then you get to start all over (minus some steps, of course, like the cows) for the next book.
What I find encouraging is when all this waiting and patience finally pay off. I recently sold a project that, for me, was a perfect example of the importance of patience. The author had written the story, revised it, and worked on it with her critique group. She then submitted the manuscript when my former agency was holding what we called a query holiday, which was a one month period at the end of 2008 into 2009 when we allowed writers to send 20 pages of their story without an attached query.
Here’s the time line from the author’s original submission to accepting an offer that I hope will give you a good example of the needed patience in this business:
- December 2008: Book is one of over 3,000 submitted as part of the Query Holiday
- January 7th, 2009: I request full based on 20 pages
- February 11th: Ask if the author is willing to do a revision
- Feb. 16th: Send her revision notes
- March 30th: She sends revised manuscript
- April 15th: I set up phone call, offer representation, and ask the author to do another revision
- June 23rd: Ask for a final polish on the draft
- Mid-July: Switch agencies
- July 29th: Send out project
- November: Send project out to a few additional editors
- January 2010: Receive first serious interest (one year after first reading the project)
- February 2010: Interest intensifies
- March 10th 2010: Set up auction
- March 12th 2010: Accept offer
- Fall 2011: Anticipated release date
There’s no set formula for how long this process typically takes. Some works reach shelves more quickly while others take even longer. Regardless of whether your book flies from your fingers and into an editor’s waiting hands or is the result of a long period of fine-tuning and hard effort, you’re still going to be in for a wait, and patience is an absolute necessity.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some more commandments to write. I wonder what number “Always Save Your Work, Ye Fools” should be…
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[Today's post comes via the dizzyingly sharp Jennifer Ung, who once upon a time interned for one of us here at Upstart Crow (albeit at a different company). Jennifer has just returned from a season in England, and we thought her observations on the two markets well worth sharing. Especially fascinating are explanations of how, though united by common language, American and British teens are so different that teen novels in each market don't "translate" to the other.]
I’m an intern.
By MTV-reality-show standards, that probably means that I’m the go-to person for coffee, bagels, and general mind-numbing office work. I entered the interning realm thinking I’d end up doing tedious, unpaid work I didn’t care about but did only for the sake of furthering my barely fledgling career. Much to my complete and utter surprise, every single place I’ve interned at so far has treated me like a princess. And who am I to complain? I love being a princess. Especially one who gains valuable experience in possibly the best industry in the world (!).
Hyperbolic metaphors aside, interning at two literary agencies in New York City has given me valuable insight into this super cool, ultra close-knit community known as children’s books. I particularly fell in love with all things YA. I became the kind of person you’d find staying up all night reading the latest Hunger Games novel (ahem, ican’twaitforaugust!), or stalking the stories in the Publishers Weekly Children’s Bookshelf to discover new debut titles worth reading. I absolutely adored the fact that I could flip to the acknowledgments section of a YA novel and find the author thanking other fellow YA authors. It gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling inside knowing that I am pursuing a career in an industry full of people who actually love what they are doing—and even better, love the people they are doing it with.
I chose to study abroad in London this past semester with the intention of learning about children’s book publishing as it happens on the other side of the Atlantic. I interned at a well-established literary agency that works with many children’s authors and illustrators. Now, in comparing literary agencies in the US with literary agencies in the UK, I understand that I may have to make sweeping generalizations that may not completely and accurately characterize either side. And you should also know that my experience is slightly skewed by the nature of what I did at each internship—more YA in the US and more middle grade/illustrated books in the UK. But I shall press on anyway!
The business side of things at a literary agency is fairly consistent between the US and the UK. An aspiring author sends in a submission, and within four to six weeks, we respond with either a “Yay, may I see more of your manuscript?!” or an “Ah, sorry, this just isn’t the right project for us.” And if the unsolicited submission happens to receive a “yay” response, it probably takes another few weeks to determine whether or not we will offer representation.
What most people don’t realize is the sheer number of unsolicited queries that enter the mailboxes of all literary agencies. At the agency in London, we would receive maybe 20-30 a day via email. By post? Probably another 20-30. It adds up—especially when you