Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Day 11 (Week 2, Day 4) - My Own Experiences Trying To Become Published

Day 11 (Week 2, Day 4)

An announcement...

Shock horror tonight - we've had our first failed evening of the Picture Book Challenge! Unfortunately, both Josh and Xander fell asleep on the way back from running a couple of errands this evening, and so we weren't able to read to them before bed. It's not surprising though, as a busy few days coupled with a very early 5.30am start this morning left them both shattered.

Nevermind though - the goal of the Picture Book Challenge is to read 1000 picture books in 2017, and as long as we stick to three books per day for most of the days of the year we'll easily surpass that (technically we would hit 1095 if we read three on each of the 365 days of 2017, so there's plenty of leeway).

Hmm, what to write instead...

As there's nothing to review today, I thought I should probably write an article that had something to do with picture books so you don't all suffer withdrawal symptoms due to lack of a published post on this blog (ha!). It's easy to think, 'Oh, I'll just write an article,' and imagine that you can go straight out and do it, but whenever I sit down in front of a computer with that sort of intention I quickly find that, actually, there's nothing exciting going on in my head worth putting down.

I had a think about whether to write in more detail about the benefits of reading with your children, but decided that it's a topic which needs more than an hour or so of effort to type up. I debated putting up a piece about my favourite picture books of all time, but then decided that as we're going to read them at some point this year anyway that would be a bit of a waste (though I might still do it at some point anyway).

Writer about what you (sort of) know...

In the end, I thought I might share a bit about my own experiences trying to become a published picture book author, and the distinct lack of success that I've found so far. I wouldn't dream of claiming to be able to give expert advice on the subject, but I do have a few interesting bits of information about the picture book market that I've been given on various writing conferences over the last couple of years that I believe are still relevant, that might be useful if you're interested in writing and submitting a book, either to an agent or direct to a publisher.

Personally, I have decided that I want an agent to represent me when it comes to getting a picture book published. Some people prefer to go directly to the publisher so that they can negotiate everything themselves and save the cut that an agent takes, but for one thing I don't have a clue what I should be negotiating, and for another I want to have someone who does know these things fighting in my corner to get the best deal possible, for the simple reason that agents work on commission (so if they don't sell your book, they don't get any money!). If they can get me noticed and published then they damn well deserve to be paid!

What the agent-route means is that before I can convince a publisher to take on my story, I have to first convince an agent that I'm good enough too! I've twice submitted up to three picture book texts to agents over the last year or two, in the hope that my writing will be strong enough and the stories easy enough to sell that I'll hook an agent who thinks we can work together. Alas, I've not yet succeeded (though it's not been all negative), so I'm currently caught between re-working the texts that I've already submitted, or starting from scratch with three new stories.

Oh, agent! Why dost thou reject me?!

Why have I failed so far? Well, there's the obvious one - my writing simply isn't good enough. It's not easy to feel that your writing isn't good enough, and rejection is the hardest thing a writer will ever have to face, but there are thousands and thousands of people who are rejected by agents every year, with only a very small handful getting taken on, so you really do have to be exceptional in your craft to be one of those lucky few. When agents respond, they're so busy with both their own clients and prospective ones sending in submissions that it's very rare for them to be able to give anything more than a brief (but usually very nice) letter of rejection. If you get even a little bit of personalised feedback then I've been told you should count yourself very lucky, and therefore I take it as an honour to say that on three or four occasions I have had a little bit more than just a standard rejection letter - usually this has just been to say that they like the concept but don't think the writing is strong enough, but once I had a good few sentences on each of the three books, which I felt incredibly grateful for and gave me some excellent points which I hadn't ever considered.

This next reason for rejection might come as somewhat of a surprise (it certainly did for me), but rhyming picture books are not an attractive option for publishers when it comes to debut authors. That's because on the whole picture books don't generate a huge income for a publisher, and they rely on foreign publishing rights to make it worth their time. The problem, of course, with a rhyming book in a foreign market is that you can't just translate the text into another language and expect the rhymes to work! With that in mind, unless you're a well-established author who is likely to sell more books than average, it's not worth the investment for the publisher, and therefore also for the agent. During my first round of submissions, I included two rhyming texts, but it was only when attending Mantle Arts' excellent Wolves & Apples Writers' Event in 2015 that I learnt from the picture book author Jonathan Emmett (and subsequently agent Polly Nolan from The Greenhouse Literary Agency) about the above problem. During a special 10 minute 1-2-1 feedback session, Polly was actually quite complimentary about my rhyming books, but reiterated what Jonathan had said and therefore made it clear that I wasn't right to take on. That's not to say, I suppose, that if I realise my dream of being an established picture book author in the future that these books might not sell at that point, but at the minute it's just not viable.

At this point, I would like emphasise that the 1-2-1 session with Polly Nolan was the single greatest thing I have done on my writing 'journey' to date, as it gave me such a heads up about the market today and what I was doing right etc. What I will confess is to going home disheartened about not being able to write rhyming books, coming up with what I thought was a fantastic alliteration story that same evening, only to then scold myself for not twigging that alliteration isn't going to work any better in a foreign language than rhyme! A shame, because I really liked what I had written!

Another thing that I was told is that publishers have been leaning towards a few particular trends in the last few years. The first is shorter books word-count wise; the second is stories with a good twist; the third is those aimed at pre-schoolers, whose parents are the biggest purchasers of picture books. Therefore, when I wrote a book called When Tom Wore a Dress to School, about a boy who wears a dress like his hero Pixie Princess Pru and finally gains acceptance for it from his classmates, it was a) rather lengthy (though technically still within the accepted word limit of 1,000), b) far too predictable, and c) aimed at too old of an audience (school children rather than pre-schoolers). Now, I'm sure you could find loads of books that match some or all of these criteria, but I think the point is that agents and publishers are looking to take on people with the maximum potential for as wide a readership as possible, and therefore you need to prove to them that you can be that person with your writing.

Perhaps my query letter to the agents isn't strong enough, either. I might not be selling myself well enough in the 'voice' that I'm using, or I might be wittering on too much in my book descriptions, or I might not be impressing them with the fact that I haven't won any writing awards to make myself stand out, or...

Onto the second round...

When I submitted my second round of stories, I had tried to write a couple of funnier stories with a bit of a twist in each, as well as one about that most difficult of subjects, death (namely the death of my grandmother following battle with vascular dementia). I'm proud of them all (because even completing a short story is an achievement), but I've not found any more success this time round, and so I'm faced with two real choices now.

The first is to pay a literary consultancy or freelance editor to have a look at them and see what they think I need to do to improve them. With teenage and adult writing (and I've got books on the go for those too!) it costs a good deal of money to have your work assessed, usually a few hundred pounds for at least your first 10,000 words, depending on the level of feedback you want. It's undoubtedly worth it, but it's not that easily affordable for everyone. With picture books, however, because the texts are so much shorter it also means the prices are much lower, which makes this a very possible and attractive option (though one for later in the year when our extension has finished being built...). This would mean that I wouldn't have to lose the stories altogether, because although I like them a lot I'm not entirely sure where to improve them, though six months down the line perhaps I'll see them in a different light.

The second option is to simply start writing new stories, and I do have another three in various stages of draft. It's the most fun part of the whole process, of course! Even if I was having success with any of the other books, I'd still be trying to write more, because I love getting my ideas down on paper, and seeing where they take me. I know that I prefer to try and write humorous stories rather than 'regular' ones (for want of a better word), and part of the challenge is trying to find the right level of humour to make both children and adults laugh. They're coming along, though they're far from finished yet.

So, to conclude...

That's rather a lengthy look into what I learned while trying to become a published picture book author. I don't think I'll ever give up, as I've always got a new idea buzzing around in my head, and though I'd like to write for all ages I really do want to have books out there that children enjoy right at the beginning of their reading journey, and to help them discover a lifelong love of reading. It's an incredibly difficult to become a published author, and though there is the self-published route that is becoming more and more popular (with a potential illustrator-partner waiting ready!) it actually incurs a surprising amount of expense to do properly, and certainly isn't without its own pitfalls.

Hopefully tomorrow you'll be back to reading mini-reviews of books that we've read for the Picture Book Challenge, rather than another lengthy article like this one! I was rather disappointed that I didn't get to read with the kids this evening, but it's been fun to do a bit of article-writing nonetheless.

I hope you've found some of this interesting, anyhow!

(and please, if anyone notices anything I've written that isn't accurate then please do let me know, as I don't want to be given out any false information about the picture book market!)


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