How to Find an Illustrator

I just got off the phone with someone who called because she had seen an image done by one of our artists, and she wanted to know how she could get him to illustrate her picture book for her. I spent some time trying to tell her that that isn’t really how it works, but she just wasn’t hearing me. And so I changed tacks, and ended up telling her it would be very, VERY expensive. That she heard. But I was left with the feeling that my point was not made.

Writers: You definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator. 

In nearly all cases (exceptions explained below) the publisher will hire an illustrator for you. Your job, as a writer, is to write. And you shouldn’t be spending money on an illustrator (or an agent, or making hard-copies of your work). You’re doing things out of order. Once your words have been sold to a publisher, they will work very hard to find exactly the right artist for the job. You definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator.

I know it seems like a smart idea to send out a full-package to potential agents or publishers. But agents, editors, and art-directors are very practiced at reading picture book texts without art. Part of the fun is imagining the pictures before they exist. By hiring an illustrator, you may be shooting yourself in the foot. Here are a few reasons why you definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator:

  1. Your vision is not the agent or publisher’s vision. Your manuscript could be brilliant, but even the best professionals have a hard time separating text from art sometimes. And sub-par art could mean turning down a perfectly decent manuscript.
  2. The friend who you hired isn’t really as great an artist as you think, which can make you both look unprofessional.
  3. You end up spending money when you don’t need to. Let the publisher pay the illustrator for you.
  4. It would be nearly impossible for a picture book hopeful to hire, say, a New York Times bestselling illustrator, but it’s pretty easy for a publishing house to do so. Don’t you want a New York Times bestselling illustrator attached to your project?

But what are the exceptions? 

  1. The friend you paired up with has a few picture books under her belt already. Or is at least more than a weekend hobbyist-artist. You and she have been working hard together and attending conferences and understand that you are doing things in an unconventional way.
  2. You plan to self-publish
  3. You definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator

Here’s why it’s a good idea to trust the agents and publishers to hire an illustrator for you: 

  1. It’s their job to understand the entire industry, from what stories and styles are working in the current market, to who won which awards this year. We know people’s schedules and stuff, too. 
  2. It’s common practice to pair a new writer with a “known” illustrator to bring some name recognition to a debut. 
  3. The publisher may have an “open contract” with an illustrator, and they may be looking for just the right thing to fill it.

Please, please save yourself time, money, and the headache of art-directing someone who isn’t right for the job. Trust that your words are enough, and that the person in charge of finding you an illustrator will do so with aplomb.

You definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator. You definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator. You definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator. 

An Offer!

This post has been updated to clarify some points that were obviously confusing. 5/20/16

Oh my god, you got an offer of representation! Congratulations! That’s HUGE. So exciting! The very next thing you need to do is freak out. I mean, go into full on panic mode. The clock is ticking! Email all the other agents who have your manuscript and tell them they have 24 hours to decide whether they want to make an offer too.

This is a good idea, because then agents, very very busy people, will all say “Oh, crap. I don’t have that kind of time,” and drop out, making your decision very easy.

Obviously I’m being facetious. But this is something we see ALL THE TIME. Most weeks we get follow-ups to queries saying the author has an offer of representation, and the offering agent has given the author until x date (often a week or two) to claim their prize.

WTF?

I get the other agents’ motivation. Putting a time limit on these things prevents the endless stringing-along while all the other agents read and decide. Authors: You don’t have to agree to it. If the offering agent really wants to sign you, they’ll wait. They’ll wait and do battle with other offering agents. They’ll wait, and check in, and tell you again how much they love your work. If after two weeks, their interest in your work expires, well, they probably won’t be the best agent for you anyway.

Here’s the other side, and I’ll speak for myself. Other agents may have different feelings. But when I have a pile of urgent things that need to be done for my existing clients, and say this week someone has been particularly taxing, getting an email saying “you gotta read this and decide if you want to get married in the next week”, I may start to think, “Ugh. Here’s a demanding author. Do I really have time for her? Will she always be so insistent?”

Here’s a better way, in my humble agenty opinion: When you get an offer, tell the offering agent, “Hooray! Thank you! I need to get back to some people, and I will give you my response as soon as I can.”

If OA says, “You have two weeks to decide.” you can say, “Ok, I understand your time is valuable. I will try to respond in that time, but it may take a little longer to hear back from everyone. I hope that time limit is flexible.” Hopefully OA will understand. ETA: This doesn’t mean you should string them along for the next six months. But if it takes two weeks and 2 days, or three weeks, or a month, OA should be ok with that.

Then you go back to other agents, and say “I have an offer, and I’d like to be able to respond to it within two weeks. But if you need more time than that, please let me know.” Instead of “I need to know within two weeks or else.” ETA: You’re making a very big decision that will impact your career for a long time to come. Easing up on the timelines gives everyone the room to breathe. You can interview people. You can think about things. You can weigh out your options. Yes, two weeks is usually enough to decide. But sometimes it isn’t.

Also ETA: I’m not advocating for the process to take forever and ever. We all need to be respectful of each others’ time. What I’m saying is that 1. an offer of representation shouldn’t expire after a certain number of days, and 2. you can tell agents you want to hear from them by a certain time, but if they are interested and need more time, it’s in your best interest to work with that.

We’re all human, and believe it or not, we want everyone to succeed. So when we hear you have an offer, we’re happy for you. We may want in, but if you seem like a demanding diva, we may walk away on that basis alone.

ETA: Asking for what you want and need is not acting like a diva. Not being flexible to force someone to do things your way with no leeway is.

If time is money, is more time more money?

Niche Job

There are lots of different kinds of publishing. Trade is the one most think of when they decide to write and publish a book. Who doesn’t want to see their book on an endcap at Barnes and Noble? Who doesn’t want to do a reading and sign copies at their local indie?

But sometimes, the books people write and submit to agents and editors are definitely not trade books. Very often, they are educational. For example, I have lost count of queries that hit my inbox beginning with “Childhood obesity is a national epidemic.” While this may be true, it does not make a trade picture book. Other examples of books that will not likely find a trade home: Explaining cancer, diabetes, or other diseases/medical conditions. Explaining adoption, alcoholism, incarceration, abuse. Basically if your main character is a doctor or social worker or adult of any kind who is explaining something, you’re writing a niche-market book.

Recently, an incredibly smart single mom I admire very much asked if I knew of any books explaining the process of artificial insemination. I said no, trying not to cringe. She said, “I guess I have to write it, then.” We don’t know each other well enough yet for me to have told her all the reasons I think that book doesn’t exist. And if she writes it, well, that’s a bridge I’ll cross later.

I’m not discouraging books on these topics. They can be very helpful to have when kids start asking questions about heavy life-stuff. They are great educational tools. But they are unlikely to be the ones pulled off the shelf for multiple reads night after night. Of course there are exceptions, but as the saying goes, they prove the rule.

There are, of course, ways to approach these subjects that are more widely accessible, one being to write a character who is dealing with said issue, without making the story about that issue. For example, I have a friend who, as a kid, found out he had diabetes and had to start taking insulin shots. But he was also a smarter-than-you Thrasher-reading skater/alter boy whose holy grail was a vinyl Space Oddity single. A story about a kid who has to take insulin shots is very niche. A story about a well-rounded character who just happens to inject himself daily as part of a larger story is going to have a wider appeal.

Niche-market books take niche-market publishers to make them successful. Do your research before submitting. Find agents and editors who know that market well, and understand that many do not.

My Mantra

I have a simple mantra I use at work that helps tip me to a decision: Maybe is no.

It may sound a little harsh, but hear me out. I see dozens and dozens of submissions, and in between, I critique manuscripts for conferences and hear pitches. Most of those are no (because they have to be) and a very few are yes. The rest, I’m afraid, are maybes. And maybe is ultimately Not Yes.

I struggled for a long time with the maybes. Seeing the potential in something that isn’t all the way there yet, or not close enough, anyway, is hard. I get excited when I read things that could be good if only they…I have spent cumulative weeks of my career hemming and hawing over the maybes. And 99% of the time, it’s just wheel-spinning.

Sometimes there is a very exciting maybe-plus. And those do get some extra-attention, usually in the form of an invitation to revise and resubmit. Some days I wish I could work with all the maybes to get them to yes. But unless what comes back is a YES DEFINITELY, it’s still a maybe, and maybe is no.

Guest Post: Melissa Edwards on Copyright Law

Ever wondered whether you need to register your manuscript for copyright before you send it out? Agent, lawyer, and friend to Doug the Pug Melissa Edwards has some things to tell you. Let’s learn things!

Copyright and Wrong by Melissa Edwards

Here’s the scene: you just wrote your first manuscript and you’re ready to send it out to agents to shop for representation. Congratulations! What an achievement! But before sending, your mouse poised over the send icon on your computer, you think, “uh, are they going to steal my book? I just put my blood, sweat, and tears into this manuscript and now I’m going to send it over the Internet without any protection at all?! PANIC!”

Take a sip. It’s going to be OK.

Your manuscript is protected as soon as you put it into fixed form (type it on a computer, hand write it on a legal pad, etch it into stone, etc.) The Constitution of the United States (with extra help from the Copyright Act of 1976) protects you from harm.

First, let’s get some lingo out of the way. The protection you seek for works of authorship is copyright protection. This is not the same as trademark protection, which protects a brand in commerce, and it is not the same as a patent, which protects inventions. Those are entirely different types of intellectual property law and the words are not interchangeable.

For the most basic copyright protection, all you need is a work of authorship, that is original, and fixed. Protection under the Copyright Act of 1976 will get you approximately your life plus 70-years’ worth of exclusive use. Registration with the U.S. Copyright office is not necessary for protection. Generally, your work is registered by your publisher, after it’s fully edited. If you register an unedited manuscript before you send it out to agents, it’s going to be slightly problematic to register another draft of that same work later on. That being said, you must register your copyright before you’re legally permitted to bring a lawsuit to enforce it and timely registration creates a legal presumption your copyright is valid. If you’re planning to self-publish, registration is not a bad idea.

“But what if someone steals my idea?!” Ideas are not copyrightable. If you have an idea for a novel but you haven’t written it, you have no protection. Just because you thought a book about a boy wizard would be cool in 1995 doesn’t mean J.K. Rowling infringed on your work.

You may have heard the phrase “derivative work” being bandied about. A derivative work recasts or transforms some expression from a previous work and thereby creates a new copyrightable work. You still need permission to use the underlying work—hence fan fiction is technically infringement. The exceptions to this rule include works in the public domain (i.e. when a work is so old, it’s no longer protected by copyright) and fair use.

Fair use is another often misused phrase. The courts use a four part fair use test when determining if a derivative work was fair use or infringement. These questions include the purpose of the new work (commercial v. educational?), the nature of the original work (factual v. fictional?), the amount of the portion used (heart of the work?), and the effect on the potential market for the existing work. The answers to these questions can be argued in every which way, thereby racking up the legal fees. The most famous type of fair use is parody. Be careful if you’re borrowing copyrighted material in your work—fair use is a wobbly leg to stand on! You can always seek permission from the underlying rights holder—this is called, unsurprisingly, a permission.

Last point before I bore you to tears with all this legal nonsense, authors should always keep the copyright in a publishing contract. The book should be registered in your name, not the name of the publisher.

Now go off and send your manuscript to agents without concern! (And don’t mention copyright in your query. It’s unnecessary and the mark of an amateur.)

Follow Melissa on Twitter @MelissaLaurenE

Get to Know: Microsoft Word

I read lots of manuscripts. Dozens. Hundreds. Possibly even in the thousands by now. And I’d venture to say they are all in Microsoft Word. However, not everyone has a handle on the ins-and-outs of this marvelous software. It’s been around for a long, long time now, so really, there’s no time like the present!

When I’m critiquing or sending notes, I use track changes. That’s not necessarily the norm. Many editors still prefer to edit with a pencil and actual paper. I’m firmly in the “whatever works for you” camp. But when I’m working with a manuscript, there are certain formatting things that are standard, and really easy to use and learn, and very frustrating when they are not in place. This isn’t going to be a tutorial, because YouTube is littered with them. It’s a heads up on what you can do to make your editor and agent and critique partner’s lives easier.

First up, page numbers. So many people insert these manually. That must take forever, especially when you get past page ten! But moreover, when I’m looking at your page, they may not fall the same way they do on your screen. If I change the font, or the size of the font, all of the page numbers are suddenly on the wrong pages, or in the middle of the page. This way is a thousand times easier, and stays consistent.

Headers and footers work basically the same way as page numbers.

PS (or mid-post script?): Pippin and loads of other agencies’ submissions policies ask that you copy and paste your ms into the body of an email. Don’t worry about page numbers and headers when you do that. They don’t matter until we request an actual document from you.

I once edited a manuscript that was manually double-spaced. That was a formatting nightmare. Don’t do that, please. Try it this way.

If you’re interested in track changes, there are lots of tutorials for how it works. I recommend it, because why not know more things instead of fewer? Try this one.

And just a reminder, 12 point font is standard. I like Times New Roman or whatever is the Microsoft standard now (they’ve recently changed to Calibri and Cambria, both are good). Some people like Courier, for the record, I am not one of them. Please don’t get creative in your font choices. They are hard to read, unprofessional, and when I get a document in them, I change it immediately to something standard. And that often throws off your other formatting. (See above.)

You don’t need to be a pro with Microsoft, but if you want to be taken seriously as a writer, you should have a handle on the basics. It does so many things, and is quite easy to use. Now if I could just figure out how to make it do laundry.

It’s Shark Tank, Pitches

I once sat for a pitch during which an author arranged her self-pubbed book, a standing tri-fold marketing plan, related merch, and a sheet of sales points and irrelevant stats on the table in front of me. At minute nine of the ten-minute appointment, I interrupted her recitation: “You have a book, you have a tote bag, so what do you need me to do?” She said she wanted an investor who could help her market the book. I asked how many she’d sold on her own. She’d sold zero in ten months. Splat.

A well-defined pitch does not a successful product make.

I don’t only watch the Great British Bake Off. I also watch Shark Tank. It delights me to watch entrepreneurs, passionate about their ideas, hoping to find a partner to take their product to the next level. Every time a new person steps onto that rug and launches into their pitch, I think about queries.  (Of course, I’m the Shark in this scenario.)

Writers and queriers are generally very good at telling agents and editors what they have. Pitches are practiced and honed and sound pretty good. But without having a polished product and understanding the larger market, and where your product (book) fits into it, the pitch doesn’t do me much good. (Did you guys see the ST where the guy pitched the surgical Bluetooth implant? Great pitch, ridiculous product.)

Queries are for you to tell me what you’ve got, yes. It’s most easily digestible if I know you know there is a market for what you’re selling me. Your book is a product. If there are too many others like it, there’s little shelf space for another. If there is absolutely nothing like it, there might not be a market for it at all.

The people who get deals on Shark Tank are the ones who’ve done their due diligence. They’re not weekend inventors holding up a prototype made of toothpicks and peas. They don’t speak in hypotheticals. They’re not hobbyists. They know their market. They know their customer. They’ve made dozens of prototypes and tested and redesigned. (Is this analogy holding up?) And after all of that, they head in looking for investors.

This is why you owe it to yourself to do your research. If you’re writing picture books, read every new picture book on the shelves each week. If you want to sell me a YA novel (and I hope you do), it’s important that your frame of reference is wider than Hunger Games and The Fault in Our Stars. Much, much wider. I may not be as awesome as Barbara Corcoran (yet), but my hair is almost as good, and I expect as much from my partners as she does. (For the record, I don’t understand the appeal of Pipcorn.)

 

 

Expectations

I’ve noticed something over the course of the years that writers do. I didn’t really think about it until I was watching Ruby on The Great British Bake Off. Remember how she always took her bakes up to the judges and went “Oh, it’s just dreadful, isn’t it?”

And then they’d be all, “Ruby, you’re mental. This is delicious and beautiful.”

And she’d be all, “Really?”

So many times, I open my inbox to find a revision I’ve been waiting for (yay!) and it’s filled with a couple of paragraphs of what’s wrong with it (boooo!). Or it’s the complete opposite. It’s a revision or draft of something I’ve been waiting for (yay!) filled with all the praise beta-readers and critique partners have sprinkled all over it (booo!).

(I mean, none of MY clients do these things. I just want to clarify that point. My clients are all perfect.)

How could either of those things be bad? In the first case, the writer is giving me a heads up on what to look for, what they think might not be working yet and would like a hand with. In the second scenario, they are feeling pretty good about things and isn’t that also important to know?

So let’s address that first part: what’s the matter with someone telling me where the dents might be that they need help un-denting? Well, my first thought is usually, “Why didn’t you fix it if you know it needs fixing?” But also, and maybe bigger, I now have things in mind to look for, so I can’t read with a truly clean slate. If this draft or revision is from someone I know, generally we’ve spoken about what needed attention. I have some things in mind to keep an eye out for. But now I’m looking for different things, and instead of just feeling the bumps when they come along, I’m looking for them and anticipating them and way more focused on them than I might normally be.

So what’s wrong with the other way? Why shouldn’t you tell me that expert reader #1 thinks this draft is shining and perfect and whole? Two reasons: If I don’t agree, then I think your expert reader might not be the genius I was led to believe and that’s just unfair of you to taint their reputation. [insert winky face here] But moreover, I start to read with the attitude of “I’ll be the judge of that” and that’s a dangerous place for your reader to begin. If I don’t think the draft is glowing perfection, I may wonder whether we’re on the same page regarding glowing perfection.

When you set expectations, either low or high, you’re not allowing the reader to come at it with clear vision for a pure reading experience. And isn’t that the whole point of asking another person to read it?

It’s totally fine if, after I’ve read it, you think I’ve missed something huge and you say “did you notice the thing I thought was a big problem?” I might say yes and we can discuss, or I might say no, and it’s not an issue and we can move on to other things.

It’s not always possible to pass on a draft silently, and it’s probably never easy. The urge to explain changes is powerful. But 99% of the time, if you can simply say, “Here it is,” without setting expectations, you’ll get a better read from an agent or editor.

Too Soon!

Oh, the excitement of a manuscript request! An agent or editor has shown interest in the work you’ve labored over for so long and nothing could be better! But instead of the contract you were hoping for, they send editorial notes for revision.

The best thing you can do, while you have their interest, is to dash off your edits as quickly as possible and make sure all their questions are answered before they forget about you, right? Preferably overnight, and no more than three days, yeah?

SUPER LOUD NO.

I hear from editors and agents all the time who spend days, weeks, possibly even months, reading and considering a manuscript, thinking hard about ways in which to fix it.  And then a writer turns around and sends it back in less than a week. Pub pros, can I get a collective AAARGH?

This is frustrating for a few reasons, but here are my top two:

  1. It seems like you haven’t spent any time digesting my notes, or letting my ideas simmer and gel with your ideas. I cannot believe you’ve made the most thoughtful revision in a day or two. I’m glad you’re eager, but I’m bummed that you’re not being careful.
  1. Once something is off my desk, I’ve breathed a sigh of “done!” and moved on to other things. So when that thing appears again immediately, it’s like those effing birthday candles you can’t blow out. Just like I want you to spend some time apart from your manuscript to be able to approach it with fresh eyes, my eyes also need freshening. Plus the 50 other things I’m working on also need my attention.

I’ll paraphrase every writer ever: There is no writing, only rewriting.

Nothing brilliant is dashed off in an hour. You may want something to be finished, but more, you need to want it to be perfect. I’m a firm believer in putting a draft away for a week or two before digging back in. Let yourself forget what’s in there, and take the time to imagine how your story will look with new ideas implemented before putting fingers to keys. And if you think what you wrote in the last hour is gorgeous flawlessness, put it away for a week. You might find some flaws when you return. Revise. And then sit quietly and twiddle your thumbs for a bit. Then re-read and revise again. Then read out loud to your cat and revise again. THEN send it back.

Agents and editors aren’t going to forget you. You’re not going to lose the attention of a truly interested pro if you take the time to write smartly and considerately.

Let your email garner a “Yay, it’s here!” instead of a groan of “But I just sent those no-ho-hooootes.”

On the Frustration of the Friend of a Friend

There is a phenomenon in publishing which seems, to the perpetrators, nothing but a harmless request, a simple favor, and something of a delight to all parties. To the people on the other end, it is dreaded, horrible, and impossible to explain why without sounding like an asshole. So I’m taking one for the team and I’m going to explain once and for all why we hate getting manuscripts from that friend of a friend.

Every editor and agent has experienced this: an aunt’s neighbor/a piano teacher’s sister/the gardener’s tax attorney, has written a book for kids. Because writing for kids is perceived as being easy, and besides, how hard can it be to get a book for three-year olds published? It seems like nothing to ask a professional to take a look at the manuscript. Why wouldn’t we? It will only take a minute, and it’s probably lovely. A dentist who wants to educate kids about dental health with a funny little tooth character? Why not send it to the vice president at Penguin? I’m sure she has time.

The thing is, I want all the authors to succeed. But I can’t help an author succeed unless they are willing to work as hard as I am. Books for kids aren’t something that are jotted off and sent to a publisher and then magically turned into books. Children’s book authors spend years studying the craft, joining writing groups, attending conferences, getting feedback, revising, scrapping projects entirely and starting over again and again. And so, when a person has not respected the long process, or thinks they can do all of that in one afternoon while the kids are napping, it’s insulting to our entire industry. And then to be asked to take it seriously is lemon juice on the cut.

I know many a publishing pro who has lied about her job at parties. My mother isn’t allowed to tell strangers what I do for a living because she forwarded one too many things my way. Cut off. But it’s hard to know whether something might have legs or not, right? What if this really is the next Seuss incarnate? Better safe than sorry, right? Mmm, not really. You have good sense. You have eyes. You like a good book. You can probably tell if something is truly clever or whether it is going to be a time-and-soul suck for a very busy human.

But reading a picture book only takes a few minutes, doesn’t it? Yeah, kind of. But ask a person in publishing when they might have a few minutes, and they will likely tell you “March”. And it’s not just reading. It’s reading, and really considering, and formulating a thoughtful response that won’t offend either the author or the friend who forwarded. It takes time, and the right mindset, and that combo is sometimes hard to come by.

So consider this a PSA. If you really want to help your boyfriend’s grandmother’s manicurist, consider referring them to the SCBWI, an international organization dedicated to helping amateur writers gain professional status. Or, if you’re in a bit of a fouler mood, you can send them this post.

Or you can consider this approach: “No, I didn’t say editor. I said she’s a MATADOR.”