A winning idea: new content for a new medium

USA Today published their list of 10 great iPad apps for kids. The three books noted were:

– A Present for Milo (Ruckus)
– PopOut! The Night Before Christmas (LoudCrow)
– Bartleby’s Book of Buttons (Octopus Kite)

I was struck by part of the description for A Present for Milo: “Mike Austin wrote and illustrated this book specifically for the iPad so it is much more interactive than many books found in the iTunes Store.”

Why is this a novel concept?

The quickly emerging world of ebooks for kids is new and the potential is so exciting. But to date I haven’t been overly wowed. The majority of what I see are new versions of old classics. I like the Three Little Pigs as much as the next mom but come on, do we need 100 versions of that? A lot of companies rushed to get their foot in the door but come on people, open the door wide open and let’s see what comes out.

The potential for children’s ebook apps is thrilling. Kids can be engaged in so many new and exciting ways. I am putting out a call for new content – content that is specifically written for smart devices. We need content that isn’t retrofitted but rather content that can harness and demonstrate the interactivity! Forget reading to us – let us read to our kids and let the kids listen and engage with the story!

Pictures still speak more than words

Thank you Publisher’s Weekly! Yesterday PW ran an article by Karen Springen fleshing out this darn picture book issue and doing it very convincingly.

Picture books are not becoming less popular. After talking to numerous publishers, agents, booksellers, author and illustrators, Springen finds pictures books just as desireable as they have been. She admits they may be slightly hurt by the the recession but she says this is merely a result of the economy and it will cycle back.

Springen cites HarperCollins Children’s Books president Susan Katz as saying her team at Harper was first “sad and then mad” after reading the NY Times front page article and that senior agent George Nicholson “let out a shriek” after reading the Times’ claims.

In fact, not a single person Springen talked to confirmed the Times’ article’s findings. Wahoo!

Springen also confirms my belief that picture books used to be more sophisticated:

“Some authors report that publishers want less text these days. “They keep wanting younger books and shorter text,” said author-illustrator Dominic Catalano.”

It makes me very happy to know that picture books are safe, for now.

What I find ironic is that Scholastic’s report announced the slow death of picture books and yet recently I have bought a ton of Scholastic picture books through my children’s schools (around 20 this fall – agh, don’t tell my husband!)! Granted, they were the soft cover versions of the hard copy books but perhaps that’s just what the industry needs to do to give picture books a boost. Ditch the hard covers, reduce costs and power on!

Scholastic says kids don’t need pictures!

Yesterday Scholastic released their top 10 children’s trends from 2010. #6 bums me out. Here it is:

“The shift in picture books: Publishers are publishing about 25 to 30 percent fewer picture book titles than they used to as some parents want their kids to read more challenging books at younger ages. The new trend is leading to popular picture book characters such as Pinkalicious, Splat Cat and Brown Bear, Brown Bear showing up in Beginning Reader books.”

The NY Times and others have reported on this finding but I don’t think it’s been fully fleshed out.

There’s a real gap between picture books and chapter books and I think it’s sad that Scholastic’s response to this is to make more beginning reading books. Granted, we need more interesting beginning reading, that’s for sure. But there’s something missing here.  What about taking picture books ones step further, or you could view it as one step back.

Picture books used to be more sophisticated. Today they are basically half a step above board books. The characters are very simple and the storyline is minimal. There is a place for the current picture books but we need more books like the ones that were published 20 years ago.

My boys and I love Bill Peet’s books and I can’t find much out there like them. Peet, a wonderful author and illustrator who died in 2002, created fantastic books with terrific stories and amusing illustrations. Peet’s books took off where current day picture books stop.

And what about the “Billy and Blaze” series by Clarence William Andersen? Or Syd Hoff’s books. Or “Blueberries for Sal”? All of these books are much longer than current picture books but they have a successful ratio of text to illustrations. Not only do they keep my boys’ interest but I love them too. Whenever I finish any of those books it makes me long for more illustrations in adult books.

In the NY Times article, a Simon and Schuster publisher summarized parents feelings as “my kid doesn’t need books with pictures anymore.” WHAT?!?! They might not “need” pictures to decipher text but heck, it would be a sad world if kids didn’t have illustrations.

I think the big publishing houses are underestimating their readers and downplaying the importance of beautiful illustrations. Find the right ratio of text to illustrations, give the reader a little more plot and develop some characters and watch how many kids and parents will flock to those books!

The “Hard-Copy” vs “E”

Will the popularity of ebooks raise the bar for “hard-copy” books? Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book “Tree of Codes,” described as the “anti-Kindle” and sculptural, is pretty innovative. And then there’s “Le Petit Submarine,” described by as the “tiniest book on the planet.” Again, brilliant!

I hope that ebooks push hard copy books to be more than they have been and hard copies push ebooks. Let the games begin!

Getting Published

Two new resources for getting your children’s book published:

Here’s a very funny, sad but true account of trying to get published.

And here’s a link to Harold Underdown’s website. Harold is the author of the Idiots Guide to Publishing Children’s Books and a professional editor. Follow him on twitter for daily tips from his guide.

Best Subway Map Ever!

Now this is art – and functional too! I love this subway map illustrator Erin Jang made for her nephew. I want one!

I Heart Mom

Move over old “MOM” tattoos on big biceps, check these out!

Baby Einstein won’t make my kid smart?

Did parents really and truly believe Baby Einstein videos would make their kids smarter!? Come on. According to this NY Times article, parents can now receive a refund, no questions asked, no receipts necessary, if you don’t feel the dvd increased your kid’s IQ. I’m not worried about the kids’ IQs, I’m worried about those parents’!

The final sentence in this article really bugged me “To me, the most important thing is reminding parents that getting down on the floor to play with children is the most educational thing they can do.” Uh duh?! But hello, my kid wakes at 6am and goes to bed at 7:30pm (minus one 1.5 hour nap) – that leaves us with 12 hours every day – do they expect us to play on the floor for all those 12 hours. Get real!

Is Shouting the New Spanking?

According to an article in the NY Times, shouting is the new spanking. It’s an interesting comparison but I think they paint it as too black and white. Tone control can be very effective when used sparingly. What do you think?

How I got published

My story

I had a friend who published a children’s book with Tricycle Press. One day I asked her to lunch to bounce my idea off of her (see previous post). At lunch I handed her a printed powerpoint presentation (this was seven years ago) with the text of my book and some pictures I found on the web that gave an idea of what I was looking for in the illustrations. I asked her if she would read my manuscript and give me feedback.

Originally I imagined that my book would be for adults – that small gift book sitting next to the register at Borders (a girl can dream :)). I tried not to have any expectations at the lunch. I merely hoped she’d fall in love with it and send it to the adult division of her publishing company, Ten Speed Press (ha re. no expectations!). To my great surprise, my friend loved the book and sent it on to her publisher at Tricycle (via Fed Ex to make sure the head of the press had a hard copy on her desk). Within a week I heard back from them saying they were interested in making it into a board book (Yea! Wait, you want to make it a what?)!

It was a real stroke of luck. I knew I was lucky then but I didn’t realize the extent. Now that I’ve learned a bit more about the industry, I consider myself incredibly lucky about not only how I got published but also about what a great fit Tricycle was for me. My books are odd in the sense that they are children’s books but I really wrote them for the parents. Tricycle really “got” my books and they also do something most publishers don’t, they publish books in board book formats for first runs (most board books are only published from books that are classics). But by publishing my books in the board book format, they make perfect gifts for babies and parents! So from what I can tell, you have to have a good idea and a good manuscript but you also need a stroke of luck.

Agents

My experience with an agent was awful but everyone tells me that you need one so here’s what I know.

What I’ve read and what I’ve learned from others since then is that getting an agent is the best route (unless, of course, you have an writer friend who likes your book and sends it to her publisher 😉 . Although agents will always take something from what you’ll get (typically 15% percentage), that’s 15% of something if they get you published! Agents know the industry. They’re the best people to help you figure out what publisher is the best fit for you, give you helpful feedback on your manuscript, and sell your book. Supposedly only something like 2% of manuscripts in the “slush pile” ever get read, so getting your book read is the first step! That’s the job of agents.

All that being said, I had an agent for a little less than a year and she didn’t sell any books for me. I didn’t know when I got my agent (now I feel so darn stupid) that I could opt her out of any proceeds from future books in my series (I was already 4 books into the series, my relationship with my publisher was well established by that point). So not only did she get money from next two books that I came up and sold without her but she also started suggesting lots of different paths for me to take (she later criticized me for not being focused?!). Sadly it was a bad fit but that may have just been a unique case.

Helpful organizations
The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators is well respected. This is a good place to get contacts and feedback.

Illustrators
I was advised not to get an illustrator for my book before I went to the publisher because publishers like to be involved in that process. That made sense since the illustrations are such a big part of a children’s book. What I did was give the publisher was an idea of what I wanted the illustrations to look like. So I cut and pasted images from the web to mock up some pages with ideas of styles and concepts I wanted to relay.

Target age/target audience
What age group are you targeting? That will really inform the text length and style. Age group categories seem to vary but some examples are 0-3, 3-6 etc. Check Amazon and the back of books to see what age groups they use but publishers want to know this from the start. Figure out what books your book will be similar to and then make yours similar in length, word difficulty, etc.

Peer reviews
Sadly, what I’ve learned is this just because my friends like it, it doesn’t mean publishers will. I’ve had other books that my friends and other writers went wild over but no publisher made an offer on. Basically, publishers have a goal for what they want to publish, they want to make money and seem unwilling to do anything very different than anyone else. They know what they want and what gaps they need to fill, and either you’re going to get very lucky and fit right into their target or not. On this I think it comes down to pure luck (not helpful, eh?).

Market study
Just with any proposal, you need to mock up a formal proposal with a market analysis, target audience, similar books, etc. Just google book proposal format and you should get some good examples.

Helpful link:
Getting out of the slush pile
http://www.underdown.org/slush.htm>

So what to do?
One thing you could do is contact Summer Dawn Laurie. I haven’t worked with Summer but she used to work at Tricycle and now she’s a freelance editor. For a reasonable fee, she’ll review your manuscript and give you edits. She’s been in the field, she knows what sells, and she can give you some good critical feedback.

I’m sorry to say that my editor has begged me not to send her any friends’ manuscripts. She’s so overwhelmed with requests and work as it is, she made me promise I wouldn’t.

So that’s what I’ve put together as my top lessons learned. I really hope this helps and wish you a ton of luck!

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