Earlier this month, I saw Tori Spelling on The Today Show peddling her new children’s book, and I just slumped in my chair. How are we supposed to compete with *that*? Over the last few years, the morning shows also have featured Billy Crystal, Madonna, the Fonz, Jamie Lee Curtis, and other famous people who’ve decided to write children’s books (alone, with a partner, or ghosted). I’m sure they’re sincere about their messages, if not bored with other achievements, and it’s possible they have talent in two areas, of course. But couldn’t they just go into home decorating or something and leave my corner of the marketplace alone?
On the up side, Alaskan buyers are exceptionally tuned into the “buy local” movement. Booksellers are terrific about arranging events and signings for local authors, and they make a big deal about displaying Alaska books. Librarians keep tabs on who’s writing what; schools make sure their students get to meet “real” authors. There’s a heightened awareness and a big fan base. I love that about Alaska. You don’t see that everywhere.
It’s hard for you children’s book writers to break in, period, and for the lucky ones who gain interest from a publisher, there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes analysis beyond the quality of your manuscript. It has to do with the marketable qualities in you, as well as how the book itself will be marketed and distributed. (Clearly, it helps to be already famous.)
An important question for the rest of us: do you have an agent? You can get published without an agent. I have talked it over with agents a couple of times, and each one has said, “Why share your royalties? You’re doing fine without an agent.” And I am happy with the regional presses who’ve published my books. On the other hand, without an agent, you can’t simply send your work to the biggest national presses in the country, as they do not accept unagented queries.
Yet, there’s hope, even If you’re not Tori Spelling.
For five years, I reviewed manuscripts as the acquiring editor for Alaska Northwest Books, a regional press, one of hundreds in the country that reviews unsolicited queries and manuscripts. I can assure you that we saw talent on par with anything that New York houses produce.
So, how to break in? I always recommend this to children’s book authors: get thee to a conference. Get juiced up about your craft, study the market, handle and read children’s books (the good and the bad), and polish your writing. Then, when you’re happy with your manuscript, register early for the conference fee and . . . here’s the trick to sidestep the “no unsolicited / no unagented manuscripts” rule: pay the nominal extra fee to sign up for a one-on-one with an agent or guest editor. More than once, I came away from a conference with a contract in the works (that’s as the acquiring editor, not as author). Another example out of many: Portland author Dale Bayse told me that he went to a Pacific Northwest regional writing conference a few years ago, met with an editor from Random House, and sold his three-book series, titled “Heck: Where the Bad Kids Go,” on the spot. It was only partly written and, according to Dale, imperfect, but it had good bones. His idea was hysterical; his sample outline and chapters held promise. They just needed to be seen. All this is to say, quality rises to the top. Making a sale always begins with content, content, content. Then it has to be seen to be loved.
At the end of the day, if you discover that you can’t write, perhaps you should consider going into acting or professional sports. And then we’ll see you one morning, grinning at Meredith with a children’s book on your lap.
I just went back into a national database and found more celebrity authors: Jenna Bush, Amy Carter, Tiki Barber, Joy Behar, Debbie Allen, Katie Couric, Gloria Estafan. I’ll stop there. Bill Cosby, I forgive. But Jeff Foxworthy? Really?
Let’s hear from you. Have you actually read any celebrity-written children’s books? What did you think? Do you suppose, like me, that writers should write, and plumbers should plumb, and actors should act, and daughters of presidents should . . . well, never mind . . . I don’t know what they should be doing.
About November’s guest blogger:
Tricia Brown is the author of four children’s books and many nonfiction books for adults, all on Alaska subjects. In the spring, Sasquatch Books of Seattle will release her newest children’s book, Patsy Ann of Alaska, illustrated by Jim Fowler; and Fulcrum Publishing of Golden, Colorado, will release the fourth edition of Tricia’s travel book, The World-Famous Alaska Highway: A Guide to the ALCAN and Other Wilderness Roads of the North. Her website is http://www.triciabrownbooks.com/.