How an Unknown Publishes a Picture Book

by Ivory Soap on 07/24/2013

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I recently saw a post by Pioneer Woman, Ree Drummond, on the 20 Steps to Writing a Children’s Book.  As a picture book writer who is friends with other career picture book writers, I wanted to clarify some points so new writers do NOT think what Ree experienced is what they can expect.

First, let me say that this is NOT going to be a sour grapes post about celebrity writers. Many authors feel that celebrities write picture books that are…less than stellar, but their name sells the heck out of them.  I am NOT going to make that argument about Ree.  She’s a hilarious writer with loads of experience and proven appeal that Daisy and I have read for YEARS.  I haven’t yet read her picture books, but I’m going to go ahead and assume they’re super-fun.  However, unless you are willing to do years of groundwork across many media avenues and build a solid fan base, you cannot expect her path to be your path.

1.  She got a contract.

This is NOT how it goes for most PB writers.  Publishers only hand out contracts when they feel they have something very marketable in hand.  Ree is a household name.  That means the publisher will extend her courtesies that the rest of us may never see.  In fact, if you try to do it the way she did, you can expect lots of friction with a potential publisher.  This is how it really goes:

  • For newbies:  They have to love your (completed) story enough that they think it’s marketable, even though nobody knows you. Then you get a contract.  
  • For experienced authors: You and your favorite editor might cook up some ideas that you write on spec for her, but there’s generally no contract until that mostly-completed manuscript gets approved.  
  • For really-experienced authors: If the editor has someone on the hook with a very marketable name, but isn’t a born PB writer, they *may* contract you to help them write a story, especially if you can bring some of your own name recognition to the project.

2.  Ree and the publisher chose an illustrator.

Again, I’ll point out that by the time we’re picking illustrators, the story is already written. And publishers might let you know who they’re considering for the illustration, they might even ask your thoughts on a few, but in the end, it’s up to them.  You rarely have control over that at all, and if you try too hard, you might get black-balled as an uppity-pain-in-the-butt.  Now, if you have lots of market clout, you get more input, but that’s because they want to work with you and they don’t have 75 more of you banging down the door.  Unless they have an overwhelming reason to change the usual path, they leave these kinds of decisions up to editors and art directors with loads of picture book making experience.

3.  They sent her sketches for approval while she was writing the first draft.

Never happens.  If you see sketches, it’s after the manuscript has been approved, and it’s usually just a courtesy.  Maybe, they are interested in your thoughts, but if they are that open, they may also get thoughts from the rest of the staff, the illustrator, the secretary, and the interns.  They are looking for great visuals, not YOUR specific visuals.

4.  She wrote the first draft.

Again, unless you have already brought something to the table that will help sell a book (your name, your super-popular comic strip, your super-popular toy character), you almost never get a picture book contract without the completed manuscript.

5.  She *wrote* the art.

Publishers only want this when they ASK for it.  Writing in the art is a no-no unless it’s NECESSARY to understand the words, or you have already personally directed the art for a wildly successful book.  On my fourth book, I have been asked to supply some ideas, but they’re just contributions to the pool of ideas.  The editor will pick the ones she likes.  It’s not about communicating *Deanna’s image* of this story.  Who is she anyway?  But, if you *are* somebody, then *your* ideas ARE important.  Not just because your name is on the book, but because your ideas/image has already been proven to be wildly popular.

6-8.  She and the editor refined the manuscript and put it in the hands of the illustrator.

THIS is realistic across the board.  Rarely, the completed manuscript that they buy stays in its original form.  There’s lots of word choice back and forth.  Ideas tossed around about how to make it better. My first book had only two one-word revisions.  That is WEIRD.  My second had almost half of it rewritten.  My third is in its sixth round of “Let’s pick an adjective with a stronger image,” right now.

9-19. The artist submits drawings for revisions to her.  She even added new pages later in the process.  She approves the cover art.  She places the text.

“The idea…was just to make sure her execution of my art descriptions were on the right track.”  (emphasis mine) HAHAHAHA!  No.  Never.   Never once in the history of anyone I know that wasn’t themselves the illustrator.   It’s possible, I suppose, that they really love her photography and feel she has a fantastic eye for art and voluntarily put the illustrator and art department at her disposal, but I’m guessing it was part of the package in getting *her* to write it.  I’ve never heard of this.   Never.  Never-never.

20.  The book goes to print.

Yes.  This does happen.  They do get printed.

Again, let me say, I am not speaking out against the Pioneer Woman or her writing ability.  We adore her.  But, for those without an established market, here is your REALITY:

  1. You write a LOT of stories and get rejected A LOT.
  2. You hit it on the head with one editor after about 100 rejections.
  3. You get offered a contract and receive your advance (sometimes half).
  4. You get told who the 3-5 illustrator possibilities are and (maybe) asked for your thoughts.
  5. You get revision requests emailed to you.
  6. You go back and forth until you and the editor are happy with the text. You MAY be asked for some thoughts on art.
  7. The illustrator is contracted somewhere in the previous process and you are notified who it is.  
  8. Once the final manuscript is approved, if you were paid half the advance, you get the rest.
  9. You hear nothing until the art is almost complete, the text is already set, and the cover is done.
  10. Wait, you might get to see a few spreads before that point as a courtesy, and if you’re appalled at something, they *might* change it some, but they aren’t generally looking for that.
  11. You NEVER once talk to the illustrator about *your ideas*.
  12. You get a link to view it privately, or you might get a set of spreads in the mail to check for errors.
  13. It goes to print.
  14. Barnes and Noble may or may NOT stock it.
  15. If they DO stock it, it may only be two copies unless the publisher puts some money behind you.
  16. If the publisher puts money behind you to get a display or special placement, your book will likely do much better.

Numbers 14-16 are the MOST IMPORTANT if you want your book to earn out and not go out of print in two years.  Notice, that Ree’s books are going to have lots of marketing money behind them.  You will see displays and prominent placement in the stores.  This is NOT CHEAP or common for most authors, but Ree brings a lot to the table.


{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Lisa July 24, 2013 at 4:13 am

VERY good article. I am in the process of final edits for my first book (I’ve read and loved yours BTW!) and I think I have enough experience to know that you are right on track with your thoughts. I believe a large reason I found a publisher fairly easily was my large Facebook following – they could see a ready-made market for a book I write. But unless you bring something to the table, and even if you do, you are not calling the shots.

Love your blog!
Fresh Eggs Daily

Lisa July 24, 2013 at 9:21 am

(I’m a different Lisa from the first poster…)

I am in the process of sending my first pb out! I loved reading this information, if only to give myself encouragement, and seeing I am doing it right. I did hear from one publisher who was interested, but couldn’t see it in pb form. I rewrote it, but she still couldn’t see it. Funny, I can visualize it as a pb very easily! But, as you say, the illustrations are not my business!
I’ll keep trying!

Super Mom - No Cape! July 24, 2013 at 1:24 pm

Thanks so much for writing this. I started out many years ago writing for children, had some small success and had a few short stories and articles published in children’s magazines. I have a few picture book manuscripts that have made the rounds of publishers. From my research over the years and talking to other children’s writers the process you’ve described is right on the mark.

Experiences like those of Pioneer Woman are the exception, not the norm.

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