Friday, March 31, 2006

Publicist Interview: Rebecca Grose of SoCal Public Relations

Rebecca Grose is the founder of SoCal Public Relations: Literary PR Services--specializing in children's and young adult books. Authors she has worked with include: Alice Walker; E.L. Konigsburg; Patricia & Fredrick McKissack; Walter Dean Myers; Jessica Harper; Margie Palatini; Cynthia Leitich Smith; and more.

What inspired your interest in opening a children's/YA book promotion agency?

I was working in children's publicity at a major publisher in New York, and loved what I was doing, but was tired of living in New York. I wanted to find a way to continue doing what I enjoyed, but while living in beautiful, sunny San Diego (where I had lived before I moved to New York). Freelance publicity was the perfect solution.

What prior experience did you bring to the job?

I worked in Adult Publicity here in San Diego at Harcourt (when it was still Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), and then when I moved to New York, I switched over to Children's Publicity and loved it! I worked for several years at Simon & Schuster--I really enjoyed that experience, and it taught me a lot. Then I moved over to DK Publishing, and on to HarperCollins. In each of these positions, I had the opportunity to work with amazing authors and illustrators, and to work in some wonderful publicity departments.

Why children's books specifically? What fueled your passion to support books for young readers?

Well, actually I sort of fell into it by chance...when I left San Diego (where I had worked in Adult Publicity) and moved to New York, that was the first job in publishing that I was offered, so I took it. But I found it to be so much more fun and rewarding than when I worked in Adult Publicity, that I grew to love it. The authors and illustrators were all so appreciative of our efforts in marketing and publicity, it only made you want to work harder for them. And when I had the opportunity to work on books by some of my childhood idols, like Beverly Cleary and E.L. Konigsburg, that really fueled my passion for working with children's books. I could never imagine going back to working on adult books!

Do you represent publishers, authors, illustrators, etc.? What kinds of services do you provide to them?

I work with several publishers on various types of projects, usually on a larger scale--such as handling the fall regional trade shows. I work with authors and illustrators on more targeted projects for their specific books, creating press materials, pitching media, contac ting bookstores to schedule events, and consulting on assorted matters like their website, local festivals to attend, etc.

I also recently started offering my consultation services for a flat fee ($500) for authors and illustrators who want to do the work themselves, but need help getting started. This service has allowed me to assist self-published authors, which I usually don't handle.

What should a writer or illustrator consider in hiring a publicist to promote his or her work?

I think it comes down to how passionate he or she is about their latest book, and how much time and energy they can expend on it. I work with several authors on a repeat basis (which is quite rewarding for me), and they may have a few books where they decide not to hire me to work with them, but then a particular book will come out that they really want to push...that they feel has something extra, and they contact me.

When deciding on a particular publicist, I think it's important to consider their experience--especially in children's books. There are a lot of freelance publicists out there, but I'm told that there aren't that many who specialize in children's books. And I think it's also important to have a connection with the publicist you hire; you can usually determine this after a conversation or two. Since you're going to be working together closely over the next several months, I believe that it's critical for you to feel that you're both on the same page, and that you'll be able to communicate well with one another. Sometimes it just comes down to a gut feeling.

How can he/she best help their publicist do a great job?

It's very helpful when authors/illustrators provide me with any personal media contacts or ones who have covered their work in the past--as they are more likely to be open to considering a feature on them again. Sometimes, my clients decide to pursue some of these directly themselves to maintain that personal relationship, but we discuss such contacts together to decide what methods will work best. It really comes down to teamwork--we keep each other informed, communicate ideas, brainstorm about strategies, etc.

What noteworthy changes in children's book promotion have you seen over the years? What are your predictions for the future?

Unfortunately for authors and illustrators, I continue to see a shift at the major publishers--they're concentrating their promotion efforts on celebrity books and big-budget titles. This puts more pressure on authors and illustrators to find ways to promote their books themselves. Many authors and illustrators are already doing this by creating websites, printing postcards/bookmarks and sending them to their own mailing lists, setting up bookstore events/school visits themselves, etc. Those that aren't comfortable with this side of the business (or don't know how to do it) will probably need to rely on freelance publicists to help them.

As long as we're talking about books, are there any new titles you'd like to highlight?

I'm working on several terrific books right now...

My Brother the Dog by Kim Williams-Justesen (a new author)(Tanglewood, 2006) is a contemporary, humorous middle grade novel about a teen stuck taking care of her embarrassing younger brother who only responds to dog commands, wears a collar, and answers with various forms of "woof." It's a delight to read!

Waiting for Gregory by Kimberly Willis Holt (National Book Award winner), illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska (Henry Holt, 2006)(author interview)) is a stunning picture book (Kimberly's first!) depicting one child's joy and curiosity about the upcoming birth of her new baby cousin.

Selvakumar Knew Better by Virginia Kroll, illustrated by Xiaojun Li, (Shen Books, 2006), is the inspiring true story of a boy and his dog during the devastating 2004 tsunami.

How can prospective clients get in touch with you?

The best way to reach me is by email, and it's helpful when authors send as much info about themselves and their books as they can--including their website, if they have one. I like to do a little research of my own before we have a conversation, so I'll be prepared to throw out some ideas, etc.

My email is: socalpublicrelations@yahoo.com

They can also reach me by phone, if needed, at 619.460.2179.

Is there anything you'd like to add?

I talk to so many frustrated authors and illustrators who feel that their publisher is not doing anything to promote their book, or at the very least, that they could certainly do more. These days, authors/illustrators must be their own advocates.

In communicating with their editors (who need to be champions for their book when dealing with the other departments at the publisher), it's important for the authors/illustrators to be assertive and let the editor know that they're willing to do everything they can to help promote their new book.

It's especially helpful if the authors and illustrators have a few ideas prepared to give the editor--do a little homework and perhaps suggest some trade shows or conferences in which they'd like to participate (note: they may have to pay their own way), or offer to create postcards if the publisher will distribute them to booksellers/librarians.

Remember, the squeaky wheel gets the grease, but also, you catch more flies with honey! (Aim for somewhere in the middle.)

Cynsational Notes

Rebecca has done a campaign for my backlist titles, and my husband, author Greg Leitich Smith and I have also hired her to promote our forthcoming Santa Knows, illustrated by Steve Bjorkman (Dutton, 2006).

Cynsational News & Links

Dianna Hutts Aston: Children's Book Writer has redesigned and relaunched her website. Dianna's latest titles include: An Egg Is Quiet, illustrated by Sylvia Long (Chronicle, 2006), which has garned stars from Publisher's Weekly and Kirkus; Mama Outside, Mama Inside, illustrated by Susan Gaber (Henry Holt, 2006); and Mama's Wild Child/Papa's Wild Child, illustrated by Nora Hilb (Charlesbridge, 2006). Find out more about Dianna Hutts Aston. Read a 2003 Cynsations interview with Dianna. Attend her signing at 11:30 a.m. April 1, 2006 at BookPeople at Sixth and Lamar in Austin. I'll see you there!

Dianna also has launched a new picture book critique service, which is highly recommended.

Susane Colasanti: official site of the debut author of When It Happens (Viking, 2006)(excerpt). She's from New Jersey, graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and NYU and works as a science teacher in the South Bronx. Learn more about Susane.

Barry Goldblatt Literary: official agent website. See his fabulous client list. Read an SCBWI Bologna 2006 interview with Barry.

Children's Bookshelf Talks with Cynthia Kadohata by Lynda Comerford, Children's Bookshelf of Publisher's Weekly. March 30, 2006. Read a February 2006 Cynsations interview with Cynthia Kadohata.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Secret of My Success: An Interview with Author and Speaker Cynthia Leitich Smith

Read The Secret of My Success: An Interview with Author and Speaker Cynthia Leitich Smith by Suzanne Lieurance.

I'd like to thank Suzanne for her graciousness, her interest, and for taking the time to correspond with me about my writing life. I'm honored.

Suzanne is a freelance writer and children's author living in the Midwest. She also teaches via the Institute of Children's Literature, offers online children's writing workshops, and has just launched a working writer's coaching program. Find out more about her books and see her articles for writers.

In the interview I mention a recent read: My Childhood Under Fire: A Sarajevo Diary by Nadja Halilbegovich (Kids Can Press, 2006)(sample chapter--PDF file). This publication of the diary Nadja began at age 12, continuing through the seige of Sarajevo (1992-1995), offers poignant insights into the life of a tween/teen during wartime. "Looking Back" sections are interspersed to offer a broader perspective, and Nadja's experience is further illuminated by black-and-white photos. It's an affecting, timely title, especially recommended to mother-daughter book clubs. Ages 10-up. I plan to add it to my bibliography: War and Peace in Children's Literature.

Cynsational News & Links

The Combination: "They Think They Are Better:" a discussion of The Combination by Ashley Nelson (Soft Skull, Press, 2005) from Colleen Mondor via Voices of New Orleans. Colleen writes: "The Neighborhood Story Project is a collaborative partnership between John McDonogh Senior High, the Literacy Alliance of Greater New Orleans and the University of New Orleans. It is currently comprised of five books on various neighborhoods in the city that were originally published in June 2005. The authors were all students at John McDonogh who went though a year-long creative writing course." Note: I've ordered and look forward to reading these YA memoirs and am interested in hearing from anyone who's connecting them to teen readers. Each book and the set are available for sale from the official website, which is also accepting donations, and from major online retailers.

Hot Off the Press: A Sneak-Peek at Publishers' Newest and Hottest Titles from CBC Magazine. Highlights include: The Patch by Justina Chen Headley, illustrated by Mitch Vane (Charlesbridge, 2006)(author interview); Punished! by David Lubar (Darby Creek, 2006)(author interview); Sky Boys: How They Built the Empire State Building by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by James Ransome (Schwartz & Wade/Random House, 2006); and Ballet of the Elephants by Leda Schubert, illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker (Roaring Brook, 2006)(author interview).

Meet the Author: Christopher Paul Curtis from CBC Magazine. "Christopher Paul Curtis is the bestselling author of Bud, Not Buddy (winner of the Newbery Medal and the Coretta Scott King Medal, among many other honors) and most recently of Bucking the Sarge and Mr. Chickee's Funny Money. His first novel, The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963, was also singled out for many awards, among them a Newbery Honor and a Coretta Scott King Honor."

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Shug by Jenny Han

Shug by Jenny Han (Simon & Schuster, 2006). Annemarie Wilcox, called "Shug," falls hard for her best boy friend, is stuck tutoring her worst enemy, and tries to navigate the whims of the queen bees without getting stung. Meanwhile, at home, big sister Celia is gorgeous, Daddy is gone too much, and Mama seems disappointed by life itself. Everything seems to be changing far too fast for Shug. A poignant, funny debut every girl must read the summer before junior high. Ages 10-14. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

My Thoughts

This book really gets junior high!

As I'm reading, I stick a pink, heart-shaped Post-It note beside anything that really strikes me. On this ARC, I used 25, which may be an all-time record. I won't go into all the specifics as that would give away too much, but I will share some of the reflections I had while reading...

I just loved the soft, simple scene where Shug and her best boy friend (not boyfriend, though she wishes that were so) Mark are riding bikes around the block on the night before school starts. "The way he's pedaling so slow, I know he doesn't want to say good night any more than I do, 'cause for some reason good night feels too much like good-bye. So neither of us say anything. We just wave and pedal off in different directions." Can't you just feel that?

A lot of the smaller nods resonate, too--the long walk between classes, the lunchroom table politics, the mixed symbolism of a girl's first period, the weight of mothers' expectations, the sudden awkwardness of dads, the peer pressure to drink alcohol, and the way a school dance can turn your whole life upside down.

What else? Truths and how they resonated in my own memory...

Everything changes, including your friends. I spent my latter elementary and junior high years living on a 14-house cul-de-sac in the Kansas (KC) suburbs. Everyone played together in the summers and after school. Then at a certain age, when tween social structures kicked in, we were a divided country.

Boys you love turn into boys you hate and vise versa. It's a perilous thing when boys who've known you your whole life as a kid start looking at you as a girl, especially with regard to your changing body or lack thereof. I was the opposite of Shug, curvy where she was not, and I can remember being teased and called names because of it. Basically, it's a no-win scenario.

Girls are just a nightmare, possibly including you. I remember floating somewhere in the B-C list, depending on who was calculating, being on the inside sometimes and the outside at others.

Best girl friends can get you through, so long as other girls, boys, and your respective egos don't get in the way. [Arguably true from then on.]

On a related note, money matters, and you don't have much control over it. I was a lower middle-class kid raised in an upper middle class neighborhood (my parents got a lovely house and put me in a "good" school district). But for all the posturing, kids can always tell.

Your parents turn into people, and you have to accept it. There was as much competition between parents in my suburb as in Shug's small town--over us kids, money, who had the best lawn--and we kids often got caught in the zone of fire.

Speaking of parents, some of the best wisdom in the book comes from Mama, who isn't otherwise the most solid of support systems: "'People are gonna disappoint you sometimes. We're flawed creatures. Not one of us is perfect, not even you, and you've gotta let people mess up and then you've gotta forgive them. That's just life.'"

Incidentally, Shug and I both love school supplies, which I of course now call "office supplies." I can't start a new novel without buying everything fresh, no matter whether it makes sense financially.

Cynsational Notes

Interview with Jenny Han from Young Adult (& Kids) Books Central. March 2006.

Jenny Han Biography from Pippin Properties.

Visit Jenny's site and LJ.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Illustrator Update: Don Tate

Don Tate is the illustrator of several picture books. He also recently began writing for young readers. Don lives in Austin with his family. Read a November 2000 interview with Don.

When we last talked, your debut picture book, Say Hey! A Song of Willie Mayes, written by Peter Mandel (Hyperion, 2000), had just been released. Congratulations on your bounty of success since! Let's briefly touch on your new titles and then move on to more global questions.

The Legend of the Valentine, written by Katherine Grace Bond (Zonderkidz, 2002), is a historical tale from the height of the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama. What about the story spoke to you? What were the challenges in illustrating it?

The story deals with feelings of isolation and hate--things any child, or adult, can identify with on some level. Certainly, I've felt the sting of isolation, so it was simply a matter of putting those familiar feelings on canvas. What spoke the loudest to me was the message of reconcilliation, forgiving your ememies, loving them, regardless of how much you've been wronged by them.

So often, kids respond to wrong with more wrong, an eye for an eye. And that usually solves nothing, only leading them to more trouble. The Legend of the Valentine offers the alternative solution of fronting off hate with love, and it is Christian based. Being a Christian myself, it meant much to me to visually tell a story that promotes my personal values.

The greatest challenge this book presented for me was style. The publishers wanted to use a very realistic, portraiture style. Though I can paint realistically, it's not how I prefer to work. I prefer a stylized realism, which, for me, is a bit more forgiving, especially under time constraints.

In addition, I felt that Valentine had big shoes to fill. Others in the Legends series, The Legend of the Easter Egg [by Lori Walburg, illustrated by James Bernardin (1999)] and The Legend of the Candy Cane [by the same creative team], were huge sellers, but featured Caucasian characters. Valentine was the first book in the series to feature African Americans, so I was nervous, questioning if white book buyers would support this book the same as the others, and realizing that black book buyers make up a smaller market.

That same book is your only title from a Christian press. How did your experience with them differ from working with a mainstream literary trade press?

Hard to say. The art creation process was on par with other publishers. Not much difference.

But it was Zondervan's marketing efforts that especially impressed me. Before the book published, the publisher mailed a very detailed outline of how they planned to promote this book. They sent a multimedia specialist to Austin to do a live interview with me in my studio. The interview was made into a DVD, which was one component of a larger marketing campaign. Also, as part of the campaign, they put together a Valentine's Day kit. The kit, which was intended for throwing a Valentine's Day party, included scissors, colored paper, doilies, crayons and candy. Bookstores could throw a party as a means to support the book.

During the five years the book was in print, I received regular communications from the publisher via newsletters, emails, catalogs and such. I really felt part of a team and not so much an outsider. Most times, when a book publishes, the author/illustrator doesn't receive much support as far as marketing, so, other than journal reviews, is left to promote the book themselves. Also, Valentine paid an advance that has been unmatched.

What does this say about Christian publishing? I don't know, but once, I was advised by an agent many years ago to avoid Christian publishers because of low pay and the possibility of being pigeonholed. I have to disagree.

Summer Sun Risin', written by W. Nikola-Lisa (Lee & Low, 2002)(excerpt), is another historical, this one set in Texas. The book was a 2004-2005 Children's Gold Crown Nominee and named to the Bank Street College of Education list of the Best Children's Books of the Year. As I'm remembering this title, it occurs to me that depictions of rural African Americans are rare in children's literature. Did this aspect of the project attract you? Do you feel that there are other areas of the African American experience that are especially untapped in children's literature? How did it stretch you as an illustrator?

Honestly, I didn't think about all that. Wish my answer could more profound. What I liked about this story, was the ambiguity of landscape. I mean, as one review put it, the story (illustrations) could have been set on a Chinese rice farm, and not much about the text would have had to change. This left much freedom for me as the artist to create almost whatever I wanted.

Being from Iowa, I had originally envisioned a well-manicured landscape, with row upon row of never-ending, cornstalks, a red-painted barn, John Deere tractors, and silver corn silo. Iowa farms are just so beautiful. But, being that the story featured an African American family, circa 1960s-70s, I thought finding good accurate reference might be too much of a challenge. Besides that, I wasn't sure if a farm run by a black family of that time period fit the image I had of a contemporary farm.

Soon, I discovered great reference right here in Austin. The Jordan-Bachman Pioneer Farms is a living history farm museum which features a cabin that an African American family once lived in. What great inspiration! The Iowa farm was out of the question after that. I opted for a rustic, Texas landscape.

The challenge with Summer Sun Risin' was in how I chose to illustrate the book. I wanted to illustrate, by example, a dramatic sunrise in the east, move the sun through the sky showing the farm sunlit from various positions in the sky, then end with a beautiful, colorful sunset in the west. It almost has a flip-book effect as the reader works their way through the book.

For reference, I literally became a sun chaser. Camera in hand, I was out at sunrise getting pictures as the sun first lit the sky, then chasing it down again as dusk. I never realized how fast the earth is actually moving. I'd get in my car, find the perfect sunset from the street, but by the time I'd get my car parked safely off the road, the sun would be gone, and I'd have to start my chase again the next day.

I'd like to see more African American children's books with contemporary themes. Seems that so many books with African American themes are historical related, something to sell during Black History Month. Nothing wrong with historical books, our kids need to know about our forefathers, but what about books that speak to today's child in terms of right now or fantasies...or more tall tales?!

Summer Sun Risin' was a good book for me. Almost every manuscript that has followed, I obtained because someone saw, and liked this book.

Black All Around, written by Patricia Hubbell (Lee & Low, 2003), which was chosen as a finalist in the 2004 Connecticut Book Awards competition, is a celebration of all things and people--black. This strikes me as an important concept for young readers because in mainstream culture the word "black" often has a negative connotation, i.e., "the Black Plague," "Black Tuesday" (stock market), etc. What was your brainstorming process like in creating this book? Your artistic one?

Black All Around!--as I tell children at school visits--was probably the most challenging book I've ever illustrated. The author's homage to the color black uses random items that are completely unrelated one to another, e.g.: "The wonderful letters that fill up a book/the hold in the ground that's a little mole's nook/the braided hair of a stately queen/the shiny paint on a limousine." Much fun to read, much challenge to illustrate.

At first, I proposed doing something cleverly conceptual, heavy on design, having a graphic design-ish feel. But the publishers were set on a storybook style with very literal scenes. That presented me with the challenge of figuring out, and visually explaining why all these things might end up in one scene. Second, I proposed making the story sort of a fantasy. This would allow some creative license. That didn't fly either.

The title, Black All Around! provided so many possible landmines that the editors wanted to tread carefully. They wanted to avoid a fantasy theme, not wanting to suggest that black-plus-positive only exist in fantasy land. Thing is, I knew because of the subject, "black," there really wasn't a completely safe road to take.

Not to be funny, but I know my people, and we tend to have some issues with the color black, and labels, and so on. One might say, "black is beautiful," while others would be deeply...not offended, but uncomfortable with the words. Kinda like the word "nappy." Many of us use the word in our own homes, but, oh!--the furror it raised when the word published on the cover of Nappy Hair by Carolivia Herron (Dragonfly Books, 1998).

The questions did come, and they ranged from: "Didn't the 'Black-Is-Beautiful' mantra go out in the 70s?" Then there was: "I'm not black, I'm brown." Also, there was: "Why's this white woman writing about 'black,' couldn't they have gotten a black person to write that?" I'm not kidding, these are the questions I got, even before the book published.

So, when I present the book to kids at schools, I try to emphasize that, Black All Around! is a celebration of a color, in just the same way that someone might write a tribute to the color...chartreuse.

I'm especially fond of Sure As Sunrise: Stories of Bruh Rabbit and his Walkin' Talkin' Friends by Alice McGill (Houghton Mifflin, 2004). This is your first book with animal characters. How was it different creating walkin' talkin' animals than walkin' talkin' people? What were the benefits and challenges?

I love this question! You don't know how bad at the time I wanted to illustrate a book using animals anthropomorphically. I studied many of the books that had been previously done on the subject, and wanted to do something very different. Not criticizing others, but many other retellings featured animals that, in my opinion, looked like dead animals in human clothes. There's nothing cute about a dancing dead fox, dressed in bib overalls. Some of the images actually kinda creeped me out. So, I went more stylized, with anatomies closer to that of humans, kinda Bugs Bunny meets Don Tate. I think it worked, at least I was happy with the outcome.

Also, I used clay sculpted models as reference for creating my paintings. In the past, I've held very elaborate photo sessions to get just the right reference. Some illustrators work solely from memory, or their knowledge of anatomy. I had planned to do the same (take photos) with this book, but it became a bit awkward. I needed some big people to pose as Bruh and Misses Bear. I couldn't find a tactful way of asking friends: "Could you pose for me? I need someone whose shaped like a bear." And I figured I'd have to explain because I give my models copies of the printed books. There was one particular couple I know who kinda looks like bears. It didn't go over so well, so instead of live models, I created the clay sculptures.

Recently, you begun writing as well, and in fact, one of your manuscripts was chosen as an Honor Winner for the Sixth Annual Lee & Low New Voices Award. Congratulations! Have you always been a writer as well as an illustrator? If so, how did you focus the skill on writing picture books? If not, what was your approach?

Up until a couple years ago, I didn't think of myself as a writer or even a word person at all. In my mind, writers were scholarly folks who knew when to properly use the word "a" instead of "an," or "like" instead of "as." I had never heard of voice, as in a writer's individual voice, which may not have been perfect gramatically, but was still pleasing to read.

Looking back over my life, I guess I've always been a writer. I've always expressed my most important thoughts and feelings by writing. In fact, before I had "the talk" with my then 10-year-old daughter, I wrote her a six-page letter. Later, when she became a teen and went through the change, I also wrote her a letter before we had yet another talk. I wasn't confident expressing myself verbally, but a letter could be proofread for content.

I've found writing to be very similar to illustrating, at least, creatively speaking. When I write, I first rough out my thoughts on paper, not paying any particular attention spelling, grammar, voice, or anything. From there, I start the process of molding these words into a story by reworking, revising, changing, researching, and so on. Illustration works exactly the same way, only the end result is with paint. Over the last year, between book writing and, to be honest, blog writing, a day hasn't passed that I haven't written. I can't say that about art.

How does your thinking process differ as an illustrator and writer?

Again, my thinking process is very similar. But because drawing and illustrating is almost done without even thinking, I can illustrate with many distractions going on around me. While illustrating a book, I can have a conversation with my wife. I can listen to music, television, and talk radio. When I write, I can't have distractions. None.

What advice do you have for beginning children's book illustrators?

Polish your craft. Good isn't good enough, and great isn't either. There are thousands of artists out there. Many of those artist have traditionally stayed away from editorial work for various reasons (probably pay), but are now spreading their wings and giving children's books a try. I mean, who'd of thought Milton Glaser, the godfather of modern day graphic design, would someday be doing children's books? It's competitive.

Try to get as much printed work under your belt as possible. Seek out educational publishers where work is more plentiful. You may experiment with developing a niche. Enjoy illustrating frogs? Then create a body of work with the most distinct, child-appealing frogs that you can. My niche tends to be African American, though I am getting more animal-themed books as well.

An illustration degree isn't necessary, however, I am always shocked to discover how many successful children's book illustrators have attended programs at prominent art and design schools. Not necessary, but surly wouldn't hurt.

Last, and I know this sounds cliche, but don't give up. It was 10 years ago that I almost gave up.

How about those who have a foothold and are working to build a career?

After my first book published, naively, I had the idea that books would keep coming simply because I had one published. I really did. I figured that once my book hit the stores, all the editors in New York would know that I had arrived, and they'd beat my doors down, roll out the red carpet, and fight for their chance to have the new kid on the block illustrate their next best seller. Really, I did.

I was living under the misconception, and it had been repeatedly suggested, that because publishers were "starving" for black talent to illustrate their African American manuscripts, that any talented black artist who showed any interest in this field was in like Flynn. Um...no.

After that first book publishes, that's when the real work begins. Like a Hollywood actor, you're only as good as your last movie. Unless you get some high recognition through one of the big awards, nobody is gonna know who you are, or care.

Market yourself, not only your artwork [to publishers], but to those who would support your books. Be sure to send your books to the local media, if you publisher doesn't already. Print postcards displaying the cover of your book, and send to local bookstores, letting them know that a local published author/artist is on the scene. Try to generate bang as it comes out.

There are so many opportunities out there to learn and better your knowledge of the field. Visit reading conferences. Get involved in organizations like SCBWI, or if you can get a sponsor, organizations like the Society of Illustrators. I used to be involved in the Art Director's Association of Iowa. The more you meet others in the field--networking, chatting, seeing, exchanging ideas--the more you'll grow.

You offer a blog, DevasT: Rants and Raves. Could you tell us about your approach to it? What can readers expect? How does blogging benefit you as an illustrator, as a writer?

I've been blogging for little over a year. I started blogging as a way to network with other writers and illustrators, as an excuse to write everyday, and to become comfortable with knowing that others were actually reading my words. But a dangerous thing happened to me. People started reading, and I kind of liked it, and I soon got off topic. My writing, and the subjects that I wrote about became as fruitful as a farmer's market. When I realized exactly how many people in the industry actually read blogs, I decided to make a change, and get back on the topic of illustrating and writing for children.

At DevasT. Rants and Raves, I talk about what projects I'm working on, but to keep it even more interesting, I try to really open up. If I'm frustrated about something, I'm gonna be ranting about it. If I've just signed a contract, I'm gonna be raving. If I'm trying to make deadline and someone is at my door trying to sell me a vacuum cleaner, I'm talking about it on my blog.

I'm not quite sure yet how I've benefitted from blogging--possibly a bit of credibility amongst my peers, if you will. I don't know; I'm still analyzing that. I know a lot of people read the blog, more than what I had imagined. Over the past year that I've been writing on my blogs (I have several), I really feel like I've grown as a writer. People tell me all the time how much they enjoy my writing, and I've really developed a following, so it seems. On another blog, I started expressing myself through cartoon. It has really become popular, one site receiving up to 1,300 hits per day, half of those hits are from people seeking me out before I wake up in the morning! That's pretty good considering that Rants and Raves receives about 100 hits per day. I plan to turn this cartoon into an online web'toon, or novella. I'd never have discovered all these possibilities had I not started blogging.

What can your fans look forward to next?

Oh my goodness, my plate is completely filled and overflowing, I could list and eat myself silly. For one, I've expanded into product licensing. I love the freedom that licensing offers. I can literally do whatever I want, and my licensing agent finds a manufacturer to reproduce my art on their products. On the horizon, besides books, I have licensed my works to texile/fabric companies, T-shirt/apparel companies, manufacturers of children's bedroom and bath products, wallpaper, party favors and calendars.

As far as books go, I have a new book, The Hidden Feast, [by Martha Hamilton and Mitch Weiss](lesson plans), which publishes with August House in the spring of 2006. Then, I'm due to start illustrations on what I'll refer to as "Ron," a partly fictional account from a childhood experience of astronaut Ron McNair, which will publish late 2007, or early '08 with Penguin Group (USA). I'm working on a 3-D pop-up book with a team of paper engineers, a sister book to Tails by Matthew Van Fleet (Red Wagon Books/Harcourt, 2003). What tails do for...well, animal tails, Zoom! will do for transportation of all types. Later this year, I will start illustrating a book to be published by Christian publisher, Paraclete Press. This book will publish in the fall of 2007.

Is there anything you would like to add?

Cynthia, I think you've covered it all. I would like to say how much I appreciate all that you do, and contribute to the field of children's literature. You've inspired me in so many ways and enriched the whole experience.

Thank you!

Cynsational Notes

Book Talk with the Lee & Low New Voices Authors from the publisher website.

An Interview with Don Tate from African-American Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.

Find more author and illustrator interviews, Texas authors and illustrators, picture books, multicultural books, multicultural resources, African and African American children's literature, and children's literature links.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Author Interview: Stephenie Meyer on Twilight

Stephenie Meyer is the debut author of Twilight (Little Brown, 2005). From the catalog copy:

Isabella Swan's move to Forks, a small, perpetually rainy town in Washington, could have been the most boring move she ever made. But once she meets the mysterious and alluring Edward Cullen, Isabella's life takes a thrilling and terrifying turn.

Up until now, Edward has managed to keep his vampire identity a secret in the small community he lives in, but now nobody is safe, especially Isabella, the person Edward holds most dear. The lovers find themselves balanced precariously on the point of a knife—between desire and danger.

Deeply romantic and extraordinarily suspenseful, Twilight captures the struggle between defying our instincts and satisfying our desires. This is a love story with bite.


Stephenie Meyer on Stephenie Meyer: "I was born on Christmas Eve (a fact which has always given me a bad attitude toward birthdays in general) in Hartford, Connecticut, and then quickly transplanted to a more reasonable climate.

"I've lived in Arizona most of my life, and I consider temperatures under seventy-five degrees frigid. I am the second of six children. I think that coming from such a large family has given me a lot of insight into different personality types--my siblings sometimes crop up as characters in my stories. I have a husband and three young sons who all are slightly bewildered with my sudden career shift from mommy to writer.

"A lifelong reader, I didn't start writing until I was twenty-nine, but once I began typing I've never been able to stop. Twilight was my first novel. Its sequel, New Moon (Little Brown, 2006), is due out this October.


"I have several other projects currently occupying me, one being an adult science fiction novel tentatively titled The Host (Little, Brown, 2008), and another being a retelling of Twilight from Edward's perspective (a character study that got wildly out of hand)." [Cyn Note: the latter appears to be on hold.].

Could you describe your path to publication? What were the highlights and stumbles along the way?

I was incredibly (and quite uncharacteristically) lucky with the publishing process. I wrote Twilight over the summer of 2003. I didn't think about publishing at all until it was entirely done--I was just telling myself a story. Writing just for the sake of writing, just for my own pleasure, was certainly the greatest highlight of the whole experience.

My older sister (the only person who knew what I was up to) encouraged me to try to find a publisher. I started process of queries and literary agents that I almost gave up before I started. But I did work up enough nerve to send out about fifteen queries.

I only got one bite, but it was from the "dream on, Stephenie" agency at the top of my list. Writers House signed me in October of 2003, and then within two weeks I had nine editors interested in Twilight.

Little, Brown was the fastest--they made a preemptive offer with a three-book deal the Monday after Thanksgiving weekend. It was six months from the first word I typed to the publishing deal, so there wasn't really time for any "stumbles." It was pretty much all highlights.

What was your initial inspiration for writing Twilight (Megan Tingley/Little Brown, 2005)?

Twilight was inspired by a dream. It was such a great dream that I didn't want to forget it (short-term memory loss is one of the hazards of motherhood), so I sat down at the computer and wrote it down. I wrote ten pages that first day. Those ten pages are now Chapter Thirteen, "Confessions," and the true heart of the novel.

Once I'd written everything that I'd dreamed, I was eager to know more about what would happen to these intriguing characters. So I kept typing, letting the story go where it wanted to go. It's a miracle that the book makes any sense! I had no organization whatsoever.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

The greatest challenge was finding time away from my already full life. I became somewhat of a hermit that summer, neglecting friends, family, and my normal hobbies. I'm still trying to find the right balance.

I didn't do much in the way of research as I was creating my own unique world; in fact, I avoided all things vampire for fear of finding anything that contradicted my vision.

Overall, it was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life--I suppose the psychological challenge was accepting that Edward and Bella weren't real people. (I still don't entirely believe that).

What is at the heart of the enduring appeal of gothic fantasy, especially for teenagers?

I was never one for goth or horror, so it's hard to answer that question. I have had to think about vampires quite a bit since writing though, and these are the conclusions I've come to about the appeal of vampires:

It seems to be part of human nature to enjoy being scared in a controlled environment. The popularity of horror novels and movies, not to mention roller coasters, attests to that. Mostly the monsters we have created to scare ourselves are entirely horror; zombies, swamp things, witches, werewolves, etc., are traditionally gruesome and repulsive. We run from them in terror.

Vampires, on the other hand, have a dual nature. Certainly they are frightening and deadly, but the are also alluring. They have attributes we envy, such as eternal youth. They are often attractive, rich, powerful, and educated. They sometimes wear tuxes and live in castles. The paradox there makes them hard to resist, at least as subjects for stories.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

If you love to write, then write. Don't let your goal be having a novel published, let your goal be enjoying your stories. However, if you finish your story and you want to share it, be brave about it. Don't doubt your story's appeal. If you are a good reader, and you know what is interesting, and your story is interesting to you, then trust in that.

If I would have realized that the stories in my head would be as intriguing to others as they were to me, I would probably have started writing sooner. Believe in your own taste.

As a reader, which recently published YA novels have you enjoyed most and why?

I enjoyed Gabrielle Zevin's Elsewhere (FSG, 2005)(excerpt) quite a bit, because she created such an interesting alternate reality. It's a rare story that makes me cry in an airport.

I'm also a fan of Anne Brasheare's Traveling Pants series, and, of course, Harry Potter goes without saying. Unfortunately, one of the sacrifices of writing is that I don't have time to keep up with my reading anymore. There are a lot of YA books I keep meaning to read.

What can your fans expect next?

New Moon, the sequel to Twilight, is the next novel I have coming out. The next book in the series, Eclipse (Little, Brown, 2007), will be along shortly thereafter.


Cynsational Notes

Breaking Dawn, the fourth book in the series, was published by Little, Brown in 2008. In addition, the house published The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner: An Eclipse Novella in 2010.

"Dreams of High School Vampires Inspire a Toothsome Debut:" by Linda M. Castellitto from BookPage, October 2005. An interview with Stephenie Meyer.

See also Twilight: The Graphic Novel from Wikipedia.





Find more author interviews, young adult novels, and YA Gothic, horror & paranormal novels.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Wait for Me by An Na

Wait for Me by An Na (Putnam, 2006). For Mina, it's Harvard or nothing--at least that's what Uhmma, her mother, demands. Plus, Mina has to work at her family's dry cleaning business and protect her younger sister, Suna, from Uhmma's disdain. But Mina's life is a lie. When Ysrael offers his heart and asks what she wants, what will happen next? Ages 12-up.

My Thoughts

An Na also is the author of the Printz Award winner of A Step from Heaven (Front Street, 2001); her latest novel, Wait for Me, was well worth the wait.

Mina is stuck, caught between her mother's expectations and reality, between Jonathan the manipulator and Ysrael the musician, between her younger sister Suna and the boy Mina loves, Ysrael, who represents her freedom and future.

It's both a family story and a love story that asks: Who are you for yourself, not someone else? What do you want? At first glance, the questions might seem easy to answer. But what if your desires, your goals, conflicted with your duty, the expectations you'd been raised with your entire life? What if they were contrary to the needs of someone you loved?

As Mina realizes, "There's never a clear cut, running from one life for another. There was always devastation."

The novel is told in alternating point of view, from Mina in first person and her younger sister Suna, who is hearing-impaired, in third. It's Mina's story, but Suna grounds it, and in many ways, her insights clarify the emotional stakes.

Wait for Me is a gentle, thoughtful, deeply-felt book. I found myself pausing periodically to let it sink in, to appreciate it. An Na's latest novel will speak to the hearts of teens (and adults) who feel trapped in one place and are longing for another.

Cynsational Notes

On Writing: Wait for Me from An Na from her author website.

See a December 2001 interview with An Na as well as additional interviews with authors, YA links, and recommended novels for young adults (note bibliography continues from navigation bar).

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Author Feature: Phyllis Root

Phyllis Root on Phyllis Root: "I have always loved stories. My father told me once that he remembered me reading in a high chair. I suspect this meant we were just short on regular chairs in our house, but it's true I don't remember a time when I didn't know how to read, and I read every story I could get my hands on. Although I wanted to write for children from college on, I figured if I couldn't sit down and write a story, I wasn't a writer (definitely pre-MFA in writing for children days). Finally a friend recommended a course in writing for children and young adults, and I signed up for the eight-week class, taught by Marion Dane Bauer. She told us we could all learn the tools of writing a story, but all we had to do after we had learned the tools was to write from our hearts. I'm still learning what that last part means, but I did start writing in her class, and I have never really stopped. I don't claim to know what I'm doing, but I'm grateful to still be doing it."

Although I was familiar with your work as a reader, the first time I heard it read aloud was by Kathi Appelt at a writing workshop she offered in College Station a few years ago. The book was Big Momma Makes The World, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury (Candlewick, 2003), and it's one of my all-time favorites. I'll never forget how immediate, warm, and convincing the voice was, how I thought to myself, Wow, this book could launch a whole new religion! Could you give us some insight into the story behind this story? What inspired you? What stood in your way?

Big Momma came out of playing around. I had been doing some work for hire writing phonics-based stories for young children and was frustrated by the paucity of words available at an early level. What would the writers of the Bible (whose rich and rolling language reverberated through my childhood religious experiences) do if they had only a few phonics sounds and sight words to work with? No long e, say, or double oo? I played around rewriting creation phonically, then played around some more, rewriting the whole creation story in the remembered voices of my relatives down on the farm in southern Illinois when I was very young. Stories my husband, my kids, and I used to make up while taking a road trip out west found their way into the tale, and there was Big Momma.

When an editor expressed interest, I panicked. I had just returned from a series of school visits in rural communities, in several of which I was told that I could not read from or talk about one of my books, Rosie's Fiddle, illustrated by Kevin O'Malley (HarperCollins, 1997)(illustrator interview), a retelling of a folk tale in which a woman outfiddles the devil. This was my first real experience of censorship, and it shook me. What if Big Momma got published and they never invited me back again? What if people came and threw things at my house because I had portrayed God as a single mother? So I guess you could say what stood in my way was my own fear. Luckily for me, I got over it. And when Helen Oxenbury agreed to do the art for the book, I thought I had died and gone to heaven, because I have always loved her art.

Could you briefly highlight the books you've published since?

Since Big Momma I've published:

The Name Quilt, illustrated by Margot Apple (FSG, 2003), which is fiction but based on a quilt my grandmother had on her bed embroidered with names of friends.

If You Want to See A Caribou, illustrated by Jim Meyer (Houghton Mifflin, 2004), which is the closest to non-fiction of any story I've ever written since almost everything in this story happened, just as it's written, on an amazing sailing trip.

Ten Sleepy Sheep, illustrated by Susan Gaber (Candlewick, 2004), a backwards counting bedtime book about sheep who can't sleep -- like all my books this one had several sources but drew a lot from my daughter's and my farm-sitting experience when the sheep got loose at dusk and we had to try to count them to make sure we had them all back inside.

The House that Jill Built, illustrated by Delphine Durand (Candlewick, 2005), a story that went through endless revisions and only took shape when I sat down with construction paper and scissor and glue and trusted my hands to find their way to the story.

Quack! and Hop!, both illustrated by Holly Meade (Candlewick, 2005), two board books about baby animals, probably at least partly based on the time we fostered a baby duck.

Two books that will be coming out soon:

Lucia and the Light, my own take on the Saint Lucia day story of Lucia bringing light back to her family, a story I suspect has much deeper roots than the ones we know about.

Have You Ever Seen A Moose?, which is a romp based on all the times I've gone tromping around in the wilds looking for things and not finding them.

I'm particularly fascinated by The House That Jill Built, illustrated by Delphine Durand (Candlewick, 2005), which is a pop-up book. How did this come to be?

I kept trying to write a cumulative story for a series, and when I finally came up with one that seemed to sorta kinda work, I was given a contract.

The editor told me all I had to do was "fix the words." The story really needed all the words fixed, because it wasn't very fun or exciting or original or anything. But I couldn't figure out how to fix them until another editor (this is a couple of years later) said she thought we might want to make the book a manipulative book, with lift the flaps and pop-ups and things moving.

Since I'd been doing just this sort of book with my own kids and with their classes at school, I gladly sat down and started seeing what possibilities existed in the story for things to pop or lift up. In the process, the story changed completely, and the nursery rhyme characters started knocking at the door. I made my own version of the book, which I've since lost, that had pop-up strings of mittens hanging to dry, and a pop-up table with bowls of porridge. It was great fun and my doorway into the story as it's now written.

What was the writing and production process like? The challenges and thrills? Do you plan to do more books of this kind? Why or why not?

I'd love to do more of them if I get ideas that will work. I think books that invite a child to physically join in the story are just an extension of what every good picture book should do, which is make a place for the child to enter into the story and inhabit it.

What advice do you have for beginning writers and picture book writers specifically?

Realize that picture books can be very difficult to write well. Read lots and lots and lots and lots of picture books, read them aloud, type out the ones you like best to get a manual feel for how the words look on a page, dummy up your stories to get a feel for the shape of a picture book (not to tell an editor how the story should look), and write and write and write and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. Don't worry about finding an illustrator but leave breathing room for illustrations to help tell the story. Do not include illustration notes unless they are absolutely necessary. Tell the stories you have to tell the best way you know how, always remembering for whom you are telling them: children. And write from your heart.

Cynsational Notes

Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Acceptance Speeches by Phyllis Root and Helen Oxenbury from The Horn Book.

Phyllis Root from Minnesota Authors and Illustrators.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Children's and YA Literary Agents

The Purple Crayon has updated and expanded its information on children's/YA literary agents, which got me thinking about the subject.

As a threshold issue, too many writers submit to agents/editors before their work is at a level of craft that would merit a close reading/revision request. I did this myself, and I understand that it can be difficult to evaluate one's own status. But critique groups, writing coaches and teachers, as well as simply being well read can offer a feel for the prevailing standards.

This early emphasis on submissions concerns me for a few reasons: (1) the beginning writers are spending time and energy on submissions that could be focused on improving their writing; (2) they're "using up" so many submissions opportunities for a particular work that they may be prematurely limiting their options (as well as those available to a future agent); (3) there seems to be an underappreciation of enjoying one's apprenticeship in the craft.

I'm in favor of writers not only successfully publishing, but, if at all possible, making a living off their writing. However, writing is about process, not product. Publishing comes with its own pressures and responsibilities, which, again, compete with the process. Better to take your time and debut strong than just sell a book to prove you can.

[Note that I'm not talking at skilled writers who've committed themselves over the years to reading and writing with an emphasis on craft. I understand that many great writers struggle for that first contract. When I speak of "early emphasis," I'm referring to true beginners.]

For those ready to submit to an agent, as Harold Underdown of The Purple Crayon notes in Finding and Choosing Literary Agents, the best venues for research include writer's groups. He also mentions meeting agents at conferences. Building on this, I'd suggest prospective clients make every effort to talk to current and former clients about the agent and his/her style, reputation, etc.

It's not the kind of thing, though, that you can walk into a SCBWI meeting and just start chatting up. Candid information is often shared between folks with more of a relationship. An established author is going to shy away from a stranger who pounces her in the bathroom or rushes her after a speech with a request to "give me your agent's name;" "read my manuscript and send it to your agent;" or, say, "let me use your name with your agent in my cover letter."

Harold also rightly notes in his newly updated Children's Book Agents and Artist's Representatives: A Primer that the "big six" New York publishers (HarperCollins, Random House, Simon & Schuster, Scholastic, Penguin Putnam, and Disney/Hyperion) only consider manuscripts from published authors or agents. I'd guess that, though the lists are smaller, in targeting other nationally competitive literary trade houses like Candlewick, FSG, Henry Holt, Little Brown, Roaring Brook, and so forth, an agent would be equally useful. However, in addition to published authors and agents, attendees at writing conferences (especially SCBWI conferences) are frequently invited by editor-speakers to submit to them, usually for a limited period of time afterward. This is sometimes called a "get-out-of-the-slush" card. That said, my Dutton editor mentioned at a recent Austin SCBWI conference that he'd spoken to thousands of writers at such conferences and the resulting sales were statistically insignificant.

Yet I wouldn't automatically count out those ultra-competitive houses. In my circle of colleagues, a first sale to HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Random House, Candlewick, etc., is not uncommon (though writers typically secure an agent first). This isn't to suggest that there aren't additional specialty or regionally-based houses that one shouldn't consider. For certain books, they may be the hands-down best bet. But do look at the quality of the books publishered and market strength of the list because the house's reputation will effect yours and the odds of your book succeeding.

As for what an agent does, I'd add to Harold's overview that the sale of secondary (paper, audio, foreign, film, textbook, etc.) rights is likely best left in the hands of an agent. They're in a position to seek out such deals, and they'll take a substantially less significant percentage than a publisher would. Secondary rights sales can, financially speaking, add up and facilitate more readers connecting with your stories.

In addition, I tend to think of agents in two categories: editorial or thumbs-up, thumbs-down. Some highly respected agents do work with their clients on the texts themselves, and their clients greatly appreciate the help. This is especially true for those living in locales remote from a writing community who're perhaps lacking in good critiquers prior to sending off. Those considering an editorial agent, though, should consider that agent's strength in this area (or lack thereof). Other agents simply decide to send the manuscript or not and proceed accordingly. My agent is the latter kind. I prefer to wait for the editor's comments.

Again, as Harold emphasizes, research matters. If such qualities are important to the prospective client, he or she should make an effort to ask about them.

Cynsational Notes

Harold Underdown is a children's book editor and the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Books, Second Edition (Alpha, 2004). Check out some materials from the second edition, and read an interview with Harold.

Children's Book Agents and Artist's Representatives: A Primer by Harold Underdown from The Purple Crayon. See also Finding and Choosing Literary Agents, also by Harold. The Purple Crayon is a highly recommended resource site for those writing or illustrating for children and young adults.

Children's & YA Writers' Reading List: Links: Agents from my website. Includes links to official agent websites, interviews, and related overview resources. See also recent interviews with U.S. agents Barry Goldblatt of Barry Goldblatt Literary and Rosemary Stimola of Stimola Literary Agency as well as Italian agents Costanza Fabbri and Gabriella Ambrosioni of Gabriella Ambrosioni Literary Agency from Cynsations and SCBWI Bologna 2006.

"Do I Need An Agent, and How Will I Know If I Do?" from Cynsations; thoughts inspired by a chat by the same title with Sharene Martin, co-founder of the Wylie-Merrick Literary Agency from the Institute of Children's Literature. See also Wylie-Merrick Literary Agency.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

SCBWI Bologna 2006 Agent Interview: Gabriella Ambrosioni

From SCBWI Bologna 2006:

Gabriella Ambrosioni will be speaking at the SCBWI Bologna 2006 conference in Bologna, Italy, March 25-26, 2006. Other speakers include: authors and illustrators Scott Westerfeld (author interview), Sara Rojo Pérez (illustrator interview), Justine Larbalestier (author interview), Doug Cushman (author-illustrator interview); editors: Victoria Arms/Bloomsbury (editorial director interview), Melanie Cecka/Bloomsbury, Shannon Barefield of Carolrhoda (editorial director interview), Anne McNeil/Hodder (publishing director interview); agents: Rosemary Canter/PDF (agent interview), Barry Goldblatt/Barry Goldblatt Literary (agent interview), Costanza Fabbri/Gabriella Ambrosioni Literary Agency (agent interview), and Rosemary Stimola/Stimola Literary Studio (agent interview). Hands-on workshops and roundtable discussions. See registration information. Note: there have been some changes in the speaker roster since the schedule was first posted; check the website for latest breaking details.

Gabriella Ambrosioni has worked in publishing as an editor, translator, reader, and now as a literary agent. She opened Gabriella Ambrosioni Literary in March 2002 and represents such clients as Jessica Angiulli (illustrator), Irish Braschi, Fabio Bucciardini, Raffaella Cataldo Miglietta, Alberto Cottignoli (illustrator), Mauro Mandolini, Manuela Marchesan (illustrator), Clementina Mingozzi (illustrator), Christina Nicastri McKenzie, Elisabetta Pasquali, Fabrizio Ponti (illustrator), Andrea Rivola (illustrator), Nikoleta Sekulovic, Carthusia Edizioni; and from abroad such clients as Adams Literary (USA), Andersen Press (UK), Ia Atterholm Agency (Sweden), Margaret Connolly Agency (Australia), Criterion/Storyland (UK), Everest Group (Children Division) (Spain), The Gyldendal Group Agency (Denmark), Hachette Livres Australia (Children Division), Larousse (France)(Children Division), Milly Molly (New Zealand), Scott Treimel (Agency, USA), Working Title Press (Australia). She is participating in the panel discussion, "A is for Agent," at the SCBWI Bologna 2006 Conference, March 25-26, 2006. Erzsi Deàk interviewed her in March 2006.

Erzsi Deàk: What led you to work in the field of children's books? Can you give us a brief outline of your career?

Gabriella Ambrosioni: First of all I like children’s books very much, and I think this is the first reason why I decided to work in this field. I think to be an agent is a job one does because one is enthusiastic about it.

Moreover, before launching my agency, I worked as an agent in a big agency in Milan, and we represented several authors who wrote for children; and then I learned how to deal with them, professionally speaking.

Also, I think children’s books have a future in Italy, as children often read more than adults in Italy. Actually, many publishers have started publishing more books for children in the last few years, as they are more and more successful.

As for my career, before working in a literary agency in Milan, I worked for several publishers in Milan and Florence, as a reader, as a translator, and also as a member of the editorial staff of a literary review of short stories (I helped choose the stories to publish).

(Beforehand, I was awarded a Fulbright scholarship and I had the opportunity to take a MA in comparative literature at New York University. Then, I took a PhD in comparative literature at the University of Cagliari, Italy.)

ED: Do your represent authors and illustrators?

GA: Yes, we represent both authors and illustrators.

While with authors everything is working well, as we can submit their work to publishers and expect publishers to offer an advance and royalties, with illustrators everything is difficult. We are trying to change the Italian system, but we find a lot of resistance.

Illustrators are only rarely represented by agents in Italy, and publishers often make them accept agreements which could be much better. As they pay royalties to illustrators of books coming from abroad for which they have bought rights (as foreign publishers and agents put it as a condition), we are struggling in order to obtain the same attitude towards Italian illustrators too, but it is difficult, unless they are already very famous.

As for authors, it is very pleasant to represent them, even if I have to say that English, American and Australian authors get a lot of attention from publishers while it is very difficult to sell authors writing in other languages, even if they are very good.

ED: Who needs an agent? Would you advise every professionally-minded children's book creator to be represented by an agent?

GA: I think every children’s book creator needs an agent. Agents try and get the best conditions for them, both from Italian publishers and from foreign publishers, in case they succeed in selling foreign rights. Authors/illustrators and agents are a team and we work to reach the same goal. I think that we help them a lot getting good conditions and getting visibility in the publishing world.

ED: What grabs your attention and makes you want to represent someone after the first “hit” of the person’s work?

GA: I have to believe in the high level of their work in order to convince publishers, in order to feel confident and ask publishers for that which I think the author’s or illustrator’s work deserves. Also, I have to believe the work has all the characteristics to be successful in the publishing market, in order to accept and represent the author or illustrator.

Still, even if a writer/illustrator is very good, but he/she is too difficult, I prefer to let him/her go, as I think it is very important that we trust each other; otherwise the “team” I mentioned beforehand doesn’t not exist (from the very beginning) and we can’t work well together.

ED: Some agents like to have a creative role in the relationship between their authors, illustrators and editors while others prefer to deal with the business of publishing. How do you see your role?

GA: I usually have a creative role in my relationship with Italian authors, and I usually edit their texts and read them again and again until I think it works. I would not mind dealing with the business of publishing, but, strange as it may sound, in Italy it is very difficult to sell Italian authors. Publishers are more eager to buy rights for the works of authors who have already been published abroad and have proved to be successful. This is the reason why I think it is very important to present the publishers with works as edited as possible, because this way works have a stronger of being considered...

ED: Can you describe what strategies you use for submitting your artists' and authors' work to publishers?

GA: I study which publishers may be interested in their works with attention, according to their catalogue and last publications. I write a presentation of their work so that the editor can immediately know what we are speaking about and I usually call editors right after sending them the material, so that I highlight authors’ work and the editor feels compelled to give me an answer. I also send reminder letters, or call them to know how things are going.

Moreover, I usually submit author’s work to at least two publishers at the same time in order to have the opportunity to make them compete.

ED: What kinds of books do you think travel best? Which books don't? Do you encourage your artists and writers to adapt to the "global marketplace?"

GA: Usually, in Italy, the books which travel best are fiction books. Whether for small children, middle-grade, or young adults. The “how to” books are difficult for our market: it is difficult to find readers for them. For a change, picture books are difficult to sell when they come from abroad, as it is much cheaper for Italian publishers to have Italian illustrators make the illustrations of a picture book.

I try to encourage writers to write in their own special style, but we discuss subjects and style, and I suggest they write something which may have a public even if it is literary. I try to guide their writing in a direction that can bring them success.

I think a writer has to write what he/she feels and believes, as a starting point, but if a publisher is looking for something in particular, I talk with the author whose writing is more suitable to the publisher’s idea.

ED: What is the role of agents in the co-edition world?

GA: Actually, as an agent, I do not to encourage co-editions, as I think the authors gain more when they just sell rights. If I have no choice, though, I try to obtain the best conditions for them.

ED: Are you ever involved in the marketing campaigns for your clients’ work, once published (or once sold to the publisher)?

GA: Yes, even if not always. If I have the opportunity to invite them to events, presentations or fairs that can promote their work and give it visibility, I am happy to do it.

ED: Do you have to actually like all your clients' work to be able to represent it successfully?

GA: I would say that I can represent works I would not chose and buy in bookstores, if it is only a question of taste and if I regard the work as very good.

On the other hand, I cannot represent science fiction books, as it is a genre I am not able to evaluate.

ED: Are you still looking for new talent? Can you give any advice for an author or illustrator looking for an agent to represent them?

GA: I have a lot of work to get done, but if a writer is really talented he/she is very welcome. Great stories and good writing are always welcome.

I suggest writers and illustrators to be nice and to understand that if they chose to be represented by an agent, his/her agent is going to do his or her best in order to make him/her successful. There is no reason to call every other day or to complain if their agent has not found a publisher yet.

ED: Are there any trends or new developments in children's publishing at the moment that you would like to say a few words about?

GA: I think that the most remarkable note is that more and more publishers who have been publishing books for adults only have started publishing books for children lately and many have a good catalogue for children now. The good point is that the market is more dynamic and interesting; the bad point is that sometimes quantity suffocates quality.

Also in Italy we cannot ignore that, after the great success of Harry Potter, fantasy and magic books have become very popular.

ED: Anything you'd like to add?

GA: In 1987, only 900 new titles were published in Italy, while in 2003, 2000 new titles were published; these are good figures for Italy. From the year 2003, statistics report a slight downturn. Nonetheless I think children's books have a growing future in Italy.

Cynsational Notes

Erzsi Deàk, along with Kristin Litchman, was an editor of Period Pieces: Stories for Girls (HarperCollins, 2003)(co-editors interview), which included my short story, "The Gentleman Cowboy" as well as stories by Dian Curtis Regan; Linda Sue Park; Jane Kurtz; Rita Williams Garcia; Bobbi Katz; April Halprin Wayland; Johanna Hurwitz; Uma Krishnaswami; Carmen Bernier-Grand; Kristin Litchman; and Erzsi Deàk.

Cynsational News & Links

The SLJ Blog: "get the buzz about libraries, learning and technology."

Author David R. Davis has written to say his website is now at www.davidrdavis.com, and he celebrates the release of a new book, Texas Zeke and the Longhorn, illustrated by Alan Fearl Stacy (Pelican, 2006). David also is the author of Jazz Cats (Pelican, 2001).

"Reappropriation of Language" by Uma Krishnaswami from Writing with a Broken Tusk. Find out why she says: "I'm taking the term 'monkey god' back from the racists, and making it my own."

Lisa Yee's Blog: if you haven't surfed by lately, go now! Funny and energetic--a must read!

Monday, March 20, 2006

SCBWI Bologna 2006 Agent Interview: Barry Goldblatt

From SCBWI Bologna 2006:

Barry Goldblatt of Barry Goldblatt Literary Agency will be speaking at the SCBWI Bologna 2006 conference in Bologna, Italy, March 25-26, 2006. Other speakers include: authors and illustrators Scott Westerfeld (author interview), Sara Rojo Pérez (illustrator interview), Justine Larbalestier (author interview), Doug Cushman (author-illustrator interview); editors: Victoria Arms/Bloomsbury (editorial director interview), Melanie Cecka/Bloomsbury, Shannon Barefield of Carolrhoda (editorial director interview), Anne McNeil/Hodder (publishing director interview); agents: Rosemary Canter/PDF (agent interview), Costanza Fabbri/Gabriella Ambrosioni Literary Agency (agent interview), Gabriella Ambrosioni/Gabriella Ambrosioni Literary Agency, and Rosemary Stimola/Stimola Literary Studio (agent interview). Hands-on workshops and roundtable discussions. See registration information. Note: there have been some changes in the speaker roster since the schedule was first posted; check the website for latest details.

In addition to the likes of Holly Black (The Spiderwick Chronicles, Tithe (Simon & Schuster, 2002), Valiant (Simon & Schuster, 2005))(author interview) and Libba Bray (A Great and Terrible Beauty (Delacorte, 2003), Rebel Angels (Delacorte, 2005))(author interview), Barry Goldblatt represents 2006 Newbery Honor winner Shannon Hale, who won for Princess Academy (Bloomsbury, 2005). Barry Goldblatt joins agents Gabriella Ambrosioni, Rosemary Canter, and Costanza Fabbri on the panel, “A is for Agent,” at the SCBWI Bologna 2006 Conference. Erzsi Deàk interviewed Barry in March 2006.

Erzsi Deàk: What led you to work in the field of children's books? Can you give us a brief outline of your career?

Barry Goldblatt: I stumbled into children’s books accidentally, really. I was interviewing for a job in New York, only had two days left before I had to go back home and pack, and was feeling more than a little desperate. Along came the fabulous Donne Forrest, Rights Director at Dutton Children’s Books/Dial Books for Young Readers, who convinced me that a job was better than no job, and hey, maybe I’d even like it. Needless to say, I did, and here I’ve stayed.

It goes like this: rights assistant, later rights associate at Dutton/Dial, laid off, rights manager at the then-named Putnam & Grosset Group, and finally rights and contracts director at Orchard Books. Once Orchard was bought by Scholastic, I took a deep breath and leapt...into self-employment. So was born Barry Goldblatt Literary, now almost six years old.

ED: Some agents like to have a creative role in the relationship between their authors, illustrators and editors while others prefer to deal with the business of publishing. How do you see your role?

BG: I definitely have an editorial role with my clients, as well as the more typical agent one. It’s not so much that I edit—certainly not in the way a real editor will—but I definitely will talk with a client about a manuscript, about what works for me and what doesn’t, and I’ll often send them back for a revision before submitting to editors. The reason is very simple: editors expect submissions from agents to be that much more polished, that much closer to being ready to go, and I have to meet that expectation if I want my clients to be successful.

I'm certainly more hands-on than many agents. I want to be able to send out a manuscript that simply can't be refused, so I want it as polished as possible before I let anyone see it. I talk through work with my clients, tell him/her what did and didn't work for me, where I think it could be improved. Sometimes we agree, sometimes we don't, but the discussion always helps to improve a piece. Once we both feel the piece is in the best shape, then we start submissions.

ED: Do you see yourself as primarily an agent for authors or illustrators? For “older” works (v. picture books, for example), or...?

BG: I mostly work with authors, and right now my focus is on older work, primarily YA. However, I have several illustrators who I keep busy, I’ve got some wonderful picture book writers, and I’ve had some success with some middle-grade fiction as well. The only thing I don’t handle at all is non-fiction.

ED: What grabs your attention and makes you want to represent someone after the first “hit” of the person’s work?

BG: The first thing I do after I read something I love is call the author. I've spent two or three hours with writers discussing their work, their goals, their favorite movies. I'm looking for a connection, a meeting of like minds, someone I can comfortably and without hesitation support and cheer on for twenty years or more. If I find that, I'll offer representation. If I don't feel that connection, odds are we're not going to be a good fit.

ED: What kinds of books have you had the most success with?

BG: Young adult fiction is so hot right now, and that’s where I’ve put a lot of my efforts, but I've also got several highly successful picture book and middle-grade writers. I like to keep my hands in everything, if I can; I don't want to get boring or one-note.

ED: What kinds of books do you think travel [between countries/cultures] best? Which books don't? Do you encourage your artists and writers to adapt to the "global marketplace"?

BG: I think good fiction has the best chance of traveling. Picture books face so many challenges, not just with text but with art, that often prevent a book from truly speaking to the marketplace in another country or culture. But a novel, well, except for historical fiction (which presents its own unique problems), kids are kids, teens are teens, no matter where they live, and there are always themes and feelings that will speak across borders.

ED: What is the role of agents in the co-edition world?

BG: Well, my role is nil, really. I rarely retain rights to picture books, unless I represent both the author and the artist, and even then, I'll often leave rights in the hands of the publishers. They're better equipped to handle the expense of shopping picture books around, and if there are going to be co-editions, the publisher is going to have to do the manufacturing, so in my mind, too many cooks and all that.

ED: Are you ever involved in the marketing campaigns for your clients’ work, once published (or once sold to the publisher)?

BG: Absolutely. I have lots of marketing brainstorming sessions with clients, trying to come up with things that s/he can do on his/her own to best get the word out about a new book. I also try to have these discussions with publishers, but I recognize that they're the experts and also have limited budgets, so I rarely try and force anything. But the more proactive an author and his/her agent are, the better. Sometimes there are ideas that are incredibly simply and cost- effective that the overtaxed marketing departments just didn't have time to think of, but when presented correctly, can really get behind and support.

ED: Who needs an agent? Would you advise every professionally-minded children's book creator to be represented by an agent?

BG: I think everyone needs an agent, but I'm biased of course. Okay, if you're totally comfortable negotiating deals and contracts, asking your editor for more money, being tough when things aren't going smoothly, and generally have a good, levelheaded business sense, you probably don't need an agent (but it still wouldn't hurt). The simple fact is that you're a creator, and the best thing you can do for your career is concentrate on creating, and the best way to do that is to have someone else handling the business side of things on your behalf. Writing and illustrating also tends to be a pretty lonely business, so having a dedicated person in your corner is a nice plus too.

ED: Do you have to actually like all your clients' work to be able to represent it successfully?

BG: I certainly think it helps. I don’t know that I could sell something very effectively if I didn’t love it, couldn’t put my support behind it 120%. It’s not really fair to the author if I don’t.

ED: Are you still looking for new talent? Can you give any advice for an author or illustrator looking for an agent to represent them?

BG: I'm always looking for new talent...complacency is death. There are always holes in my client list I'm looking to fill, types of work I don't represent but would like to. As for advice, well, it all starts with the creating: make your work as perfect as possible, and present yourself and it in a professional manner. Do your homework! The Internet makes finding out about an agent so simple, at least the basics, and there are plenty of resources online to find out detailed info as well. SCBWI of course offers things, and there are several publications on the market that also have in-depth info. Don’t send work that’s not appropriate for the agent you’re contacting, make sure you follow submission guidelines, and don’t expect an answer overnight!

ED: Are there any trends or new developments in children's publishing at the moment that you would like to say a few words about?

BG: YA isn't showing any signs of slowing, though it is evolving, which is good. There's room for so many different kinds of books, for challenging, boundary-pushing books. Fantasy still remains hot, in spite of many editors saying they think it's over (said editors who then promptly go out and try and acquire the latest hot fantasy). I see signs of real recovery in the picture book market, which is quite a relief; it's never going to be the boom market it was in the 80s, but I think picture book writers and artists are going to be pretty happy over the next five years or so. And I am beginning to see a strong surge for middle-grade, or at least I've got a lot of editors asking for it, which is a good sign.

Cynsational Notes

Erzsi Deàk, along with Kristin Litchman, was an editor of Period Pieces: Stories for Girls (HarperCollins, 2003)(co-editors interview), which included my short story, "The Gentleman Cowboy" as well as stories by Dian Curtis Regan; Linda Sue Park; Jane Kurtz; Rita Williams Garcia; Bobbi Katz; April Halprin Wayland; Johanna Hurwitz; Uma Krishnaswami; Carmen Bernier-Grand; Kristin Litchman; and Erzsi Deàk.

Cynsational News & Links

April Lurie: Children's and Young Adult Author: new official website from the author of Dancing in the Streets of Brooklyn (Delacorte, 2002) and the forthcoming Brothers, Boyfriends, and Other Criminal Minds (Delacorte, 2007)(excerpt). See her writing tips and school-visit information. April was born and raised in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn and now makes her home in Round Rock, Texas, just outside of Austin. Read a Cynsations interview with April. Note: I heard April read from the manuscript of her upcoming YA novel, Brothers, Boyfriends, and Other Criminal Minds, this past summer and was wowed.

April's Blog from author April Lurie. Surf over to the blog and (via comments) welcome April to the online children's/YA book creator community! Please also consider linking to her blog and website.
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