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by Ruth Spiro
I’ve spent the past few weeks in a flurry of activity, celebrating the release of my new science-themed board books, illustrated by Irene Chan. BABY LOVES AEROSPACE ENGINEERING! and BABY LOVES QUARKS! are the first two titles in the Baby Loves Science series, published by Charlesbridge. Next year they’ll be joined by two siblings, BABY LOVES THERMODYNAMICS! and BABY LOVES QUANTUM PHYSICS!
When my first picture book, LESTER FIZZ, BUBBLE GUM ARTIST, was published in 2008, my marketing plan included the tried-and-true signings, mailings and school visits. But back then, we authors had to promote our books the old-fashioned way: Barefoot, walking uphill, in the snow.
At least that’s how it seems, looking at it in the rearview mirror.
Take a minute to consider how you’d get the word out about your new book and connect with potential readers without social media.
For me, this second time around is a whole new world.
LESTER FIZZ came out in August of 2008, and I scheduled most of my launch events for September. I ordered postcards with the book cover on one side and details like the ISBN and a few blurbs on the other. I used the postcards as event invitations by printing labels with the date, time and location, affixing them to the postcards and then addressing them by hand. This required more work, but it allowed me to order a larger quantity of generic postcards I could use for multiple purposes, such as leave-behinds at conferences.
At the last minute, I decided to spring for the 5 x 7 size, which I thought would have greater visibility. Unfortunately, when I sent my first mailing I neglected to consider two important details. First, I used regular postcard stamps, not realizing the larger size required extra postage. This problem was compounded by the fact that when I designed the postcards, it hadn’t occurred to me to include a return address.
I’m not sure where those postcards ended up, but it wasn’t in my friends’ and family’s mailboxes. Ordering a larger quantity turned out to be my only smart move, because once I learned that 90% of the postcards were never delivered, I had to re-do the entire mailing. (The others arrived at their destinations postage due!)
Later that month when my schedule slowed down, I joined Facebook. Not many people I knew were using it, as it wasn’t yet a “thing” among people my age. Still, I’d been hearing about it more and more so I decided to check it out. I had fun connecting with high school friends and former colleagues, and began posting status updates. I still had two more book signings coming up in October, so I posted the details.
Surprisingly, people I hadn’t seen in years showed up, some with friends, babies, nieces and nephews in tow. Truth be told, these folks weren’t on my invitation list and would never have known about the events if I hadn’t shared them on Facebook.
Eight years later, Facebook has become an invaluable resource. It enables authors and illustrators to leverage our social networks by publicizing events, sharing links to blog posts and reviews, and connecting with fans and potential readers. Best of all, rather than blowing my promotion budget on invitations and stamps, I purchased important stuff like rocket ship cookies, airplane tattoos and astronaut ice cream!
I recall exactly how I met Tara-–on Twitter!
I had a Google Alert set for my book title (another helpful resource) and discovered her tweet:
We began following each other, I found Tara’s blog, and made a friend with similar interests halfway across the country. (Tara’s note: I love quirky LESTER FIZZ.)
In 2008 I knew very few people who were active on Twitter. The old joke was that people used it to announce what they’d eaten for breakfast. Back then, I think Twitter was still figuring out what it wanted to be when it grew up.
Ah, but Twitter is home of the hashtag.
For those still unfamiliar, and I personally know more than a few, I’ll briefly explain. Adding a “#” to the beginning of a word or phrase makes it visible to all of the 313 million active users around the world who are searching for that word or phrase. #Authors, #illustrators, #booksellers, #librarians, #bloggers, #editors, #agents and others in the #kidlit and #SCBWI community, including those interested in #picturebooks, #graphicnovels, #reading, and #literacy use hashtags to connect and see what others are discussing. Get the picture?
(People use hashtags on Facebook and Instagram too, but it all began on Twitter.)
You can share ideas and #chat with like-minded people around the world without leaving your own comfy couch. Through the years, I’ve used Twitter to “meet” hundreds of educators, librarians and booksellers. I’ve received invitations to speak at conferences, set up Skype visits with classrooms in India, Turkey and Mexico, and kept abreast of topics trending in children’s literature. When used the right way, the power of Twitter is stunning.
So, while I may have missed the boat with #bubblegum, now I can easily find people who are interested in #boardbooks, #STEM, #quarks and #aerospace. See? It’s addictive!
But wait, there’s more…
Booksellers, librarians and parents often post photos of new or favorite books, and some popular Instagram accounts have tens of thousands of followers (or more!) How cute is this photo of a little reader?
One word: Educators! If you have Educator Guides, crafts or activities to go along with your books, create a Pinterest board and pin them there. I pinned mine for Lester Fizz five years after it was published, and they’re still being “favorited” and “repinned.”
In my opinion, Facebook and Twitter are the two heavy hitters. They’ve given me the biggest return on my investment of time and effort without costing a penny. But as I made a list of all the tools that didn’t exist (or weren’t as popular) only six or eight years ago, I realized just how far we’ve come. There are some resources I haven’t mentioned (LinkedIn, SnapChat, Tumblr) simply because I haven’t found them quite as useful as the others.
Keep in mind that while these social media platforms can be used for promotion, they’re also spaces for creating community. I’ve found that the most rewarding experiences come from authentic interactions, resulting in relationships that grow over time. The best part is that once you’re an active member of a community, you don’t have to promote yourself as much because others will help do it for you. Of course, this works both ways. It’s a joy to celebrate contracts and “book birthdays” of those in your community, especially when you’ve followed each other through all the ups and downs of the journey.
Thank you, Ruth, for showing us how book marketing has changed dramatically in just a few years. I personally do not know what I would do without social media because, as you know, I like to stay home in my jammies.
Ruth is giving away a signed, two-book set of BABY LOVES SCIENCE to a random commenter. How do you use all the tools we have today to spread the word about your work?
A winner will be selected soon. (I have stopped saying a particular date because I never get to it in time. Yes, I have lots of things I have to pick winners for…I PROMISE SOON.)
Ruth Spiro is a children’s book author and freelance writer. Her Baby Loves Science board book series, published by Charlesbridge, includes Baby Loves Aerospace Engineering! and Baby Loves Quarks!. The next two titles, Baby Loves Thermodynamics! and Baby Loves Quantum Physics! will be published in 2017. Also forthcoming from Dial is a new picture book series, Made by Maxine, which sold at auction in a 3-book deal. The first book is scheduled for 2018.
Ruth’s debut picture book, Lester Fizz, Bubble-Gum Artist won awards from Writer’s Digest and Willamette Writers, and was a Bank Street College of Education Best Book of the Year. Her articles and stories have appeared in FamilyFun, CHILD, and The Writer, and also in popular anthologies, notably The Right Words at the Right Time (Vol. II), edited by Marlo Thomas, and several Chicken Soup for the Soul titles. She lives in suburban Chicago.
guest post by Megan E. Bryant
DUMP TRUCK DUCK, my first picture book, is about a crew of construction ducks who build a park. But what most people don’t know is that it’s also the book that built a bridge for me to become the kind of writer I’ve always aspired to be.
When I started writing DUMP TRUCK DUCK, I’d already been fortunate to publish several board books. Conventional wisdom says that it’s hard to sell board books without illustrations attached, but for me, brainstorming and writing board books was fun, it was easy, it was safe. The secret to selling a board book without art is to have a fantastic idea that is tailored to the format—something that can’t just as easily be a picture book; something that a publisher simply can’t resist. It also helps to have series potential or an angle for table placement—seasonal and holiday can be a tough sell for high-priced picture books due to their shorter selling seasons, but lower-cost, eye-catching board books are a natural fit.
Board books came easily to me, but what about the pages of ideas I had—for picture books, middle-grade series, and YA novels? There were so many other stories I wanted to tell. What was keeping me from pursuing them?
One word: myself.
To make these book dreams a reality would involve several things that scared me: taking big risks with my writing, surviving setbacks, and ultimately facing failure (and lots of it!). When my longing to tell these stories grew even louder than my fear, I realized that it was time to try. I started writing and writing and writing—writing my heart out—and revising until the drafts of various manuscripts numbered into the hundreds. I started querying agents, too, which led to several months of rejection. During this process, I had the idea for DUMP TRUCK DUCK; when I asked my then-three-year-old daughter what she thought about it, she laughed with enthusiasm and replied, “Write that book, Mommy. Write it right now!”
How could I resist?
It took about three months to have a strong, polished draft of DUMP TRUCK DUCK. Since I was compelled to write it in rhyme, I knew that every syllable had to be perfect. Nothing will torpedo a rhyming manuscript faster than uneven rhythm or forced rhymes. All that work paid off; Dump Truck Duck was the manuscript that brought in several offers from agents, including one from Jamie Weiss Chilton, who has been an amazing agent and even better friend for five years now. Jamie loved Dump Truck Duck and couldn’t have been more enthusiastic about it. When we went on submission, I was giddy with excitement.
Then the rejections started rolling in—for four long years.
It sounds egocentric, but I have to admit I was surprised. Weren’t trucks an evergreen topic, beloved by boys and girls? Didn’t the ducks add a unique angle? Wasn’t the rhyme just right? Jamie wasn’t ready to give up, but in my heart I wondered if it was time to face the sad truth that maybe some manuscripts, no matter how hard you’ve worked or how much you’ve believed in them, are not meant to become books.
Then, it happened: The editorial director at Albert Whitman loved DUMP TRUCK DUCK as much as Jamie did; as much as my daughter did. After the offer came in, I walked around in a state of disbelief for weeks. Astonishingly, that was just the start of a period of extraordinarily good news. In four months, we received offers on seven other books, including a chapter book series, a board book series, and my YA debut. Of course, the only reason we were able to sell so many books in such a short period of time is because I never stopped writing. Even during the darkest times, when I was so discouraged it was hard to walk into bookstores; even when I wondered if I’d ever sell another book again. The gift of all those rejections was learning a fundamental truth about myself: I would always write, no matter what. And that is one reason why I didn’t give up, even when common sense would dictate it was time to move on.
To watch my manuscript for DUMP TRUCK DUCK transform into a book with adorable illustrations by Jo de Ruiter was a joy that defies description. I’m so grateful to everyone who worked so hard to make this book, from Jamie and Jo to the talented team at Albert Whitman. I’ve tried to do my part to promote it by setting up readings and events for children, along with my very first blog tour. This has been a book truly worth celebrating—and celebrate we did, with a fabulous construction-themed launch party!
Children grow faster than books; I was never able to present my preschool-aged daughter with the copy of DUMP TRUCK DUCK she so eagerly anticipated. She’s a big girl now—eight years old and reading independently—and there’s a new preschooler in our lives: my son, who loves nothing more than when his sister reads DUMP TRUCK DUCK to him. Hearing my words spoken in her sweet voice truly makes it worth the wait.
Thank you, Megan! What an inspiring story. And so many more books to come. Congratulations!
Megan is generously giving away a copy of DUMP TRUCK DUCK. A winner will be selected by random at the conclusion of her blog tour. Just leave a comment below to enter and good luck!
by Salina Yoon
Toys, toys, toys! I love toys! They are often the inspiration to my novelty books—board books with interactive features. They are designed to be touched, pulled, squeezed and played with, so my books and toys are like cousins.
Colored stacking rings, the Connect Four game, wooden puzzles, rubber duckies, and even a football has inspired a book idea! And sometimes, it’s not even a toy at all. Random objects will inspire me. My husband’s toolbox, kitchen utensils, scrap fabric, a greeting card, and even a funny jack-o-lantern on Halloween! I can’t get away from ideas creeping into my head because I’m surrounded by objects. Needless to say, I develop a ton of ideas every year. About a dozen are usually good enough to publish. And the others crawl back into my deep, dark dummy closet of doom. (See photo!)
My books are concept- and format-driven, so I’m not looking for story ideas. I look for fun concepts that allow a child to interact in a meaningful way from the physical design of the book. Rock & Roll COLORS is an excellent example. The book has a hidden track within each narrow page that allow a shiny disk to roll back and forth when the book is tilted. It makes a nice, satisfying clunking sound when the disk hits the edge. Each side of the page has an image with die-cuts, so the foil comes shining through. Each spread focuses on one color, and both images on the page are that same color. It’s so simple, but effective!
Surrender to your imagination! I don’t actively try to create ideas as much as allowing ideas to come into my head. Allow your mind to be free! Relax. Smile. Enjoy the process. Like the Chinese finger trap, the harder you pull, the stronger it resists. Don’t stress too much about trying to think up great ideas. When they come a-knockin’, just invite them in!
Salina Yoon is the creator of over 150 innovative books for young children. She has been named a finalist for the CBC’s Children’s Choice Book Awards for K-2nd Best Book of the Year, for Opposnakes (S&S/Little Simon), received the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold Seal awards for Little Scholastic TOYS (Scholastic/Cartwheel) and Rock & Roll COLORS (Scholastic/Cartwheel), and the Nick Jr. Family Magazine Best Book of the Year award for My First Menorah (S&S). An author search on B&N, Amazon or IndieBound is the best way to track Salina’s books down. There are lots and lots of new titles releasing soon! (And Salina promises to have an updated website in Spring, 2011.)
Every Monday at 10pm EST children’s writers and illustrators jump on Twitter to chat about picture books. The brainchild of Aussie authors Karen Collum and Kat Apel, #pblitchat churns away for an hour, with topic schedules and transcripts posted on the Picture Books Only blog. Below are highlights from this week’s chat on writing for the very young–children from birth to age 3.
- Unless you’re an author/illustrator, board books are a difficult sell. The word count is low and the stories are less complicated than picture books for 4-8 year-olds, so illustrations become even more crucial to bring life to the story. For example, the visual cues in Sandra Boynton’s Blue Hat, Green Hat allow non-readers to “read” the story themselves. As a new writer, you want to write a story with the broadest possible appeal to maximize your chances of being published, so writing specific to the board book format may limit you.
- A trend in board books is to republish books that have been popular sellers in hardcover/paperback. Board books are expensive to produce, and at the same time, parents want to pay less for them, so publishers may prefer to go with a proven story rather than a new one. Great example: Snowmen at Night by Caralyn and Mark Buehner was first a successful hardcover title, released in 2002. A few years later, the publisher created board books and sold them with a stuffed snowman during the winter holidays. A jigsaw puzzle board book and a pop-up version (a new story) were also created.
- Rhyme (internal and external) and a jaunty meter delights young ears. Great examples: Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin Jr., John Archambault and Lois Ehlert; Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb by Al Perkins and Eric Gurney.
- Average word counts for young books are typically less than 500 words and could be fewer than 100 words.
- The market is saturated with ABC concept books, but books with a completely fresh take can be successful, like Shiver Me Letters, A Pirate ABC by June Sobel and Henry Cole.
- Repetition helps young children understand story and recognize words, plus it encourages participation in reading aloud.
- Lift-the-flap books offer peek-a-boo surprises and drive the story forward, but again, they’re a tough sell unless you’re an established author and illustrator.
- Novelty books (pop-ups, foldout pages, liftable flaps, or hidden sound chips) are often published by mass-market publishers and not trade publishers. What does this mean to you? In-house talent or work-for-hires create these books.
- The jury is split on interactive titles for the very young. Do parents want their toddlers drooling on an $800 iPad? Do electronic titles lose the “cuddle factor”? Or does the new interactive medium offer an unprecedented opportunity to unknown author/illustrators? A recent article cited a new 3D book as one of the top 20 ebook apps for the iPad, right up there with Dr. Seuss and Disney titles.
My favorite #pblitchat moment? Board books get gnawed and chewed by babies, so how about an edible board book? (As suggested by @RedStepChild a.k.a. illustrator Lynn Alpert.) I think this is an idea whose time has come, especially if they’re made out of freeze-dried astronaut ice cream. Mama may want to chow down on tasty kidlit, too! (I can see it now–Chicka Chicka Yum Yum.)
What else is important to know about writing and illustrating for the very young?
Rules, Tara? Why are you writing about rules? K.L. Going just urged writers to shake off the rules and “step boldly across the lines.” We are creative souls! We don’t want more restrictions!
Ah, you are right. But remember, Ms. Going also said that writers need to be educated. Know those rules and understand why they are in place. Only then can you decide where to successfully break them. Then you don’t have to call them rules anymore—think of them more as suggestions.
Yesterday I met with Alyssa Eisner Henkin of Trident Media Group, an experienced professional who came to agenting via the editorial track. She knows this business. She knows what sells. So when she gave me five rules for picture books, I took careful notes.
Rule #1: Audience age is 2-6 years old
This one was a little surprising to me. I often see PBs categorized in three ways: baby board books, toddler books, and books for 4-8 year olds. But eight year-olds are not reading picture books. They may be classified that way for teachers who want to read aloud to their class. Unless you’re writing board books, think of your audience as 2-6 years of age. What situations will they relate to?
Rule #2: 500 Words is the Magic Number
Again, another suprise–somewhat. Yes, I’ve heard about that 500-word mark, but I’ve also heard about the 1000-word barrier. Most of the books I read my own children are closer to 1000 and sometimes more. Personally, I don’t often spend $16.99 on a 500-word three-minute experience. My children and I enjoy sharing stories at bedtime and a short one can sometimes leave us feeling short-changed. Ms. Henkin said she’s heard the same thing from many parents, so I asked, “Why is there this disconnect between parents and the industry?” It’s all about perception. The current industry perception is that today’s parents are busier than ever and they want short books to put their children to sleep quickly. OK, that’s not true in my house, but I’m a statistic of one. Publishers are buying 500 words or less. Repeat after me: 500 or less.
Rule #3: Make it Really Sweet or Really Funny
Maybe this isn’t so much a rule as a great suggestion. These kind of books are easier to sell. People get it. Elevate your “awww” factor. Make the laughs side-splitting.
Rule #4: Use Playful, Unique Language
When publishers say they seek a “unique voice” that doesn’t only apply to middle grade and young adult novels. The sounds words make are new and interesting to young children. Play it up.
Rule #5: Create Situations that Inspire Cool Illustrations
PB writers are told to leave enough unwritten so illustrators can tell half the tale. But that’s not enough to be thinking about. Go a step beyond. What story situation will inspire an unusual, unique illustration? Something you’ve never seen before? Don’t just leave room for pictures, leave room for AWESOME pictures. The cooler the art, the better the book.
Another thing that I brought home with me after our PB discussion was concept. Many times, I’ll get a spark of an idea and immediately sit down to write. I will start taking more time to develop that concept, thinking about all the rules above before ever putting pen to paper (or fingertips to keyboard). And then maybe I’ll decide to step over one or two of those lines. I’m a creative soul, after all.