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Working with illustrators

Bison, by Eli Clark

One of the illustrations Elijah Brady Clark did for my first “Who Pooped” book.

At the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators) conference in Los Angeles last weekend, I was hoping for an opportunity to network with other children’s picture book authors and illustrators and compare notes. Boy, did I get that opportunity! I expected a clear picture to emerge of how the relationships work, but I ended up with a more muddled image than I started with.

For perspective, here’s how it worked with my first Who Pooped in the Park? book: I went to the publisher with a concept and a title. Shortly after issuing the contracts, they sent me portfolios from three illustrators and asked me what I thought. I called the editor, Kathy Springmeyer, and told her which was my favorite. As it turned out, I picked the same one they had picked. Life was good. Elijah Brady Clark was our chosen illustrator.

As Eli went to work on a cover design, I wrote the book in a three-column layout (there’s an example in another blog post of mine). The left column described the illustration I wanted on that page or spread. The center column was the text. The right column was the “Straight Poop” sidebar, if that page had one. After Kathy finished doing what editors do and we came to agreement on my manuscript, she sent it off to Eli. He did rough sketches of all of the pages and sent them to Kathy. I believe they went back and forth once or twice before I saw the sketches, but I don’t know. I went through them and marked up anything that wasn’t accurate or that I didn’t think fit the flow well.

Once everybody came to agreement, Eli produced final color illustrations, the art department put it all together, Kathy and I did a final round of proofreading, and the book went to the printer.

One of the first pieces of advice I heard at SCBWI was to make sure never to include illustrations in a submission because it’s better for the editor to read the manuscript and picture which in-house illustrator would fit the best. Shortly after that I heard from an editor that they’re actively looking for good author/illustrator teams that work well together. An agent later on said that they don’t like representing both the author and the illustrator because it’s too much work and confusion.

Cats by Rob Rath

An illustration by Robert Rath from one of my later books in the series.

On Sunday, I attended a session by children’s author Verla Kay. She said that she has no input into the illustration process at all. The publisher selects the artist, and the entire book design is done before she gets a chance to see it. Personally, I find that prospect depressing. Having no input into the art and overall design not only takes all the fun out of writing for children, but in my humble opinion, it reduces the quality of the final product.

At SCBWI’s conference, I met an author and an illustrator from Arizona that are working on their first book together. Each page is a collaborative effort, with the text and pictures carefully hand-crafted to work together well (when their book comes out, I’ll post something about it on this blog. What I saw looked really good). I also met illustrators looking for authors, authors looking for illustrators, authors married to their illustrator, authors who did their own illustration, and authors like Verla who had multiple books out and had never communicated directly with their illustrators.

What kind of conclusion can you draw from this?

Believe it or not, I think there is a conclusion to be drawn. And that is that you should do whatever works for you. Don’t try to figure out what agents and editors are looking for. Just produce the best manuscript you can produce — however you like to do it — and then look for the right agent and/or editor.

11 MORE book signing tips for authors

11 More signing tips for authors

It seems like I’ve been writing a lot about book signings lately, most likely because my mini-book tour has made me think about events more. While on the road, I’ve been jotting down more ideas that aren’t in my 14 book signing tips for authors, and I’ve already done one blog post from the road about making a classic mistake at an event.

Rather than go back and add a bunch of material to the old post, I decided to do another tip post, and add some material I’ve gleaned from some other good blogs. Sandra Beckwith, for example, wrote a great set of book signing tips on the “Selling Books” blog (I love the post title, “Read this if you’re not Sarah Palin“).

  1. Hand people your book. This is an old bookseller’s technique. If people are holding a copy of the book in their hands, they are much more likely to buy it.
  2. Develop a “look.” You want to be memorable. This doesn’t mean you should wear something silly, but you need to look unique. If you wrote a cookbook, wear an apron. If you wrote a children’s book, make a T-shirt with the book’s logo. Make your own nametag. If you write mysteries set in Hawaii, wear an Aloha shirt. Don’t look like every other author out there.

    The t-shirt looks like the book cover.

  3. Don’t just sign; personalize. When I’m signing the store’s stock after the event (tip #14 from my previous list), I just write my name. But when I’m signing a book for someone, I write their name and some appropriate saying. Who Pooped signatureWith my Who Pooped in the Park? books, for example, I usually write “Watch where you step.”
    Do remember, however, that once you develop a characteristic autograph, people will come to expect it. I remember talking to Tippi Hedren (the actress from The Birds) at one of her book signings. She drew three little birds above her name, and told me that people actually complained if their book had no birds, or had only two of them.
  4. Bring a pen that dries quickly. Especially if your book is printed on glossy paper, you don’t want to close the cover and have the signature smear or transfer to the previous page. If the paper is thinner, make sure your pen doesn’t bleed through.
  5. Don’t limit yourself to only bookstores. I’m a huge advocate of bookstores (after all, I own one), but sometimes gift shops, fairs, and other venues can actually work better. My two best signings (in terms of books sold) were at a trade association’s annual conference, and in the lobby of the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone Park.
  6. Use props. I’ve had cookbook authors at my store bring along cookies or other treats. When signing Who Pooped in the Park? books, I often bring along sample of animal scat cast in Lucite blocks. Anything you have that grabs attention is good.
  7. Make your own sign. Some stores provide really nice signs, but that’s rare. If you can’t talk your publisher into making one, then do it yourself. If you don’t have strong graphic design skills, get a designer to help you. Most stores will have some kind of easel or stand, but you might want to carry your own fold-up easel if you can.

    Sign for book events

    The sign makes it pretty obvious what’s going on at my table.

  8. Bring giveaways and promote them. I still have a couple of boxes of my first book, which is old, out-of-print, and not so useful (a 15-year-old Internet book). I took five of them along to a Closed Captioning Handbook book signing at a trade show. I sent a Tweet with the event’s Twitter hash tag that said, “the first person to mention this Tweet to me gets a free book.” I did the same thing on Facebook. It was interesting to see how many professional people were sitting in business meetings and educational sessions checking their Twitter feeds!
    You can also use drawings as a way to collect names. Have people drop their names or business cards in a fishbowl or basket, and then draw one every hour and give away something.
  9. Make sure your business cards have the book title on them. I actually have different cards depending on whether the event focuses on my technical books or my children’s books. The cards have the book cover right on them.
    Also make sure you get an easy-to-remember username on Facebook and Twitter (e.g., “” or ““), and print that on the cards.
  10. Take a camera. If you have a friend or family member along, have them take pictures. If not, ask someone at the store to do it for you. Then use the pictures on your blog, Facebook page, website, and newsletter. If someone else takes a good picture of you, give them a card and ask them to email it to you or post it on one of your social networking sites.
  11. NEVER complain or blame the store if you don’t have good sales. Smile about it. Make a joke. Tell them you’ve done worse. Offer to try again sometime. But nobody likes a complainer. If you gripe about it, you’re not likely to get invited back.


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Things people say at book signings

If you sit long enough at a book signing table, you hear all kinds of interesting questions. During my signing tour in Yellowstone National Park this week, signing Who Pooped in the Park? books, quite a few groups of people came by, looked at the poster and/or the books, said something to each other in a foreign language, and left. I have to wonder how many different languages people used this week to say, “Crazy Americans! They write books about poop!”

Many of the questions were very logical, and some were pretty silly. As an example:

Did you write this book, or are you just here signing it?

Really? I’m sitting here under a big sign that says “Meet the Author.” My picture is on the sign. And who signs other people’s books, anyway?

Do we have to pay for the book?

I forgive the little kids who ask this question. I’m sure they haven’t been trained in the ways of capitalism yet. But adults? Oh, my.

Another favorite of mine came from a boy about nine years old. He said,

My parents bought me this book when I was a kid. I really liked it.

I chuckled and thanked him. Our perspectives do change as we age, don’t they?

Some of the serious and logical questions have quick and easy answers, others more complex:

How long did it take you to write this book?

Actually writing the book? Not that long. On each Who Pooped? book, I spent 2-3 months of research, building animal lists, writing, planning out the page layouts, drafting instructions for the illustrator, and so forth. Then the illustrator (Eli or Rob) sketches out each page and sends them in to the editor, who goes through everything and makes changes and suggestions. When she’s happy, it comes back to me. I go through the sketches and check everything for accuracy and to make sure it fits what I was trying to accomplish. At that stage, we’ll often have someone from the park check it over as well. Then it goes back to the illustrator, who does final color illustrations and page layouts. After the editor and I sign off on those, the book gets the final details, like an ISBN, and goes off to the printer. Final books appear in my hand about a year after the contract was signed.

What gave you the idea for Who Pooped in the Park?

My kids. Up until then, I had been writing mostly specialized technical stuff (like The Closed Captioning Handbook). A stack of our hay was torn up one day, and I was showing the kids how to identify the culprits (deer poop and footprints). They told me I needed to do a book about animal poop for kids. We came up with the “Who Pooped?” title, and proposed it to a publisher who turned it down. Then a sales rep for Farcountry Press suggested talking to their acquisition editor, and the rest is history!

Did you do the drawings?

I wish I had the talent that Eli Clark and Rob Rath have. They are the ones that have illustrated my Who Pooped? series: Eli did the first six, and Rob has done the others. They are both very skilled, and they are a big part of the reason the books have succeeded.

Since most of my signings in the park were in gift shops and hotel lobbies, the most common question I heard wasn’t even related to the book:

Where’s the bathroom?

Book Signings: Learn from my mistakes!

Last month, I wrote a blog post entitled “14 book signing tips for authors.” Last night, I kicked myself for not following all of my own advice.

Actually, things started out just right. I talked to the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center well in advance and worked out the details. I would give a talk in their theater from 7:00 to 8:00 pm, and then sign books in their gift shop afterward. I publicized the talk and signing on Facebook, Twitter, and this blog (tip #1), leaving the local publicity to the Grizzly and Wolf Center — and I made sure the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce knew about it. I sent them some artwork for posters (tip #2) and packed my big sign. Since they told me that they regularly carried my book and it sold well, I assumed they’d have plenty of stock, but I tossed a few extras in the car, just in case.

See the problems? Hint: they’re both in that last sentence, and there are two key words in each problem. The first one is “I assumed” and the second one is “a few.” When I showed up a couple of hours early to check in (tip #4) and chat with the staff (tip #10), one of the first things the manager said to me was, “we sold out of your books, so I hope you have plenty of them out in the car!” Oops. I had five. Count ’em, five.

Luckily, West Yellowstone is a small, friendly town. The gift shop manager at the Grizzly and Wolf Center knows the owner of the bookstore in town, and called her. Oops again. They were out of stock, too. Fortunately for us, a very pleasant assistant manager at another store in town (thank you, Smith & Chandler!) had a big stack of books they were willing to share.

Talking Poop in West Yellowstone

So all went well. I gave my talk to a good-sized group, and there were plenty of books for the signing. I also learned my lesson. I should have paid more attention to my own tip #13 (see below), and I should have called the store before I left home to ask whether they would need books. Calling ahead might not have been adequate, though. My event was on a Sunday, and they had a good stock going into the weekend. She might have told me they had it covered. But it still would have been good to ask.

TIP #13: Carry some spare books. If you’re lucky, the signing will be a smash hit. With the economy down, though, booksellers are being cautious about over-ordering. That means that if your signing is fantastic, they just might run out of books. If you have a box or two in your trunk, you can grab them (be prepared to sell them to the store at the standard distribution discount!) and keep on going. If you don’t, the signing is done.

As always, everything comes down to communication. As writers, that’s our first job anyway, right?


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