May 26, 2015

The A to Z of Picture Books

Want to know what happens after you submit your picture book to a publisher? Last week I attended The A to Z of Picture Books, presented by author Kat Yeh and Rotem Moscovich, Editor at Disney-Hyperion.  The presentation was true to the event description: “explore how a picture book gets made—from initial conception to submission, from finding an editor and publisher to revising and matching up an illustrator, participants will get a peek into the collaborative process from start to finish.…”  It was at the Anthroposophical Society in downtown Manhattan.  Both were very forthcoming with ‘inside info’.  Being able to attend this event is just one of the benefits of belonging to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).

Kat Yeh, author of picture books You’re Lovable to Me and The Magic Brush, described what the writing process was like.  She stressed that you should focus on feelings and memories, closeness and love.  While describing why writing a picture book is harder than most people think, she recalled a memory of speaking with a very successful YA author who gave her a big compliment that she carries with her to this day.  This YA author told Kat that she didn’t think she could write a picture book.  Kat asked her why and the author said that you have to “grab the reader’s attention and convey a story is such a small amount of words.” True.  Kat described the process of writing a picture book as “deceptively simple”. Every single word is scrutinized therefore every single word is important.

Kat Yeh’s advice to aspiring authors:

  • Join SCBWI , an association for writers and illustrators of children’s books.
  • Read, read a lot.  Understand the market you want to write for and what is already out there.
  • Start your manuscript with an emotional connection- make it something we can all relate to.
  • Join groups online (i.e. facebook) and Tara Lazar’s Picture Book Idea Month (PiBoIdMo).

After Kat Yeh read her picture book, You’re Lovable to Me, she warned that what you write is only half yours, it is also half the illustrator’s.  She used Magic Brush as an example of major changes that happened in the book publishing process.  Her finished book looked very different than her dummy, but just as beautiful.

Here is how Kat Yeh described her writing process, and what she suggests for you:

  • Write a “rough rough”, meaning no judgement- just keep writing
  • Put it away until you don’t really remember it
  • Take it out, and revise into a rough
  • Take your time- let it sit for a while.  She reminded us that you don’t get a “do over” on your first impression to an agent or publisher
  • Join a critique group for feedback. Kat says she has online friends that she shares work with.  Either way, get some feedback on your work.
  • When you think it is ready, go to conferences and meet some people. Possibly get and editor’s critique
  • Research agents and publishers to know what they publish and who you would fit best with

I think the most important advice that she gave was to not rush.  (Personally, I often hear editors complain that the work they get is just not up to the level they want.  My suspicion is that the author is so excited about what she just wrote, she sends it out too quickly.) Kat also said you need to keep up to date with the industry and know what editors and agents are looking for.  To do so she suggested following Publishers’ Marketplace & Literary Rambles, in addition to joining SCBWI and going to local conferences.  She did warn however that the conferences could be costly, so only go when you are ready to present your work. She also warned about knowing each individual publisher’s requirements, as many manuscripts have not even been read because people did not follow the directions given.

Overall Kat Yeh was inspiring- it was obvious to all that she loves writing and making books.

Rotem Moscovich, editor at Disney-Hyperion also presented.  She was a wealth of knowledge as she gave us a behind-the-scenes look at what happens after a picture book gets submitted to a publishing house.

As an editor at Disney-Hyperion, Rotem Moscovich and her colleagues read thousands of submissions.  She stated that even though Disney-Hyperion is a closed house (only writers who have agents may submit), they still get more manuscripts than they can read.  That being said, once she finds a manuscript that she likes, she takes it to an editorial meting.   She described the meeting as a type of “round table” every Tuesday morning, where editors bring manuscripts to share and discuss.  If it is agreed upon, the MS goes to acquisitions.  This is where the book is fleshed out in more detail.  For example, as an editor Rotem needs to describe the project, provide notes about it, and describe selling points (i.e. perfect for the classroom, connected author, character potential for series, etc.)  At this point the editor may have an illustrator in mind for the project.  It is also at this point that editors will look at all of the author’s social media sites (friendly reminder: stay up to date and professional!) Editors also look for comparative titles to see if this type of book is already being made. It is important, for the editor as well as the author, to know who the book is for… who is the audience?

The next step is an acquisitions meeting: “Can we sell it?”

The publisher, editor, marketing team, publicity team, and sales reps discuss if and how the project will work.  Rotem said that she brings illustration examples that may work for the project (this is the favorite part of her job!) She finds illustrators through reps, websites, artist submissions through post cards, artists she met at conferences, and artists she already worked with.

Now if everyone is on board, the literary agent gets a call and an offer is made.  From this point it may take two years or more to see the physical book on the shelves.  Rotem said she is currently working on the fall 2017 list.

Rotem was very forthcoming- she showed us how she makes a small mock up of the book- to better understand the cadence and page turns.  How a picture book flows from page to page is crucial (note to authors: do this for yourself before submitting).

At this point it goes between the illustrator, author and editor for revision, often numerous times. Here small changes can be made to tone, color, page turns, word placement, details in the illustrations, etc.  Editors have say, with the art director, on how the final book looks.  Interestingly enough, there is not much interaction, if any, between the author and illustrator.

She also brought in a book she is currently working on- beautiful large prints (not yet bound) which she called a ‘fold and gather”.  Rotem got really excited when she showed us the ‘cases’ (if you were there you would understand why- they were awesome!) Cases are basically what the cover and end pages look like. Some stories even started on the end pages.

At the end of the event both Kat and Rotem were gracious enough to answer questions.  It’s always inspiring when professionals open up and share their world with you.  Being able to participate in an event like this is just another reason to be part of SCBWI. Were you there? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.

Helpful links for authors and illustrators:

SCBWI The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators

SCBWI NY Metropolitan (regional)

Disney/Hyperion Books For Young Readers

Kat Yeh’s website

Rotem Moscovich’s website

Writing for Kids (While Raising Them) blog, Tara Lazar’s Picture Book Idea Month (PiBoIdMo) (interviews of art directors)

How to Make a Picture Book Dummy, step by step instructions

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