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A Parent's Unpublished Poetry, Confusing Positive Rejections, Magazine Illustration

The Purple Crayon Blog for December 2004

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An Illustrator's Questions about Publishing Her Father's Unpublished Poetry

Hello! I have found your site most interesting and most helpful! 

My Dad passed away several years ago and left behind over 700 poems, ranging from children's to haikus to Elizabethan sonnets, and more. He said to me, often, that he would love to see my art paired with his poetry someday. How do I go about this large project? I would like to start with a children's volume, complete, of course, with colorful illustrations. Do I finish the work, do a few illustrations, or not before I try to contact a publisher? I understand that if it's my own writing and illustration, that publishers like to see the finished product when viewing it for the first time. What should I do in this instance? I do not want to publish this w/o my own artwork. Any suggestions?

Thank you!

I think you have a pretty sizable project ahead of you. I have to start by saying that although you seem to be assuming that the best route to go to get your father's work published is a traditional publishing one, you might want to think about self-publishing, for a couple of reasons. One is that if you just want to get his work into print for a limited audience of family and friends, it's likely to be the quickest route. The other is that it may be much the easiest. You didn't say that your father was published during his lifetime, or that you are a published illustrator, so I'm guessing that you are both unpublished. That being the case, you have no contacts to call on, and (I'm sorry, but I think this needs to be said) it's also possible that your father's poems, or your illustrations, might not be seen as strong enough to publish. So you could spend years trying to get a book published, and get nowhere. See my article Self-Publish or Not? for more on this.

If you do self-publish, of course, you have to pay the costs, but given the options available today in print-on-demand publishing, this will be much less expensive than what you might have had to do in the past, which would have been to go to a vanity press and pay thousands of dollars to end up with more books than you would want. And if you self-publish, you decide exactly what form the book or books will take. You can make sure that your own artwork is used. Self-publishing can be a considerable amount of work, since you do many of the things that a publisher usually does, but you do end up with what you want. I'm not an expert on self-publishing, so if you are interested in this, you'll need to do research elsewhere to make sure you find the right company. For more information and guidance, please see my Self-Publishing section.

If you prefer the traditional publishing route, be aware to start with that poetry generally and children's poetry more specifically, are difficult areas. Many publishers don't publish poetry for children at all. Those that do don't publish much, tend to concentrate on themed collections, rather than on general collections, and may look askance at a collection from an author who won't be able to promote it in the schools or do a follow-up if the first one succeeds. Research possible publishers carefully, starting with a guide like Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market. Books like my Idiot's Guide, by the way, will give you a lot of general backgrouund on children's publishing and how to navigate the submissions process, so you might want to get that too.

As to what you should prepare, I'd say that since you are determined to publish your father's poems with your art, you need to lead with a strong presentation. Make a careful selection of the poems, taking into account the reality that a publisher probably won't go over 96 pages for a color-illustrated collection of poems, due to cost (64 pages is more likely). Complete some illustrations, and make color copies of them to send. Do sketches for the others. Put these together into a book form. Send that to publishers if they accept a full manuscript, but if you have to query first, follow their guidelines. For more detailed submissions guidance, again, see my Idiot's Guide.

Be persistent, learn as much as you can about the different areas of publishing as you go along, and be open to letting your goals change as you learn.

Good luck!

Three Links

2005 PEN/Phyllis Naylor Working Writer Fellowship $5000 for the author of at least 2 but not more than 5 books. Deadline extended to January 17.

Vidlit Flash animations that promote books. A cool idea--thanks, April, for the suggestion.

Google Library Initiative As you may have heard, Google has announced a plan to digitize and then index millions of mostly 19th-century books, working in partnership with some academic libraries.

Confusingly Positive Rejection Letters and Other Challenges Faced by Published Authors

Q: Why do editors reject manuscripts when they write that the writing is powerful, story is compelling, voice is good, etc.? I've been getting rejections on novels for about five years since I've been submitting novels where the editors may keep my ms. for at least a year, send me full critiques, brag endlessly about my work, then use the BUT word, without any concrete reason for rejection. Any insights? 

Without knowing the details, it's hard to give a definitive answer, so the following is speculative, but remember the old saying: actions speak lourder than words. They praised the manuscript to the sky, but still rejected it. That tells me that for some reason, in spite of what they said, they couldn't or wouldn't sign it up. They have limited room for novels on their list, and the next three years are full--though of course, if it was sufficiently wonderful, they would make room for it, especially considering the current interest in books for older readers. They liked the ms., but didn't absolutely love it. They loved it, but their boss didn't. You could probably come up with other possible reasons, too. But I think the crucial point is that they didn't offer a contract.

So why didn't they tell you what the real issue is? Well, you're published, albeit in a different genre, and they don't want to hurt your feelings, and maybe the problem (if there is one) is hard to put a finger on. Or they don't want to reveal company deliberations, if that was why the ms. was turned down.  And let's face it, it's human nature fo avoid unpleasantness. It's easier to praise than to criticize, and it takes less time. Editors are extremely pressed for time -- and they are probably also embarassed to have sat on the ms. for so long, if they did. In a way, praising it to the skies justifies their sitting on it, too. If they had identified clear problems with it, they should have rejected it faster, so that may be a subconscious influence on what they write.

That doesn't help you, of course. You'd like to know what the problem was. You may just have to keep trying until you find out. 

Q: In line with the question above, what do you suggest advanced writers do to take that one step up to publication? What if the advanced writer is already well-published in other genres, well educated in writing, and a teacher of writers, where can s/he go to get advice and help to bring his or her manuscripts up to the exceptional quality needed in a story?    

Accepting the risk of this being seen as a self-serving answer, since it's something I do, the only suggestion I can make is to go to a book doctor--ideally someone with experience in the particular area of children's pubishing where you've been submitting your manuscripts. Ask for a critique and make it clear that you want brutal honesty!

I assume you've also already run the ms. in question through a critique group.    

Q: Does attending conferences and meeting editors face-to-face really make a difference? I have only sold fiction through slush piles to editors I've never met. And I'm wondering if I'm actually closing doors by submitting my mss. with mass submissions invited through conferences. I wonder if many of those editors accepted the conference invitation for a paid vacation, then had to deal with the mountain of submissions generated from going. I do know, from my end as a writer, I receive quicker form letter rejections from conference submissions than from cold-call slush subs, where I may actually be asked to send something else. 

I think meeting editors face-to-face does make a difference. I've published authors I met at conferences. And being an organizer for a conference might make even more of a difference. Personally, I'm more likely to feel comfortable with publishing someone I know, and who I know as an organized and professional person. I get a much better sense of a conference organizer than I do of someone I chatted with at lunch for five minutes. The manuscript has to be good too, of course!

I don't think most editors see a conference as a paid vacation, unless they are fortunate enough to be going to one in a really pleasant destination, and have available vacation time to use before or after. Conferences are hard work. And I think editors know what to expect when they invite submissions, and they do read them. Also, unless they've been speaking at a very large conference, it's unlikely to be a quantity that they can't deal with, even if it takes a few weeks or months to get through. 

Q: The past several years numerous author friends and I have only received book contracts from editors who have called us, proposing the book ideas. Yet, we haven't been able to sell our own books that we thought up and wrote (unsolicited). Is this the latest trend? Do book publishers have such an agenda today that they are not as open to original ideas and books generated from the authors themselves?        

If this is a trend, it's one I've missed! You don't say what publishers these were, and I'm wondering if they are either mass-market publishers, or trade publishers who are trying to move into the high end of the mass market by doing "mass with class"--a term that generally is used to designate books with the potential for selling in mass market quantities, but that are of higher quality than traditional mass market. This is an area that I believe all the large children's publishers are working in, partly out of necessity as the library and school markets continue to shrink.

As an editor, I do pass on book ideas to an author who I think could best develop them, but it's hard for me to imagine being in a situation where most of the books I signed up were in some way originated in-house. 

This question was addressed in an email I received a few days later.

Rates for Magazine Illustration and Working Freelance versus Staff

An artist colleague has received a commission to create a group of characters for a local magazine; she will be the only one creating the images...

Therefore, we are wondering what is the 'going rate' for freelance illustration (hand drawn images) for children's magazines. She can either work freelance or work for the magazine on a full time basis. In your professional opinion, what would you recommend?

Thank you for your time.

The best way to determine the going rate is to use the pricing guidelines in the GAG Pricing and Ethical Guidelines. You'll find it listed in this page covering Books About Illustrating, part of the Resources section of my Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Books.

There are a number of advantages and disadvantages to working freelance vs. working as a staff person. A big one: If she wants to maintain copyright control of the images, she should work freelance.

This installment is based on emails I sent out in December in response to questions received at The Purple Crayon.

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Copyright 2004 by Harold Underdown. All rights reserved.

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