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The Purple Crayon Blog for June 2006

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Selling Foreign Rights: A Response

Aaron Shepard had an interesting response to my February blog entry on selling one's own foreign rights. With his permission, I quote it here, slightly edited:

This whole question of authors selling their own foreign rights is of some interest to me, Harold, because I've done just that from contacts through my w eb site. In fact, I've made thousands of dollars from it, and it's arguably the biggest income I've had from the site. So far, most of the sales have been to East Asia. Just recently, for instance, I had a request from Indonesia.

It has become clear to me that an author with the right books could mount an online campaign to sell his work to foreign publishers and make quite good earnings. I've even taken some steps in that direction, but haven't had the time or dedication to push it. I believe it might even be worthwhile for an author to commission illustrations and act as his own packager.

Selling foreign rights is a hassle because of extreme inefficiencies of overseas publishers, but if you have the time, it can definitely pay off. And if you have any way to do that, I'm afraid I don't agree with the idea of just getting a better percentage from your publisher. Publishers do almost nothing to sell foreign rights to midlist books. I've actually sold more foreign rights on my own than my publishers have ever done, and so far, I haven't even made an effort [Aaron is being very modest here--his web site, where he posts the complete texts of many of his books, is a major commitment].

As you say, info on prices is scarce, but PW did have a great article a while back about selling rights in East Asia, and some figures were mentioned. But basically, I just see what's offered. Generally, I've been getting around $1,000 advance for the text.

Here's a funny story: [a major publisher] sold the French rights to my book Master Maid, long after it was out of print. Unfortunately for them, they didn't realize they'd already reverted the rights! They wound up having to turn over all the money to me and the illustrator.

One of these days, maybe I'll write an article about all this.

And if Aaron does write that article, I will be sure to link to it here.

What Is an Editorial Assistant?

Thank you for your wonderful website.

When submitting, you advised using a contact person in the publishing house, if possible. I received a letter reviewing a previous manuscript from an editorial assistant. Should future manuscripts be submitted to this editorial assistant? I'm not sure what an editorial assistant's duties are.

An editorial assistant is someone in an entry-level position who does some secretarial and some editorial work for an editor. They are hoping to move up into a position in which they can acquire books, and one way they do that is by finding/cultivating talent in the slush.

Unless their comments seemed way off base, you should definitely submit future manuscripts to them.

Some of the first books I acquired and edited were with authors I had initially corresponded with when I was an assistant....


Getting Started as a Children's Book Illustrator--with a Fine Arts Background

I am a practicing fine arts studio painter. I hold a BFA in painting from Washington University in St. Louis. Recently I have decided to change career directions and enter children's book illustration. Because I do not have formal training in illustration specifically (although I have a strong sense for design, composition, color, and drawing due to my BFA and painting experience) and only know photoshop (not quarkexpress or illustrator) I thought it might be good to enroll in RISD's continuing education certificate program for children's book illustration (2-4 years to complete). Friends of mine, however, have been encouraging me to start illustrating on my own and say maybe I do not need more schooling. In your opinion, would the RISD program be valuable in getting started, or would I learn more entering an internship with a book publisher?

Without the illustration training would it be possible for me to actually get an internship position? What do you suggest? I have the ideas and images in my head, but not the knowledge of format and presentation to get it published. How shall I go about solving this dilemma and if schooling is the answer is RISD the right place? or might you suggest another school or course?

It's certainly possible to get started in children's book illustration without having studied it formally. At least you have a fine art background. But there are some significant differences between fine art work and illustration generally, and even more differences if you want to work in the children's book field.

Taking RISD's program, which I understand is very good, may well get you where you want to go faster than you would otherwise. Certainly it will do more for you than an internship--I'm actually a bit puzzled about that idea. What kind of internship would you do? As a designer, maybe? So far as I know, no publisher takes illustrators as interns. Being an illustrator is not an in-house job, after all.

If you feel you can't afford the time or the money for RISD, then rather than looking for an internship I suggest giving yourself an education in children's book illustration, through reading my book and Uri Shulevitz's book Writing with Pictures, and others that may interest you; through joining the SCBWI; through attending conferences, etc. And, of course, you can learn computer programs such as Quark Xpress (or Adobe's competitor, InDesign) and Illustrator by taking local classes.

If you try to jump straight into the field, you may just run up against a brick wall, so try at least to spend some time learning your newly chosen field, in one way or another.


Miscellaneous Quick Questions

1. How is an independent publisher different from... whatever the alternative is?

Good question. An independent publisher is usually contrasted with a publisher that is part of a larger corporation. Holiday House, for example, is an independent. Little, Brown, which is owned by Time Warner, is not.

A crucial difference is that an independent publisher is typically run by people dedicated to book publishing. A corporate publisher may not be.

There is a link to a list of independent publishers on my Publishing links page. This doesn't just list children's book publishers, but it is a useful starting point.

2. I sometimes see the term story book used. Does this simply refer to a long picture book (i.e., same format but with 1500 or 2000 words)? It's not a chapter book, is it?

A story book, also called a picture story book, is not exactly a longer picture book. In a story book, the story is usually more independent of the illustrations than it is in a picture book. Often, a page or a paragraph of text faces an illustration--folk tales are often set up as story books. It fits between a true picture and an early chapter book in terms of the relative amount of text and illustration.

3. In your guide to publishing children's books, you state that writers should stay away from personification. Why is this?

Because it's one of the stereotypical approaches that beginners take, and so editors assume (almost always correctly) that a story about Ralph the Rock or Chuck Chair is going to be bad.

Even if you have a wonderfully creative and different story involving personification, you risk it being rejected so quickly that the person reading the manuscript hasn't noticed your creativity.

4. What do you think of a story about a child who draws faces on inanimate objects to make them come alive?

That's a little different from typical personification, isn't it? Do they "really" come alive, or do they come alive only in his mind? As is often the case, the proof is in the pudding. You have an interesting idea. It could be developed into an interesting story, or into a cliched and boring story.

5. You talk a bit about quotes on the back of books being used to sell those books to parents. Can this also work when selling your book to a publisher? Would quotes from film directors or children's authors on a cover letter help your book get out of the slush pile?

Not necessarily. If you know a published author who is willing to send your manuscript to their editor, that's worth doing! If you have a quote in your cover letter, even if it's from Maurice Sendak, well, the reader might not believe it, or they might not even notice it. It certainly can't hurt, though.

Note: many publishing terms can be found in the Glossary from my Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Books.

This installment is based on emails I sent in January and February in response to questions received at The Purple Crayon.

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Copyright 2006 by Harold Underdown. All rights reserved.

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