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Living Folktales, Finding Agents, Author Approaches Illustrator, Researching Publishers:
The Purple Crayon Blog July 2006

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Collecting and Retelling Living Folktales

Greetings from West Africa. I am at a loss to know how to start this process as most want manuscripts by mail. It is next to impossible from here so am asking if you can give me some advice. You are free to forward this on if you think there might be interest. Thank you.

Please find enclosed the beginning of a West African Folktale as it was told to me while here in Nigeria for the past year. Folktales are rich cultural heritages and should be written and told in many countries. Because we are in Nigeria at this time, I have decided to just email you a partial story to peak your interest. This may not the best way to query this story and it may not be what your guidelines dictate but communication is difficult. I have a concern that these oral traditions are fading and people here are just trying to survive day to day and do not take the time to write down these important stories. There are over 500 recorded tribes in Nigeria alone and many seem to have their own cultural folktales.

I am requesting your writer's guidelines and a little information on what type of books you publish. Do you publish multicultural children's books? Picture books might possibly suit these types of stories the best with a broad reader audience even including adults. As friends have told me these various stories, I have even sat spellbound. They are stories that have survived many generations and usually have a twist in the action making the ending a surprise as well as having an important lesson to learn. It could be possible that many African Americans in North America have also heard some of these told to them from past generations and could trace their ancestry possibly from these cultural stories.

At this time the best way to contact me is to reply to this email as the post is very slow. The closest e-mail service/internet is twenty minutes away and I try to collect email twice a week if possible. My husband and I are only here for another couple of months before returning to Canada and if this is something that interests you, then I will pursue it more diligently in the short time left here. None of the ones collected so far have been published to my knowledge. Also any advice on how best to approach this in regards to who would be the author (i.e. the person telling the story or the person writing it) would be helpful. Would the person putting it on paper be a compiler or editor or would they put their name on it as told to them as this is not really their creative work but a retelling of these stories? In Canada or the USA, is there a certain grade in school that studies a unit on Africa as these would also be very appropriate in learning a different culture?

Thank you for taking the time to read this email and also hopefully the folktale attached. Enjoy!

Thanks for your message. I am not a publisher. I am an editor, and The Purple Crayon is simply my personal site.

This article on might be helpful: Writing Multicultural Children's Books.

And this is the web site of an author who has published a number of folktales. He has some useful resources.

Re your curriculum question. Different states each have their own social studies curricula, which you could research by doing a Google search for (for example) "California department of education." However, you might find something close to national standards at the NCSS website.

Finally, re authorship, it really depends on your approach. If you tape record a tale, and transcribe it with no significant changes, then you are simply a compiler. However, for children's books most folktales must usually be retold, multiple versions consulted, etc., to turn the story into something both original and suited to book publication. So the reteller becomes the author. When you get back to North America I suggest you take some time to research the field and see what is out there and how it is done, if you want to pursue this. Look at what you are doing now as preliminary research. There is much still to do once you get home.

Finding an Agent

Hello Mr. Underdown, first I would like to say how much I enjoy your website, it is very thorough and informative. My question is about children's book agents and their reputability. I am a hobbyist children's writer and illustrator and have been on the internet looking for an agency that might be interested in accepting new authors.

I came across The Children's Literary Agency, Inc. They seem to be exactly what I'm looking for, my question is; are you familiar with this agency and if not can you make any recommendations for a newcomer looking for an agent?

That is NOT a legitimate agency. Google "Preditors and Editors" to find a very useful site that will help you research agents.

Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market lists agents and is a good source, as they do not include shady ones.

For more information, read my article on agents, and the recently posted Researching and Finding an Agent.


Author Approaching an Illustrator

I'm a student studying visual arts, and because of my reputation as an artist, have been approached to illustrate a children's book.

I'm quite sure this is also the first time she has written a children's book, but it sounds as if a publishing house has already agreed to publish her. She's asked me how much I expect to be paid. Never having professionally done this sort of thing, I really don't have a clue. Would you be able to tell me what a good proposal would be?

It's unusual for an author to approach an illustrator in this way, and this makes me suspect that this author is self-publishing or is involved with one of a number of companies that work in the gray area between self-publishing and traditional publishing.

I think you need to find out more--kind of book, number of pages, number of illustrations, color or black and white, kind of publisher. It's difficult to advise you without knowing more, but here are a couple of general points.

Assuming that it is an established company, you are going to want to be paid royalties and an advance. If it's a picture book, you should receive half the total royalties paid for the book--that is, as much as the author. For trade publication, your share would be 5% of the list price of the book. Other kinds of publishers pay on the basis of net or by flat fee, which may or may not be a good idea for you.

Also, if it's a picture book, you will need a crash course in picture book illustration. I recommend Uri Shulevitz's Writing with Pictures.

Once you find out more--which you really need to do before you make any commitment--I could give you some more specific guidance.


Two Questions about Researching Publishers

In reading your articles, you mention—for first time writers (children's books)—that one should research the "smaller publishers". How do you identify "smaller" and where does one find them? I've been on the Internet, and I am unable to ferret out which is which; and what themes a particular "smaller" house is open to reading.

That's a good question. By "smaller" I mostly mean any publisher other than the Big 6: Random House, Simon and Schuster, HarperCollins, Scholastic, Time Warner, and Penguin Putnam. These companies all have several "imprints," each with a slightly different focus, but all of them will generally be closed to unpublished beginners. Sometimes mid-sized publishers like Candlewick act a bit like the big companies.

How do you research the smaller companies? Start with any standard market guide such as Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market, and cross out the imprints that are part of a big company. What's left will mostly be the smaller publishers.

It can also be useful to use a list of independent publishers like the one I link to from the Publishing links page, and pull out the names of the ones that have children's divisions.

To find out "themes," a guide like CWIM does have an index by subject, but probably the best way is to get to know their catalogs, or browse their books when they exhibit at a local convention, or just keep up with the reviews in School Library Journal or Booklist.

It can take some time, but eventually you will start to develop an intuitive sense of what works for which publisher.

Is there a list somewhere of which publishers are not returning manuscripts, unless they are interested? There's little sense in mailing an SASE if it will not be returned. I've not been able to find this information on their websites.  I'm aware of the following:

Houghton Mifflin
Any more? 

I'm most interested in what [an imprint at a large publisher] is doing, as [an editor] has had a ms. of mine since October---I saw her at a local conference. Can I call the publisher directly about their return policy? The reason I pose this question is that I submit to Ann Rider directly in MN, and she always answers----even though the policy for Houghton Mifflin is different.

Publishers are changing policies so fast that I can barely keep up! If there is a list, I'd greatly appreciate knowing where it's located.

If the information isn't in Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market, or the publisher list put out by SCBWI, or in the member's list on the Children's Book Council site, then I don't know what to tell you.

You could try calling the publisher, but you might have a hard time reaching someone who could answer your question.

I have to tell you that I am surprised that a publisher's policy on returning or not returning manuscripts would not be stated on their web site. It should certainly be mentioned in their guidelines, and their guidelines should be posted on their web site. You might try sending for their guidelines...

Sorry not to be of more help.

This installment is based on emails I sent in February and march 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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