Interview with Harold Underdown from 2002 edition of
Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market

by Alice Pope

This interview appears in the 2002 edition of this respected and useful market guide. In it, I mostly discuss ebooks and my book, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Books. If you want to know more about where I am coming from as an editor, read the other interviews with me listed on the Interviews page. My thanks to Alice for letting me reproduce it here.


2002 CWIM Insider Report--Harold Underdown

Editor, author, webmaster enters the exciting world of e-publishing

In 1994, when the Internet was in its infancy, Harold Underdown created the beginnings of what would become his well-known website about children's publishing, The Purple Crayon. "It literally grew from a one-page list of links and a couple of articles to what it is now, by a kind of organic process. I had new ideas for it; people sent me materials. I've followed my nose with it."

In 2000, Underdown once again got in on the ground floor of an electronic innovation. He left his editorial position at Charlesbridge to become Vice President, Editorial, of, a new kind of children's book publisher [as of 2003, no longer in business, unfortunately].

Launching in February 2001, ipicturebooks, an affiliate of Time Warner Trade Publishing, is "a user-friendly place to find and buy e-book versions of children's books from some of the best children's book publishers in the world." The site offers high-quality e-books, both original material and online "reprints" of out-of-print books, as well as e-book versions of titles from a variety of publishers, and even a few "enhanced" books, offering animation or sound.

Here Underdown talks about, his website The Purple Crayon, and his new book The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Books. For more of his thoughts on e-publishing, read the article (coming soon). For more information on ipicturebooks, visit this page.

Why did you decide to take the job at ipicturebooks and leave Charlesbridge? What made you confident enough in the company and the product?

I had some very personal reasons for doing this. When I was working at Charlesbridge I was commuting. I was in Boston every other week. My family needs me in New York fulltime.

As for my confidence, there was one major factor that really helped. Even before it was publicly announced, I knew ipicturebooks was going to be funded by Time Warner. If I'd been looking at a situation where there wasn't funding or there was funding from venture capitalists that had to be used in six months and we had to be profitable in a year, I wouldn't have gone near this with a ten-foot pole.

I basically decided that this was something worth trying out and that meshed with my personal needs to get me back to New York.

Do you have any original books available yet?

We have three original books that are spin-offs from the Shrek movie. We've got others in development, several of which will be in print next year with Little, Brown in addition to being e-books. The e-book editions of those will probably appear on our website well before the print books come out. In most cases, when we're doing originals, we're doing both a print and an e-book. Our first list with Little, Brown appears in Spring 2002 with two books, growing to four a season.

What advice can you offer on submitting to your company?

It's important to note that we don't accept submissions by mail. On the submissions page of our website, we don't even post our address. Writers should visit our website and look at our submission guidelines online. I don't think we're ever going to start sending them out by mail either. We want an e-mail query. The website gives advice as to what you might want to include. It's the same kind of thing you would do in any query letter--avoid spelling mistakes, avoid being vague. If we say yes to the query, writers receive an e-mail requesting the manuscript through the mail.

What kind of reactions have you gotten from visitors to your site? Have there been any technical difficulties? Are people having any problem grasping the concept of what an e-picture book is?

Once somebody downloads the free samples we have on the site, it's pretty obvious what an e-book is. You don't have to buy a special hand-held device to look at our books. Getting that across to people has been a tough hill to climb. Once people realize all they need is to have Acrobat Reader or Microsoft Reader on their computer, we've gotten two-thirds of the way there.

Having said that, there is a second difficulty. The systems of digital rights management that both Adobe and Microsoft have created (and they're slightly different systems) are a little complicated. Getting them set up on your computer takes some work, and some people have had trouble with that. That's something we--and the ebook industry in general--have to deal with. I think a year or two from now when we've got some improved software, the whole system will work a lot more smoothly. At this point we're working with very early versions of the software and the people who are using it are the early adopters.

So you think just two years down the line things will change dramatically?

Two years down the line things will be very different. Right now, I think we'll be spending most of the next year just getting the point across to people in general and to people in publishing and libraries and schools in particular, that e-books are available now, that they're easy to use now, and that they're inexpensive now.

The International Reading Association convention was the first show where we exhibited to the public. We set up our booth at IRA to be a place for teachers to come and learn about e-books. We did a couple hundred demonstrations--whoever we could get into the booth. Some people seemed intimidated by the whole idea of e-books and would not even look at what we were doing. There were also a lot of people who were very open to the idea of learning something new. Fortunately, demonstrating an e-book takes about one minute, so we were very easily able to show them how it works. A lot of them said, "Oh! I bet the kids in my class would love these!"

Are adults more the obstacle than kids? Kids are so computer savvy now.

Kids would be like, "Oh, this is just something else on the computer." It's adults who come to it with a lot of preconceptions and anxieties about what it might mean or how difficult it might be to deal with. Actually, once you've got the software set up, you "open a book" by double clicking on it, then you can just read through it by using the arrow keys on your keyboard. It's easy.

Do you think once you get more established and do original books and kind of set a standard, print publishers will follow suit and do similar online picture books?

Already larger publishers seem to be exploring e-books primarily as a marketing tool, both for picture books and books for older readers. Scholastic did a free download of a new Kristina Applegate book, for example. Publishers like Simon & Schuster and Random House are experimenting with e-books for older kids, because they think that's where the market is to start with. I'm not sure that's true. The neat thing about picture books is they're short and they're visual. I would much rather look at a picture book on screen than read a 100-page novel on screen, even with some of the new clear-type technology.

I think some of the other companies are watching us. But even if publishers like them decide to do their own picture books as e-books, those will simply be another offering from that particular company. We'll still be the place where there will be an aggregation of material from different sources. We'll still be the place where you've got everything.

Let's talk about your new book, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Books. How did the project come about?

Actually, the publisher came to me. They published a book in their series called The Complete Idiot's Guide to Getting Published and it was quite successful for them. Then they thought, "What other areas of the market can we divide this up into?" One they settled on was children's books.

They came to me because they did some searching online and found The Purple Crayon. It seemed like a really interesting idea to me. I do spend a lot of time giving people basic information, so a lot of the stuff was already in my head. And yet, I knew there were areas that I didn't have information about on my website or I had not talked about at conferences. It was an intriguing challenge to think about how to write a complete guide to this world that I've been living in for ten years.

The book covers a lot of areas, and it's a lot different from Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market and books that are more about the craft of writing.

That's exactly it. When I was thinking about it initially, it seemed to me there was no point in doing something that was already out there. And there were two kinds of books out there--there were market guides like yours, and there were tons of craft books about how to write. I wanted to focus on everything else--on the personnel at a publishing company, on the basics of how to format a manuscript, on query letters, on marketing, on different kinds of publishers and how you figure out what they do, on how to analyze a catalog.

Why did you decide to create your personal website, The Purple Crayon?

It's a combination of things that made it possible. I was downsized at Orchard at the end of 1994, and that was just at the point when the Web was starting to exist. It had only been active about six months. And there was very little on the Web--nothing like all the commercial stuff you find now. In that first year or so, it was very much a place of universities and individuals and a few fledgling companies setting things up. I had some time on my hands. I also had some material that I had written for SCBWI newsletters and other things, and they were just sitting in a drawer.

I started setting up a website, just to play around with it. In its first stages, it was nothing more than my booksmarks turned into an HTML page. Then I realized I could convert some of the materials I'd written and put them online.

Do you plan on keeping it going for some time?

I plan on keeping it going indefinitely. The difficulty is that the more material that's on it, the more time I have to spend keeping that material up-to-date. There are sections on my website I have not updated in a year or two that need to be updated. There are other sections that are fairly timeless. "Getting out of the Slush Pile" I originally wrote almost ten years ago as a presentation at a small SCBWI conference. The basic information in that really hasn't changed. The beginner mistakes that I warn about are still beginner mistakes. Everybody makes them when they first get started and probably will forever.

The edition of CWIM in which this interview appeared is no longer current. Read my Recommended Books list for the latest CWIM and other useful resources.

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