Tag Archives: children’s literature

A Hand to Hold


Credit: Carlson | morguefile.com

Credit: Carlson | morguefile.com

Two weeks ago I talked about why I decided so late in my career to begin working with a literary agent.  I went to an agent seeking someone who had knowledge about and access to a wider range of editors than I had yet been exposed to.  And once we were underway I discovered, too, how beneficial it was to have the oversight of someone who cared, not just about this individual book, but about my career.  Someone insightful enough to be a sounding board for decisions about where to direct my energy for my next project.  Honest enough to say, “Let’s not show this one around.”  Knowledgeable enough to be able to sort the occasional blips that come up with contracts, old and new.

I resisted working with an agent for most of my career, but the world of publishing has changed in forty years.  “To agent or not to agent” isn’t much of a point of discussion any longer, because today’s publishers rarely read unagented manuscripts.

So the question becomes more one of figuring out which agent is right for you.

Here are my, admittedly idiosyncratic, criteria:

Above all else, will this agent communicate with youWhen you ask a reasonable question will you get an answer in a reasonable time?  I can’t count the number of friends I’ve encouraged to separate from their agents because those agents went silent for long periods, even when important matters were at stake.  How do you know about responsiveness before you commit yourself?  Simple.  Ask someone who works with the agent you are considering.  If possible, ask someone who isn’t a big cheese, someone on a level similar to yours.

Is this agent functioning more as an early editor than as a purveyor of your work?  I don’t mean she should be without judgment.  Judgment is part of what you pay for.  But if she is climbing in with all four feet and really editing, then either you are sending work too early or she is in the wrong vocation.  A deep rewrite to please your agent may not please your editor.

Do editors know and respect this agent?  Does he know—truly know—the editors?  Is he courteous and respectful in all his negotiations?  Does he ask for more than is reasonable?  (Don’t fall into the trap of assuming more is always better.  I have seen promising authors’ careers sidetracked by starting off with a too-big advance that didn’t earn out.)

Does she belong to the Association of Authors’ Representatives, Inc.?  To belong to the AAR an agent must meet certain criteria, proof of a minimal level of experience in the industry, for instance.  Members of the AAR also cannot charge reading fees, which is crucial.  A literary agent charging reading fees is earning a living from reading fees, not from selling your books.

Remember, anyone, anywhere can decide to call himself a literary agent.  Before going with any agent, check credentials and find out who his clients are and talk to some of them.  Ask those clients what their agent really does for them.  Then listen carefully. Writers’ conferences are excellent places to find out about other writers’ agents. When I was ready to begin my search, that’s where I went to gather information.

All these standards are important, but there is something I haven’t mentioned that is equally important to a career that thrives on self-confidence or falters on the lack of it.

When I was researching the question of an agent for myself, I spoke to another established writer about his agent of many years.  “What does she do for you?” I asked.  He gave me an enthusiastic list of what I considered to be hand-holding activities.  And I was not convinced.  I went away saying to myself, “I have friends who will do all that for me.  And I don’t have to share my royalties with them.”

In my relatively short years of working with my agent, however, I have learned to value the status he has among editors and publishers, his responsiveness, his business acumen, his literary sensibility. All things I knew I was looking for when I sought him out.

But what I didn’t know I was looking for and what I have also found is someone who accompanies me on this sometimes tangled journey through publishing.  When my confidence falters, and it does from time to time despite forty years, despite one hundred books, my friends might want to help, but the truth is they don’t know how.

Having my agent’s very special hand to hold keeps me moving forward.

A Numbers Thing

Credit: almogaver | morguefile.com

Credit: almogaver | morguefile.com

My publishing career began in 1976, forty years ago, and the very roundness of that number—and the fact that I was to be speaking at LoonSong, a retreat for writers in the glorious wilderness of northern Minnesota—has prompted me to take a look back.  So drawing from information gathered for that lecture, I’d like to pause to examine some numbers, not my usual territory.LoonSong facility

In 1976, my first novel, Shelter from the Wind, was published along with 2,209 other books meant for children and young adults.  (Or what was being called young adult in that time, then meaning books for eleven to thirteen-year-olds.)

In 2015, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the total number of children’s and YA books published was 15,032.  That breaks down, now that young adult is truly young adult and more legitimately its own publishing category, to 12,988 children’s books and 4,338 YA.

(I have K.T. Horning of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center in Madison, Wisconsin, to thank for locating those statistics for me.  The 1976 numbers come from Bowker Annual of the Library and Book Trade, 23rd edition, and the second from Library and Book Trade Almanac, 61st edition, same publication, new name. )

Even if we eliminate all of today’s YA books as a category that didn’t quite exist in 1976, those numbers represent nearly a six-fold increase over the numbers published forty years ago.  And that doesn’t count all the self-published books indistinguishable from traditionally published books on sites such as Amazon.com.  Nor, of course, does it consider the thousands and thousands of books available in publishers’ backlists.

All seeking buyers.

What do these facts mean for children’s and young-adult writers?

First, the bright side.  Despite the dark clouds that have been hanging over publishing in recent years, that means nearly six times as many books are being published today than were being published forty years ago.  Six times as many occasions when an editor said, “Yes.”  That’s good news!

And the downside?  Once published, how much more difficult it is today to get our books—even our very best books—noticed.  The manuscript we labored over with such love has to compete with those 15,031 others for shelf space in book stores, in libraries, in schools, for attention on the Internet.

And again, add in the self-published books, lots of self-published books, not just the occasional vanity press offerings we used to see, and then add in that deep back list, too.  That’s our competition for the book-buyer’s dollar.  No wonder books—excellent books—are published every day and then disappear with barely a whimper.

Has the juvenile population increased in these same years?  Do we need six times as many books?  Yes, it has.  In 1975, according to Pew Research (Sharon McDonald searched out these numbers for me), the U.S. population fifteen and under totaled just over 55 million.  In 2015 it was just over 63 million.  An increase to be certain, but nowhere near six-fold.

And all those extra books are competing for the attention of kids with electronic devices in their hands.

What do we do then to keep our own books from being published and then disappearing?  Well, we have the Internet.  That gives us opportunities, unimaginable forty years ago, to broadcast our own good news.  The problem, of course, is that everyone else has the Internet, too, and rising to the top of that load of information becomes more difficult every day.  But at least the Internet is a resource we can learn and use without a great deal of cost.  That is a blessing, though a blessing that can feel like a curse for those of us who would rather spend our time writing than learning new technology.  A blessing nonetheless.

Another blessing.  In the last forty years I have seen children’s books rise significantly in stature.  It’s something I can feel rather than quantify.  But there is a quantifiable reason why we are no longer the step-children of the industry.  Children’s books, the whole big gathering of children’s books and a few record-busting best sellers, are holding up the bottom line for many publishers.  Even the big guys.  Which, of course, is another number thing, making our books—and us—serious business.  And serious business gets respect.

So . . . too many books and too few buyers?  Yes.  But increased opportunities to get our books out there.  And an industry less inclined to relegate us to the “cute” corner.

I’m okay with those numbers.

Forty Years in Children’s Publishing

Credit: jdurham | morguefile.com

Credit: jdurham | morguefile.com

Forty years!  That’s how long it’s been since the publication of my first children’s book, a novel titled Shelter from the Wind.  The very roundness of the number prompts to take a look back.  What has happened to our industry since 1976?shelter from the wind

Lots, of course.  Far more than I have been privy to from my solitary writer’s desk.  But there is one thing in particular I can name:

When I began my career, selling a book was very much like stepping into marriage with someone you had never met.  There had been a phone call maybe.  An editorial letter certainly.  But you were committed for life without having a clue about how much the two of you might like one another!

It might even be more realistic to say that when your book was purchased, you were purchased along with it.  Your newly discovered editor owned you.

Now, there were good things about being owned.  That meant an editor didn’t just buy your book.  He invested in your career.  And if your next manuscript turned out to be a royal mess, he would probably work with you until you got it into shape.

Sometimes editors would even buy first novels that weren’t quite there.  Because they saw a spark, and they wanted the books they presumed would follow.  That could work for author and publisher alike.

On the bad side, however, as your career trundled on, if your editor really didn’t like something you showed him and didn’t want to work with it, you weren’t quite free to take it to another house.  I say not “quite free” because usually there was nothing in writing to circumscribe your freedom.  But if you did run off to another publishing house, and if that house was so indiscrete as to publish you, there was a name for you.  Whore.  (Remember, ethics are always defined by those in power.)

For more than fifteen years, every book I wrote passed through the hands of the same editor.  I was pretty content with this arrangement.  He and I worked well together, and he did truly develop my work as a novelist.  However, as much as I loved writing those novels, I wanted to explore other kinds of work.  So from time to time I submitted a picture-book manuscript to this, my only, editor.  His answer every time was the same.  “Marion, you are not a picture-book writer.”

Now, I don’t want to suggest that he was being mean or small minded.  Looking back, I can see that he could, very legitimately, have said, “Marion, this is not a picture book.”  Because it wasn’t.  I hadn’t yet figured out how to write a picture book.  The difference is that he was interested in developing me as a novelist, but he had no interest in supporting my learning curve with any other genre.

Which would have been fine if the unwritten, mostly unspoken rules hadn’t made the idea that I might approach another editor a betrayal of the first.

I didn’t begin to publish picture books and thus to have an opportunity to learn what the market wanted—and what it did not—until those rigid walls finally fell.  And when they did, they tumbled rather spectacularly.  Changes occurred in the industry.  Editors began playing musical chairs and taking their authors with them when they landed at another house.  And soon no one could enforce those old rules, not even with a glancing allusion to loyalty.

And so I discovered, to my delight, that I am a picture-book writer . . . only not for that first editor.

At the forty-year mark in my career, I have published with nearly a dozen different publishers, and that doesn’t count different imprints under the same publisher.

And the reality?  No one editor is committed to developing my career.  Each one cares primarily—probably exclusively—about the particular book that stands between us right now.  And that has to be enough.  We writers are free agents in charge of our own choices, and editors are free as well.  This new way of working is an improvement in some ways.  Those picture books again!  But it also comes with real losses.

When I find myself with questions that involve my career as a whole, I have no place to turn . . . unless I am working with a wise and truly committed agent, one who is interested in my dreams, not just my current book.

That’s why, after managing my own contracts, my own access to editors, my own career for a long, long time, I have, in recent years turned to an agent.

Which is what I’m going to talk about next.  Why agents?

Credit: Stokes

Credit: Stokes | Elbow Lake

[This blog was drawn from a talk I gave in September at LoonSong, a writers’ retreat in the wilderness of northern Minnesota.]

May the Wind

May the wind always be at your back.

(An Irish blessing)

Credit: Marinapriest | Morguefile.com

Credit: Marinapriest | Morguefile.com

I understand the blessing and the intent behind it.  “May you always have help along the way” is what it says.

And who could argue with that?  We all need help from time to time.  But when it comes to the real thing—wind, I mean—I prefer to feel it against my face, not to be pushed from behind.

I am a kayaker.  Now, don’t get too impressed.  I’m not a run-the-rapids kayaker.  I’m not even an explore-this-stream-to-see-where-it-goes kayaker.  I am someone who loves to settle into my twenty-year-old kayak and float sedately around the perimeter of small lakes, blessed by great blue herons, red-winged blackbirds singing in the reeds, leaping fish, blooming water lilies, the sun riding down the blue bowl of the sky.

My old kayak lives at a friend’s house about thirty minutes from my city home, and all through the warm weather I go there about once a week.  I settle onto the water—that’s what it feels like in a kayak, like sitting right down on top of the water—pick up my paddle and glide into bliss.

Occasionally I take a friend to use the second kayak I store at the same place, and I love sharing my love.  But the best times, I find, are when I set out on the water alone with nothing and no one to think about but the water and the clouds and the steady rhythm of my paddle, dipping, dipping.

Some days the lake is glass-still, especially when I go out around sunset, the time when

sunset kayak

Credit: Judy@Integrityrealestate.com | Morguefile.com

day-breezes usually subside.  And glassy water and utter stillness have their own charm.  But the times I love best are those when there is a brisk breeze, just below the level to create white caps.  (White caps signal more effort than pleasure.)  And when there is such a breeze, I don’t want it at my back, for all the push it gives me.  I like feeling it in my face.

Curiously, when the wind comes from behind me, it may be helping, but the blank it leaves in front of me makes the paddling feel like great effort for small progress.  My arms grow heavy.  When the wind caresses my face, I seem to be paddling that fine wind into existence.  I fly across the surface of the lake.

It’s an illusion, I know.  I am, no doubt, moving faster when the wind is behind, giving me a push.  But especially because I don’t have to arrive anyplace when I’m out there, because all I have to do is to be there in the deepest possible way, I prefer the illusion of progress to progress itself.

There are, I assume, life lessons to be found in this dichotomy, but I have no particular desire to tease them out.

I think instead I’ll go kayaking and hope for a good wind in my face.

Life’s most painful event also its greatest?

sadness, tear

Credit: Ariadna | Morguefile.com

What you say of your life—that its most painful event was also its greatest—that is, so to speak, the secret theme of these pages, indeed the inner belief that gave rise to them.  It is the conviction that what is greatest in our existence, what makes it precious beyond words, has the modesty to use sorrow in order to penetrate our soul.

     Rainer Maria Rilke