As obscure as I am, sometimes people ask me questions about writing books and I am quite happy to answer them. Here are a few that I thought were interesting:
Q: Will you read and/or critique my television script/film script/children’s book/show idea and pass it along to your agents, publisher, and/or influential showbiz types?
A: No. Sorry, I have to be blunt on this one. Since I'm an active writer out there pitching shows and premises, I can’t accept "unpublished" writing samples from "strangers". If you were to send me some of your writing that by coincidence was even mildly similar to one of my "in progress" scripts, books, or a show proposal I was already pitching...that could be a problem.
Taking a writing class at your local c.c. or forming a “critique club” (sounds corny but they do it all the time in children’s literature) with like-minded pals is a great way to get feedback on your writing. By the way, reputable studios or production companies won’t accept original scripts, treatments, or show ideas unless they come from an agent or are accompanied by one of their own release forms.
Q: What is the best way to go about getting an agent for publishing a book? Any tricks of the trade?
A: There are two ways that I know of to get a book agent. The first is to find a list of legit agents (I say this because there are plenty of scamsters out there who offer "editing services", etc.) and send them a query letter in which you briefly describe the project and ask them if they'll take a look. Books like "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Books" and "Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market" offer some helpful advice regarding agents. The other way is an old classic. Ask someone you know for a referral. I briefly had an agent when "Nonsense! He Yelled" was first published. My editor was kind enough to set things up. The agent was a nice person, but I quickly discovered that she wasn't really interested in building the career of a beginning picture book author (no $). J.K. Rowling needs an agent, R.L. Eschbacher does not (yet).
That being said, if you're fortunate enough to be offered a contract by a publisher, it wouldn't be a bad idea to spend a few bucks and have an attorney who specializes in book contracts take a look at it. It's not that the publishing houses are an evil lot who will try and rip you off (most of the contracts are standard "boiler plate" affairs), it's that they'll be acting in their own interest more than yours. For example, let's say that you come up with a Chapter Book that has the potential to become a series. There might be wording in the contract that states that you'll be paid the same dollar amount in advance money for all subsequent titles. What if your first book is a mega hit? Wouldn't you like to be in the position to negotiate a larger advance for the next book?
Q: My mother has been a professional artist for over 40 years and has recently put together a wonderful portfolio of children's book illustration examples. Her forte is definitely in the area of illustration so she would like to somehow team with a writer to put together a book. She has sent her portfolio to a number of publishers, but has yet to be connected with a writer and ultimately published. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.
A: I'm an author. I only restate the obvious to warn you about the questionable value of advice from an author to an aspiring illustrator. That being said, here are some thoughts.
It's good that your Mom has put together a portfolio because, as she has discovered, you must have one to submit to the publishers. From what I've been able to observe, that's the main way that illustrators get work. They keep submitting their portfolio to publisher after publisher until someone takes an interest (if at all).
I have also heard of writers and illustrators teaming up, but this seems to be the exception to the rule -- usually husband and wife teams, old friends, etc. When I first started writing books, I was concerned that I was going to have to find my own illustrator. But a little research quickly revealed that publishers actually prefer it if authors don't come in with their own artwork (unless the illustrations are exceptionally good). Part of the satisfaction that an editor or publisher gets from their job is in the pairing up of the right illustrator with the right author.
So, I'd recommend a couple of things...
Your Mom could write and illustrate her own book. Author/Illustrators are a well-respected double threat in the kid's book trade (and get to keep ALL of the money!). If she's not crazy about writing an original story, she might want to think about "re-telling" a classic fairy tale or obscure folk story -- something in the public domain.
The other approach would be for her to keep slugging away and submitting her portfolio to the various publishing houses. Here's a link to a helpful page on the Children's Book Council website.
They're the trade organization for all the children's book publishers and they provide what appears to be a very useful contact list. It features addresses, phone numbers, and reasonably current info about whether they're currently accepting portfolios. A great place to start. The rest of the site has a lot of useful info, too.
I'd also recommend the most recent edition of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Books". It really helped me out on the author side of things with practical "how to" tips and I've read that the latest edition provides a lot of useful info for illustrators, too. Tell your Mom "good luck" from me!
Q: I was curious what software you use for writing your books. I want to convert one of my scripts into book format and pursue creating a series of pre-to-early teen books, so I want to make sure what I submit follows industry standards.
A: I use MS Word for almost all of my writing (picture books, chapter books, and even novels). I've also used a screenwriting program (Movie Magic Screenwriter) which has a novel template. The script program worked fine, but I prefer Word because its files are more universally accepted -- the screenplay software requires that the person at the other end has it too. There are a skillion how-to books on the shelf that show you proper page layout, etc. You're correct in wanting to get it right as I've read that an improperly formatted book can drive an editor bonkers.
Q: I have a question for you regarding book publishing. I finished my personal book which I am considering, sending out. Can you give me any tips on this? I first poked around the bookstore to get names of publishers that already publish books in the same category as mine.
A: Well, first off, that's a great place to start. It certainly makes sense to look around for publishers of books similar to yours since, in theory, they're already open to that kind of work. As you know, my area of "expertise" is in children's books. I assume your "personal book" is not a children's book but rather a novel or autobiography? There are a number of publications that can point you in the right direction for getting your "adult market" book looked at. There's a magazine called "Writer's Digest" that contains useful tips. They also publish several "publishing bibles". The one for kid's books is called "Children's Writers & Illustrators Market". I'm guessing they have a similar title for the type of book that you've written. These bibles are printed yearly and contain contact names and submission information (do they require a query letter first, how many chapters a particular publisher likes to get, etc.). Very useful, but kind of pricey (c.$25) -- you may want to do your "research" with them at the library.
Have you poked around online, yet? That's what I did when I first tried to figure out how to submit my kid's books. Online research lead me to the website of a trade group of children's book publishers that listed all of the contact info and whether or not a certain publishing house was accepting open submissions, etc. I submitted to a number of them and the fine folks at DIAL BFYR were the first to bite. I'm sure there's a lot of helpful info for your type of book somewhere within the vast expanse of the world wide web.