Thursday, April 15, 2010

Picture Books: Publishing's Problem or Promise?

Earlier today, Elana Roth, a respected agent at Caren Johnson Literary Agency posted an agent's take on "The Picture Book Problem." In it, she says some hard things about unagented authors (whose ranks include the talented Judy Schachner, of Skippyjon Jones fame) and questions why such people write picture books.

Every observation she makes about where picture books and their authors stand in the industry is correct. Disheartening, perhaps, but correct.

You see, the sad truth is that picture books don't make money. They don't make money for the publishers. They don't make money for the authors. And rest assured -- if the authors aren't making any money, then their agents (should they have representation) are suffering as well. This is why relatively few agents will accept picture books for representation.

In addition, most picture books are... well... really REALLY bad.

Many people think that a picture book should tell a cute little story involving talking animals that illustrates some didactic moral for the reading rugrat to meditate upon.

As if.

As a result, most spec picture books suck.

I say this in the kindest possible way, you realize.

However, there is another side to the story. After reading Ms. Roth's post, I felt compelled to add my two cents' to the discussion. Here's my take:

The Skippyjon Jones books are big hits with my bookworm daughter. We quote extensive passages – often around mealtime, or bedtime – and always accompanied by peals of laughter. When she grows up, I am sure that she will remember Skippyjon as one of her favorite early reads.

The books I have in print are co-authored or ghosted non-fiction. They were unagented because the best advances the publisher could afford were so low it wouldn’t have been worth an agent’s time to get involved. However, I loved writing them. I got to work with some great people at a very respected niche publisher. I learned invaluable lessons about editing, distribution, and promotion. Furthermore, writing the books allowed me to work with icons in the horse industry. I felt that I have helped to preserve their knowledge and make it readily available to others who need it. In their own way, the books I have in print have been very rewarding

I write adult, YA, and MG fiction in a variety of genres. Selling them to any publisher of note will require an agent to get involved and love them as much as I do. The books I’ve done have little to no bearing on my current projects. They will do little to attract an agent’s interest and they did not put much in my bank account. I do not, however, regret writing them.

In the same vein, perhaps picture book writers fondly remember how a particular book in their childhood sparked a life-long fascination with words. Perhaps they wish to do the same to a new generation.

One picture book is in my list of Things I Hope to See in Print. It’s not because I hope to make a ton of money with it (though that, of course, would be lovely). It’s because I love it. It moves me. It moves my child. I believe that it could move others as well.

I understand that many picture books by hopeful authors may be sub-par. I also understand there is little money in writing them. Agents and big publishers may pass them by because they do not make good business sense. But picture books provide a child’s earliest experience at realizing words can unlock exciting new worlds. They prime the pump of reading. For some writers, the chance to contribute to a child’s love of reading may be reward enough.

What are your thoughts on picture books? Are they a problem to aspiring authors, agents, and publishers? Or do they hold the promise that our children will enjoy a long love affair with literature?

(True confession: I like Ms. Roth very much. I have followed the work she's done for some of her clients and would be honored if she would agree to represent me. Whether she does or not, I will continue to search for The Right One.

The truth of the matter is that authors need agents because we tend to do a lousy job of selling our stuff. Generally speaking, we don't have the objectivity or experience required to analyze contracts, market new projects, and stay on top of the publishing industry. This is not because we are stupid. We're not. We're the Creatives. Which, by definition, means that we have a tendency to remain too close to our creation. What we write requires an agent's objectivity in order to compete in the publishing marketplace.

So: please feel free to leave your comments on picture book writers or on working as an repped or unrepped author. Feel free to take issue with my opinions. Do not, however, use this as a forum to attack literary agents. Such comments will be "lost" during moderation.)

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