Tuesday, June 12, 2012

WHY MY PICTURE BOOK WON'T SELL


A few years ago I wrote this darling little picture book called Happy 100! I thought it was just adorable. 

Then my critique group read it... 

Yeow! 

And my agent...

Ugh. 

And a couple of conference editors... 

Uh-oh. 

I quickly learned that my adorable picture book wasn't so adorable. And it wouldn't sell. 

Why?

First, here’s the 500-word manuscript:


HAPPY 100!

by Dotti Enderle

 
            Today is Grand-Gran’s one-hundredth birthday. One hundred! Even the TV weatherman knows that’s a big deal!
            Everyone is giving her gifts of one hundred.
            “What should I give her?” I ask my dog, Ringo.
            “Erf!” Ringo says.
            I think that means one hundred doggie treats. “Don’t be silly,” I tell him.
            Mom is giving Grand-Gran one hundred dollars in a birthday card. But she’s cheating. It’s just one bill with one hundred printed on it. Of course if it was one hundred individual dollars she wouldn’t be able to seal the envelope!
            But what can I give her? One hundred buttons? One hundred peppermints? A book with one hundred pages? One hundred is a lot!
            How about one hundred new sets of teeth? Yeah! One set for smiling. One for munching. One that glows in the dark in case the lights go out.
            Oooh…that sounds awfully expensive.
            “What can I give her?” I ask Ringo again.
            Ringo drums his tail on the floor. “Erf!”
            I think that means one hundred fleas. “Don’t be silly, Ringo. If Grand-Gran had one hundred fleas, we’d have to bathe her outside in smelly dog soap.”
            Oops! I shouldn’t have said dog soap. “Come out from under the bed, Ringo. We have to think of a gift for Grand-Gran.”
            I know. Since Grand-Gran loves to laugh,  I’ll make one hundred silly faces.
            Like this…
            And this…
            And this…
            And this…
            Wait. That last one looked too much like the first one. I could never think up one hundred different silly faces.
            But what can I give her? One hundred bottle caps? Trading cards? Pieces of spaghetti? And where would I get any of those things so quickly?
            Hey, how about one hundred shiny stickers for her scooter? Then she’d be the flashiest granny on bingo night.
            (Art note: she digs through a drawer or box)
            Here’s a raspberry sticker. And a purple-slurple. And here’s a blue one that’s the same color as Grand-Gran’s hair.
            Wait a second. I don’t have one hundred stickers. I don’t even have ten! I’ll have to think of something else.
            Ringo and I go outside so the fresh air can restart my brain. There’s a large pile of raked leaves, waiting for me. “KER-PLOP!” I shout, diving in. The leaves are soft and crisp and…
            That’s it! I’ll give Grand-Gran one hundred leaves to play in.
            I count them out in stacks of ten.
            Uh-oh. Suddenly, one hundred doesn’t seem like a lot. It’s not nearly enough leaves for jumping around.
            “Help me out, Ringo. What can I give her?”
            Ringo says, “Erf!”
            I think that means, “I give up!”
            “One hundred,” I say, looking around.
            One hundred acorns? One hundred feathers? One hundred mud pies? No. Grand-Gran would probably have more fun making her own mud pies.
            I think hard. It has to be more than just one hundred of something. It has to be super special. Super-duper special.
            Ringo curls next to me and licks my hand.
            That’s it!
            After Grand-Gran blows out the one hundred candles on her cake, I’ll give her my present.
            “63…64…65…”
            (Art note: Character is on one side giving Grand-Gran kisses on the cheek, while Ringo is on the other side, licking her face)

Okay, so here are the reasons I assumed it would sell.

1. Voice. I really thought I’d nailed the thoughts and speech of a little girl. So playful. So innocent.

2. Concept. Most every kindergarten class celebrates 100 Days of School. So I naturally assumed most every kindergarten teacher would want it for their classroom.

3. Ringo. Kids love dogs, right? And the MC’s relationship with Ringo is sweet and cute. A real selling point…uh...right?


Now here are the hard facts. The reason this book will never sell.

1. First person point of view. Yes, there are some first person picture books out there, but not many. Unless you’ve nailed a surefire kid-pleaser, be prepared. Agents and editors don’t like first person PBs. People in the biz will agree that PBs should be third person.

2. Concept. There’s nothing wrong with writing a book with 100 as the subject matter. That's great. But it was pointed out to me that the percentage of kids with great-grandmothers turning 100-years-old is miniscule. Small children can’t relate.

3. Nameless. What’s the MC’s name? Yeah, I don’t know either. It’s my understanding that little ones do want to know. It’s part of connecting to the story.

4. Ringo. I genuinely thought he was an asset, but a few people felt he was a gimmick. It was never my intention, but I can see their point.

5. Of all the reasons for rejection, this is the BIGGIE. The story's ending. Let’s all say it in unison, “Predictable!” Most everyone who critiqued or considered this manuscript pointed that out. I have wondered if a 3-year-old would guess it, but 3-year-olds aren't buying books, editors are. And editors have tons more experience in bookselling than I do. Believe me, I've banged my head against the wall repeatedly, trying to shake out a new ending. It’s just not there.

There are probably a lot more reasons for rejection than what I've listed. Feel free to point them out. We’re all here to learn and grow.

Another huge reason this book won’t sell? I just published it on my blog.  :)

So what’s been your picture book experiences? Successes? Failures? If you have little ones at home, I’d love to know what you’re reading to them and why they want to hear it over and over.

39 comments:

  1. Oh boy, is this familiar! Some of my early picture books were completely unsellable. I'm glad only my writing group saw them--and talked me down. After many many years, I finally wrote one that had some potential. Just like everything else, learning to write PBs is a process. :-)

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  2. Your story might not be very marketable, but it WAS very cute. Thanks for sharing -- both the tale and the insight.

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  3. I really liked it, but I'm no expert.

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  4. Not much rhyme or reason to why some PBs get pubbed and others don't. We have some that are fantastic (The Gruffalo and others by Julia Donalson/Axel Schffler) and some that are so crap-tacular that I wonder if they were written by handicapped raccoons.

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  5. Dotti--
    Rejection Reason Number 1 was a shocker to me. I did not realize that editors prefer third person. All 12 of my published picture books (except the folk tale) are written in first person. In fact, when I write in third person the story feels stilted. I would say that about 90 percent of all my rejected PB manuscripts are wirtten in third person. But I must admit my PBs are for an older audience -- the ones who are reading the stories themselves. I suspect the younger kiddos, who are being read to, might get confused hearing the parent say "I"

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    1. Sherry, that was the reason I heard most. First from my agent, then from the few editors I had the guts to send it too. It may have to do with subject matter as well.

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  6. I have one, "Oh, What A Wind It Was!", that's been rejected over and over. Yet when I read it at school visits, the kids and teachers love it, and the teachers can't understand why it's been rejected. I think I've finally figured it out. It's the performance. When I'm up there reading the story and acting like a goof-ball, the kids laugh and laugh. But on the printed page, the story falls flat. That's what I'm told, anyway. Frankly, I still think it's a winner. But it's what the editors think that counts.

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    1. Same here. If editors would read it like we do it'd be in print ASAP.

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  7. Wow, you got a lot better over the years! LOL. Thanks for sharing that, Dotti. Although, I will say, it sounds much better than some I've seen in the stores lately. ;-) bobbi c.

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    1. Wait...what? I've always been great. :)

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  8. Are any other picture book authors considering finding a like-minded illustrator and self-publishing?

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  9. Thanks for this post, Dotti. Personally, I think the story is still cute. :)

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  10. This is an excellent post! And other than the nameless part, I don't have an issue with the other points! :)

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  11. Thanks for sharing this Dotti. What an adorable story. Sorry it didn't get picked up :/
    I never heard about the third person preference with pbs.

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  12. Great post! Thank you for having the chops to share this with us so we can all learn.

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  13. Thank you for this! Sometimes it's easier to use another's experience as a mirror...we all thank you for being willing to share!
    --Carter

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  14. I didn't know you shouldn't post your stories on your blog. I've posted a poem I'm going to illustrate and self publish.

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    1. It's different when you self-publish.

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  15. All reasons are a bit harsh. Sure the ending is somewhat predictable - but I've read many much loved best selling books with predictable endings.

    Do kids like it? I wrote a story that has an ending like a 'Just So' folkstory - the punchline tells why Koala's prefer living in the tops of trees. I was told that such 'Pour-quoi' stories are out of fashion. Kids still like it.

    Why not consider publishing it yourself on www.uTales.com as an app which you can build yourself at zero cost, collaborating with an illustrtaor? Work published there is still regarded as 'traditionally published' because Emma Drysdale is a well recognised editor, and she heads the editorial panel. And part of profits go to the very worthy charity 'Pencils of Promise' that partners with communities in the developing world to build schools and libraries.

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    1. Peter, I've seen this site before, but never have been able to find any submission guidelines.

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    2. I wish I could spell when I comment on blogs! Appprat from typos, the editor is actually Emma Dryden. She's the former publisher at Simon and Schuster Children's Books and editor at Random House (but now freelance).

      At http://utales.com/books?locale=en you can look at previews of all their books. Something like 'The Ugly Duckling' will show you the kind of animations that are possible - plus more in other books.

      I understand that audio and narration is an option in the pipeline.

      You will see from books published that, though there is editorial control, it allows much more freedom than traditional publishers.

      For any writer/illustrator, it provides a publishing credit worth having. Because of Emma's status, in Australia at least, books published there count as 'traditional' when people apply for grants only open to published creators.

      From looking at the books, I'd compile a list of my favourite illustrators, who obviously know how it's done. You can then ask them if they'd like to collaborate and work on your text. I'm sure most have a website that's easy to find, but you'll also discover them and others on Facebook at 'utales collaborations':

      http://www.facebook.com/groups/utalers/#!/groups/utalers/

      If you wanted to, you could post on there, add a link to this blog-post and story, and ask if anyone would like to illustrate it (share any revenue 50:50). I'm sure you'd get some offers - you don't have to accept them if the person's style is not to your taste.

      Illustrator readers of this blog who are unpublished may also choose to make offers there to illustrate a story for someone.

      But I don't think you or anyone will be retiring on the profits. Many like the idea of a third of the profit going to http://www.pencilsofpromise.org/

      As a prospective app developer, I believe the first thing I think you have to do is sign up at
      http://utales.com/users/sign_up
      and create a free account. It might also be a good idea to read the terms and conditions.


      This is a great link for everyone:

      http://io9.com/5916970/the-22-rules-of-storytelling-according-to-pixar

      Best wishes to all

      Peter

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    3. This is great, Peter! I just joined the facebook page. Thanks so much!!!

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    4. I joined, but I don't have the option of posting on the wall. :-/

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    5. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    6. Ahhh. You may have to join uTales first before you can post on Facebook uTales Collaborations. It's a long time since I joined. Sorry to send you on a frustrating click-about. At least you can check out who is there and offering their skills.

      If you don't manage to join uTales easily, I may be able to send you an invitation - but I'll somehow make sure you're in and able to look around.

      Of course, you could well decide on another option.

      You can see a little of how books and apps are created, and the tools available, at
      http://vimeopro.com/utales/howto

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    7. Hi, Dotti and Pete -- While I think uTales is a worthwhile publishing option for picture book authors and illustrators, the uTales platform is not set up at all for the same sort of intensive editing and backing and forthing between and editor and an author that a more traditional model of publishing would enable. As the leader of the quality panel, I do offer general feedback to make sure a picture book is as cleanly presented as possible (subject matter, text/art balance, age appropriateness,etc) but uTalers don't receive thorough editing and feedback (of the sort you've already gotten for HAPPY 100!) prior to publishing their books on the platform. Some authors opt to work with a freelance editor prior to get a manuscript in its best possible shape before reaching out to a uTaler illustrator to get it up on the uTales platform, after which time any profits are split 50/50 between author/illustrator. Good luck going forward!

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    8. Thanks, Emma! Your uTales books look wonderful.

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  16. Thanks very much for sharing. I think you're very brave - plus you have shortened the learning curve for the rest of us.

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  17. I remember this story and I always liked the 'silly faces' :-)

    By the way, with the first person pov I've had the main character introduce herself in the first sentence - that way the reader knows the name.

    However, I do think first person can be really tricky with very young characters, especially as a four-year-old child doesn't necessarily talk in grammatical sentences. I had a problem with the phrase 'Me and Arnold', and in the US version in some instances it was changed to 'Arnold and I', which is 'correct' but doesn't sound 'real'. Making your 'voice' young enough is difficult with picture books, unless you make your character school age, as you've done.

    And ha ha, great blog minds think alike. I was going to analyse the faults of my first-ever pb in my next blog!

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    1. Paeony, your NO MORE BISCUITS inspired the voice for this one. I learned a lot about writing PBs from you. Even though I've only been able to sell the ones I wrote for older kids.

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  18. Great article!! And I enjoyed reading your story!

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  19. Ah yes, there's a lot more to writing PBs that what people think. And so much of it has to do with the execution and word selection. I wrote some that made no sense at all. Well,they did to me at the time, of course.

    What a great spot in your writing journey! You're able to see differences and flaws and learn from them. Way to go.

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  20. I thought it was pretty cute, but then again, most publishers don't want a simply 'cute' piece do they. Too bad, as an artist, I could really envision the images.

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  21. Hi Dotti
    I liked the story and I thought first person a plus.
    My own award winner, Mending Lucille, is told in first person. Have you thought of putting your story on Utales.com?
    Best wishes
    Jennifer

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  22. Thanks for sharing this eye-opener, Dotti. I'm trying my hand at PBs and realize I have much to learn about the genre, but I don't agree with those who rejected your PB. I've read many stories that didn't come close to the charm of yours. And in any event, a tiny bit of tweaking would have put things right. Too bad no editor was willing to cut you some slack on that.

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  23. Thanks for sharing this story, the comments and your thoughts Dotti. It's brave and so interesting. I enjoy seeing the step by step of a manuscripts journey. And I'm thinking you're not finished with this one yet--it's a great premise, and it's still niggling, eh?

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  24. Hi, Dotti. I just found your site. I also write picture books, though none have been published yet. But - I am going to keep trying.

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