"Networking" is the key phrase in publishing today. Network with other writers to find a critique group, attend conferences, learn the market. Network with agents and editors at those conferences to get your manuscript read. Social networking on Facebook, via Twitter, blogs, and other avenues builds your fan base. If you're a hermit, you're going to have a tough time getting your book out there. Author Robin Mellom tells how networking landed her an agent for her first young adult novel, Ditched, a Love Story, published in January by Disney/Hyperion. Early contact with an agent came because of her blog, which just goes to show that if you put yourself out there in every way you can, something's bound to pay off.
When Brittany Geragotelis was writing her YA novel Life's a Witch, she posted it chapter by chapter on Wattpad, an online community for sharing writing and getting feedback from readers. Gradually, she gained 13 million fans. But despite that and an active blog, YouTube presence, and proving her chops as editor of American Cheerleader magazine, Geragotelis still couldn't attract a publisher. So she self-published through Amazon, and parlayed her online popularity into an article in Publishers Weekly. Fast-forward six weeks, and Geragotelis now has an agent, is fielding offers from foreign publishers and film companies, and has a big publisher looking at her work, which includes six unpublished novels. All this sparked a follow-up article in Publishers Weekly, which could only help raise her profile even more.
What's the moral of this story? If you want it bad enough, you can make it happen. Of course, it starts with the book, but 13 million fans is a pretty good indication that the story's working. And then you refuse to take "no" for an answer. While being published by a big house is still a worthy dream of many authors (including Geragotelis), the publishers no longer hold all the power. If you want to open that door for yourself, you can do it.
Seth Godin, easily the smartest man in publishing today, has once again nailed it with his post Reading Isn't Dead, But It's Changing on his Domino Project blog. His point (and he's talking primarily of young adult books, but this really applies to all ages) is that the job of authors is to write what people want to read, and then they'll read it. It seems obvious, but I can't count how many times I've heard writers bemoan that they'll never get published because kids just aren't reading the kind of books they're writing, the books they should be reading. Kids, they say, have shorter attention spans (not true — just count the number of pages in any Harry Potter book), they prefer plot over lengthy descriptions (who doesn't?), and they reach for books that open their minds to new ideas instead of the lessons adults know are good for them.
Godin pointed out in another post (I'm paraphrasing here) that it's not the job of readers to seek out your books; it's the job of writers and publishers to find their audience and give them the books they want. And what children want is often far better than what many adults initially offer. Yes, writing is hard, but kids deserve books that speak to who they are today.
If you open a restaurant that only serves blue food, and go bankrupt in a month because no one wants your blue meatloaf, whose fault is that? The unenlightened local community? The economy? The restaurant reviewer who gave you one star? No, IT'S THE BLUE FOOD!
And so it goes with books.
When I critique middle grade and young adult fantasy manuscripts, I often find myself jotting notes like "Why is this character the one called to this adventure?" and "What's at stake here of monumental consequence?" A cornerstone of successful fantasy is seemingly ordinary teen and tween protagonists who save the world. Without that, you're just writing a novel with quirky characters. Another hallmark is that this usually happens without (or in spite of) any help from adults. Teen heroes, impending doom, absentee parents. What's not to love?
Author Cassandra Clare understands this well, and has written an excellent piece about the secret world teens inhabit in their fantasy novels for The Wall Street Journal. Required reading for any author working on a fantasy, or for a parent with a fantasy-loving teen at home.
In another alternative to publishing traditionally or, more recently, with companies like Amazon, the teen writing site Figment has just announced the publication of its first book. Created as an online community where people in their teens and twenties can post writing and get feedback, Figment has expanded into a marketing vehicle for YA publishers to showcase new fiction to a teen audience. Now Figment has released a paperback edition of Blake Nelson’s Dream School, a sequel to his 1994 YA novel Girl, after serializing the book on the online site.The book is distributed to stores through Publishers Group West.
Though Figment doesn't plan on becoming a full-time publisher, this does show the power of building an audience online, then publishing. It also demonstrates how authors are finding more ways to bypass the big publishers and get their work out on their own terms.
Know your audience. This sage advice is appropriate for all writers and, in particular, authors of children’s books. “Children” is a broad concept, representing a wide range of readers from birth to young adulthood.
In order to communicate clearly so readers will enjoy and understand the story, we have to recognize the differences in age groups. The writing should be appropriate for the age group of the target audience. Emerging skills and changing interests of children require different writing for different ages.
Before writing the first word, determine the age group of the reader. Understanding the interests and abilities of the audience helps us adjust our message of what we say and how we say it. We should also consider the interests of the age group so we can develop a character with which the reader can identify. Younger children respond to child-centric books and to concepts reflecting their life experiences. Most kids like to read about characters their same age or slightly older. Boys like to read about male main characters and girls will usually read books with either male or female characters. Read more
If you're the parent of a teenage boy, or you want to write for this book-adverse group, you must read Robert Lipsythe's essay in the New York Times Book Review, "Boys and Reading: Is There Any Hope?" Finally, someone in the know (Lipsythe himself is one of a handful of authors who has routinely been a male favorite) gets to the heart of why so many teen boys fall into the "reluctant reader" category. And it has nothing to do with their reading skills.
Read it, pass it on to the parent of a teen boy, and then go write something for these kids.
Looking for a manageable recommended reading list for all ages of children's books? Four Delaware seventh graders — Benjamin, Brittany, Shayna, and Chrissy — told me about a site they've been using for their summer school ELA requirement: Sofa Adventures in Reading: Reading Suggestions for Kids, Tweens and Teens. A mixture of new books and older titles, the site breaks the list into four age categories and gives a nice summary of each book. Thanks for the tip!
And if you're serious about keeping tabs on the market and who's publishing what, check out the Spring Sneak Previews from children's publishers in a recent Publishers Weekly. Can you spot the next big trend?
No matter how successful you get, writing a book is a humbling experience. Even Stephen King starts with a blank page. So when I read articles from published authors that talk about what they've learned along the way, I'm reminded of how small the gap from "aspiring" to "published" can be. The experienced are a little wiser, but they're still sweating it along with the rest of us.
In 7 Things I've Learned So Far, bestselling young adult author Carrie Vaughn offers two pieces of advice that I especially agree with: plot and character are the same thing (if you've been a CBI subscriber for very long or attended one of my Children's Authors' Bootcamp workshops, you know this is my mantra), and go big or go home. I love the latter — with thousands of new books published each year, why wouldn't you focus your energies on your most original, wacky, weird or provocative idea? Writing's hard work; spend your time with something that will get noticed. Discover your own genius and break new ground. Life's too short to play it safe, and kids will appreciate that quirky book that makes them see the world in a new way.
Here's yet another innovative way authors are using the Internet to explore their writing and connect with their readers. Dear Teen Me is a blog featuring published and unpublished young adult authors writing letters to their former teenage selves. The posts — some funny, some poignant — show how the details of teen life may have changed, but the angst remains the same. The blog is dedicated to modern teen readers, but it's also a treasure trove for aspiring authors wanting to reconnect with their adolescent voices. Check it out.