Good vs. Bad in Picture Books

I recently had one of my students mention that being new to the industry, she wasn’t yet sure how to tell the difference between a good Picture Book and a bad one. It occurred to me that this is a dilemma for many new authors and illustrators.

How do you know if what you’re looking at is something you should be learning from?

One helpful way to learn the differences is to study picture books that have already been published. Go to the bookstore and you will notice that there is a specific section of picture books that are “award winners”. They have the Newbery and/or Caldecott seals on the cover, indicating that they are exceptional.

Of course, that doesn’t tell you WHY they were chosen, but if you spend enough time looking them over, and compare them to other picture books, you will eventually begin to understand the differences. This is, in fact, one of my favorite exercises! I believe that when you study award-winning books, you are learning from the best, and that will help to elevate your own work to a higher standard!

The differences between award-winning picture books and other picture books will vary. Sometimes it’s in the quality of the illustrations (look at “Where the Wild Things Are”), sometimes it’s in an extremely well-written text (read “Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge”). 

Either way, the one common thread in award-winning books, is the fact that the two things (writing and illustrating) complement each other. If you were to separate the illustrations from the written text, you would discover that each can tell a VERSION of the story without the other, but when combined together – the story changes. It comes to life in a whole new way, with an entirely new, richer meaning! 

Professional illustrators know how to use their talent to tell the reader things about the characters (or the story) that are NOT written in the original text. For example, the author may not have mentioned (in the manuscript) that the main character has a pet frog, but the illustrator can imagine all kinds of wonderful, comical scenes with the main character and his/her frog interacting. If it adds comedy, where there wasn’t any before, then the illustrator has now added a backstory to the AUTHORS original manuscript, giving little readers something to giggle about. They feel as if they are in on an incredible secret, seeing something that isn’t being mentioned as the story is read. 

The example above explains why it’s best for the illustrator and author to work separately. The authors job is to write a wonderful, well-written story. That’s where it ends, and his/her job is done! 

The illustrators job is to enhance that story and make it even better using his/her illustrative talent, imagination, and art education. 

If the author attempts to “instruct” the illustrator by insisting that the art be drawn according to his/her vision only, then the author will not only stifle the illustrators creativity, he will also lose any opportunity that the book had to become even better than the author could have imagined! 

In the best picture books, you feel as if you are witnessing a finely choreographed dance between the words and the illustrations. The illustrations help to drive the story forward, pulling the reader through the page turns, making them eager to know what will happen next. 

In poorly illustrated books, the illustrations only mimc the text – they add nothing of interest and nothing unexpected for the reader to discover. 

As for a “bad” picture book manuscript??...the worst are the ones that preach to readers, trying to get their point across as if the reader is too stupid to realize that there’s a “lesson” be shoved down their little throat!! Stories that are told just for the purpose of teaching children a lesson will fall flat in the hands of young children, who are smart enough to recognize what’s happening. They will run for the hills, in search of another book that is FUN to read instead!! 

THINK about it….when YOU were a kid, would you have preferred to read a book about how a human-like turtle properly cleaned his teeth and went to the dentist, or would you have picked a story about a kid who witnessed a moose frolicking in the back yard, bouncing on the trampoline and taking a dip in the family pool??

Good picture books are about interesting or unusual subjects. They should peak our curiosity and make us think we’ll be missing something if we DON’T read them! They should teach lessons in such a subtle way that the reader doesn’t even know he/she is learning! They have beautiful, comical or unusual art work that MAKES you want to LOOK! It doesn’t have to be the best artwork you’ve ever seen, it just has to have something that pulls the reader in. 

Eric Carle’s books (“The Hungry Caterpillar” & more) are illustrated using collage clippings to form the characters bodies. He’s not the greatest technical illustrator in town, but his illustrations are interesting enough to make you curious….you WANT to look at them to discover how he did it!!! 

Shel Silverstein wasn’t the most technically talented illustrator either, but his work is so simple and silly (like his poems) that they are endearing and child-like, with huge kid appeal!

If you want a modern day example of perfection in picture books, read Dan Santat’s, “The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend”. In my opinion, the text is wonderful and the illustrations are great! It is a clever mix of color on black & white, and detailed work- enhanced by a simply illustrated main character. VERY cleverly done! 

If you prefer old-world perfection, read Tomie DiPaola’s charming picture books. I dissected many of them when I first started my career, and they taught me how to properly construct a well-written picture book. Tomie was consistent with every book he created, using the same formula over and over.

You know what they say,…”If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!!!”

So, You Think You Can Write in Rhyme?

Picture Book rhyme is a hard sell, even when it flows out of one’s pen as naturally as raindrops sliding down rose petals.  Submission editors need to be blown away by your rhyming talent to even consider your work.

Some won’t even read rhyming manuscripts anymore because

they can’t stomach one more horrible attempt!

Once you accept that your rhyme is not pure perfection – think about revising it into prose. In most cases, it’s the best course of action if you ever want to see your work traditionally published. 

New writers are usually in love with rhyme, and feel that it’s appeal to young children ensures a guaranteed win. They envision themselves as the next Shel Silverstein or Dr. Seuss, but the reality is…those guys stand alone. On a pedestal.

You need to concentrate on becoming the best YOU that you can be.

Can’t let it go???

Read through your rhyming story, looking for good flow from scene to scene. Is there a clear beginning, middle and end to the story? Pay close attention to your phrasing. Beware of rhyme that sounds forced and avoid those pesky, weak adverbs!

Keep in mind that with Picture Books, (wether in rhyme or in prose) illustrations should be used to assist in communicating the story to the reader. Illustrations do not merely mimic the written word (that would be redundant), instead, they add meaning to the story, and show the reader things that can NOT be found in your text.

Writing a story in rhyme sometimes forces authors to use their valuable word count to describe things that will be seen in the illustrations, instead of allowing the reader to hear the characters voices and emotions. If your little readers can’t hear your characters voices, your story is guaranteed to fall flat.

Just for giggles, try rewriting your rhyming story in prose. For many authors who have done this, the gains far outweighed any losses they had anticipated. 

In addition, be careful with your word choices, remembering your audience….unsophisticated 4-6 year-olds, just learning to read. YES, there ARE exceptions, but your job is to write for the average kid, who’s looking to be entertained as well as educated. 

Finally, put your ego aside. Writing a picture book should never become about what YOU want, or what YOU like. It should be all about what little readers are hungry for, and what publishing editors are seeking. Unique, imaginative, heart-warming stories that peek the imagination and stay with us forever.

Publishing Young Authors, Yes or No?

When a young person displays a talent for writing, it’s wonderful to support them in their endeavors. Your positive influence could spark a life-long love for the craft and possibly a lucrative career down the road. But how far should you go?

I recently had someone ask me to help in publishing her child’s manuscripts and I had to give it serious thought.  Publishing a children’s book is quite a lengthy process for any author, let alone a pre-teen! Even if the adult in the picture is the one doing all the negotiating, it’s the child’s work, so like it or not – they will be involved.

Consider the fact that once a book is published, it’s out in the world. You can’t “take it back” or have a “do-over”. Once copies are being sold, there can be both amazing and/or terrible consequences, no matter what the author’s age might be.

The “amazing” results are obvious to everyone who wishes to become a published author. The book is now available for sale, and if you are able to market it well, you will sell many copies and acquire a fan base for any future books that the author may produce. Becoming a published author awards one a great sense of accomplishment, as many people aspire to do it – but few ever follow through successfully.

As for a young author, publication can be a great ego booster, but if not handled well – it can launch a life-long need for continued accolades and public approval in order to feel successful. Consider what publication means…it means putting your child’s heart-felt, hard work and talent in front of everyone they know or will ever know. If it’s not professionally edited or proof-read prior to publication, will people forgive the errors or will they be quick to point them out? (As they always do in my blog entries -lol!)

Negative comments are difficult for adult authors to handle,

but for a child author it can be brutally painful

and even dissuade them from continuing to write – even for enjoyment.

Every manuscript that has ever crossed my desk has needed work before it was truly ready for publication. Ninety-eight percent of them were written by adults who had a great amount of writing experience. About seventy-five percent of them already had other published books in the marketplace. They all needed content editing and proofreading, which can be costly. Every writer I’ve ever known learned the value of revising their manuscript over and over, until reached a sense of perfection. Few children have the patience for that, yet once their work is in the public arena, it is subjected to the same scrutiny.

So, should you publish your child’s manuscript? That really depends on his/her personality, strength of heart, and their own desires. I recommend that you sit down with them and have a chat. Children prefer instant gratification, so the long process of publication will be tedious for them. When you ask, “would you like to me to help you publish your book?”, his/her immediate thought is that it will happen overnight. We all know that’s not possible, so if you don’t explain it properly, you’re setting your child up for disappointment and frustration.

Most importantly, think about WHY you’re considering this. I mean, are you looking for brownie points with the child (I always do!) – or – are you thinking that this could be a launching point for a life-long love of writing? Maybe you just want to show your loving support in a grandiose way.

“Supporting” our little ones in their creative endeavors can be done in many ways that are equally gratifying to the child. Because of the time and money involved, publishing his/her raw work publicly is extreme, when (most likely) they would be just as thrilled if you passed around copies of the story and read it out loud at the next big family get-together.

You could consider paying a professional illustrator to do a single, simple illustration (cost’s between $50-$100) to accompany the story, and frame it alongside the text as a keep-sake that would permanently mark this moment in your child’s evolution as a budding writer! It would have the same impact, would be beautiful on the wall, much more cost-effective and it would take far less time. Not to mention, no-one would EVER dare say anything negative about it! And for you – major brownie points would be awarded.

We all need the love and support of our family. In my opinion, loving someone also means protecting them from potential harm. I wrote and illustrated my first picture book at the age of 40 and submitted it to publishers. My loving family and friends thought it was brilliant, but it was never accepted for publication. At the time, self-publishing was much more difficult – almost impossible for a novice. Looking back, I am SO GRATEFUL that publishers rejected it! After twenty years in the business, I NOW know that it was far from ready for publication – it was cute, but it was a MESS for so many reasons!! At the time, I would not have believed it, which is why I had the guts to submit it in the first place!!

Since then, I have learned a LOT and gone on to publish many, many books, using the knowledge that I gained through my studies, research and mistakes. If that first book had been published, by now it would have been hatefully picked-apart by book reviewers, teachers and my peers – and it would have tarnished the reputation for excellence that I now enjoy.

My family and friends are very proud of me. No matter how they chose to show their support, it has meant the world to me! Just knowing that they were in my corner, pushed me to explore all the creative sides of my personality and talents…in my own time.

So there. I thought it through. I’ve spent many years working with children’s book writers and I know how difficult it is produce a truly well-written children’s book. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think a child is ready for the often harsh world of today’s publishing. I’m sure there are a few exceptional, technically savvy in social media kids who could handle it, but at what price? One’s childhood should be protected and enjoyed as long as possible. Creativity and talent should grow with time and be gently coaxed into maturity.

Instead of impressive gestures, I think love is all that kids really need. If they’re going to be a writer, they’ll write. The stories will keep coming and they’ll be even better. One day they’ll get published without your help and imagine their sense of accomplishment! When the reviews come in, their skin will be a bit thicker. Timing is everything.

Self-Publisher seeking Illustrator

The role of the picture book illustrator is often misunderstood. Not by the traditional publishing industry, but by authors who make the decision to self-publish. Sometimes authors choose this route because they have become frustrated with the submission process. They have family, trusted friends or loving grandchildren who are telling them how wonderful their story is, yet it has been rejected time and time again by publishers across the nation. 

Many inexperienced writers can only take so much of this conflicting scenario. After all, they’ve been told, “to be positive”, “never let them get you down”, “don’t give up”, and my personal favorite, “where there’s a will, there’s a way!” All of these are positive statements, if the person being cheered along can write really well and know’s what the industry expects.

But more often than not, the self-publishing picture book author is more in love with their own manuscript than any of the people that have read and applauded it. Instead of doing the work necessary to achieve a brilliant manuscript that is worthy of traditional publication, a lot of writers turn to self-publishing as a last resort. 

Potential self-publishers often think, If only I could find the right artist, someone who can illustrate what I envision, everyone will see how wonderful my book is! They imagine their cleverly constructed, beautifully illustrated book in the hands of rosy-cheeked children, gobbling it up as if it were a chocolate bunny on Easter morning. This picturesque notion leads them to conclude that they must do whatever it takes to make it happen, and there are many vanity presses just waiting to profit from them! 

As a professional children’s book illustrator, I can tell you with 100% certainty that only YOU can see the vision in your head! To believe otherwise is to set your self up for big disappointment. No amount of prodding or funding can make an illustrator create your books characters exactly as you see them.  

Not to mention the fact that beautifully rendered illustrations seldom have the ability to save a poorly written manuscript. Professional illustrators who value their own work, seldom associate themselves with a manuscript that is not up to industry standards and has little or no potential for sales. Would you (the writer) want to attach your name and reputation to a picture book that was poorly illustrated? Of course not, so why would an artist want to illustrate an unpolished story? 

Once a book has been published, it can come back to haunt you both!

Suppose one day your situation changes, and you find yourself traditionally published, speaking at a conference for up-and-coming children’s book writers. Nice dream, huh? Until someone in the audience stands up with your poorly written, self-published book (from the past) and says, “What were you thinking?”  

Suppose your newly published book with Random House is up for review, and although it receives praise, the reviewer mentions,”Yes, this author’s come a long way since the days of his amateurish, self-publishing ventures.” Not so nice now, is it?     

Before you begin your search for an illustrator, think with your head and not your heart. Find a group of professional children’s book writers who can help you to determine why your manuscript has received repeated rejections. Publishers reject manuscripts for a plethora of reasons. Often it’s because the writer did not follow simple submission guidelines, but in most cases, it’s because the manuscript needs work. 

Having your story illustrated in an attempt to make it more palatable and enticing to editors is considered a big no-no in the industry. Make it a point to learn the dos and don’ts. Polish your manuscript and try resubmitting.  It could save you thousands of dollars, months of aggravation, and it could land you a publishing contract!

There are many misconceptions about illustrators.

Often new authors think that professional illustrators will work for little or no compensation to have the honor of being “published”. This is false. Like many other professions, you get what you pay for and quality doesn’t come cheap. Your proposed incentive will only work on naive, inexperienced illustrators, or those who are financially hanging on by a thread.  

Should you decide to self-publish, don’t assume that the illustrator will do everything.

For example; 

  1. The illustrator should not be expected to construct the books layout. The author should decide where the page breaks would be. This means that he/she must determine what part of the text should be placed on each page to create flow, excitement, anticipation and symmetry. This information should be prepared in advance, and the illustrator should be granted permission to make changes if needed to enhance the perception of the illustrations.
  2. Illustrator’s should not be responsible for designing your book. “Designing” a picture book is all about determining the over-all look of the final product. What size will it be? How many pages will need to be illustrated? What type of digital files will your printer need in order to produce the pages of your book? Will you be using an interior illustration for your cover, or will your illustrator be preparing a special illustration that will entice potential buyers? All of these questions should be answered before the self-publisher approaches an illustrator for the project.
  3. Never assume that the illustrator will find an affordable printer for you. There are more printers than there are traditional publishers. Finding a printer is a very personal thing, determined by your budget, the desired quality of the final product, and the printer’s ability to accept digital image files. If original illustrations are to be used, this further complicates matters and increases your cost. 
  4. Don’t overlook contracts or provide a makeshift contract that is not in the best interests of both parties. The burden/cost of preparing a legally binding contract falls on the self-publisher, unless the illustrator wishes to provide one. If they do, read it carefully and/or take it to your attorney for review. Neither party should ever enter into a verbal agreement. 

All of the items mentioned above get in the way of the illustrator doing what he/she does best…ILLUSTRATING! If you find an illustrator who is willing and able to do these things, be prepared to pay for them as separate fees, separate from the illustration fees. 

One of the biggest gripes illustrators have is when self-publishers hire them based on their proven abilities and then do not trust them enough to let them do their job. Many authors attempt to be Art Directors, instructing the illustrator’s every move, demanding multiple changes as if suddenly the author had acquired a degree in composition, balance, color and artistic techniques.

Illustrators expect simple changes, but author’s should ask for no more than three per drawing so that the publication deadline isn’t delayed. Remember, your illustrator wants to make you happy!

Very few authors view illustrators as their creative equals because money is involved. They think because they are paying for the illustrations, it awards them the right to command every turn of the artist’s pencil. This only leads to frustration. It squelches the illustrator’s creativity. Try writing with your opposing hand. Unless you are ambidextrous, the level of frustration and difficulty you experience is the equivalent of what an illustrator feels when being told what and how to draw.  

Traditional publishers understand the need to keep authors out of the illustration process. When they accept a manuscript for publication, it is usually handed off to an educated, highly skilled Art Director. An illustrator is chosen that he/she and the editor believe will be best suited to bring the manuscript to life. The illustrator chosen comes from a large pool of talented professionals. Often they choose a successful artist they’ve worked with before. Then they turn the illustrator loose and let them interpret the manuscript with little interference. The author is seldom (if ever) consulted.

There is a lot of money on the line, as well as the reputation of the publisher and the illustrator. The final product must be highly marketable if it is to fair well in this competitive industry. 

Looking for an illustrator on your own limits your possibilities.

There are literally thousands of picture book artists. What are the odds (for example) that your sister’s friend is the perfect illustrator for your book? Has she illustrated a book before? Does she know what will be expected to deliver print-ready illustrations?

Look around before you hire someone. Make sure they are reputable by asking for references from other, happy authors that they’ve worked with. Look over their on-line portfolio (if they don’t have one…look for someone else!) Don’t let YOUR dream become an amateur’s “practice run”.

Dreams don’t come “cheap”!

If you are self-publishing, don’t ask for a “discount” on illustrations. Odds are good that you have already been quoted a substantial reduction based on the fact that you are self-publishing. You run the risk of insulting your prospective illustrator if you ask them to further reduce their fee. 

What’s you long-term goal?   

Finally, if you are thinking about submitting your illustrated book to publishers after it’s been self-published…think again! Most often, your chances for traditional publication plummet after self-publication, as many editors believe that self-publishing indicates an unwillingness to take criticism and make the necessary changes for improvement.

In addition, they don’t usually invest money in a book that has already been exposed to the public.  

Picture Books vs. Chapter Books – understanding the difference

Like every other freelancer on the planet, I’m always looking for projects to keep me employed. If you know me, then you know that (like many Gemini’s) I work at many different professions, sometimes all at once!

So it shouldn’t surprise you to hear that critiquing and content editing are among my many professional services. It often pulls me away from my beloved illustrating because I find it fascinating to read what other creative’s come up with. It’s one of those things that feeds my creative soul and more often than not, it gives me a great sense of accomplishment to know that I’ve contributed to making something good – even better…, possibly GREAT.

However, in my search for entrepreneurial bliss, I sometimes run into things that I find a little unsettling. Lately, it’s the number of new authors who don’t do any homework prior to sending out manuscripts.

Often I receive lengthy text pages that authors believe should be a picture book, or short manuscripts that they insist are chapter books! In addition to the unusual word count, the language used is often inappropriate for the targeted age group. In fact, it happens so frequently that I felt the need to talk about it and maybe clear a few things up. At the very least, posting my thoughts on the subject will give me a place to send confused newbies, awarding me more illustrating time!

Warning….possible boredom approaching! This is basic stuff that is all over the internet. If you have been studying children’s book publishing for any length of time, then I’m sure you’ve already heard this stuff! If not, then you NEED to join the SCBWI, seriously folks. What I’m about to share is talked about in almost every children’s publishing conference and critique group across the globe. Here we go….

Simply stated, Picture Books and Chapter Books were created for different age groups, and for different reasons.

1.) Picture Books contain illustrations. In most cases, the illustrations are in color and they assist the words by visually conveying the story to readers, ages 4-6.  The text should (ideally) contain less than 500 words – due to the belief that today’s youngsters have a very short attention span, but up to 1000 words are acceptable for manuscript submission to most publishing editors.

Picture book text should not be descriptive in nature. This keeps the word count low and allows the illustrations to do their part in showing what the words do not communicate. Words should be used sparingly to evoke emotion, move the story forward at all times, and invite a clear understanding of the action. If a sentence does not add something important or at least move the story forward, it should be removed.

Picture Books come in a variety of sizes, most commonly 8.5″ x 11″ in size, as it fits squarely and snugly on library and bookstore shelves without toppling over or getting lost between other books.

Traditionally, Picture Books are 24 or 32 pages. This harkens back to days before digital publication, when printing companies only printed books in increments of 8 pages (i.e., 8, 16, 24, 32, 48.) The first 3-4 pages are used for the Library of Congress and printing information, dedications, and a half-title page. The manuscript text and illustrations share the remaining pages. Authors should consider this information especially when self-publishing.

First-time authors should consider the subject matter being exposed to 4-6 year-olds. If you don’t want your own youngster reading about a subject, then don’t write it and expect other parents to want it either!

In addition, don’t preach to your readers. Children quickly lose interest if your book sounds too much like a “lesson”, and is not much fun.  Conceal what you’re trying to teach in unique, comical, or relatable characters and plots. Your “students” will learn without knowing what you’re up to!

Finally, if you’re planning to submit your manuscript to publishing editors, for goodness sake, write something fresh and new that they have never heard before! Even if it’s a new perspective on an old subject, it’ll have a better chance for acceptance than a story that’s been done before. Enough cats, dogs and teddy bear stories People! If you do write about your cat, it had better be one VERY unique, wonderful and irresistible feline!!!

2.) Chapter Books also contain illustrations. In most cases, they are in black and white and are used sparingly. There are two types of Chapter Books. “Early” Chapter Books and Middle-Grade Novels. For the sake of keeping the discussion brief, we will only address Early Chapter Books at this time.

Early Chapter Books target ages 7-10, children who feel they are too grown up for “babyish” picture books. They still need (and secretly want) the aid of illustrations for clear comprehension, but the illustrations are simpler with less detail.

Early Chapter Books contain well over 1500 words, often in the thousands. The words used are more difficult than those used in Picture Books, but authors should avoid overly complicated words. Don’t get me wrong, it’s okay to challenge your readers but don’t use words that require continual stopping to look them up! This can get tedious, causing readers to give up and walk away in search of a more enjoyable reading experience.

Again, don’t get too preachy! This age group will throw your book down and run for the hills if they think for one second that you are trying to sneak something by them. However, if you can think of a fun and clever way to get information across, they’ll be all in and teachers will love you and your book!

Chapter Books are usually 6″ x 9″ in size, fitting comfortably in hand and working well for traveling (backpacks). They are a great vehicle for authors who are looking to write a series, but that should NOT be your reason for choosing to write a Chapter Book. There are many terrific “stand alone” Early Chapter Books, and yours could be next.


In conclusion, no matter what you write, KNOW your audience! If you are writing a Picture Book, keep it short and simple, with ages 4-6 in mind. Most of them can’t read yet, but they want to badly. They are seeking independence and use the illustrations to assist themselves in reading books when parents aren’t available. Let your illustrations tell the story as well, by choosing your words wisely.

If you are writing an Early Chapter Book, remember that it’s for ages 7-10. It will be a small book, with sparse, small black and white illustrations that compliment the story.

Now that you know the clear distinctions between Picture Books and Chapter Books, what are you waiting for? An illustrator perhaps?




Growing and Changing Things Up

I’m always on high alert, looking for anything that will help me grow as an illustrator. That being said, you can imagine my thrill when I found out that Artist Agent, Christina A. Tugeau, was coming to a nearby college to speak…and it was free!

Alex's Honey

I had learned about the CAT Agency several years ago, and stalked her website, looking for clues as to how I might improve my work in order to catch her eye. Perusing the list of incredible illustrators she represented, I soon realized that it would be a while before I figured out the magic formula….if ever.

Flash forward…her lecture (this past Saturday) was amazing and eye-opening, even for a veteran like me. Among the things I learned was that it’s as much about how you handle the business at hand, as it is about the talent you possess.

When assembling your portfolio for an agent to view, it’s important that it convey the fact that you know the steps necessary to get the job done. Include a storyboard or a dummy book to show them that you are familiar with page flow, book assembly, text placement, etc.


Character continuity is where many illustrators flounder, so you must somehow include a range of positions, movements and emotions for at least one or two of your characters. This will show off your capabilities and prove that you have what it takes to successfully carry a single character through 32 pages. Oh, and I have to follow up with the fact that your characters need to be unique and your style different from those that the agent already represents.


I also want to share the fact that your agent will most likely expect you to be a team player. If they’re going to do a great job representing you, then you have to be worthy of representation by doing the things they ask of you. Too many of us share the false notion that once you sign with an agent, you sit back and wait for them to get work for you. The TRUTH is, you have to keep working! Good agents will need you to keep the sketches coming, as they will be sending out promotional materials to publishers on a regular basis. If your not producing, you’ll become a hard sell. Who would want to rep someone who isn’t willing to grow and change things up occasionally?

Let’s talk about your website and blog. Yep, it’s required if you want to work with a great agency like CAT’s. Let’s face it, they’re both simple, basic tools that show and tell agents and publishers who you are. Your website should be straight-forward and user friendly. Don’t make them search through a myriad of fancy graphic gadgets and buttons to find your illustrations…keep it simple. One click, and BOO-YA! There they are.

Your blog is a different story. It requires you to string words together into complete sentences that make sense to the average reader. Don’t laugh! You’d be surprised how many people can’t do it!  SO, if you’re not word savvy, what’s an illustrator to do…hummmm? My advice is to enlist a friend or relative and wrangle up those pesky prose. You don’t need to say much, as long as you post your illustration progress, experimentation, success and publications regularly. A blog shows everyone that you’re constantly working.

I have included at the top of this post, the illustration I created especially for CAT’s visit. It’s a bit different than my usual style, reflecting on the recent changes I’ve made in my life and my way of thinking about children’s book illustration.

I may never know what she thinks of it. 

As she turned to the page in my portfolio, the shrill voice of a fire alarmed screamed in the hallway, distracting everyone with it’s reminder that life can change in an instant. Confusion prompted another page turn, and unconsciously…another. She did not see it, but I dared not interrupt once she was able to refocus and continue on with the best portfolio review I’ve ever received. I am grateful for the opportunity that was given to me, and I’m determined to make it count!

The Skinny on “Idea Theft”

Today I was perusing my usual websites and came across a question regarding the safety of children’s book author’s manuscript “ideas”. The writer was worried that when submitting to publishers, his idea for the story might be stolen, revised/improved upon, and published without giving him the proper recognition (if any) and compensation due. I hear this concern a lot, so I thought I would give you my take on the situation, hoping that it will calm your fears.

Let’s walk through a typical day at one of “the big boy” editor’s offices. (You shouldn’t be pitching your ideas to anyone else anyway.)

Editor, Purely Wornout, finally arrives at her office after fighting her way through yet another awful morning of NYC traffic. In desperate need of the coffee her secretary has been too busy to fetch, she plops down behind her desk, piled high with unread manuscripts that have been pouring in over the past week.

Bleary eyed, she stares at the pile (about to topple over) of wanna-be authors manuscripts that her over-worked associate editor believes might be suitable for consideration.

Purely wonders if she’ll ever again find the time to write manuscripts of her own, hoping it happens BEFORE the company is taken over or folds altogether. Dismissing the notion so that she can focus on the task at hand, she checks the multitude of notes left in front of her, listing all the calls that came in while she’d been arguing with the parking attendant. A few must be addressed immediately, so the manuscripts must wait. She’s not feeling too optimistic about her chances to get to them before this afternoon’s meeting, but she knows that it’ll have to happen soon. The boss is breathing down her neck.

After the a.m. meeting and her fourth cup of coffee, Purely settles down to attack the dreaded stack of manuscripts. It grew while she was gone and threatens to take on a life of it’s own. After throwing out the first twenty-three, she comes across one that peaks her interest, and reads on past the first paragraph, into the second..third..fourth…

“This is pretty good” she says, as if someone could hear her among the wringing phones, office chatter, and general mayhem that her office windows can’t seem to squelch. She places it on her “maybe” pile, and moves on…hoping that before the day is out, lightening will strike, bringing with it a story that needs no revision because it’s undeniably the best she’s ever read.

Most editors receive so many manuscripts that they don’t have time to think about developing on the ideas of others. They push through at alarming rates, giving most submissions about 30 seconds to “Wow” them before moving on to the next. It’s all the time that they can afford.

Their job is to find the gem among the stones, and their continued employment with the company depends on that little gem being worth the cost that it takes to get it to the marketplace (about one-hundred thousand dollars per picture book).

There isn’t time for underhanded efforts if they have any hope of making it through the constant influx of new manuscripts. Thousands pour into large publishing companies every year, and that number grows with each company merger or closing.

Every possible story idea presents itself, but most are just repeated efforts at an old story line. I’ve heard many an editor state, “Spare me the agony of reading yet another book about dogs or teddy bears!”

The bottom line is, if you have a great idea, write a great book! Polish it until it sparkles so brightly that a submissions editor will be blinded by it’s perfection, dazzled by your brilliance, and compelled to pick up the phone to congratulate his associate editor for having forwarded to him/her the companies next acquisition!

Authors seeking Illustrators – Buyer Beware!

This morning, I read a complaint from an author who’d been burned three times by so-called “children’s book illustrators” who conducted themselves unprofessionally. The first person kept telling her that they were working on the illustrations, putting her off repeatedly. She let eighteen months pass before demanding an answer, then the illustrator finally admitted that she hadn’t been doing the illustrations at all!

She then found two new illustrators to work on two different books. Both agreed to work on the books, then one decided to pull out without notification and the other hadn’t contacted her for weeks, even though she begged her for an update.

I thought you might like to read my response, as it might help many self-publishing authors who are thinking of having their manuscripts illustrated in the near future.

Dear Self-publishing Author,

It’s a shame, but yours is not a unique story. There are thousands of people out there claiming to be children’s book illustrators, when indeed they have never completed even one book. There are others who forget they’re representing a business, and treat illustrating as if it were a hobby. Both types make the pro’s (like me) have to work harder for every dollar we EARN.

Once a trust is broken, (often authors act unprofessional as well) the injured party becomes skittish and guarded. The new pro must then deal with gaining trust above and beyond the norm so that everyone can work in harmony. Authors who’ve been burned, tend to micro-manage after such an experience, and it’s understandable but not usually necessary if the new pro has a proven track record, meaning that they’ve worked with many happy clients, over a reasonable period of time, and produced many wonderful results.

Another frustration for pro illustrators is that we have to bid against these unprofessionals, who bid ridiculously low prices because of their inexperience or hobbyist attitude. Unsuspecting authors looking to do things cheaply, jump to hire them without considering what they’re more likely to receive…unprofessionalism or second-rate work. Hiring a pro doesn’t have to break your budget, if you’re smart about it! Look for pro’s who are willing to break their fee’s down into monthly payments over the long-haul.

Just because someone can draw well and claims to be an illustrator, doesn’t mean they are one!

Character Sample2There’s a LOT more to it than just drawing pretty pictures! An illustrator should (once hired) be ABLE to provide you with a storyboard layout of your book. They should know how to illustrate your story in such a way that the pictures will ENHANCE your text, not just show what’s already being said in the text.

I recommend that authors seeking illustrators should do their homework before hiring.

Make sure that the prospective illustrator can give you references from other happy clients (that can be verified). Make sure that your illustrator can provide you with a legally binding, mutually beneficial contract that states WHEN/HOW OFTEN sketches will be delivered to you in a timely manner. It should state WHEN the finished full-color illustrations will be completed & give you a reasonable time frame for completion and delivery of the whole project (3-6 months, depending on the page count and details), and the contract should contain a break down of all the fees and what they are for.

Once you sign the contract, your illustrator will be legally bound to follow it. Pro’s will do this by CONTACTING YOU periodically throughout the project to let you know how things are progressing. They will deliver sketches and completed illustrations according to the contract delivery dates. They will request your feedback along the way, proving that they are working on your project.

There is no excuse for not contacting your client to report how things are going!

YES, sometimes life gets in the way, and problems occur that slow down production, but a PRO always keeps their client aware of such things! A clear understanding and good communication are KEY to a great working relationship and a successful, pleasant outcome!

Authors, if your illustrator does not contact you in a timely manner (according to your contract), you then KNOW that something is wrong! DO NOT hesitate in taking action. If your illustrator does not deliver the goods as promised, ask what’s up! You have the right to know.

Finally, if both you and your illustrator conduct yourselves in a business-like manner, all should be well and the project will be a joyful one (as it should be).

Nothing makes an author happier than seeing their dream become a reality, one page at a time!

If your illustrator is not including YOU in the process, pull out quickly (siting breach of contract issues) and find someone else BEFORE you’re in too deep!

Selling books on Amazon

I recently answered the question;

“What should I do to correct the fact that even though my book has been on the market since 2011 (, I haven’t sold many copies?”

I decided to take the time to go and look at her sales pitch on Amazon. Since most self-published books wind up there, I thought other self-publishing authors might be curious to know what I found. You’ll hear it in my answer, and I hope it helps when you decide to list your book there one day.

Hello, I think I can help you!

As a professional, traditionally published author/illustrator, I can tell you with great certainty that it has a lot to do with how your book is presented in the marketplace. I checked it out on Amazon (where most people buy books these days) and I must tell you that you missed the mark when it comes to a promotional sales pitch!

A.) The sample on Amazon only contains one image/illustration from the book, and it is a stagnant pose that stands there, staring at the reader blankly. It is not a lively character who shows emotion. It does not tell us anything about the fact, it’s message repeats what is found in the title, nothing more.

(It was a full frontal view of the main character, showing no emotion or action that might give us a clue as to what’s in store for us if we buy the book.)

B.) The pages included are too wordy, and only sell YOU, the author….not the book you have created for sale.

(The author went on and on about herself, and said very little about the book itself)

C.) The description does not tell your buyers what they will be getting for their money…i.e., what are some of the things that their child will identify with in the story? What is so special about it that will make the book a favorite, to be read over and over again?

(When you write your own book description, be sure to tell your potential buyer what their child will get out of the book, and why it will become the most cherished book they own.)

D.) Buyers are bombarded with personal facts about your life and what drove you to write the book, when in reality, buyers don’t care unless one, it pertains to the story -or- two, they are already a fan of your books!

E. ) You need more reviews! It is obvious to buyers that the one and only review was written by someone who knows you somehow, as their grandchild personally knows and interacts with a character in the book. This has a negative impact and would not make me want to purchase this book.

(The only reviewer admitted that she knew the author through a mutual source…could she not get any REAL reviews? This speaks volumes. After several years on the market, she’s only got one review from someone biased. How pathetic. (Sorry if that sounds mean…I’m a nice person, really I am.)

Here’s what I suggest. You redo your amazon listing to include three-four illustrated interior pages of the book, (there is currently only one…the book’s cover) so that buyers can fall in love with your characters and the settings they live in. You should eliminate 90% of the personal info about you…it makes you look like an ego driven newbie author. Only when you have several books and a following is it necessary to provide fans with personal information, and THAT should be done on your author website that you should have created before the book was released. (assuming that you don’t have one?)

After you have created a lively promotion on Amazon, that represents your BOOK instead of YOU, then you need to get off your tushie and get promoting! Tell all your friends, ask author/illustrator bloggers to feature your story (about how you published) on their blog site. Go to book Fairs and writing conferences, where you can “talk up” and show off your accomplishment. Ask everyone you know to “tweet ” about your book. Enter your book in publishing contests, and sell it anywhere and everywhere you go…always having several copies with you. Go to your local library and offer to do a free one hour workshop on “How to publish a Picture Book”, and be sure to take as many books as possible to sell afterwards (you have to do your selling quietly as if it is not your sole reason for being there).

All these things will help to increase your sales and will build your confidence. You have to be tenacious, driven, and intent on making a profit if you hope to succeed in this saturated market! Best of luck to you!

Most sincerely and respectfully, Lisa J. Michaels

People who complain about poor book sales when they clearly have no one to blame but themselves irritate the snot out of me.