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.

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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!

Thoughts on Self-Promotion and Promoting Your Own Books

The list of ways to promote oneself seems to be growing larger everyday, and that in itself presents a problem for creatives.

I mean, if you attempted to use all the social media sites and advertising strategies, and attend all the workshops, seminars, book fairs, etc., you could spend at least 50% of each and every day doing nothing but promotional work. Not only is it exhausting, but it’s not practical for creative thinkers who need to spend as much time as possible creating their product!

Creative people in general are not famous for their ability (or want) to self-promote. Most are the type that need space and time alone to do what they do best…CREATE. As soon as you start talking to them about “getting out there” and selling their wares, alarms start going off and panic sets in. Their creative spark shuts down. For writers – writers block sets in. For illustrators, the blank canvas becomes, well frankly…frighteningly blank! Everything comes to a screeching halt, as their brains overload by just the thought of such a huge undertaking.

As someone who writes, illustrates and promotes my books, I have to force myself to find balance. Let’s not forget that freelancers also have to FIND work, which requires a huge chunk of time as well. I try to give everything in my life equal time, knowing that if I push through the things I don’t enjoy, I will eventually get to the things I love.

Wether we like it or not, creatives first need to face the fact that self-promoting has become essential to survival. With self-publishing now easier than ever, the publishing industry as a whole has become extremely competitive. Self-promoting is a skill that must be improved upon daily, and applied to every facet of the creative process.

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As an illustrator, I’ve discovered it’s necessary to start visually promoting books way before they are available for purchasing. One example is to build a buzz for the book by adding interior artwork (if the publisher allows it) to blog interviews. Nothing promotes a book better than visuals. Post cards (above) are also widely used to promote illustrators to traditional publishers, as a way to acquire picture book assignments.

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Authors seeking traditional publication would be smart to plan their promotions and include the strategy in their cover letters to editors, as more and more publishers look for authors who are prepared to promote themselves. It is a selling point, and can really make the difference between a sale or (yet another) rejection.

Self-publishing authors really need to be prepared ahead of their publication date, because the amount of promotional work needed to make a profit is staggering. The self-publishing author should have his/her author website in place, ready to roll when their book is released, so that every potential sale can be processed or re-directed to the correct place.

There’s no doubt that the book writers and illustrators of today have a much bigger work load than those of the past, and they have even less time to actually create. With that in mind, we must be smart about how we use our time, and choose only the tactics that reap the greatest rewards and garner the most attention. We must keep our eyes on the prize, find where opportunities lie, create opportunities for ourselves, and seize them when they appear before us.

When you’ve done all that you can do, success will find you. It may not appear in the way that you expected it,…but it will arrive in it’s due time. Of this I am certain.

Picture Book Idea Month with Tara Lazar

piboidmo2013-participant-214x131It’s that time again! Fondly known as “PiBoIdMo”, Picture Book Idea Month will be in full swing soon, thanks to Children’s Book author, Tara Lazar. Now in it’s fifth year running, Tara has a full month of inspiration ready to role out for us, complete with editor and agent prizes!

If you are a procrastinator, suffer from occasional writers block, or just need inspiration to keep you motivated, then this event may be just the ticket… and it’s free!! 

Click here to visit Tara’s blog site, and sign up by November 2nd, 2013 to participate.

The rules are quite simple. Throughout November, each and every day, you must come up with at least one Picture Book idea, and write it down. By the end of the month, your reward is 30 inspiring ideas to work from for the coming year!

Ideas can be something like:

  • a great Picture Book title
  • the name for a main character
  • a silly sentence
  • a great background setting for a story
  • a quick character sketch
  • a photograph that suggests a story
  • a magazine article about a currentevent

It’s just that easy. Personally, I have purchased a pretty box for the occasion. Every day throughout November it will sit on my desk in front of my computer to remind and inspire me.

LJMichaels Box

I may be hit with an idea anytime, anywhere, so I keep a pad of post-it notes with me at all times. When I receive picture book inspiration, I simply stop…jot it down…and when I return home, I drop it in the box and forget about it. I don’t open the box until December 1st, and every year it feels like an early Christmas present to myself!

Some people like to create a folder on their pc/mac desktops, so they can type out their ideas and drop them them there, but I find that to be a hindrance. You are not always at your computer when inspiration strikes, and having to type it up adds to your daily work load. (Sometimes I will use any excuse to get out of doing things that are good for me.)

There’s something about actually writing it out by hand, and having a physical place to compile your thoughts that speaks to me. Perhaps it’s because I’m nostalgic. Maybe it’s because I’m a visual person. May it’s just because I’m a quirky artist. All I know is, this works for me. Please write and let me know if it worked for you!  :o)

Advice for New Illustrators

Lisa J. Michaels, copyright 2011Today I’d like to have a serious talk with those of you who are new children’s lit illustrators. Authors need to listen up too, as this post will undoubtedly give you some insight regarding the illustrators that you may someday collaborate with.

I think it’s important to discuss something that you will most likely come up against as you begin your search for illustration projects…

Beware of the self-publishing author who offers to pay you “royalties-only” in exchange for the privilege of illustrating his/her wonderful children’s book. They will tell you that this will help you in getting your work “out there” in front of the public eye, where you can be “discovered”.

These offers are a dime-a-dozen and that’s about all they’re worth!

Through the ages this tactic has been used to lure desperate-for-publication, wanna-be illustrators into working for free. These ego-driven authors truly believe (or have been made to believe, by unscrupulous predators) that their work is so incredible that any illustrator would be honored by the opportunity to work with them. In fact, many think that their book is so FANTASTICALLY CLEVER, that the illustrators entire career will be launched into orbit just by association.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

I’m here to tell you that seldom has any illustrator’s career been launched by a single book. It usually takes a string of little successes to build a career as a professional, sought-after illustrator.

It amazes me how many wonderful illustrators are willing to work for royalties only, with no other type of compensation. There’s only a promise of possible income, based on a single author’s possible ability to sell his/her own book. It’s one big “IF”!

  • IF the publisher is willing to help with promotions (and most usually don’t), the book might sell.
  • IF the author knows how to promote the book (and most usually don’t), he/she might sell enough copies to compensate for his/her own investment.
  • IF the book does well, (which they usually don’t) you, the illustrator, might get paid back for your extraordinary efforts…but will you make any money? SELDOM do “royalty only” projects produce enough profits to pay the illustrator for his/her time, let alone talent. It’s just a fact. 

Value the work that you do, and expect to get paid for it. Royalties are NOT a guarantee of payment for months of work.

You should look for jobs that compensate you AND offer a small percentage (10-12%) of royalties.

It’s a fair price for bringing someone else’s book to life and making their dreams come true!

As an illustrator, you can help your author and yourself to make money through book promotions. Your incentive will be the royalties that you bring in AFTER you’ve been paid for all your hard work!  It’s a win-win for the author, because along with you, he/she makes money on every book YOU sell – without lifting a finger!

Don’t be afraid to ask for what your time and talent is worth, and refuse substandard offers. This is a business and you have bills to pay.  Books take months to produce, so don’t gamble on “ifs”. The promise of a POSSIBLE return is not enough and NO illustrator should take the bait with regards to “exposure for your work”. If you’re going to work for free, work on creating great images for your own portfolio. Re-illustrate your favorite old Picture Book from childhood, and use THOSE images to build your portfolio. You’ll have a great time doing it, you won’t be getting ripped off, and you wont be contributing to the currently ongoing degradation of children’s book illustrators everywhere!

Where to Begin if You’re a “Newbie”

There’s so many options available to authors today, that it can be rather confusing for the novice writer or illustrator. As I mentioned yesterday, I attended a conference last weekend for the Florida Authors and Publishers Association and although most of the attendees were well educated in the field, there were a few new authors. You could easily spot them by the look of total confusion on their faces!

I really felt for the “newbies” (as I fondly call them). I wanted to jump up and run around the table to hug each one, calming their fears and relieving their obvious anxiety. Their mere presence made me so grateful, as it reminded me of how far I’d come and all the talented people who helped to get where I am…confident, working, continually learning, and comfortable enough in my knowledge to blog about it!

I mentioned author options, so I think we should discuss what some of them are and why it’s so important to understand them.

  • Option 1: Submitting your work to “traditional” publishers.

If you would like to see your manuscript published and you do not have funds to invest, “traditional” publication may be the best route for you. Traditional publishers do everything necessary to get your book in print, at no cost to you. They purchase space on bookstore shelves, where your book will be available to the public for purchasing. You will most likely receive an advance on royalties, which means that you will get paid before the book is released, and once the book has earned enough in sales to compensate for your advanced payment, you will then begin receiving quarterly checks for the small amount of royalties agreed upon in your contract.

However, this is also the most difficult route for any author or illustrator because the odds of acceptance are slim. Competition is stiff, the number of publishing houses  grows smaller everyday, and you may spend years submitting your work before opportunity strikes.

If you do manage to sell your book to a traditional publisher, they will pick the illustrator and you will not have anything to do with the illustration process. You will have to trust in the fact that your publisher is all about making money, so he/she will pick the best illustrator for your book!

  • Option 2: Submitting your work to magazines.

Getting published in a magazine is a great way to generate multiple sales on a single manuscript, as most magazines as for “first rights” only. This means that after your story is published in their magazine,  and a specified time period passes (usually one year), all rights revert back to you and you are then free to send the same manuscript out to another magazine for repeat publication.

When you are published in a magazine and are compensated for your work, you receive publishing “credit”, meaning that you are recognized by the industry as a professional author. This looks impressive on your resume and such credits have been known to help many an author get their foot in the door when submitting manuscripts to traditional publishers.

  • Option 3: Submitting your work to small, independent publishers.

Independent publishers are often authors who have written several books themselves. Their entrepreneurial drive and the ability to fund it led them to opening their own publishing company. These publishers are often able to pay their authors a larger royalty percentage, but seldom do they pay authors an advance. Independent publishers do everything that is necessary for publication, but keep the majority of profits in exchange for their investment. Most are not able to get your book into bookstores due the high cost of buy backs and stocking fees.

  • Option 4: Hiring a Vanity Press to publish your work.

Vanity Presses are companies that assist authors in getting their manuscripts published, in exchange for high fees (paid by the author), usually unfair contracts, and a high cost for printing. Authors must then buy books from them directly (in large quantities) and do all marketing and distribution themselves. Vanity press publications are seldom available in bookstores, but are usually available on the internet as “print on demand” books.

  • Option 5: Self Publishing.

When an author chooses to self publish, he/she must manage the production of their book as if it were a business. Although this awards them total control of the outcome, it can prove to be very costly.

In order to produce a book that is well-written (to industry standards), the self-publishing author should first pay for a professional critique. This will insure that the manuscript follows as many of the rules for children’s literature as possible. Afterwards, a professional editor should be hired to make sure that sentence structure, punctuation and spelling errors are corrected. When your manuscript is ready for production, it’s time to look for a professional printer.

You will need to find an affordable, professional printer BEFORE you look for an illustrator. Not every printer excepts all file types, and not all illustrators can create the files your printer will need. When you find your printer, ask them what file types they expect from your illustrator. You will need this information in your search for a professional illustrator.

When looking for an illustrator, expect to spend a substantial amount (between $2,500-$10,000). This will be where most of your production budget goes, because your illustrator will collaborate with you to make your book better than you can imagine it by yourself! Hire your illustrator based on what they have done in the past. Make sure that your illustrator has created and published picture books before. The more, the better. You’ve spent a lot of time, effort and money to get to this point…now is not the time to be cheap! Hire a professional and you will save yourself a lot of time and money, as they will bring all their experience and talent to the table.

An experienced illustrator should be able to do the layout and designing of your book. They should be capable of breaking down your manuscript into pages, determining how many illustrations are needed to enhance your text. They should provide you with a fair and legally binding contract that states what you are paying for and exactly when it will be delivered. They should also be able to create a stunning cover that will help in book sales.

Hint: A poorly designed cover can ruin the chances for a great book!

Don’t insult an illustrator by asking them to do free samples for you. Look at their portfolio and determine if their style is the type that will enhance your manuscript. If you simply MUST see how they will draw your main character beforehand, be prepared to pay a reasonable fee for their time and talent!

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The willingness of children’s book writers and illustrators to share information and encourage each other freely is a strange and wonderful phenomenon that I’m not sure exists in other fields. If you are new to children’s publishing, let me tell you that the mentoring I received early-on in my career made all the difference. I learned that no one can do this alone. If you surround yourself with people who are at least one step ahead of where you want to be, and pay close attention to what they’re doing now, when you’re finally ready to slip on their shoes – it will be a comfortable fit!

If you’re a new author or illustrator, stay tuned to this blog and prepare to work harder and longer than you could have ever imagined! As creators of children’s literature, we all must assume a responsibility to produce works that are worthy of our reader’s time and attention. We are teaching the adults of tomorrow and we are honor-bound to take it seriously, executing our works with as much education and professionalism as possible.

Until tomorrow my friends. Be creative, unique and JOYFUL!! ~ Lisa

A New Chapter Begins

Lisa J. Michaels:Reading Fairies

Welcome to my new blog!

I’ve recently been to a wonderful two-day conference with the Florida Authors and Publishers Association, at the beautiful Daytona Beach Resort Hotel.  During the many informative sessions, we were lectured on the art of blogging. One of the things that really stuck with me was when it was mentioned that ownership of your blog content is at risk if you use a “free” hosting site. I had never heard this before and it immediately set off alarms in my head!

Now I don’t know about you, but there are some risks I’m not willing to take. As an illustrator of children’s books, owning the rights to my own images is REALLY important. As an author, I want to be sure I’m getting paid for the use of my words!  This led me to seek out and switch over to a web hosting site that did not lay claim to my work, stating that I retained “complete ownership”.

You should only be granting your host the right to publish the content on your blog, or use the content to promote YOUR blog only. If you’re not sure about this, I suggest you do a little research. Make sure that you’re not giving up the rights to your cleverly written words or your beautifully illustrated images. They’re both worth something, and if someone else uses them, you should be well compensated.

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So, here I am at WordPress.com. I’ve paid them to host my content, just as I expect to be paid for the services I provide to my clients, such as professional critiques, illustrations that make manuscripts shine, and well-written, perfectly edited stories.

I decided it was time to get real and start practicing what I preach…professionalism.  

If you are just getting to know me, please know that my purpose for this blog is to help children’s book authors and illustrators, like myself, to find work and get published.  I’ve been at this since 2003, and I have a lot to share with you.

  • Although you may not always like what I have to say, I can guarantee you that I will give you my honest opinion.
  • Although I may not always be right, you can be sure that there is a valid reason for what I’ve shared, and I will do my best to make it clear.
  • Although it may not always seem so, everything I say will be intended in the spirit of kindness.

In the weeks to come, I will share with new authors and illustrators as much as I possibly can about getting started in children’s publishing and navigating the often shark-infested waters. I’ve fallen prey to several deviants along the way, and I hope to help you avoid the same fate. I’ve also had the delight and privilege of working with many fine people in the industry, and I look forward to passing along their sage advice and wisdom.

It is my sincere wish that this blog will help you along in your journey and give you the courage you need to be successful. A career in children’s publishing is difficult, but with the right tools, a great deal of stubborn persistence, the right attitude, and the ability to control your ego,…

you can rise to the top and stay there.

Reproduction of any content on this website is strictly prohibited. All text, photos, art & illustrations are the sole property of Lisa J. Michaels. Permission for use of materials must be obtained from Lisa J. Michaels.