BOOKS WITH FLAIR: Personalized Kid/YA Gifts

Note: BOOKS WITH FLAIR is up and running since I first posted this. Check it out!

Kid/YA Authors and illustrators! If your local independent bookseller carries your traditionally published books, ask if they'll gift-wrap and ship personalized copies as presents.

Here's my idea: if they agree, we'll list our books by suggested age and genre. Customers will call in (and pay for) an order to the bookstore along with the request for a signed and/or personalized copy. Bookstores will either send signed stock or, if we're open to personalizing, will let us know about orders so we can scoot over there and inscribe to particular young readers by name before they gift wrap and ship the books.

Find out more here. I'm open to ideas!

Straight Talk on Tough Times For Writers

A trio of agents were tweeting yesterday about how tough it's been to find a market for a good story. I chimed in (of course) to ask Colleen Lindsay, Elana Roth, and Lauren Macleod a few questions.

I thought it might be helpful to share their answers here, along with some input from Nancy Mercado, executive editor of Roaring Brook Press, and few other authors as well (my tweets are in red, and I edited the conversation slightly to make it more blog-friendly).

It all started with Colleen sharing a link to a blog post from another agent ...

Colleen: Agent Kristin Nelson with a harsh reality of today's market. Books that would have sold in about two weeks last year are being lovingly rejected right and left. It is un-fun.

Elana: I'm getting those same responses on things that would have easily sold a year ago. Ain't it grand?

We want to hear about the exceptions, too. Tell us about new books that are encouraging risky business.

I don't know. I've passed some of the world's nicest rejection letters to authors pretty frequently lately. It's sad.

Colleen: I'm not seeing any right now, to be quite honest. How about you, Lauren?

Lauren: Sadly, I've also been getting lots of praise-filled rejections for beautiful, well-written books.

Elana: I've learned my lesson taking on projects where I didn't get that tingly feeling but thought it could work.

Colleen: I'm doing the same. Much much much pickier about who I sign on, and they must be able to take editorial direction.

But wait! Agent Mary Kole says, "Editors are salivating to buy and publish amazing stories." What (if anything) can agents offer to reduce risk and nudge a publisher to the tipping point?

Lauren: Ain't that the question! A perfect book ready to go to press?

Colleen: Offer a manuscript that is beyond amazing, and needs very little work. Ah, but there's the rub: the vast majority of projects simply aren't as amazing as they need to be these days to get published. And these days, I wouldn't take on a client who needed that much work anyway. I no longer have the time to play editor.

Elana: I've been choosier and then still do the editorial work to get it as perfect as I can. Speaking of what I want in clients, I blogged about it yesterday.

Lauren: I still do editing, but I have to really, really, really love the book before I'll take it on. On the fence now equals no, more than before.

Colleen: In the old days, editors had time and manpower to work with an author on revising a not-quite-there manuscript. Not any more.

Nancy: I think it depends on what you mean by not-quite-there. Most of the novels I sign up go through at least 3 or 4 revisions. I'd say in kids' publishing extensive editing is the norm.

Colleen: Do you find that you do more fine-tuning of manuscripts, or tearing apart structure and story lines?

Nancy: I'd say it's working on structure and story for the first two or three drafts, then fine tuning for the last two.

Any editors getting a reputation for taking risks and having vision?

Lauren: It seems like Flux is doing some cool things, but I don't have first hand experience.

Elana: They do, but they also have a slightly less risky business model/advance set-up. Which...definitely has its positives.

Lauren: But they are also new, so they don't have as much choice -- they have to take more editorial risks.

Elana: I do think what you (Nancy) are doing is more and more rare in publishing, though. It's wonderful, but rare!

Nancy: Thanks, but I find that hard to believe. I know so many editors in this industry who do the same. I've seen amazing edit letters in the printer at every company I've worked for.

Elana: I've had great editors for my clients, but you took a risk on something knowing how much work it needed. You're a rarity for me.

Do you encourage a writer to pay for professional editing before querying? I fear this on behalf of broke writers.

Colleen: Ethically, I can't encourage my clients to use a professional editor. But there are some very good ones out there.

Elana: Ditto. I both support freelance editors and am wary when queriers say they've used them. It's a tough call.

Lauren: I don't know if you need a professional editor as much as you need a great friend/critique partner.

Colleen: A GOOD professional developmental or line edit is going to cost a writer a couple thousand dollars, just as an FYI.

For Kid/YA books, here's a summary of freelance professional editors -- check out their sites to find out more about prices. For more agent chat on twitter, follow #askagent or #allaboutagents.

Writers, it's like we've got a tough teacher who gives us Cs when we used to earn As. Tight times should make our writing shine.

Christine Marciniak
: That's a good way of looking at it. But it makes it seem like the grading curve changed in the middle of the course.

Susan Marie Swanson
: I don't know--seems to me that we've got the tough teacher who now has bigger class, new administration, more stress.

Maybe @SCBWI wants to offer the fee for a topnotch professional editor as an award for emerging Kid/YA writers? I'd donate.

Susan: Wouldn't this be an endorsement of a particular business model on part of SCBWI, whereby authors shoulder even more expense?

Bonnie Adamson
: Also, the Namelos model (a firm started by Stephen Roxburgh, formerly of Front Street) of paid book prep is getting dangerously close to self-publishing, yes?

So what do you think?

(1) Is a professional critique before querying worth it?

(2) As Bonnie suggests, when does this process shift into the realm of self-publishing?

(3) How do you feel about authors bearing more of the risk (and up-front cost) of publishing than we used to?

(4) Are there creative, entrepreneurial options writers might pursue, given that the publishing industry is questioning the future of the printed book as the public's preferred, primary vehicle of story?

Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children's Book Award

Unlike some ethnic book awards, the Rivera Award doesn't depend on the race of the author. It's given annually "to the author/illustrator of the most distinguished book for children and young adults that authentically reflects the lives and experiences of Mexican Americans in the United States."

This year, two books tied for the top honor (descriptions quoted verbatim from the official Rivera Award site):

The Holy Tortilla and a Pot of Beans
by Carmen Tafolla

In this wonderfully creative collection of sixteen short stories, Tafolla brings to life the bilingual/bicultural world of the Texas-Mexico border. As in her previous works, Tafolla celebrates the resilient human spirit of her characters amidst the prejudice and hypocrisy, the faith and magic, and the family, and community that are part of this world. The stories are poignant, even tragic, and they are funny, filled with humor. Tafolla’s energy is felt throughout. As Carmen herself says, “ It’s about those things that are really holy and miraculous, but it’s also about those very common, underappreciated blessings, like a homemade pot of beans.”

He Forgot to Say Goodbye
by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

In this carefully crafted novel, two high school boys develop an unlikely friendship despite their different upbringings. Ramiro Lopez has been raised in the Mexican American working class barrio of El Paso where his brother is lured into the world of drugs, while White Jake Upthegrove has lived in the rich West Side and has a problem managing his anger. Both boys have not known their fathers who abandoned their families early. Ramiro and Jake both come to enjoy and respect the loyal friendship of Alejandra a third strong teenager in this contemporary setting.

Mitali of Orchard House

What is it about dead authors' desks that I love? A highlight of my trip to France a few years ago was seeing firsthand where Victor Hugo stood to write, overlooking an archetypal Parisian square.

And some of you might remember my trek to Green Gables last summer, where I delved into all things L.M. Montgomery, relishing the view from the room where she wrote. (THE BLYTHES ARE QUOTED, her last book about Anne, releases today, by the way.)

Today I took my beloved visiting mother-in-law to Orchard House, where we joined a group of high school English students on a tour of Louisa May Alcott's domain.

After moving twenty-two times in nearly thirty years, the Alcotts settled from 1858-1877 in Orchard House, which dates to circa 1690-1720.

The prolific Ms. Alcott wrote for fourteen hours at a stretch, switching to her left hand when her right one grew tired, and completed the first half of LITTLE WOMEN in two months during 1868. Alcott, unlike the other L.M., was prescient enough to secure a royalty for that bestseller instead of the flat fee given to Montgomery.

Louisa's father, Bronson Alcott, built a shelf desk in her bedroom overlooking the tall elms and apple trees surrounding their house.

College Days

I'm flying to California for a "big" college reunion, so I won't be back on the Fire Escape until next Wednesday. I'll probably be tweeting a bit, but for now it's time to meander down memory lane.

I'm picturing the 17-year-old version of me standing in the dorm parking lot on the first day watching my parents' taillights disappear. I remember thinking: Now how am I supposed to kiss them good night?

What I didn't know is that over the next four years I'd find a faith that changed me, meet the man I'd marry, and start to see a bridge between two growing interests: stories and justice.

See you next week!

Thank You Love Notes

... from 8th graders who have participated in a writing workshop are a good way to commemorate The National Day of Writing today (kindly remember that these are all "sic"):
"You've shown me what it is to be an author, and, who knows, I might possibly be your competition one day."

"After meeting you last week I have been totally craving Sweet Tarts."

"I loved how you gave your impression of your parents. It cranked me up."

"Never had I heard an author speak of dating trouble and video games. You helped me realize that not all authors are these stiff hard working people."

"When I wrote my paragraph, I read it over. I was so excited that it was better than my normal writing. I wanted you to read it out loud to my group members. People would overlook me in the option list of 'who wrote this' because it was 'too good' for my writing."

"Why is reading a book so special? You brought the answer out to me: Reading engages you by involving all five human senses. It's why your stomach growls when the character goes to a king's feat or why you walk the streets of an imaginary world while sitting on a bed grasping a book."
Ah, yes. Now that's why I love writing for middle-schoolers.

All Things Kidlitospheric

I don't get lonely on the Fire Escape. How could I, when I'm surrounded by a host of supportive bloggers who love books for kids and teens? If you haven't been introduced to the Kidlitosphere yet, this is a good time to start. What does this virtual community offer?
  • Comprehensive list of bloggers who love Kid/YA books, including group blogs.

  • A list of authors and illustrators who blog with up-to-date links.

  • Monthly carnivals of children's literature with links to great blog posts.

  • Poetry Fridays, a weekly assortment of poetry-themed musings and original content.

  • Nonfiction Mondays, giving bloggers a chance to share nonfiction books for children and teens.

  • An annual in real life conference for "movers and shakers in the kidlit community." If you're not in the D.C. area this Saturday, October 17, you may track the conference via twitter by searching for #kidlitcon. (That's what I'll be doing, since I don't have Hermione's time turner.)

  • A series of book awards called Cybils given by children’s and young adult book bloggers with only two criteria: literary merit and kid appeal.
Support, encouragement, buzz about books on the margins .. the list of benefits goes on, so don't miss out because the kidlitosphere is taking a leading role in our fast-changing industry.

Don't You Love My Job?

After a leaf-peeping morning drive to Willard School in Concord, Massachusetts, an author presentation, and a writing workshop, I was done by noon today. That gave me plenty of time to ramble around a famous pond in the vicinity (can you name it?):

Five Facebook Foibles

Interested in using this social media tool professionally as well as personally? Here are five errors to avoid when using Facebook:

mistake #1: sending blank friend requests to professional contacts

Don't put the onus on the friendee to investigate whether or not you're a stalker. Send a line of introduction with your request explaining how and why the two of you should be connected.

mistake #2: underutilizing the bio and information boxes

Use these to introduce yourself as a writer, librarian, bookseller, editor, teacher, or general book aficionado, especially if you set your default profile privacy for basic information to "everyone." Meticulously avoid spelling and grammar mistakes in these two boxes and try to make them interesting and easy to read. By all means link to your professional website, Facebook fan page (more on this in a minute), twitter feed, and/or blog.

mistake #3: lumping all your friends into the same list

When Facebook upgraded their list function a few months ago, they kept me on the site. I took the time to divide my friends into lists like "bookish folk" or "churchy peeps" or "millennials" (between the ages of 14-21), and again into regions. I'm now able to direct a link or a status update to a particular list, which doubles the power of this tool for me professionally.

My millennials, for example, will get the free slurpee day announcement, my college buddies know I'm going to the reunion, and if I'm launching a new book in Seattle, I can target bookish people in that area with the invitation. I still send certain links and status updates to everybody, but there are times when I want to be discerning and avoid clogging my friends' news feed with stuff they don't care about.

mistake #4: being too "humble" to set up a fan page

In an over-the-top celebraholic culture, Facebook chose an unfortunate moniker for these pages, but I recommend that serious writers and illustrators set up fan pages. If you're a private person, you can reserve your personal Facebook page for real friends and family and shift your working life to the more public fan page venue. Think of it as your "professional" page instead of your "fan" page if that helps you get over the humility hurdle.

Even if you're not as private a person, a fan page is a good idea because it's an appropriate place for young people to connect with adults on Facebook. Educators use them to avoid the trap of getting too personal with their students. Booksellers can connect with customers, librarians with patrons, and authors with readers. You can link to your fan page from your personal page, and once you get 100 fans, register a personal url that's more user-friendly.

What do you post on your fan page? Status updates about your work are perfectly appropriate here. I import my blog posts to my fan page instead of into my personal FB page, for example, so I don't inundate my cousins in Calcutta with even more about me, me, me as a writer through my personal news feed. If a friend or relative subscribes to my author fan page, I figure they're signing up for news and updates about my books as well as access to my blog posts.

mistake #5: not customizing your privacy settings

This tip is last but perhaps most important. You must be a ruthless tamer of Facebook or it will run amok.

Customize your privacy settings.

Choose what people see in your profile, decide where and how you show up in searches, be in charge of what's published in your news feed and to your wall, and control each attention-grabbing application or game you use within Facebook. No offense, but I don't want to know your score in Mafia Wars, although it might interest a particular subset of your friends.

How to do this? In the top blue bar of your Facebook page, click on "Settings" and then second from the bottom you'll see "Privacy." You should be able to take it from there.

In short, if you're trying to use Facebook professionally, take a bit of time and learn how to use it well. As with all social media, your goal is to connect with others and express your voice and vision authentically. It can be a tremendous professional tool if used sparingly and smartly.

Questions? Leave them in the comments or email me.

Note: If you're a published author or illustrator of books for children and teenagers in the Boston area, you may sign up for the NESCBWI Salon on Managing Your Online Presence, Saturday, November 14, 2009, from 10:00 - 2:30, in Acton. I'm co-leading it with marketing maven Deborah Sloan.

Diary Entry on Skin Color: May 17, 1977

Would somebody please interpret this journal rumination from the fourteen-year-old version of me, remembering that I was in an almost all-white high school?

It's clear that I was procrastinating my algebra by writing in my diary about an unrequited crush, but what exactly did I mean by "I wish I could hide behind my skin color more often, instead of cowering nakedly in front of it"?