In the opening keynote address at the 42nd annual Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators summer conference, held August 2–5 in Los Angeles, Speak author Laurie Halse Anderson rallied the 1,266 attendees to embrace the conference as a way to “gather around the fire and share stories, keep the darkness and the doubts at bay, and reconnect with your real self – your muse.”
Anderson was one of the 90 authors, illustrators, editors, agents, and publishers who made up the conference faculty, which facilitated dozens of workshops and individual consultations. Prior to Anderson’s keynote, SCBWI executive director Lin Oliver and president Stephen Mooser welcomed the audience to the packed ballroom of the Hyatt Century Plaza Hotel. Oliver said the group included 38% published authors and illustrators and 62% “pre-published, as we like to say.”
Anderson, firmly entrenched among the published – her 30th book, The Impossible Knife of Memory, will be out in January – presented her speech Born to Be Mild: What It Means to Be a Writer for Children to an enthusiastic audience. “Your dreams are valid,” she said. “I know what you’re feeling. You’re worried you don’t have the talent. You’re worried that you suck. Well, welcome to your doubts.” Even with a few dozen books under her belt, Anderson says she still periodically succumbs to self-doubt. “Once a month I find myself looking at classified ads for x-ray technicians,” she said, before leading the audience in a brief breathing exercise. “It’s going to be okay. Children don’t ask permission to create. Turn off the Internet – you were born to be, and to make, magic.”
Jon Scieszka delivered the next keynote, and brought the house down when, after Oliver introduced him and the two hugged on stage, he grabbed her behind. A startled but good-natured Oliver took her seat to wild applause. Scieszka spoke with his trademark blend of humor, wide-ranging comments, and self-deprecating remarks. His most emphatic message to those in the audience? “Don’t listen to all the advice you’re going to get here. We’re here to enjoy.” And he encouraged the audience to follow his example: “Being subversive is a great way to engage kids.”
Getting Down to Business
An SRO group attended Emma Dryden’s workshop Publishing Options for the Author Entrepreneurs. Dryden, who has worked at Random House, Macmillan, and S&S, most recently as publisher of Margaret K. McElderry Books, now runs drydenbooks, a children’s editorial and publishing consultancy firm. “Self-publishing is about investing in yourself and your craft,” she said. In fact, she added, publishing entrepreneurs are likely to spend their own money on their books, often without recouping their outlay. “Most people slog away and don’t make any money,” said Dryden. “One blogger I found wrote, ‘I publish, therefore I am invisible.’ ”
She outlined the advantages of a traditional publishing deal: “Publishers are the authoritative conduit between the author and the reader. They bring expertise and a complex team of people to help an author: the editor, proofreader, designer, marketing manager, publicists, and sales force.” On the other hand, entrepreneurship requires an author to think creatively, actively, and independently.” If you don’t have a team, your biggest challenge is in adopting the best practices of the best publishers, and honoring readers with quality books.”
The keynote Landslides and Digital Tremors: Should We Be Afraid? Navigating a New Landscape of Storytelling and Publishing was presented by Gill Evans, editorial director and fiction publisher of Walker Books in London. Evans said that the advantages of traditional publishing include direct financial support and an editor “who erects the scaffolding of the writer’s building.” In the new digital model of publishing, which she referred to as “360-degree publishing,” there is the opportunity for more spontaneous development and the inclusion of apps. “Digital first publishing is establishing itself as the new model with which agents and authors are comfortable,” said Evans. “ ‘Trialing’ a book in digital replicates the discovery of self-published online authors, a chance to test the market and move to the more costly print-based book if the audience has shown itself strongly.”
Evans believes that print books will survive. “Publishers who are flexible and adaptive to the new opportunities while retaining their core values and aspirations for story and readers can, through a judicious mix of both old and new approaches, create more value for writers and illustrators than individuals may be able to create for themselves.”
Friday afternoon workshops included Delacorte: What I Buy, presented by Delacorte executive editor Krista Marino. “I’m interested in historical fiction and plots that have an arc,” Marino said. “It doesn’t matter where it’s set.” She’s also seeking YA books by adult authors. “There’s great crossover appeal in this kind of fiction,” she said, “which fans of an author’s adult books will buy even though it’s for younger readers.” But it’s a fine line to walk: also on Friday was the Teens: It’s Not All Drama 24/7 workshop, presented by Joanna Volpe of New Leaf Literary & Media, who said that one of her pet peeves is the author who writes adult fiction that tries to pass as YA. “Having one teen character in the story does not make a YA novel.”
Four authors participated in Friday afternoon’s World Building in YA Novels discussion. Moderated by Ransom Riggs (Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children), the panel comprised Veronica Rossi, Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Tahereh Mafi. Riggs asked the authors to talk about their original inspirations, and what it was like for them when getting started. Rossi (Under the Never Sky series) went with her own interests: “I’m very focused on how dependent we are on devices, and the marriage of technology and biology.” Dante’s Theseus and the Minotaur was the launching point for Ashton. The audience laughed when she said, “I had so much trouble at first describing Everneath that I made my protagonist blind.” Mafi (Shatter Me series), described herself as a “pantser – I write by the seat of my pants. I’m interested in dystopian subjects, and watch a lot of documentaries about things like genetic mutations.” As for Hand (Unearthly series), heaven, hell, and angels underlie the themes of her books, and C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce has inspired her writing. “In my world,” she said, “hell is the place where the sun is perpetually setting, and in heaven it’s perpetually rising.”
Ransom announced that he’d just finished the sequel to Miss Peregrine’s Home, called Hollow City (Jan. 2014), that morning, before asking the panelists about “the second book problem.” Ashton said that she threw away two books before realizing that she had to work out the mechanics of her world first. “Some things you have to have in place,” she said. Book 3 was the hardest for Hand: “At that point you have to keep track of so much information in your head.”
Lin Oliver moderated Saturday’s editors panel, What Makes an Evergreen, What Makes a Hit, with participants Andrea Pinkney (Scholastic), Donna Bray (HarperCollins imprint Balzer + Bray), Allyn Johnston (S&S/Beach Lane), Melissa Manlove (Chronicle), Namrata Tripathi (Atheneum), and Claudia Gabel (HarperCollins/Tegen). “A hit captures a particular time in culture and has a story with a hook,” Gabel said. Bray cited the universal emotional truth that defines an evergreen before adding, “If we knew the formula that makes a hit, we’d be doing it all the time. It’s like legalized gambling.”
When Oliver asked if acquisitions have become marketing decisions, Pinkney strongly disagreed. “No,” she said, “we’re all in this together: finance, sales, marketing, and editorial.” The other editors were in consensus. “I want the whole team behind me,” Bray said. “We have to help them see what we see.” Pinkney added that she sets up pre-meetings with department managers to discuss a “challenging” title: “That way, I’m prepared for the objections.” Tripathi agreed, saying, “The acquisitions process involves chemistry. We have to convey our love for a book to everyone involved.”
Oliver also introduced picture book author and keynote speaker Mac Barnett, calling him “one of the very smart, quirky, funny contemporary writers who represents a new style.” Barnett’s slide show included an interactive audience reading of his picture book Guess Again! along with stories about his job, some years back, at a summer sports camp for four- to six-year-olds. “We write for the best audience,” he said. “Children are willing to look at truth and lies, and we help them find the wonder that lies in the middle.” He participates in the 826 Valencia tutoring program, and helped organize the Los Angeles branch. The retail store in front sells items such as Emotion Chips, cans of Mammoth Chunks, and has a broken time machine. “These little pieces of absurdity,” he explained, “represent the way I think about books.”
Surveying the Landscape
Sunday morning’s agents panel: The New World of Children’s Books, featured Mela Bolinao (MB Artists), Ginger Clark (Curtis Brown), Joanna Volpe (New Leaf Literary), Steve Malk (Writers House), and Jenny Bent (The Bent Agency). The discussion, moderated by blogger Lee Wind, began with a question about the biggest changes in today’s market. Volpe mentioned the ready availability of numbers, i.e. sales figures and rankings. “Authors can get immediate feedback on their publicity efforts and how they affect sales,” she said. “But then you need to figure out what to do with that information.” Malk said that with the advent of digital books, self-publishing doesn’t have the stigma it once did. “What that means is that the bar has been raised on all of us – creators, agents, publishers – and we need to work harder.” Bolinao explained that with a tougher illustration market there is a need for extra details and a signature look that makes the artist stand out.
Both Clark and Malk said that their agencies now have digital rights managers to help clients who want to self-publish their out-of-print and backlist titles. The general consensus was that branding is of prime importance. “I’d like all my clients to be seen as a brand for marketing,” said Clark. “You’ll see more success earlier if you see your career as being for the long haul.”
Deborah Halverson, founder of DearEditor.com, delivered a keynote titled Market Report: An Up-to-the-Minute State of the Industry, which compiled the results of interviews with 17 publishing insiders. “The past year delivered in quantitative terms,” said Halverson, who credited BookStats for providing numbers. “Children’s books sales were up 13% in 2012, and unit sales rose 10.8%. E-book sales had the biggest gain, jumping 117% and accounting for 12.6% of all children’s and YA books.” Even discounting the sales jolt from The Hunger Games, sales were on the rise in early 2012.
Halverson reported that sales are up for picture books, but editors are still cautious about the category. Chapter books and early readers remain challenging. “Middle-grade fiction is a sweet spot in the industry, and sales are up, but editors caution that the author’s voice must be ‘just right.’ ” YA, she found, is considered “over-published, and editors are being more selective.” There is more of an interest in realistic, contemporary teen fiction about love and friendship with more of a boy-oriented theme. And the Common Core is having an effect on nonfiction acquisitions as publishers try to align with the new standards. Halvorson wrapped up her report with a few words on the current mood of children’s publishing. “It is more settled,” she said, “and the experts are satisfied to have reached a balance between print and digital. The landscape is clearer, and there is a sense of optimism.”
With additional reporting by Janice Yuwiler.