Sunday, December 30, 2012

Boy Books, Girl Books, or JUST PLAIN GREAT BOOKS?

The hottest non-book item in the bookstore this holiday season was probably Spikeletz. They are awesome and weird bracelets made of this spiky-looking (but actually ultra-soft) plastic, in all kinds of wild color combos. Kinda like having a neon caterpillar around your wrist.

Most people like the Spikeletz. Some adults are sort of weirded out by them, because their texture is so unexpected compared to how they look. Girls and boys seem to appreciate them fairly equally. But one parent was overheard to say to a son, "Bracelets are for girls."

I wish I had been there. Because I would have said ok first of all WHAT and second of all NO and also CALL THEM WRISTBANDS THEN and by the way YOUR KID LIKES SOMETHING WHY ARE YOU GONNA RUIN IT and also SPIKELETZ ARE FOR AWESOME PEOPLE! Actually I probably would have said none of that, but I might have slipped the kid a wink and a sticker or something at least. Ugh.

So then today I was reading my twitter feed (as one does) and I came across this innocuous tweet from @HarperChildrens (a publisher I greatly admire), about the darling new book FOXY:
I have to admit, I was irritated by that tweet. I mean - why say it is a GIRL book? Because the human child in is a girl? But Foxy himself is a boy fox. And MAGICAL FOXES seem to be totally rad regardless of gender. If I was a boy, I'd sure as hell like a book about a cool MAGICAL FOX. Why not?

The thing is, in the kids section, so many picture books scream BOY BOOK or GIRL BOOK from a hundred yards. FANCY NANCY is a "Girl Book" - it's covered in glitter and is bright pink. I STINK is a "Boy Book" - it's got a giant trash truck on it. It is very simple for adults to choose "the one that fits" without even having to read the text. It makes life easy in some ways. But it's also so, soooo irritating.

I mean, OK. If a boy loves trucks, am I gonna say "No, you can only read about Princess Barbies"? Heck no. I'll give him a truck book, and we have plenty of them. But if a boy wants to read about Barbie, I am never going to say he's wrong. And the same goes vice-versa. I'm in the business of getting kids to read and love reading, I'd not want any kid to feel shamed for what they enjoy.

Goodness knows, pink glittery books don't need my help to sell! Nor would I want them to. I know that the masses of money a publisher makes from something like PINKALICIOUS may well go to buy some less obvious texts... maybe even one of mine. And heck, I loved pink and purple and glitter* when I was little, and I know I would have adored stuff like Lego Friends: Treasure Hunt in Heartlake City even though I may find it gagworthy now. (For the record, I loved firetrucks too!)

I can't stop publishers from producing and marketing books the way they do. Hey, they are companies, they are doing what makes the most money for them, and I get it.

But what I CAN do on a day-to-day level is, make even more of a point to seek out less-discovered gems, books that reflect all kinds of experiences, and try to push THOSE as much as possible. And I can stop using language like "Boy Book" and "Girl Book", and try to get others to stop using it too. It's shorthand, and it's lazy, and if it makes any kid feel bad or NOT want to read something, then it's a terrible shame.


Thursday, December 27, 2012

On Board Books

Sometimes I'm asked why agents talk about Picture Books but almost never about Board Books. Maybe I can shed some light.

BOARD BOOKS, aka Baby Books, are those chunky little books generally made of thick cardboard, for about ages 0-2. They're what kids get before they have the manual dexterity to turn the thin pages of picture books, when they would still rather drool on, chew, or tear up paper than delicately peruse it.

Board books are almost always small and made of cardboard. Their covers can be flat or puffy or shaped like something. They can be stories (basically small versions of regular picture books) but they are also often concept books or novelty books.  Subspecies:
  • CONCEPT BOOKS are board books that teach about things like ABC, 123, Up/Down, Colors, Animals, etc. in an extremely simple way.
  • NOVELTY BOOKS have some sort of special interactive element like lift-the-flap, textured touch-and-feel, sliding panels, a spinning wheel, etc.
Because they are brightly colored, printed on thick cardboard, and often have special elements to them, board books are very expensive to produce compared to their retail price. This means there is a very small profit margin. Which means publishers really need to both keep costs down and sell a lot for these books to be successful. They are unlikely to take big risks in acquisitions for this market. For these reasons, you will typically find books that are either:
  1. Written by the artist (so they only have to pay one person)
  2.  Written in-house with an artist hired on a work-for-hire basis (so they only have to pay one person, and that, usually for much less than for regular picture books), or better yet, written AND designed in-house, AND/OR
  3.  Branded "spin offs" of existing popular picture book characters (like OLIVIA COUNTS or CURIOUS GEORGE COLOR FUN kind of thing), OR
  4. Board book versions of existing picture books (in other words, the SAME ALREADY SUCCESSFUL BOOK, just shrunk).
There are a few artists who produce simple and bright board book originals, like Sandra Boynton and Leslie Patricelli. There are fewer still who are masters of the novelty board book. Salina Yoon and Matthew van Fleet come to mind. But it's much less likely that you'd find a non-artist author of these types of books. In fact, I can't think of ANY text-onlys bought specifically to be board books*. I'm totally willing to be corrected about this, but every board book I can think of off the top of my head was either written by the artist or editor, or is a spin-off or shrunken version of an existing picture book property.

If you are a terrific artist/designer, and you have an awesome idea for a fun baby book or set of novelty books, there is a (slim) possibility you might break in this way. As an author who is NOT an artist, though, I'd think it would be VERY DIFFICULT INDEED to sell your text as a board book.

Not impossible, I suppose. Almost nothing is impossible, and there may be exceptions to every rule. But as the dear departed Editorial Anonymous said in her post on the subject (which explains what I just explained but in an even clearer way):

"Take my advice and don't present a manuscript as a board book just because you think it'd be cuter that way. Starting a book off as a hardcover picture book is always more profitable for the publisher, which means the acquisition pulls more weight for the editor, the book gets more attention, and it's more profitable for you."

* ETA: I stand corrected! I couldn't think of any board book originals, but the lovely Emily Jenkins reminds me that she wrote an original board book series, "Bea and Haha", illustrated by Tomek Bogacki - sadly out of print, though. And Laurel Snyder wrote one "Nosh Schlep Schluff" - but there were special circumstances. And Lawrence Schimel has a series called "Little Pirate" from Innovative Kids. But I still say these are highly unusual in the board book realm.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Drama Llama Rejectorama

Let's be honest: We all want to work with people we personally enjoy. I'm not saying you need to be BFFs with your co-workers, but if given the choice, we'd all want colleagues who are not only good at their jobs, but are also kind and pleasant to communicate with.

Luckily for us as agents and authors: We often ARE given the choice.

I have an amazing group of authors who I love hearing from and talking to... and I got to choose them (and they, me). There are certainly people I haven't offered representation because, based on my communication with them and/or their online presence, I felt like they might be a thorn in my side. I don't WANT a thorn in my side, thanks.

To that point: Yes, your professional and courteous communication matters. And yes, even if your blog or twitter gets very little traffic, if it exists as a public thing, it isn't invisible. Agents and editors will look you up and see what you say online. If you come off as an negative jerk who can't stop complaining about life or how dumb agents are or how unfair the publishing industry is (for example)... well, it's just not very inspiring. It doesn't make me think "oh wow that person would be a pleasure to work with."

Everyone has a bad day, I get it. And I do believe that there is value in "telling it like it is" and not being a freakin' Pollyanna every minute if that is not your style. But come on. If EVERY SINGLE TWEET OR POST is horribly grim/depressing/ranty/unkind... what will the personal conversations be like?

(This cuts the other way, as well -- If authors don't like the advice an agent gives on their blog, or the way an agent treats people on social media, or whatever, they should certainly avoid querying that agent!)

I don't want this to seem like a conspiracy theory. Agents aren't lurking around SPYING on you or anything. But if I'm interested in possibly repping somebody, I sure as heck look them up online. If I see an interesting, generally upbeat, sane, smart and fun-seeming individual, I'm more likely to want to take the conversation to the next level than if I see an awful crabby complainer (or drunken Nazi, or similar).

Even if somebody is a good writer, I'd never want to take them on if I thought I'd dread getting emails from them, that'd be a nightmare. There is enough drama and heartache in the world (and in this business) without purposely inviting emotional vampires in.