Welcome to our quarterly Ask the Editor feature! Katherine Gibson is an editor at Zonderkidz and was previously at Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. She's collecting questions from SCBWI-MI members and sharing her answers with our community. Did you miss her other Q&As? See the links at the end of this post.
Hi everyone! Thank you to all of you who sent me your questions! I hope you find this post helpful and informative.
As with my previous Ask the Editor posts, I humbly ask that you take my comments in the spirit in which they’re intended. The advice here is meant to be friendly and helpful; I don’t want anyone to finish this post feeling vulnerable or discouraged.
Also, a general disclaimer that my thoughts are my own; I do not speak on behalf of all publishing. I would not be surprised at all to learn that you’ve heard an editor or agent say something that directly conflicts with my perspective. Everyone in publishing has their own views and preferences, and I can only be honest about my own.
If you have any questions about writing, editing, or publishing that aren’t addressed here, please reach out to me. I’m always happy to gather questions for my next post!
Thank you, and happy reading!
Does a picture book have to have a takeaway to be marketable in this day and age? If you simply write a funny read aloud or a silly text, is it less likely to be acquired? Does adding layers help? And what are several examples of good layers? Is it possible that the takeaway is something the reader/editor/publisher reads into it, rather than having it be explicit?
I don’t think a picture book necessarily has to have a takeaway — I think you can find an exception to every book-related “rule” there is! That being said, children aren’t the only audience you have to consider when writing a picture book; there are parents and teachers and librarians too, and in my experience, readers of all ages tend to appreciate (and are more likely to reread) books with some substance. To be clear, when I talk about a book’s takeaway, I’m not saying it has to have a moral or lesson, just that there should be a deeper meaning to the book.
In fact, I think you could pick up just about any funny picture book and find something to take away from it. This Is Not My Hat? The bad things we do have a way of catching up to us. Shh! We Have a Plan? If you can’t solve a problem, try looking at it a different way. The Octopuppy? What makes you weird makes you awesome. None of these things are said explicitly, so don’t feel like you have to shoehorn in a message when you’re writing your book. I think both publishers and readers prefer when the takeaway isn’t explicitly stated, but something they find on their own.
What’s the best market fit for free verse novels, in terms of age category and genre?
That being said, I think something a little more unexpected, like a funny middle grade novel in verse, could make a nice splash in the market too. Everybody still loves Moo, right? I’d say if a story just works better in free verse than it does in prose, then it will naturally find its readership.
My current novel-in-progress was started before the pandemic, but now that our lives have been so altered by the coronavirus, I feel like I need to incorporate it into my story, even though I’d rather not. Should this contemporary story just remain set in pre-pandemic times, or should I try to at least reference the pandemic, knowing that this book won't actually be published for at least a few more years?
This is the million-dollar question these days! Honestly, at this point it’s still really tough to predict how heavily we’ll reference the pandemic in our books, movies, TV shows, etc. in the coming years. Right now it seems like books either don’t acknowledge it at all or are completely centered around it; I don’t think we know what the gray area looks like yet.
All that to say, I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to handle it in your novel. If you’d rather not incorporate it into your novel, then I think it’s perfectly fine to set the story in pre-pandemic times. Or, if you feel compelled to incorporate it, maybe the story can start shortly after things return to “normal” so it doesn’t change the plot too much.
Essentially, I wouldn’t advise doing massive rewrites to a manuscript or setting a project aside until a vaccine is found, unless of course you want to. None of us can predict what the future is going to look like (goodness knows we didn’t predict this!), but that shouldn’t stop us from telling the stories we want to tell.
If you submit to a publishing house without an agent and they like your manuscript, what should an author know or do to make the best of the situation? What questions should a new author ask? Are there red flags to look out for? If there isn't an agent in the picture, are there other professionals that could look over an agreement to make sure it's sound?
If a publisher likes your manuscript and has made you an offer, step one is do a happy dance! Step two is to reach out to anyone else you sent that manuscript to and let them know you’ve received an offer. Typically, you give them a time frame in which to counteroffer — I’d personally suggest no more than a week or two. (If a publisher has expressed interest but has yet to make an official offer, I’d still reach out to everyone else and let them know, but you don’t need to give them a deadline in that case.)
Once you’ve accepted an offer, the publisher will send over a contract for you to look over. Book contracts aren’t terribly complicated, but it’s a big enough deal that you’ll want to have someone with experience look it over before you sign. If you’re interested in having an agent, try reaching out to a few. Agents are usually a LOT more willing to sign someone who’s already received an offer from a publisher. If you don’t want an agent, then I’d suggest bringing the contract draft to a lawyer to look over, or at the very least someone who has worked in publishing and encountered book contracts before.
The editor and/or contract itself should be able to answer any questions you have: what the payment schedule will be, what rights you’ll retain, the proposed schedule for the book, etc. If you have a reasonable question that the editor can’t answer, that could be a red flag. Another (obvious) red flag: the publisher asking you to pay — in part or in whole — for the production of the book, or an agent requiring a signing fee or some other unexpected cost.
Basically, whether you’re negotiating the terms of the contract yourself or having someone else (an agent or lawyer) do it on your behalf, you should be crystal clear on what you’ll be getting and what will be expected of you. If you’re not, then talk to your agent/editor and ask questions until you do feel certain of the terms. That’s what we’re there for!
Thank you, Katherine!
To submit a publishing question, email Mitten blog editor Kristin Lenz with "Ask the Editor" in the subject line, and she'll forward your question to Katherine. Or, stay tuned on the SCBWI-MI MichKids listserv – Katherine will ask for questions a few weeks before her next post.
To read Katherine's previous Ask the Editor posts, click on these links:
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