Thursday, February 24, 2011

The art of publishing is alive and well in children’s lit

Elizabeth Zelvin

Having spent the last decade on the ever more precarious rollercoaster of writing for the mystery market, I ventured into a new arena in January: the winter meeting of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). What I found there were not only eager aspiring writers and artists and some impressive superstars, but some aspects of traditional publishing that I haven’t heard much about lately: encouragement and hope.

To be fair, the gathering of 1,200 did not, as far as I could tell, include the midlist writers who are the backbone (along with readers!) of the mystery community. The superstars did the talking, the aspiring got critique, and the unagented got opportunities to leapfrog over the slush pile. But what amazed and pleased me was what I heard from big-house senior editors and publishers who conducted breakout sessions. Sure, they said that these are tough times and that the world of books has changed rapidly and irrevocably, with more change to come. But the news was much better than I’ve come to expect when the subject of breaking into—and staying published in—adult fiction comes up.

For example, one publisher acknowledged that adult fiction is more and more like the movies, something I’ve said myself more than once. Just as a film disappears quickly if it doesn’t earn a huge gross at the box office the first weekend it’s released, so a debut mystery vanishes from bookstore shelves within six weeks if it doesn’t sell like hotcakes. And in the past year, dropped series have become so commonplace that no author, however well established or beloved, is secure.

In contrast, this publisher described the acquisition process by saying that discussion of a manuscript will include calculating how many copies are likely to be sold over a three-year period. Three years! An adult mystery would be long since remaindered, or more likely, pulped, and out of print—except for the Kindle edition—in three years. I know of mystery authors who’ve been dropped by their publishers for lack of sales one week before publication of the second book in a series, one month after publication of the first book, and on the same weekend they received a major award.

Children’s book publishers are not throwing away their Newbery and Caldecott Medal winners. They laud them, and the children’s book community turns to them for inspiration, as I learned by attending the SCBWI event. The keynote speakers talked about writing not only as craft, but as art—and art as essential to actual publication. In adult books, everyone still says, “Write the best book you can,” and a writer does need craft to become a published author. But the bigger the publisher, the more likely that craft, art, award nominations, and even, in some cases, great reviews will prove irrelevant to whether the author remains published beyond the first book.

I went to SCBWI to support my Young Adult manuscript, now in my agent’s hands. But I was fascinated with what I learned about picture books. The text of a picture book is only two hundred words, less than twice the length of one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. But like a sonnet, it’s a lot harder to write than it looks. Among the elements considered essential, one author mentioned lyricism, because picture books are meant to be read aloud. She gave a great example: in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, “Let the wild rumpus begin!” (To drive her point home, she compared it to the movie, which changed the line to, “Let the wild rumpus start!) Another essential: text must lend itself to illustration. A crucial picture book element I heard a lot about was “the page turn.” What a challenge: suspense in two hundred words (and thirty-two pages). And for picture books, great artists are essential.

In children’s literature, printed books are not at risk of disappearing any time soon. The impact of the new technology is less on delivery of the books to readers than on spreading the word. As a YA author, I’ll need to know about teen book blogs, getting kids to review my book, and creating an online buzz. In children’s lit, reaching readers is not only a sales strategy, but a mission. On the agenda: turning the next generation into lifelong readers. In the mystery world, we talk about the higher purpose of crime fiction: satisfying the reader in an increasingly chaotic world by restoring order at the end of the book. But wouldn’t it be lovely if we could still use words like mission and purpose when we talked about the publishing business?


Julia Buckley said...

This is very interesting, Liz, and obviously the reason that a lot of "big name" authors are also suddenly releasing YA titles.

It makes sense to me.

Good luck with your YA venture, which I happen to know is an excellent story!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Thanks, Julia. I also learned that kids "read up"--a 13 year old wants to read about a 15 year old protagonist--and that some YA novels have crossover appeal, not only to teens but to readers as old as 24.

Anonymous said...

I, too, am writing a YA mystery, so I found this post very heartening.

Thanks, Liz!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Besides conferences and local programs, SCBWI has an excellent annual publications guide and a quarterly glossy magazine full of useful information.