When Are You Going to Write a Proper Book? The Lowdown!

When Are You Going to Write a Proper Book? A Day for Children’s Writers and Illustrators

Sarah Webb, Writer in Residence, Dún Laoghaire Rathdown in association with Children’s Books Ireland and supported by Words Ireland

Publishers Panel
Publishers Panel

This is a short overview of the day with facts, figures and highlights. A podcast of the day will be available within the next few weeks – stay tuned to this blog and my social media for further details. Apologies for any typos or wild sentences – it’s Sunday morning and I need to bring my daughter to a hockey match very soon. Better done than perfect!

On Saturday 4th February the Lexicon Studio Theatre was packed with writers, illustrators, publishers, agents and children’s writers in various stages of their careers. There was a focus on telling our ‘truths’ and being honest and open about writing and publishing. Grainne Clear gave some really useful info about advances and royalties. She explained that the average writer’s advance in Ireland is e1,000 and in the UK is a similar figure, which elicited a gasp from the audience. Surely that’s wrong, one man tweeted using our hashtag for the day #properbook. But Grainne had done her homework – asking publishers, writers and agents for their input. And e1k it stands.

Sheena Wilkinson told us about her healthy regard for being solvent and confirmed that she had received e5,875 in advances for her 7 books, backing up Grainne’s figures. Alan Nolan gave his advice, have another income stream and marry up! Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick told us about her SFDs – shitty first drafts and David O’Callaghan explained that he just couldn’t sell PAF books in Eason – Posh As F*** (hardback picture books) and boy had he tried. He said his customers panic and grab the nearest Julia Donaldson.

It was a most thought-provoking and stimulating day. More details below.

The 1st panel which I chaired  – Aoife Murray from Children’s Books Ireland, Colleen Jones from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (or ‘Scooby’ as they call themselves) and Valerie Bistany from the Irish Writers Centre talked about their organisations and how they helped writers.

Aoife explained how important events are to a children’s writer and said that Dave Rudden had done 52 events in October 2016, quite an achievement! She explained how they try to lobby for children’s writers and illustrators and be a voice for children’s books in the media.

Colleen explained how ‘Scooby’ could help self-published writers and told us about their award for self-published books, the Spark Award, won recently by Irish woman, Denise Deegan.

Valerie talked about the Irish Writers Centre classes and workshops, residencies. I teach at the Irish Writers Centre and also work as a mentor for new writers through the centre.

The 2nd panel talked about money – earning a living as a writer. The chair, Ryan from CBI asked writer, Alan Nolan should writers be expected to do events for free. He said no. He quoted Celine Kiernan: ‘If I wanted exposure, I’d run naked down O’Connell Street.’

Grainne Clear from Little Island explained that smaller publishers focus on festivals rather than author tours. She said that an author may need to arrange a tour or a launch themselves.

Elaina Ryan and Sinead Connelly
Elaina Ryan and Sinead Connelly

Grainne said that for big UK publishers that doing events and having a profile could be a deal breaker for a publisher (when looking to take a writer on). She noted that it wasn’t the case for Little Island who are all about strong writing.

Librarian, Maeve Rogan McGann said she was very open to good pitches from writers and quoted ER Murray and Alan Early as an example – they had approached her directly and did several events together and workshops for her.

Sinead Connelly from the International Literature Festival, Dublin said she was interested in pitches for events from writers but she wanted something really interesting, something that told her about the writer and who they were as a person. She gave the example of the Friendship event that I did at the festival with my writer friend, Judi Curtin as an event that gave insight into writers’ lives and was something a bit different. Thank you, Sinead!

Alan explained that 60% of his income came from design work, 40% from his books and his events and school visits. He gets paid e150 for a 1 hour school or library event.

Maeve said she pays e100 per 45 minute event or short workshop, or e300 for three events. Sinead pays her festival writers e300 per event for a standard event.

All agreed that you should say no if asked to do an event for free. Elaina quoted Jane O’Hanlon from Poetry Ireland’s Writers in Schools scheme who explained that writers who work for free undercut their colleagues.

And then to the topic of royalties. I’d already shared some of my own ‘truths’ about royalties. That I’d been paid from nothing to e2,000 advances from Irish publishers. That yes, I’d received a couple of the mythical ‘six figure’ book deals for my children’s books but that was the exception, not the rule.

Grainne explained that advances are paid to a writer based on how many books the publisher thinks they can sell and the price of the book.

Little Island pay a standard advance to all writers, both new and established – this was something I hadn’t realised and useful to know. Authors usually get 7.5% royalty of the recommended retail price of the book. Average advance for a 1st book is 1k and average yearly income for a writer is e10k to 12k. The average Irish print run is 2.5k copies she said.

Alan Nolan and Maeve Rogan McGann
Alan Nolan and Maeve Rogan McGann

Alan’s advice was to marry up – he was only joking! He explained how important it is to have a second income stream.

Maeve gave some great advice – clear some time in March and October for school and library visits, she said. Keep some days free as these are the times we are most looking for writers.

We broke for lunch here – I think the audience needed to mull over the facts and figures. The people I spoke to were surprisingly chipper about the lack of money in children’s books. ‘Just as well I love writing if I’m not going to be a millionaire,’ one woman told me with a smile. With that attitude she will go far!

After lunch Sheena Wilkinson hit us with what Alan Nolan described as ‘Wisdom Bombs’. She said that only 10% of her income comes from book sales. She has never been in the news for her big advances, but she has been in the news for winning a lot of book awards.

She has received e5,875 in advances for 7 books. She said writers can’t create if they are anxious about having a roof over their heads.

In 2016 she did 26 school visits, 18 library visits and spent 143 days doing events and teaching.

She said to ‘Seek out the rest of your tribe’ – the children’s book tribe. She admitted that 2 years ago she feared that her career was over. She had no new contract and she was genuinely worried. But a few months later things had changed and she’s been publishing steadily ever since.

Sheena was open and honest and many people’s highlight of the day, mine included. Sheena is a strong, intelligent woman who is not afraid of letting people see her vulnerabilities, which made this a really special talk indeed.

Next up David O’Callaghan from Eason, Oisin McGann and Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick told us some of their truths.

David O'Callaghan
David O'Callaghan

David explained how important a good cover is to make a book stand out. He said what makes him buy a book for his stores is:

Word of mouth – the buzz around a book and early reviews and info from people he trusts

Originality – something different

He said if you want to know what trend to follow (when it comes to writing), you’re already too late. He will always push something original that may catch readers’ imaginations. But he can’t seem to sell PAF books – Posh As F*** hardback picture books.

Oisin Mc Gann said ‘You’re not going to make much money writing for children so you may as well have a good time doing it.’ He explained that modern children’s (and adults’) reading stamina is reduced and all writers need to think about this. He described reading stamina as ‘the time bomb in children’s books.’

David O’Callaghan gave great advice for writers:

For age 0 to 4 pitch (your marketing and publicity) at the parents and the bookselling community

Age 5 to 12 – work hard

Do school events

Your audience is kids and their parents

YA – get on social media and use it

Tumblr, Snapchat, blogging

Put in the work. He name checked Louise O’Neill and Deirdre Sullivan as writers who do this well.

Finally he said ‘Writing a book sounds like too much work to me. I’ll stick to selling them!’ And we’re lucky he’s such a passionate and devoted bookseller!

The final panel was called ‘Is It Me You’re Looking For?’ and featured Conor Hackett from Walker Books, Ivan O’Brien from O’Brien Press, Nicki Howard from Gill Books and UK agent, Penny Holroyde.

Penny said that picture books are the hardest place for a new writer to start. Many of the submissions she receives have no beginning, middle or end, are too long and are patronising.

She said it’s best not to try and write a rhyming picture book and noted the luxury non-fiction as a nice trend, books like Gill Books Irelandopedia with well curated content.

Nicki Howard admitted that she was surprised by the success of Irelandopedia. She explained how the idea came from Gill Books and how they commissioned Fatti Burke to illustrate it, after seeing her work in Cara magazine. Fatti brought her father, John on board as the writer, which Nicki explained was a great backstory for promotion.

Word Count

Penny said the ideal word count for a picture book is 500 to 800 words.

Think of the book as 12 double page spreads, she said.

Conor said that Shh! We Have a Plan by Chris Haughton is only 90 words.

Early Readers – 2 to 3k words. Penny explained that publishers tended to have armies of set writers for this age group and rights were hard to sell.

Middle Grade – age 9 to 12

Publishers Panel
Publishers Panel

Are you the type of author who will put in the time and work to be successful? Penny asked. A successful author (for this age) is a hard working one all agreed.

Ivan said that he looks for how hard a writer will work on events and promotions when considering taking on a new writer.

New writers – need to blog, be on social media and also be part of the children’s book ‘tribe’.

Ivan said – we are not interested in doing 1 book with a writer, we’re looking to build up backlist.

Nicki is interested in writers who are enthusiastic about what they are doing.

Conor is looking for books that really deliver.

Penny joked that her ideal writer was a bestseller. When working at another agency her boss told her: ‘Normal people don’t write books’.

American YA has an ambition that UK YA doesn’t, Penny said.

Ivan said that O’Brien Press is not actively looking for picture books. They are looking for good fiction for age 10+. Great novels.

He said to make the first book as good as it can be and maybe think of a sequel (or a series) after that. Alice Next Door by Judi Curtin came in as a stand-alone book he said. Word count – he suggested not more than 50K but make every word count.

Nicki Howard is looking for Irish focused books and illustrators.

Penny is looking for great age 10+ books like Beetle Boy of 40k words and is always interested in looking at illustrators.

Conor gave writers this advice:

Go to book launches

Engage with the industry

Meet people

The opportunities are there, he said. Take them!

A great way to end the day. Afterwards we launched the World of Colour Exhibition which is in the Lexicon from now until the end of March and features the work of Beatrice Alemanga and Chris Haughton.

Speaking at the Launch of a World of Colour
Speaking at the Launch of a World of Colour

Thanks to everyone at Children’s Books Ireland – Elaina, Jenny, Ciara and especially Aoife who helped with programming advice and support, Marian Keyes, Susan Lynch and all at the Lexicon Library for their help and Words Ireland for their support.

me - exhit
me - exhit

The Answer to Your Questions

girl writing
girl writing

I love getting letters from readers in the post. Real letters are far more fun than emails. I love opening the envelopes, unfolding the letter inside, holding the exact piece of paper that a little while ago the sender was writing on. There's something quite magical about letters. This week I answered three letters from young readers. Two of them were from Ireland, one was from the UK. Each contained questions for me. I thought I'd answer some of these questions below. Maybe they are questions that you would also ask me if you could.

Some of the letters from my young readers
Some of the letters from my young readers

Some of the letters from my young readers

If you'd like to write to me, I'd be delighted. The address is: Sarah Webb c/o Walker Books, 87 Vauxhall Walk, London SE11 5HJ, England. I promise to write back to you.

Sarah, how did you get the idea for Amy Green?

My teen diaries. As a teen I wrote in them every day and it was fascinating reading back and seeing what made me happy, upset or angry at 14, 16 or 18.

Who or what inspired you to write?

Judy Blume, Enid Blyton and all the wonderful writers I read as a child. I was and still am a huge, devoted reader. I found friends on the pages of books. Reading inspired me to write.

What is Ireland like (this was from a UK reader) and where do you live?

West Cork
West Cork

West Cork

I live in Dun Laoghaire - below - a town 7 miles from Dublin city which has a large harbour. It has a great cinema, a theatre and the best library in Ireland, the Lexicon. We live on a long street which winds its way up a hill from the sea. In Ireland you are never far from the countryside and if you drive for a little while you'll hit green fields, hills and mountains.

I also spend a lot of time in West Cork - above - which has the most stunning landscape. The people are very special too, warm, friendly and funny.

It's hard to say what Ireland is like. It is a place where books and stories and cherished, which I think makes it very special. What I do know is that for me it's home and although I love to travel, my heart belongs to Ireland.

Dun Laoghaire
Dun Laoghaire

Dun Laoghaire

What was your dream job as a child?

Writer. It just goes to show that sometimes dreams really do come true if you work hard enough and follow your heart.

What is being a writer like?

Do you write all day?

I'll answer these two questions together. I have lots of different kinds of days - writing days, school visit days, festival planning days, reading and reviewing days, teaching days. Most writers don't just write, especially children's writers - they do lots of other things too.

Every week I spend 2 or 3 mornings writing - from 10am to 2pm - and 2 days visiting schools, teaching creative writing, reviewing and doing other bits of work relating to books. I try to write 2k words every time I sit down at my desk, that's my aim. I often don't hit this target, but sometimes I do.

At the moment I am Writer in Residence in Dún Laoghaire so from September I will be hosting book clubs for young readers and writing workshops, that will be fun.

What job would you do if you weren't a writer?

A children's bookseller. One day I hope to own my own children's bookshop. Watch this space!

This post first appeared on the Girls Heart Books website.

My Top Ten Novels of the Year - 2014 (Adult and YA)

anne t
anne t

It's been a stellar year for YA novels in particular, which is reflected in my list. Although I am biased - I love YA! My picture book of the year was Shh! We Have a Plan by Chris Haughton. This list is YA and adult novels. Watch out for my favourite children's books of the year in the Irish Independent on Saturday (Dec 13th), along with Robert Dunbar's favourites in the Irish Times. I'll post my round up after Saturday. I read 44 (and counting) adult and YA novels in 2014. I scored each book out of ten. All these books below scored an 8 or higher. As you can see, I read a lot of different genres and age groups. (Children's books are not a genre. Each age group is made up of different genres - yep, even board books and picture books, right up to YA (*see Only Ever Yours below).) Top score went to Anne Tyler's A Spool of Blue Thread (out in 2015 - sorry!). I gulped it down. Not the strongest plot, but those characters and her writing . . . bliss.

So in order of scores, here are my top ten novels of 2014. I should point out that I read far more YA and children's novels than adult novels, which is probably reflected in this list.

1/ A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler (published 2015) A wonderful family drama set in Baltimore (of course). Pretty much perfect. Thanks to Maria from Dubray Books for the proof copy.

glass castle
glass castle

2/ The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls (older book)

I listened to this audio book while travelling up and down to West Cork over the summer and fell in love with Jeanette and her family. It's the most compelling memoir I've ever listened to. Her voice is perfect. I highly recommend it in either audio or book form.

a j fink
a j fink

3/ The Collected Works of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin (published 2014)

In a word, adorable. Quirky tale about a bookseller (like me - why may be why I loved it so much) and a baby girl he finds in his shop. Wise and sweet.

4/ The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz (published 2014)

I loved this clever, beautifully written collection of real life stories about unusual lives. Grotz is a practicing psychoanalyst and he writes with a lightness of touch about his patients.

5/ Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume (older book)

Another audio book (I'm passionate about audio books). I'd never read this one and it was such a treat listening to it. Wise, funny, and Blume's voice - is there a better writer for young teens? I think not.


6/ How Many Miles to Babylon? by Jennifer Johnston (older book)

I'd never read this (to my shame) stunning novel about two boys - one from a Big House, one from the village (who works for the house) - and their friendship, with a World War I setting. It's beautifully written and so moving. Highly recommended.

we were liars
we were liars

7/ We Were Liars by E Lockhart (published 2014)

Wonderful YA book set on a private island in the US. Her writing (and plotting) are mesmerizing.

8/ Only Ever Yours by Louise O'Neill (published 2014)

Stunning YA debut by a young Clonakilty writer. Feminist dystopia - rather terrifying. Well worth reading. (*YA is the age group, feminist dystopia is the genre)

9/ Lone Wolf by Jodi Picoult (older book)

Picoult is a master story teller and this audio book kept me gripped. Wolves, family problems - what's not to love? I think Picoult is underestimated. One of the hardest working writers around.

kim hood
kim hood

10/ Finding a Voice by Kim Hood (published 2014)

Drew a tear many times. Another wonderful YA debut. Hood is Canadian but lives in Ireland. Family tale, with some strong themes. Loved it. Great teen voice.

I also loved (all published 2014 apart from Captive):

captive a j
captive a j

Captive by AJ Grainger (YA - kidnapping drama - coming in Jan 2015)

Unravelling Oliver by Liz Nugent (brilliantly written thriller - with a children's writer as the murderer!)

The Secrets Sisters Keep by Sinead Moriarty (superior popular fiction)

Little Lies by Liane Moriarty (superior Australian popular fiction)

Dear Thing by Julie Cohen (superior UK popular fiction)

memory book
memory book

The Memory Book by Rowan Coleman (more brilliant UK popular fiction)

Apple and Rain by Sarah Crossan (great YA family drama)

house where
house where

The Apple Tart of Hope by Sarah Moore Fitzgerald (another brilliant YA novel)

The House Where it Happened by Martina Devlin (compelling ghost story inspired by a real life witch hunt in Northern Ireland in the 18th century)

What were YOUR favourite books of the year?

Yours in books,

Sarah XXX

The Book That Changed My Life

Last Saturday I ran a book lunch in Dublin for lots of readers (grown ups, although I do run ones for young readers too). I asked the writers hosting tables at the lunch to think about a book that changed their life.It got me thinking about my own reading history and the books that have made an impact on my life.

busy busy world
busy busy world

The earliest book to make a huge impact was Busy, Busy World by Richard Scarry. I just loved this book. I didn’t travel much as a child – I took my first flight at age 18 – but I travelled in my imagination thanks to this book which takes you all over the world with its wonderful animal characters.

An interior from Busy, Busy World
An interior from Busy, Busy World

Enid Blyton’s books were also important to me. I adored the Famous Five series and the first full book I wrote (age 11) was called The Magic Sofa and was about three children who have to go and stay with their horrible aunt for the holidays. It was heavily inspired by the Famous Five books!

enid blyton
enid blyton

But the book that has made the most lasting impression on me is Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume. When I first read it as a teenager I remember thinking is she really writing about bras, and periods, and kissing boys? Can you really do that in a book? It’s such an honest, open and funny book and I re-read it every year because a/ it’s so wonderful and it makes me laugh out loud and b/ it reminds me what it feels like to be 13.

Judy Blume
Judy Blume
This is the edition I had as a young teen - the cover looks a lot different now!
This is the edition I had as a young teen - the cover looks a lot different now!
New cover of the same book
New cover of the same book

When I was a young bookseller in Waterstone’s on Dawson Street, Dublin (a shop that sadly no longer exists) I had the great pleasure of meeting Judy Blume. She did several school events for me and after one of the events we had lunch together, just the two of us. I was a single mother at the time and finding it hard to juggle work and looking after my toddler son. I told her that one day I’d love to write a book. ‘Write for children,’ she told me. ‘They’re the best audience ever. And I think you’d be great at it.’

I took her encouragement to heart. The following year my first children’s book, Kids Can Cook was published, a truly life changing experience. Having a book published was the second most exciting thing that had ever happened to me, after having my son. Twenty years on, I’m still writing. It hasn’t always been an easy journey, I’ve hit some pot holes and speed bumps along the way, but overall it’s a good life, a satisfying, life affirming life. And from time to time I like to look back and to think about all the writers and books that have inspired me along the way.

Is there a book that inspired you or changed your life? I’d love to know.

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX

This post first appeared on Book Lunch - With Special Guest, Jennifer Johnston Book Lunch – An Author at Every Table

In Association with Dubray Books

With Special Guest, Jennifer Johnston

Jennifer Johnston
Jennifer Johnston

Venue: Royal St George Yacht Club

Date: Saturday 18th October

Time: 12.00pm until 3.30pm (lunch will be served at 12.30pm)

Cost: e28.50 – includes a three course meal plus tea/coffee

Bookshop on site provided by Dubray Books – all the writers’ books will be in stock

To book: ring Kate at 01 2801811 (places limited, please book quickly)

You can book a whole table for your book club, or come with a friend or individually

To request to be seated with a particular author, please email before 10th October and we will do our best to accommodate you

About the Lunch:

Join some of Ireland’s top writers at this exclusive book lunch in the beautiful surroundings of the Royal St George Yacht Club on Dun Laoghaire’s sea front. Talk books and writing with your table host, and hear an after lunch conversation with the award winning novelist, Jennifer Johnston.

This lunch will be presented by Vanessa O’Loughlin from and writer, Sarah Webb.

Our Author Hosts:

jennifer j books
jennifer j books

Literary powerhouse, Jennifer Johnston (latest novel - A Sixpenny Song); writer and historian, Turtle Bunbury (published in October - The Glorious Madness: Tales of the Irish and the Great War);  bestselling authors, Sheila O’Flanagan (latest novel - If You Were Me) and Emma Hannigan (published in October - The Heart of Winter); author of the critically acclaimed The House When It Happened, Martina Devlin; award-winning author of The Playground, Julia Kelly; historical novelists, Kate Beaufoy (pen name of Kate Thompson, latest novel - Liberty Silk) and Lia Mills (latest novel - Fallen); crime novelists Liz Nugent (debut novel - the muct praised Unravelling Oliver) and Karen Perry (Paul Perry and Karen Gillece – debut novel, The Boy Who Never Was); and finally, TV3 chef, Andrew Rudd (latest book - Entertaining with Andrew Rudd).

How to Get Your Self-Published Book into Bookshops - 10 Tips

I’ve worked in the book trade for over twenty years now – as a bookseller, a marketing manager and a buyer. As a children’s buyer I’ve looked at thousands of covers a year, read thousands of blurbs, dealt with hundreds of different authors – at shop signings, events and festivals (a blog for another day).  Recently I’ve been asked for advice from self self-published writers: how do I get my book into bookshops?

 I thought I’d give the self-published writers out there some advice with the help of experienced bookseller, Josie.  

Top 10 Tips for Self-Published Writers

 1/ Make sure your book is professionally designed, typeset and printed. A badly designed book will not sell to the public. A bookshop buyer (like Josie) will only consider a book that looks professional and will sell in their bookshop. Make sure it is professionally edited, copy-edited and proof read.

 Josie adds – make sure the type is the correct size and you use good paper stock.

 2/ If it’s a picture book, use a professional illustrator – don’t do the illustrations yourself, don't ask a friend to do them. Try for information on this. Companies like provide a professional design, editing, illustration and printing service. (A good friend of mine, Vanessa O’Loughlin is involved in this company and it's worth talking to her about your book - she's great.)

 3/ Make sure your price your book correctly. Do not over price or under price your book. Ask a bookseller for advice on the price.

 Josie adds – make sure your book has a spine so it can be found on the bookshelves.

 4/ Offer the correct discount. This is generally between 40 and 50%. It can be higher for wholesales like Eason. If you only offer 20 or 30% the buyer may not take your book as the margin is too low. (40% discount means 40% off the cover price of the book.)

 5/ Provide a valid ISBN and barcode. Print the price on the back of your book, just over the barcode. Again, check other books to see how this is done.

 6/ A good cover is vital – put as much time and thought into getting this right as you can.

 7/ Behave like a professional at all times. Josie suggests making up bookseller packs with information on the book and the press you have arranged. Print out professional order forms and invoices. Make sure you leave a phone number and an email address so the buyer can contact you with orders or returns.

 8/ Offer to do events or workshops in the shop. Practice these beforehand and make sure they are professional.

 9/ Be polite – if the buyer says no, don’t get angry. They may buy your next book. It’s not personal, it’s business. A buyer’s job is to select the titles that will sell in their shop. They only buy 10 to 20% of the titles they are shown.

 Josie adds - don’t have high expectations of quantities. The orders will be small but if the book sells we will reorder quickly. The average order might be for 3 to 5 copies.

 10/ Help with the marketing and publicity. Let people know which booksellers are stocking your book. Provide bookmarks or postcards (posters can be difficult as not many bookshops have wall space for them).

 Promote your book in an interesting way on Facebook and Twitter – try to be inventive. Set up a blog or website for your book. Offer to do a piece for the local newspaper.

 When in doubt, ask a bookseller for advice. They need good writers just as much as writers need good bookshops – it’s a team effort! You just need to give them the right books to sell.

Good luck! And thanks to Josie for her time and expertise.

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX