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
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.
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’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 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.
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
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
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.
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.