The Book Business

What Publishers Want - Picturebooks

  Image by Alan O'Rourke

Image by Alan O'Rourke

Today I hosted a day in the dlr Lexicon Library all about picturebooks. It was the second in a series of events focused on different areas of writing for children and teenagers, called When Are You Going to Write a Proper Book? Or #ProperBook for short. The events were held in association with the wonderful Children's Books Ireland and this one also had the support of IBBY Ireland

Here is a roundup of the day. Thanks to all the speakers and to everyone who attended. The next #properbook day will focus on writing fiction for children and teenagers and will be held next spring.

Thanks to CBI and various attendees for the photos and Alan O'Rourke for his great #properbook graphic above.

First Valerie Coughlan and Lucinda Jacob talked about the visual narrative in picturebooks (how the pictures help tell the story), and rhyming versus prose picture books. Both agreed that all picturebooks need rhythm but not necessarily rhyme. Valerie quoted American picturebook critic Barbara Bader who said:

As an art form it [the picturebook] hinges on the interdependence of pictures and words, on the simultaneous display of two facing pages, and on the drama of the turning of the page.
On its own terms its possibilities are limitless.

Valerie shared some of her favourite picturebooks including Rosie's Walk and Where the Wild Things Are and recommended Illustrating  Children's Books by Martin Salisbury (see full book list below for details). 

Lucinda spoke about rhyming picturebooks and explained that the rhyme had to form a pattern, like a song. Her favourite picturebooks include Hairy Maclary and Each Peach, Pear Plum. 

Next up was our illustrators' panel: Michael Emberley, Mary Murphy and Chris Judge. They talked about the genesis of an idea, which was largely different for each book. Michael gets an idea first, then works on that idea, for Chris and Mary the character comes first. Once they have a character, they start working on the story.

They had some great advice for new writers:

Research - read modern picturebooks. Mary explained how important this is. She talked about her work, which mainly focuses on young children and has deceptively simple text and vibrant, beautifully designed artwork. 


Be yourself. Michael spoke with passion about being yourself on the page and not trying to be someone that you are not. He explained how publishers were pushing the costs (of producing a picturebook) 'downstream' towards the author. He said that these days you need to make your book as good as possible before sending it off to a publisher. The days of sending off an 'idea' or a rough, unfinished text are gone. (Interestingly on a later panel, Deirdre McDermott from Walker said she doesn't like to see artwork that is too finished, as there is no space for it to change and grow - see below for more from Deirdre.)

Chris talked about not giving up (it took him several years to get his first picturebook published). He also said to take your time and to produce something you are proud of - don't be in a rush to get published. 'It takes a long time to make a great book,' he said. 

The image below is of his Beast character. 

Jane O'Hanlon and Debbie  Thomas from IBBY spoke about their Silent Books exhibition which is in the Lexicon library until the 29th May. A matching set of the books are on the Italian island of Lampedusa where refugees from Africa and the Middle East often land on their way to Europe. The books are shared with the refugee children. Teachers and students from St Laurence College spoke about their recent trip to the island, which was a lovely addition to the day. It made me think about the importance of picturebooks as a form of communication as well as an art form. 

Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick gave us a brilliant insight into the work of a picturebook maker, showing lots of her rough sketches, dummy books and even the colour chart she created for Owl Bat Bat Owl, her latest picturebook.

 Marie-Louise shared her tips on one clever slide

Marie-Louise shared her tips on one clever slide

So - the burning question - what are publishers looking for when it comes to picturebooks? Deirdre McDermott from Walker Books is interested in working with new Irish illustrators. She loves warm graphics - she mentioned Lucy Cousins and Mary Murphy in this regard. 'I want to feel the blood in their (the artists') veins. I want to feel they have a heartbeat.' She loves Chris Haughton's work for its sense of humour and she loves his brilliant use of colour.

Interestingly she's not looking for highly polished, finished work. She's looking for something different and exciting, and often finds her illustrators in unusual ways, not always though an agent. 

For picturebook texts Deirdre said she's looking for something that instantly grabs her attention: 'You read the first four sentences and it just gets you.' 

Emma Byrne from O'Brien Press is looking for Irish content and Irish creators. She says Ireland is a small market and she makes an effort to give Irish illustrators a chance. Like Deirdre, she doesn't use agents to find illustrators (although some do come this way). She looks at magazines - she mentioned Totally Dublin - flyers and posters for images that make her react. She's also looking for a sense of humour in the work and is drawn to unusual colour.

Tadhg MacDhonnagáin from Futa Fata is looking for narrative picturebooks for age 3 to 6. He's looking for books that are not based in Ireland but that have a strong story, with a main character that goes on a journey and changes. He's looking again for humour and for a writer with great enthusiasm. He would love to find an illustrator or picturebook maker who can speak Irish and can do events in schools and at festivals, but has yet to discover one

Margaret Anne Suggs from Illustrators Ireland gave this advice:

1/ Have something worth submitting.

2/ Do your research - look at what the publisher or agent likes and see if you are a fit.

3/ Follow the submission guidelines carefully.

And the publishers' pet hates? Letters addressed 'Dear Sir' (to Emma or Deirdre). 

Elaborate packages of artwork with no return address.

Rhyming picturebooks with no story. 

Margaret Anne said that illustrators are often told to write their own text. She described this as being bisexual. 'It doubles your chance of a date,' she said. 

Other information shared was:

Writers and illustrators rarely meet.

If you are a writer you do not need to find an illustrator. You submit your text without pictures. The editor will match your story with the right illustrator. Do not provide illustrations yourself (unless you are also an artist) or pay someone to illustrate your book. 

Don't put grown ups in your book if you can help it.

If you are an illustrator, apply to Illustrators Ireland who can help you with contracts and professional advice. 

Always get a contract if you are an illustrator and ask for royalties, not just a set fee (esp for picturebooks). 

Walker split the writer/illustrator royalty 50/50.

Illustrators' agents take 25 to 35% of a contract and literary agents 15 to 20% (for writers or illustrators).

It was a really enjoyable, informative day and thanks to all the speakers, to Marian Keyes at the library and Artscope for their help. 

Watch out for the podcast of the day which I'll post here soon. 

I'll leave you with this list of recommended books about writing and illustrating picturebooks which I put together for the event. 

Books about Writing and Illustrating Picturebooks

Recommended by Sarah Webb

riting Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul – especially good on how to write a rhyming picturebook and how to check your rhythm and rhyme. Highly recommended.

Writing with Pictures: How to Write and Illustrate Children's Books by Uri Shulevitz – excellent book, well worth reading. Especially good on format.

Illustrating Children’s Books by Martin Salisbury – a must have for illustrators. Full colour hardback with lots about technique.

Children’s Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling by Martin Salisbury and Morag Styles – excellent book about the history of picturebooks, publishing, process + much more. Highly recommended.

100 Great Children’s Picture Books by Martin Salisbury – a gem – treat yourself!

How to Write a Children’s Picture Book by Andrea Shavick – a good beginner’s guide to writing picturebooks.

Writing Children’s Books for Dummies by Lisa Rojany Buccieri – don’t let the title put you off, this is a useful, sensible book. Especially good on the different age groups and genres.

Sarah Webb mentors new and emerging writers and critiques picturebooks and novels for children. Contact me for details about how to book (now taking bookings for Sept)


New Children's Books To Look Out For in 2016

Eoin Colfer
Eoin Colfer

This year looks set to be another stellar one for children's books, and Irish young adult (YA) in particular will blaze a trail in 2016. There are new titles from brand names such as Julia Donaldson, Eoin Colfer and Derek Landy, plenty of interesting debuts and some intriguing books from 'grown up' bestsellers Cecelia Ahern and Sheila O'Flanagan.

Children's Laureate Eoin Colfer's Iron Man novel for children comes from Marvel in autumn - and according to Colfer, the billionaire playboy Tony Stark is set to get the Dublin treatment. Puffin's lead title this spring is Dave Rudden's The Knights of the Borrowed Dark (March), the first in a trilogy featuring Denizen Hardwick, a boy who doesn't believe in magic until he's ambushed by a monster created from shadows. HarperCollins is very excited about Cecelia Ahern's debut YA novel, Flawed, set in a society where perfection is everything (March); while Hachette will be publishing The Crystal Run, Sheila O'Flanagan's fantasy debut for age 10-plus, in May. Gill and Macmillan presents its first YA novel ever in April, from Eilis Barrett, a writer who is a teenager herself. Her book, Oasis, is set in the future and follows a group of teen outcasts.

Little Island has been making waves with its strong fiction list, and looks set to do so again in 2016. First up in February is Needlework by Deirdre Sullivan, for young adult and adults, a novel about child abuse and its aftermath that I read in one sitting. An important and beautifully written book.


Also from Little Island for older teens is Anna Seidl's No Heros (March), the story of a school shooting and its aftermath, a publishing sensation in its native Germany; in May it launches The Best Medicine by Belfast writer Christine Hamill, about a 12-year-old boy whose mother has breast cancer.

Kim Hood's debut YA novel, Finding a Voice was shortlisted for the YA Book Prize in the UK last year and her second novel, Plain Jane, is out in April from O'Brien Press. The story of a 16-year-old girl whose sister has cancer, it's one I'm looking forward to as I love her vibrant writing voice.

The Square Root of Summer by Harriet Reuter Hapgood (Macmillan, May) follows physics prodigy Gottie Oppenheimer as she navigates a summer of both grief and rips in the space-time continuum; while The Girl in the Blue Coat by Monica Hesse (Macmillan, April) is a World War II story set in Amsterdam about a girl who gets involved with the resistance. Puffin Ireland editor Claire Hennessy's YA novel, Nothing Tastes as Good, is published by Hot Key in July and is already creating quite a stir. Annabel is a recently deceased anorexic teen who is assigned as a ghostly 'helper' to Julia, another girl with an eating problem. Brian Conaghan's The Bombs That Brought Us Together (Bloomsbury, April), dealing with terrorism and war, sounds very promising; and Derek Landy is back with the second book in his Demon Road trilogy, Desolation (HarperCollins, March).

For readers aged nine-plus, there's book three of Shane Hegarty's Darkmouth series, Chaos Descends (HarperCollins, April); and also the latest novel by Brian Gallagher (O'Brien Press, April) called Arrivals, a Canadian murder mystery set in 1928. Ger Siggins is to publish another book in his popular sport series, Rugby Flyer (O'Brien Press, February); and Matt Griffin tackles a war between humans and fairies in Stormweaver (O'Brien Press, April). It's great to see Corkman Kieran Crowley back with The Mighty Dynamo (Macmillan, May), about a boy who dreams of being a footballer. I'm currently reading the exquisite Anna and the Swallow Man by New York-based Gavriel Savit (Bodley Head, January), set in World War II. And finally for this age group, the US writer Kate DiCamillo returns with Raymie Nightingale, a novel about a friendship which changes lives forever (Walker Books, April).

Poolbeg will add Maebh Banrion na Troda (February) and Sceal Naomh Padraig (March) to their Nutshell library for younger readers; and the ultimate staying-between-the-lines challenge has to be Where's Wally? The Colouring Book, from Walker Books in June. Sarah Bowie's picture book Let's See Ireland (O'Brien Press, April) has striking artwork; and finally, Julia Donaldson's Detective Dog, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie (Macmillan, June), about a dog with an extra keen sense of smell, sounds as if it will make both children and parents smile.

This piece first appeared in the Sunday Independent.

Gen Z + Other Stories: What I Learned at the Children’s Con

On Monday I attended the Bookseller magazine Children’s Conference in the Barbicon, London and here is what I found out. I hope you find it interesting and/or useful.

1/ Underestimate Digital Brands at Your Peril

16% of book sales come from digital brands – Minecraft, Zoella etc

55% come from ‘traditional’ books – Harry Potter (before the movies), Jacqueline Wilson etc

14% come from tv brands

8% from film brands

7% from toy brands

(Stats from Egmont’s Cally Poplak based on Egmont’s extensive consumer research in the UK)

For many children books based on digital/tv/movies/toy brands are a way into books and reading. Most parents are happy that their children are reading at all.

All reading is to be encouraged I say!

2/ Children Have a Passion for Print

The Egmont research proves that 75% of children prefer print

I can’t tell you how excited I was to hear this. From talking to hundreds of children in schools all across Ireland I was convinced that this was the case and it was brilliant to hear that this is indeed the case in the UK.

3/ Heritage Brands are Big Business

Walker Books increased the sales of Guess How Much I Love You threefold in 2015, the 20th anniversary of Antrim man, Sam McBratney’s outstanding picture book, illustrated by Anita Jeram.

Last year they doubled sales of We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury.

Irish publishers should be celebrating anniversaries too – 10 years of Alice and Megan, 10 years of Artemis Fowl etc.

 3/ All Brands are Big Business

24% of book sales come from the top 20 children’s brands – Minecraft, Lego, Peppa Pig, Frozen etc

Books give voice to a brand and bring characters to life.

 4/ Information Books are on the Rise

Wide-Eyed Editions and Nosy Crow both talked about their excitement about the non-fiction market.

Wide-Eyed are all about Wonder, Discovery and Innovation – and aim to produce books that capture all three.

a/ They talked about books being immersive, tactile reading devices.

b/ They said ‘books aid mental navigation and memory retention.’  Even the spine helps a child navigate through a book – they described them as ‘mini steps through a landscape’.

c/ They said books build concentration and encourage critical thinking.

d/ Reading print discourages children to do other things (unlike reading on a tablet).

e/ Books knit families together – with shared experiences.

As you can imagine, as a print lover, I adored all this positive print-ness.

tell me and i'll forget
tell me and i'll forget

They also talked about involving a child in a book – using the Chinese proverb here:

 6/ Children’s Sales are On the Up and Up

There was a 8.9% growth in children’s sales in 2015 in the UK.

Children’s books are a whopping 27.8% of the UK book market.

Julia Donaldson has sold 1.2 million books to date this year – she is a consistent bestseller and not to be underestimated.

David Walliams is the biggest author in the UK at the moment (after Julia Donaldson)

 7/ German Readers Love Fantasy and Horses

There was a most interesting talk on trends around the world from Rights Manager,  Clementine Gaisman. She said German publishers are very keen on:

a/ Middle Grade (age 8/9 to 12)

b/ Fantasy adventure – Derek Landy and Eoin Colfer were both mentioned

c/ Love stories

But they do not like steam punk apparently!

Brazil is an emerging market and they like:

a/ YA books –they love John Green (who doesn’t?)

geek girl
geek girl

Scout Helen Boyle said contemporary books (family/friendship dramas) are still strong but need a hook. Like Geek Girl.

She said ‘Good quality storytelling and distinctive voices are always of interest.’

According to Helen, publishers are also looking for:

a/ Magical realism – mermaids etc – middle grade

b/ Adventure with fantasy – Eoin Colfer and Derek Landy

c/ Books with horses in them (esp Germany)

 8/ Bookshops in Schools - Why Not?

Tamara MacFarlane from Tales on Moon Lane Bookshop talked about her new project – a bookshop in a school. I found this most interesting and a very exciting idea.

 9/ Snapchat is Growing Fast

Facebook is for ‘old people’ apparently, according to children and teens. (I love Facebook!)

You Tube is also growing fast and that’s where many readers go to look for book recommendations and information.

It was suggested that writers and people in the book trade should take their books where ‘teens are’ – ie You Tube.

 10/ Generation Z Loves Stories and Books

Generation Z were born between 1995 and 2000 and will drive change according to Emma Worello of Pineapple Lounge – a very savvy and well spoken young lady who has made it her business to talk to teens and young adults for years, finding out how they see the world.

She said ‘Stories are fundamental to Gen Z lifestyles’ and it’s how they engage with the world. They are fans, they follow things. And they love cool formats – collectable books – and the idea of family story hubs and family time with a home library. This is excellent news. When Gen Z become parents, they will definitely build wonderful libraries for their children, full of amazing books!

Lots of great, great news for writers, booksellers and publishers – books are here to stay and long live print!

Yours in books,

Sarah + songbird2
Sarah + songbird2

Sarah Webb XXX