Survivors: Lisa Wheeler on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s Author

Learn more about Lisa Wheeler.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

In children’s-YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field.



Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

I think the biggest bump (aside from pre-publication days when I was gathering all my rejections) came during the recession.

I know I am not alone in this.

During that time, I had one editor retire and two leave for other houses. This made selling a manuscript even more difficult, and it seemed everything I wrote for about five years (except for the Dino-Sports series with CarolRhoda which continued throughout this time period) got rejected.

I was fortunate to have that series during that dry spell because it gave me deadlines and I still felt like a “real” writer.

I also took a writing job for Pearson. I wrote four short stories for use in our state testing program. These were pay-per-project, but I didn’t think twice about taking the job. The money was decent and it kept my brain occupied while also allowing me to be creative.



If you had it to do all over again, what—if anything—would you do differently and why?

Hindsight is always 20/20 isn’t it? I wish I hadn’t stressed so much. I wish I would’ve believed more in myself and my abilities.

I tend to turn inward when things go wrong and point fingers of blame at myself, my talent, etc.

In truth, looking back, lots of writers had trouble selling during this time. It was a market thing, combined with being orphaned at three publishing houses.

I should have listened to my agent who kept assuring me that things would turn around. He was right!

The field and body of literature are always evolving. For you, what have been the stand-out changes in the world children’s-YA writing, literature and publishing? What do you think of them and why?



I have seen picture books get shorter and flashier.

I used to tell the folks who participated in my Picture Book Boot Camps that they had to keep their word count at 1000 or less. Now I advise keeping it below 500.

I also think that social media has played a huge part in making some books very successful. People are celebrities now because they have an online presence.

Twenty years ago, the internet was a new world and I never foresaw how it would change our world.
I am uncomfortable with all the social media showy marketing stuff and actually have mini panic attacks when I try to sit in on workshops about this topic. It’s all so out of my comfort zone.


What advice would you give to your beginner self, if that version of you was a debut author this year?

Hire someone to handle your social media.


What do you wish for children’s-YA writers (and readers), looking to the future?



As always, I wish them successful careers and many book sales.

I also hope that children’s books will continue to be made with real paper.

With Deb Aronson and Lisa Rose at Book Beat in Oak Park, MI.

I love that this medium allows families to take their eyes away from the screens, experience the feel and smell of real printed books, see art that isn’t backlit, slow down, ask questions, discuss story. . .oh, all things I recall from reading aloud to my kids when they were small.

Such a precious memory!

As a writer, what do you wish for yourself in the future?

Like I tell the kids, I will continue to write books until my brain or body breaks down. I hope neither thing happens anytime soon.

I love my job!

Cynsational Notes

The Survivors Interview Series offers in-depth reflections and earned wisdom from children’s-YA book authors who have successfully built long-term, actively-publishing careers.

Guest Post: Linda Covella on Going Indie: Tips & Advice on Self-Publishing in the YA Book Market

By Linda Covella
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Thinking of going indie?

Self-publishing can be a fun, exciting, and rewarding endeavor. But get ready for an eclectic collection of hats, because you’ll be wearing many. It’s important to realize you’re selling a product that should be of the highest quality.

Here are some tips and resources to help you through the process.

Editing

By the time you’re ready to publish, you should have already gone through developmental editing of concept, character, and plot issues. Now, you need a proofreader/copy editor.

Don’t rely on a random friend or relative. Keep self-published books a strong and respected force in the market by having your manuscripts edited professionally or by a trusted, experienced critique partner. (Whenever you hire an outside service, be sure to have a contract.) See my list of editors from author recommendations.

Tip: Other indie authors can be a great resource for any self-publishing questions.

Cover Design

Your cover should be unique while blending with other books in your genre (a fine line to walk).

There are three cover options:

DIY: Royalty-free images are available online, such as this site, which you can use to design your cover.

Pre-made covers. Google “pre-made book covers,” and you’ll find quite a few.

Custom cover design. I’ve compiled a list of recommended cover designers. Bibliocrunch and Girl Friday Productions offer editing, cover design, and other help for indies on a budget.

ISBN

Do you need an ISBN (International Standard Book Number)?

Not necessarily, but most retailers and publishers require one. (Amazon.com does not.)

With an ISBN, your book will be more discover-able by readers, bookstores, and libraries.

Currently the price for an ISBN (purchased through Bowker) is $125—not cheap. And you need one for the ebook and paperback of each title. If you plan to publish several books, you can buy them in bulk at greatly reduced prices; they never expire. Some businesses buy ISBNs in large quantities so they can then sell them at reduced cost.

There’s some controversy about the validity of these or “free” ISBNs, so obtain one from a reputable source. See Joel Friedlander’s article on ISBNs and the ISBN website.

Formatting and Publishing

Depending on where you decide to publish your book, you may need help formatting your manuscript. It’s free and easy to publish ebooks through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), and they accept Word docs. Amazon’s print service, Createspace, is free and requires only a PDF. They also offer professional publishing services.

Smashwords is an ebook publisher, accepts Word docs, but has a style guide that must be followed.

Smashwords has distribution agreements with all major online retailers and with Baker&Taylor, which libraries use to purchase books.

Draft2Digital publishes ebook and print books. They accept simple Word docs with no style guide to follow. They offer editing and cover design as well, and distribution agreements.

Smashwords or Draft2Digital? Here’s one blogger’s analysis.

IngramSpark is a print and ebook publisher with distribution agreements. They have a style guide to follow, and you may need a professional formatter. See blogger Linda Austin on IngramSpark vs. Createspace (book doctor Stacey Aaronson says it’s beneficial to use both)!

Pricing

To price your book, check other books in your genre. A common price for ebooks is $3.99.

The freebie can be a good marketing tool when you have a series: offer the first book for free in the hope that the reader will buy the other books in the series.

Experiment with pricing; see where that “sweet point” is. Just remember, you’ve worked hard and deserve to be paid a reasonable price.

Marketing and Promotion

Once you’ve published your book, the real work begins. As an indie book publisher, marketing and promoting is a never-ending job! Here are some tips and resources:

Local schools, libraries, and bookstores. Ask if libraries and bookstores will carry your book. Contact schools to do author visits. Author Alexis O’Neill’s blog is a great resource on school visits.

Subscribe to newsletters for publishing news, tips, classes, freebies, and generally “knowing your industry.” Some good ones are:

Follow blogs, including those of your favorite YA authors. If you use WordPress, you can follow tags in your reader to find others with similar interests. Good blogs for self-publishing include:

  • Chris McMullen. Lots of info on Amazon, other self-publishing tips.
  • Bookbaby (another ebook and print book publisher). They had a recent Twitter chat with YA author Lauren Lynne.
  • IngramSpark has a blog on their website with self-publishing information.
  • Of course, Cynthia’s blog, Cynsations!

Guest blog on YA authors’ blogs. Most bloggers love having guest posts. Come up with an interesting topic and ask!

Join SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), check the website for resources, sign up for their newsletter, and get involved in your local chapter (you can join forces with other authors for book signings, etc.).

Use Social Media

  • Get your books noticed through accounts on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest, Instagram, and other social media sites.
  • Join some young adult author and reader groups on Facebook and Goodreads to meet and learn from other YA authors, and to expose your books to readers.
  • Create a website. Pay someone or DIY with sites such as WordPress.com and Wix. This article showcases some “stellar” author websites.

Reviews

It’s tough for indie authors to get reviews. Ask for reviews on your website and social media. Put a request at the end of your books. Here’s one list of bloggers who review books. Though the title says middle grade literature, most will also review YA books.

Ginger

Do a blog tour (usually done when your book is newly published), and many of the bloggers will review your book. These businesses, among others, handle blog tours. Some specifically target YA audiences, but be sure to pick a blog tour company that lines your book up with YA bloggers.

Enter contests. Prizes can add credibility to and exposure for your books. There are many free contests and others, such as RONE, Chanticleer, and Literary Classics, have entrance fees. These three all have YA categories. And, of course, there are the biggies from ALA. See which awards accept indie books.

Advertise. Occasionally having a sale on your book and advertising can help boost visibility. Advertising prices and results vary. Most, if not all, of these promotional sites have YA categories. Missing from the list, but popular with authors, are The Fussy Librarian and Bookbub (expensive, but results can be worth it).

Self-publishing has lost its earlier stigma of “vanity publishing,” and readers are embracing indie authors and their books. Indies have discovered the advantages of self-publishing: control over content and cover design, higher royalties, and quicker time to market.

Do the research, put out a quality product, work on marketing, and you can find success and satisfaction as an indie author.

Cynsational Notes

Linda Covella’s varied background and education (an AA degrees in art, an AS degree in mechanical drafting & design, and a BS degree in Manufacturing Management) have led her down many paths and enriched her life experiences. But one thing she never strayed from is her love of writing.

Her first official publication was a restaurant review column for a local newspaper. But when she published articles for various children’s magazines, she realized she’d found her niche: writing for children. She hopes to bring to kids and teens the feelings books gave her when she was a child: the worlds they opened, the things they taught, the feelings they expressed.

She is a member of the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). She lives in Santa Cruz with her husband, Charlie, and dog, Ginger.

No matter what new paths Linda may travel down, she sees her writing as a lifelong joy and commitment.
Find Linda at Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Goodreads, Pinterest and YouTube.

New Voice: Melissa Gorzelanczyk on Arrows

On Twitter? Follow @MelissaGorzela.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Melissa Gorzelanczyk is the first-time author of Arrows (Delacorte, 2016). From the promotional copy:

People don’t understand love.


If they did, they’d get why dance prodigy Karma Clark just can’t say goodbye to her boyfriend, Danny. 

No matter what he says or does or how he hurts her, she can’t stay angry with him . . . and can’t stop loving him. But there’s a reason why Karma is helpless to break things off: she’s been shot with a love arrow.


Aaryn, son of Cupid, was supposed to shoot both Karma and Danny but found out too late that the other arrow in his pack was useless. 

And with that, Karma’s life changed forever. One pregnancy confirmed. One ballet scholarship lost. And dream after dream tossed to the wind.


A clueless Karma doesn’t know that her toxic relationship is Aaryn’s fault . . . but he’s going to get a chance to make things right. He’s here to convince Danny to man up and be there for Karma.


But what if this god from Mount Olympus finds himself falling in love with a beautiful dancer from Wisconsin who can never love him in return?

Could you describe both your pre-and-post contract revision process? What did you learn along the way? How did you feel at each stage? What advice do you have for other writers on the subject of revision?

Like Melissa on Facebook.

Revising post-contract is a lot different than pre-contract.

The best part about post-contract revision is you have a clear path set by someone you (hopefully) trust. Your editor!

When my edit letters come in, I like to allow the feedback sit for a day or two before diving into the changes. That feels long enough to let any emotions attached to what she is telling me disappear.

 I wouldn’t recommend writing from a place of feeling wounded or defensive. You need to be open.

Once I’m open to the critique, I go through her letter and write a list of all the problems in my manuscript.

After that, I brainstorm possible solutions, making sure my favorites work on a big picture level. The process breaks down to finding solutions within all of my story elements—plot, setting, character, theme—and then onto chapter/scene/sentence level from there.

One thing to remember when revising post-contract is that your book will actually be out in the world someday. While this seems obvious, it’s easy to forget when you’re focused on the work at hand. Mainly, you want your editor to continue liking your book, right? Do not forget that now, in revision, you should also fix the things that don’t ring true to who you are.

Because people are (for reals) going to be reading your book in the near future! Make sure you feel proud and certain about the changes you are making.

Pre-contract is much harder, especially if you don’t have a critique partner you trust. The key is to find at least one.

Trade samples of each other’s work, and see if you like what the other person is saying to help make your story better. See if they work on the same turnaround as you. See if you feel comfortable being yourself when you email back and forth.

Melissa’s office

My second piece of advice is to trust your story and your gut. Long ago, a valued beta reader of mine suggested that I consider taking the teen pregnancy aspect out of my YA novel Arrows. I decided not to, and that ended up helping my book sell to Delacorte. In fact, my book was pitched as “MTVs ‘Teen Mom’ meets Greek mythology.”

I’m not saying the beta reader was wrong. Maybe my book would sell a million more copies without the teen pregnancy plotline. Who knows. I’m just saying you don’t have to revise according to every comment, especially pre-contract.

Before sending your manuscript to beta readers, I suggest doing at least a couple revisions on your own. One of my favorite revising methods is a modified version of Susan Dennard’s revision method (just scroll down). Take her ideas and adapt them to fit your style.

For me, a simplified approach works best. My plan always starts with printing my manuscript and reading it in one sitting. I might make notes in the margins, or I might not. Then, like Dennard, I paperclip my chapters together and figure out what is or isn’t working with the plot, characters and setting.

This takes time! And this isn’t the place for line edits! Because believe me, for those first revision passes, your deleted scenes file may end up as long as your manuscript. That is okay.

Shed no tears.

This is how all books are made.

“The only kind of writing is rewriting.”
Ernest Hemingway

How have you approached the task of promoting your debut book? What online or real-space efforts are you making? Where did you get your ideas? To whom did you turn for support? Are you enjoying the process, or does it feel like a chore? What advice do you have on this front for your fellow debut authors and for those in the years to come?

Promoting my debut has been both exhausting and interesting. I’m still a few weeks from publication date (I’m writing this on 1/4/16), but I truly feel I’ve done all I can leading up to this point.

I try to remember that promoting a book is a slow burn, kind of like the publishing process as a whole. It doesn’t happen all at once.

The things I’m doing pre-publication are the things I’ll be doing all of next year.

Promotion starts by figuring out two things:

1. How much time you can devote to promotion.

2. How much money you can/want to spend.

I think every author should plan to spend some time and some money on their promotion, but no one really knows the magic combo. Personally, I devote half of my work day to promotion, as well as some nights and weekends, which I started doing when my book was about four months from publication.

Up to that point, I was working on promotion as things came up. There wasn’t a set schedule or plan. So I guess you could say that about four months to publication, I panicked, created a master spreadsheet and worked really hard to meet my goals.

As far as money, my guess is that I’ll have spent about $1,500 to $3,000 on promotion by the end of 2016. This estimate includes postage (budget more than you think you need), thank you cards, thank you gifts, bookmarks, buttons, postcards, my book trailer, conferences and my launch party. All of this is tax deductible.

I have no idea if this is high or low as far as a marketing investment, but as a debut, when deciding where to spend money, it made sense to go “all in.”

I’m curious how I’ll feel at the end of 2016. My advice is do what feels right for you.

Melissa’s office

If you’re wondering where to start with promotion, I’d highly recommend joining a debut author group. I’m a member of the Sweet Sixteens and the Class of 2k16.

Being able to ask fellow debuts questions has saved so much time in random Google searches/panicking. Plus it’s a safe place to share failures and successes, and well, meet people who “get it.” My author family is a whole new awesome kind of family.

Another thing you can do is study what successful authors are doing. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Add your personality and style to their ideas. For instance, if they are on Goodreads, you probably want to be there, too. If they are doing giveaways on Twitter, why not try one?

For your own sanity, stay organized. Write all of your ideas on a spreadsheet and add deadline dates so that you don’t feel completely overwhelmed.

Work on your promotion in bite-sized pieces. One blog post at a time. One bookmark order at a time. One Tweet at a time.

In my opinion, being a debut is a good time to say “yes”. Try all the blog articles you can. Answer every interview you can.

Yes, you want to make a book trailer? Figure out how to do that. Yes, create a professional website and blog, Facebook page, Instagram and Twitter. Yes, send a monthly newsletter (I use MailChimp). 

Yes, you can do this!


Cynsational Notes

Melissa recommends: Ten Things Nobody Tells You about Being a Debut Novelist by Tim Federle.

https://thesweetsixteens.wordpress.com/

Video: A School Visit with Author G. Neri

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

G. Neri is the Coretta Scott King honor-winning author of Yummy: the Last Days of a Southside Shorty (Lee & Low) and the recipient of the Lee Bennett Hopkins Promising Poet Award for his free-verse novella, Chess Rumble (Lee & Low).

His novels include Knockout Games (Carolrhoda Lab), Surf Mules (Putnam) and the Horace Mann Upstander Award-winning, Ghetto Cowboy (Candlewick). His latest is the free-verse picture book bio, Hello, I’m Johnny Cash (Candlewick).

Prior to becoming a writer, Neri was a filmmaker, an animator/illustrator, a digital media producer, and a founding member of The Truth anti-smoking campaign. Neri currently writes full-time and lives on the Gulf Coast of Florida with his wife and daughter.

2015 SCBWI Europolitan Con: Agent Brooks Sherman


By Elisabeth Norton
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations 

Brooks Sherman is an agent with The Bent Agency.

He represents picture books, fiction for young adult and middle-grade-readers, select literary and commercial adult fiction, and nonfiction in the areas of humor, pop culture, and narrative nonfiction.

He was interviewed by Elisabeth Norton for the SCBWI Europolitan Conference.

You’ll be presenting in Amsterdam about using social media effectively. This is a topic most creators wrestle with at some point in their career.

ON SOCIAL MEDIA…

Does a writer have to be on social media these days?

No. It could be argued that it is more essential for nonfiction writers than for those who write fiction, as nonfiction usually requires author platform.

Here’s the thing: Social media can be useful to a writer, if they are good at it. If you are uncomfortable communicating via social media, it will show, and it will actually have a negative effect. So, if you absolutely loathe using Twitter or Facebook or Instagram, don’t do it!

That said, if you do want to learn how to use it, it can be an invaluable tool for following industry news and trends, as well as networking with other writers and industry professionals.

Do you think the target reader age influences whether a writer needs to be on social media? Is it more important for a writer of young adult fiction to be on social media than say, someone who illustrates picture books?

Again, I don’t think anyone needs to be on social media. I will say that the young adult reading and publishing communities are quite active on social media, so it’s certainly worth considering if you write in that area.

Also, I found my first picture book client, Sam Garton, on Twitter; he had created a Twitter profile for his character Otter that included a link to his website.

Once I clicked onto his site and saw his wonderful humor and amazing artwork, I decided to reach out to him to see if he was working on any picture books.

So if you are an illustrator, keep in mind that social media can be a great way to advertise your artwork and online portfolio.

What’s your advice to the writer who has no social media presence at the moment?

I would encourage every writer to at least explore a few social media platforms, to see if any of them hold appeal. Twitter is a different experience from Facebook, as are Instagram, Pinterest, etc.

Try them out before you decide you don’t want to use them.

Before I got into publishing, I thought Twitter was a useless, narcissistic tool. Since I’ve become an agent, I’ve found it incredibly useful for keeping up with world news, publishing news, promoting my clients’ work, and building my own professional reputation.

Is there such a thing as too much social media presence?

I think so. While I think it’s great if writers and publishing professionals are active on social media, if you are too active, it can become exhausting for those who are following you, and you might turn people off.

Also, keep in mind that social media should be a tool, not a goal; if you are using it nonstop every day, when are you going to find the time for your real work? (Or your family, friends, and health?)

What are some of the biggest mistakes you see by writers/illustrators using social media?

The biggest mistake I see people make on social media is forgetting that everything they do is public.

Again, social media is a tool; don’t use it when your emotions are running high, or say, after you’ve had a few glasses of wine. Social media is an excellent way to build a public persona, but it is not you — it is the you that you want to share publicly.

Also, no need to overshare: you don’t need to share every single thought that pops into your head!

ON GRIPPING OPENINGS…


Can you give a couple of examples of what you think are gripping openings, and tell us why they work?

Certainly. Here is the opening line from my client Emma Trevayne’s middle-grade fantasy Flights and Chimes and Mysterious Times:

“There are doorways, and there are doorways.” 

Right away, this sentence establishes atmosphere and style. There is a classic feel to this narration, and it compels you to keep reading.

There is also the opening line from my client Heidi Schulz’s middle-grade adventure Hook’s Revenge:

“There have always been pirates. Why, even as far back as Eve, on the day she was considering whether or not to eat that apple, a pirate was most certainly planning to sail in and take it from her.” 

Again, atmosphere and style are immediately apparent. There is some wonderfully wry humor here, and really, who doesn’t love reading about pirates?

The opening lines from my client Becky Albertalli’s young adult contemporary novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda:

“It’s a weirdly subtle conversation. I almost don’t notice I’m being blackmailed.” 

Here is an example of the story starting right away — as a reader, I definitely want to know what’s happening, because my interest has been piqued with the word “blackmailed.”

Who is blackmailing our narrator, and why?


In the submissions you see, what percentage would you say grab you with their openings?

I receive somewhere between 50 to 100 queries (with opening pages) during an average week. Of these, I would say perhaps 10 percent of these intrigue me enough to request the full manuscript.

Do any of those stories with gripping openings lose you later?

Learn more!

Unfortunately, this does happen.

Sometimes it is simply a case of my loving the story’s premise but not connecting with the way the story is told.

Other times, it feels like the writer has worked very hard on the opening pages, but not as much on the rest of the manuscript.

While it is important for you to have a gripping opening, don’t forget to give the same attention to the rest of your story! Make sure your story is as tight and strong as possible before you query agents and editors; you want to put your best foot forward.

Thank you, Brooks. See you in Amsterdam.

Cynsational Notes

Learn more!

Elisabeth Norton was first
published at age 16 when she had no idea what an “unsolicited
submission” was. Seeing her byline on the subsequently published
magazine article ignited her desire for a career as an author.

Once she realized she wanted to write for children, she joined SCBWI and now serves as Regional Advisor for the Swiss region.

Originally from Alaska, she now lives in Switzerland between the Alps and the Jura and writes for middle graders.