Archive for Fan Mail

Fan Mail Wednesday #308: Advice to an Adult for Publishing a Children’s Book

We all get them. Sooner or later, every published author receives the query. It’s from a person who wants to know how to get published. These letters can be touchingly sincere or — at times — presumptuous and annoying. The annoying ones are typically a dashed off, two-sentence email with the request: Explain publishing to me . . . while I sit around and drink wine.

As if we have nothing better to do. 

They want, of course, for “the published” to hand over the Secret Key that lets them inside the Golden Egg where the rich and famous authors and illustrators all sit around sipping fabulous cocktails, gazing at our royalty checks and, endlessly, complaining about our publishers who don’t do enough marketing. 

(Publishers never do enough marketing.)

Alas, there is no Secret Key.

Anyway, I always answer and try to provide some helpful information. Or at least, basic human recognition — I see you — and hopefully a few encouraging words. 

Because it is really hard to feel like an outsider, that sense of how do I get seen? What do I do? Is there a trick? A short-cut? Anyway, I’m sympathetic to that feeling, even though there’s really nothing new or insightful I can possibly say.

See that rock: Start pushing it up the hill.

This email came with the subject heading: ADVICE FOR PUBLISHING A CHILDREN’S BOOK. For some reason, I gave a longer answer than usual, so share it here.

 

Hello Mr. Preller,

I hope this email finds you well. My name is _____, and I’m a general surgery resident at ______ hospital. I’m writing to you for advice on publishing my first book. A woman [edit: name omitted] at the Medical Library encouraged me to contact you.

Late one night last fall, on call as the senior trauma surgery resident, I wrote a children’s book. The children I had spent the night examining in the pediatric ED were afraid and bewildered, and their parents were afraid and bewildered as well. I realized that a good picture book could comfort the kids and their parents, and could explain the unfamiliar hospital environment.

I cold-emailed a literary agent this week and sent her a query letter looking for representation, but haven’t heard back. I’ve read a few blog posts about publishing a book, but I still don’t know very much about the process.

Do you have any advice on how to get from a finished manuscript sitting on my computer to the next step in the publication process?

Thank you very much!

Best,

Tyler

 

I replied . . .

 

Tyler,

How dare you disturb the GREAT OZ!

 

No, not really.

 

I actually replied . . . 

 

Tyler, 

Well done on recognizing a need and writing a manuscript.

That’s a big part of the job. But you still have work to do (often this work is what separates the published authors from the writers and the dabblers).

The standard and correct advice is that most publishers will only look at manuscripts represented by an agent. The old “slush pile” days, when an assistant editor or hired “reader” might comb through a pile of unsolicited manuscripts are pretty much over. Harry Potter killed it; suddenly everyone figured out a new, easy way to become millionaires.

Write a children’s book! How hard could it be?

Ha, ha, ha.

Publishers got overwhelmed. Some still try to sift through unsolicited manuscripts; others do not. These days, agents tend to be the most reliable gatekeepers, helping to weed out the manuscripts that don’t meet publishing standards or the ever-shifting demands of the marketplace.

So, yeah: Do some internet searching and find children’s book agents. Read the descriptions. Send them queries. Know that it might take months to receive an answer.

Note that an agent will only represent you if s/he thinks that your book has a chance of selling. She will not waste her time if she suspects it has no shot. An agent agrees to represent your work in the hope of earning 15% of the profits. Also, an agent’s credibility is at stake. If that agent passes along too many “bad” manuscripts, editors will no longer trust in that agent’s ability or sense of the marketplace. No one wants their time wasted. So, yeah, in a lot of ways finding an agent is a critical step in the process.

Your book falls under what we used to call “bibliotherapy.” Books designed for specific needs, a narrow audience, often to help young children face social or physical problems. Most of the big publishers you know off the top of your head likely won’t be interested in a niche book like yours. Which doesn’t mean it’s not a deserving or publishable book — it’s just not going to be a bestseller. However, there ARE small publishers who specialize in exactly this kind of thing.

Again, more homework for you –- some of which might have to wait until things open up a bit, Covid-wise. Go to the library. Talk to the children’s librarian. Look at books that fit in your category (“My First Visit to the Doctor,” “When Mommy Is Sick,” and so on, usually shelved in a separate section). Note the names of the publishers. Do more research. See if you can find the name of a specific editor and write a short query letter. It’s a long shot, but it’s possible. Such a letter would demonstrate a lot of good things about your level of interest and dedication.

Anyone can dash off a quick email to an author. But will you do the necessary work?

Also, please note the books that you admire. Their length. The word count. And so on. For example, just about all picture books are 32 pages, total. You know that, right? You have to give them something that fits into the publishing world as it exists. It’s amazing to me how many people don’t get that part, so they are eliminated right out of the box. No one is going to reinvent publishing for your book.

Good luck.

And lastly, thank you for the important work you do, especially during this most difficult year.

 

James Preller

P.S. Don’t quit your day job!

P.P.S. Funny coincidence. You wrote a children’s book while working as a surgeon in a hospital. Just yesterday, while working on a children’s book, I found a few spare moments to remove an elderly gentleman’s gall bladder! At least, I think it was his gall bladder.

My next book, Upstander, comes out on May 11th. How did I pull that off? Well, I have the Golden Key. (You didn’t think I was going to share it with Tyler, did you?)

 

 

 

 

 

Fan Mail Wednesday #307: Hiccups in Hindi

 

Dedicated readers might recall a boy, Vivaan, who dressed up as Jigsaw Jones for Halloween.

Naturally, I tried to adopt him.

His mother resisted.

But over the course of a few emails, I’d like to think that we’ve became friends. Shivika recently sent this surprising letter . . . 

 

Dear James,
We have been you fans for over 4 years and we did not even know it!
I bought this book in 2017 during my visit to India. We have a collection of over 100 Hindi books at home as I read a lot to them in Hindi. I remember Vivaan loved it so much, we would read it many times and then act it out. Now, it’s Shivvank’s favorite book these days. 
Today morning, with my sleepy eyes when I read this to Shivaank for the third time, I read the authors name and connected the dots — you are the author! Now I wonder do I have any more of your books?
We are all very happy this morning with this discovery.
First pic is of your name in Hindi.

Shivika

 

I replied . . . 

Shivika,

Wow, I didn’t even know this translation existed!

– 

So nice to see, and it is lovely that we have a connection that goes beyond Jigsaw Jones. Soon we’re going to find out that we’re related!
I loved that book, wonderfully illustrated by Hans Wilhelm, and used to have great fun showing it on school visits — I’d enlist help from volunteer hiccupers. I’d get five kids to come up front and hiccup on cue. It was pretty adorable. That book sold almost 1.5 million copies in paperback on the Scholastic Book Clubs, so of course they let it go out of print.
Very sad.
I hope your family is in good health. We’re hanging in there.
Jimmy

Fan Mail Wednesday #306: A Reader “OBSESSED”

There’s something about readers who enjoy scary stories. They bring a unique level of enthusiasm — of passion — to their reading. They don’t just like a book, they almost seem to take up residence, they dwell inside it. While I’ve written many types of books over the years, across various genre, there’s nothing that works better in front of a large audience than reading a carefully-selected passage (not too scary!) from one of my “Scary Tales” books. 

Which is to say, here’s a card from Gracyn in Texas . . . 

I replied . . .

Dear Gracyn,

Thank you so much for your wonderful card. My wife had saved it but mistakenly tossed the envelope. So, yeah, I had to do the deep dive into the garbage bin to retrieve your return address.

(Old coffee grounds are gross, btw.)

Texas, hey. I’ve been fortunate to visit your state several times for book conventions, author visits, and even to play in a men’s baseball tournament. Always a good time.

Art by Iacopo Bruno from “I Scream, You Scream!” AKA, “Dr. Z’s Adventure Park.”

You aren’t too shabby a writer, yourself. “I could not stop telling my friends all about it in grave detail.” Wow, that’s a great choice of words. It’s an ordinary sentence until the end there, when you added in grave detail. Perfect! Keep that up and I’ll be reading your books someday.

Be sure to thank your teacher for having my book in your classroom library. I appreciate that. There are six “Scary Tales” books in the series. I find that everything I write helps me become a better writer. My most recent novel, Blood Mountain, is a realistic story about two siblings who are lost in the wilderness. It’s a scary, suspenseful, survival thriller. The lessons I learned writing “Scary Tales” helped me write that book. In this case, the frightening things were “real” compared to the ghosts and zombies and swamp monsters in the series. But the writing is very similar. Still building suspense, setting up situations, trying to make the reader lean in.

And if a girl named Gracyn can become OBSESSED, well, that’s the best I can possibly hope for.

Thanks for that.

Um, and now . . . I better go wash my hands.

My best,

 

James Preller

 


P.S. This is the cover of Blood Mountain. Because one good book leads to another!

 

 

Fan Mail Wednesday #304 and #305: Two Letters from Alaska

 

Here’s two for the price of none! The third book in my “Big Idea Gang” series, illustrated by Stephen Gilpin, seems to be getting some positive attention. Perhaps the environmental, activist message strikes a chord. Here two students in Anchorage wrote to me about it, so I thought I’d do a combo post here.

Here’s Hailey . . .

 

I replied:

 

Dear Hailey,

Thank you for reading my book, Bee the Change, from my “The Big Idea Gang” series.

You noticed an interesting detail in that story – how Kym, in that situation, was brave; but Lizzy, who was usually bolder and more confident, felt nervous.

It kind of flipped, right?

I think life is like that. No one can be great at everything. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. There are people who are nervous around big dogs, while other people just want to give ‘em a big hug. For the purpose of this story, it gave Kym an opportunity to shine (after Lizzy was mostly the “star” of the first book, Worst Mascot Ever).

Writing these books (there are three so far), I wanted to show how when we are faced with big problems, that it is often best to think small and make a difference in your community. There used to be a popular expression: “Think globally, act locally.” We can all become overwhelmed by the Big Problems in the world –- asking ourselves, “What difference can I possibly make?”

Hopefully in these stories I help shine a light on the small but important ways that children like you can help make the world a better, kinder, safer place in your own communities. You are our best hope for the future.

My favorite character in Bee the Change was absolutely Otis Smick. He makes me smile, and I love the way Stephen Gilpin, the illustrator, drew him.

Thanks for your sweet letter,

James Preller

And here’s Mia . . . 

I replied: 

Dear Mia,

I wonder if you go to the same school as Hailey? I’d bet a dollar that you do. Anchorage, Alaska. Wow. I’ve never been there, but it sure sounds like an adventurous place to live.

Are bears just like always eating people?

“Where’s Penelope?”

“Oh, she got eaten by bear.”

“Darn, I hate when that happens!”

 

Okay, probably not. But still, the Alaskan wilderness strikes me as vast and formidable and a little bit scary. What a cool place to live.

Anyway, thanks for reading Bee the Change. As you might have guessed, I am very interested in our natural environment –- I love the great outdoors, hiking and camping and exploring — and our connection to all the living creatures that share this planet with us. To quote the poet Gary Snyder: “We must try to live without causing unnecessary harm, not just to fellow humans but to all beings.”

Recently I’ve read fascinating nonfiction books about beavers, and coyotes, and buffalo. It’s just something I enjoy and care about. Some time ago I read about “colony collapse disorder” and became worried about honeybees. Later, when doing research for a different book (Better Off Undead), I met a middle school science teacher who kept a hive box in the school garden! My visit with her was similar to when Kym and Lizzy visited Ozzie’s farm. Like Ozzie, Ms. Ford enjoyed sitting quietly in a chair, a book on her lap, and watching the bees come and go. That’s where most ideas come from for me –- from real life, the things I see, the people I meet, and, yes, the books I read.

I am excited to learn that you and your friends are involved in a cleanup project. That’s so awesome. You are making a difference in our world! Imagine if everyone did just a little bit? What a difference we could make!

My best,

James Preller

 

ALSO IN THE SERIES . . .

       

Fan Mail Wednesday #303: “How Did You Get Started Writing Books?”

 

In this letter, I’m hearing from Joe, a friend of Vivaan, who had previously dressed as Jigsaw Jones for Halloween; together they enjoy my Jigsaw Jones books. It’s worth noting how helpful and supportive both parents have been in terms of encouraging reading and reaching out to an author. It began with a comment on my blog!

 

Dear James Preller,

A tough moment between Jigsaw and Mila tests their friendship.

My name is Joe and I am 6 years old. Vivaan, whose mother Shivika recently contacted you, is a good friend of mine.  I am writing because I just read your book, The Case of the Hat Burglar, with my dad, who is helping compose this message. It was terrific, because of the drama — what a great story of betrayal and redemption.  Very soon, I want to read more Jigsaw Jones books. Finally, I have a question — how did you get started writing books when you were growing up?

Thanks!
Joe

I replied . . .

Dear Joe,


        Thank you for your email. 

Any friend of Vivaan Shah’s is a friend of mine!
I’m so glad you enjoyed The Case of the Hat Burglar. It’s the most recent Jigsaw Jones book, and in many ways it is my favorite. It’s the first time that Jigsaw and Mila ever had a problem with their friendship. I’ve always wanted to write something about that — how two really good friends can get into a fight, experience hurt feelings, and sadness, and then get through it somehow.  
It seems like all of us go through it with our friends and family. What a relief when we come out the other side, happy and together once again. 
I wrote books when I was your age. In fact, I still have one and made a video about it. Here’s the link that will get you there. I even have a Youtube channel of other videos, too. You might like them!
And, who knows, maybe I’ll be reading one of your books soon. If you do write one, please send me a copy or a manuscript or, at least, a picture of the cover.
But what will you write about? 
Hmmmm.
Thanks for your kindness, and thanks to your super dad, too, who knows all the big words!
James Preller