Monday, 20 May 2019

How to improve your chances of getting published. Advice from commissioning editor Laura Roberts

I was invited to write this piece by author and Picture Book Den blogger, Lucy Rowland. I’ve known Lucy for a few years now, having had the privilege of commissioning, editing and publishing several of her picture book stories and establishing a firm friendship with her in the process. That’s one of the many brilliant things about my job - the people I meet and the relationships I build with them. Another wonderful perk of what I do is discovering new talent and stories.  

I’ve worked in children’s publishing for over 13 years, mainly as en editor and for various leading publishers including Bloomsbury, Macmillan, Egmont, Oxford University Press, Little Tiger Press and Scholastic. The one thing that has remained the same throughout all that time is the excitement I get when I come across a new story or an author or illustrator with a really special quality.

That is exactly what happened when Lucy’s agent, Anne Clark, sent me the text for Little Red Reading Hood. I’ve seen many rewritings of fairytales, but this one was utterly unique. Not only because of its wonderful celebration of reading and stories, nor because it is so beautifully written in Lucy’s inimitable lyrical style, but because the story is completely full of heart. This was a rare occasion where the text was signed almost on the spot and the illustrations just clicked into place because the fantastic Ben Mantle was the only illustrator we could imagine for the job.

Not all picture books happen this way. Sometimes a story idea lands in the right place at the right time when a publisher has a specific topic in mind, and other times an idea just really captures a publisher’s interest and imagination. So there is no one specific method to ensure success in getting published, but there are ways for an author to improve their chances:

1)  Research the marketplace.                                                                                  
     Visit bookshops and look at online booksellers to see what is available and what people are buying. It’s always good for an author to stay in touch with what is happening in the marketplace, no matter how long they have been writing or how many books they have had published. Trends and conditions change all the time.   
2)  Be aware of your audience.                                                                             
     When coming up with an idea, consider whether booksellers would be able to sell the story based on your market research. Will children connect with it? And will adults enjoy reading it to children time-and-again?
3)  Keep abreast of current affairs.                                                                                            
     Book trends are often influenced by subjects that have become topical, so publishers are always on the lookout for story ideas that tap into current affairs.   At present, for example, environment and mental health and wellbeing are popular picture book themes.
4)  Don’t be prescriptive about the illustrations.
 It’s good for an author to have a sense of how they imagine their story may look, but unless they are        illustrating the story as well, it is best to avoid including too many illustration notes and direction as illustrators need to have creative freedom, plus publishers will have a grasp on how to make a book look right for the marketplace. Authors will always be shown work in progress illustrations, so they do get opportunity to be involved.
5)  Network.
      There’s a strong online community of authors and illustrators on Twitter and Instagram, so this is a great way to engage in publishing conversation and news. It’s also a good opportunity to make contact with agents, editors and designers and make them aware of you and your work. If you’re looking for more guidance and support then it could be beneficial to join an organisation such as the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).
6)  Seek advice.
     Speak to as many people involved in children’s books as possible and ask the questions that you want answers to. Even ask people to look at your work - but be willing to take in feedback and suggestions for development.
7)  Consider an agent.
     Agent representation isn’t for everyone, but if you are considering it, do your research into where you would be a good fit. Don’t be afraid to make contact and send an agent your work - but make sure you have a number of texts to show them first.
8)  Don’t give up!
     As the phrase goes, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Even established authors receive rejections. If a story idea doesn’t get picked up by a publisher, then park it and move on to a new idea. There is every chance that this story could get another opportunity at a different time.

Of course there are illustrators who are keen to write too. Sometimes an illustrator will tell me they have a story idea and want to try their hand at writing it themselves but don’t know how to start. My advice is to tell the story the way an illustrator knows best - in visuals - and then add the words after.

This is just a part of another great aspect of my job: variety. The making of no two picture books is ever the same. Whether it’s an author and illustrator paired together, an author-illustrator creating the whole picture book, a debut or a highly experienced author or illustrator, the creative process always throws up new experiences and surprises, and as an editor I am always learning new things. I feel very privileged that I get to work with so many talented people who place trust in  me with their art.

Since becoming a mum to my own little human a couple of months ago, I’ve been taking a little time out from working in a publishing house and instead working solo as an editorial consultant. It’s been a wonderful experience to make contact with aspiring authors and see their work develop and evolve. When an author I’ve worked with has a story published, it is a very proud moment for me too!

If you want to get in touch with me for professional consultation on your own story ideas then drop me a direct message on my twitter handle @EditorJangles


Lucy Rowland said...

Thank you for sharing your tips with us. For anyone interested in Laura's story consultation service, I can say from experience that Laura is fantastic to work with and a pro story shaper!

Simon Yeend said...

Excellent post, Laura. It's so reassuring to know how many people in this industry reach out to try to help others improve their craft. And congratulations on the arrival of your "Little Human". Welcome to the land of sleep deprivation!

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Thank you, Laura. And huge congratulations on your own little human.