Monday 27 July 2020

Writing (Picture Books) As a Business • by Natascha Biebow

I have a dream – to write more and earn enough to write more and so on. So, I’ve been reflecting on how other writers manage to do this.


The trick, it seems, is not just bum on seat time writing, but either enough publishing contracts to create an income stream, alongside potential earnings from backlist titles, or even a bestseller to earn big bucks. Maybe it’s something in-between?


The main question remains: how to get the books (or content) you write and create to actually sell to a publisher in the first place? Obstacles:


-       Frequently, you have to write many books – or creatively re-visualize the ones you’ve written so they actually sell – before a publisher says ‘yes’ and you have come money coming in.

-       Some books, especially non-fiction or longer novels, take a long time to write. Meanwhile, you’re not earning money.

-       Submissions take so much time to get a response! In the meantime, again, you’re not earning any money . . .


Most business people have a PLAN. As entrepreneurs, we are writers, creators of content, editors, marketeers, accountants, PR experts and more. Possibly, a business plan might look something like this:














Show up for work!


OK, so once you decide to try to make a go of writing to earn a living, how do you survive in the interim? Don’t give up the day job yet (in my case, editing), because you need to pay bills. But maybe try to consistently dedicate a few hours a week to writing. Gradually try to shift the balance between different kinds of paid work?



Make products that could generate income.

I can do this. I can definitely visualize lots of books I’d like to write, that I’m excited to create. Great!


Except for the fact that just creating books doesn’t earn enough money to live off – yet. So, while waiting for those to hook in an editor . . .


Here are some things other authors are doing to try to generate a more steady income:


• Work on LOTS books at once (some authors work on up to 10 picture book or non-fiction projects at once). This might help increase the probability of the right book finding the right editor at the right time, but the chicken and egg conundrum around this that I wrestle with is:


How to spend time on so many projects when you need a day job to live? There are not enough hours in the day . . .


• Write for different types of publishing markets – e.g. work for hire, magazines, educational materials. Arguably, this doesn’t pay as well as if you sell your book on an advance and royalty deal, and sometimes these jobs can be hard to come by. Bt maybe if you are able to land some, enough of these jobs could be good ‘bread and butter’ money to start to shift the balance?


No one said it would be easy!



Get creative with your content and talent to generate additional income


• For many working authors and illustrators, fees earned at events like festivals, school and library event appearances are a great way to supplement their income. Plus it’s super-important to be visible, connect with readers and promote & market your book and it can be a good earner if you’re willing to put in the time and travel.


• I can also offer workshops to schools and to other writers/creative for a fee.


The key to this is figuring out what unique skills you have and how you might be able to market them to schools, libraries, writers, etc. Then, if you can get enough gigs, you could start to supplement your day job (and, if relevant, any current book sales) income in other ways such as teaching, workshops, and appearances.



Promote sell promote sell promote sell  . . .


Once you do have a body of work, you need to sell more copies – and keep them selling over a longer period of time! HOW?


-       Keep meeting people who you can tell about your book


I’ve been doing this by making it my goal to reach out to people who might be interested in my book every week or so and offering to connect with free content. Who?


-       Bloggers and Podcasters (and other influencers)

-       Booksellers

-       Teachers and librarians

-       Reviewers

-       Fellow authors and illustrators

Recently, I’ve been doing some virtual visits for free to promote THE CRAYON MAN with the aim of selling copies of the book to attendees.

You can create free content such as videos, activities, educators' guides and similar to support this endeavor.

But this again takes time – less time to write and create new content . . .

So, how to advance beyond this circular conundrum?


I don’t have the answer, but I am persevering.

To shift the pie-chart quarters, I am trying to:

1. Be goal-centred, productive and focused in order to get more writing accomplished in a small amount of time

2. Schedule what I will do when. When we don’t have to pfaff around figuring out what to do and can ‘hit the desk running’ knowing what tasks need to be done when, we can be more efficient and waste less time. This is part of the PLAN.

** Block out creative time, day job time, family time and admin time (where I answer emails, do social media and volunteer work in blocks of time which is more efficient than being interrupted all the time).

And if I don’t manage it?

Here’s the thing I’m trying out: Be kind to yourself! There are many days when I don’t succeed in doing what I set out to achieve.

That’s OK. I can adjust. And keep writing.


Natascha Biebow, MBE, Author, Editor and Mentor
Natascha is the author of the award-winning The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons, illustrated by Steven Salerno, selected as a best STEM Book, editor of numerous prize-winning children’s books, and Co-Regional Advisor (Co-Chair) of SCBWI British Isles. She is currently writing more non-fiction picture books and a series of young fiction. She runs Blue Elephant Storyshaping, an editing, coaching and mentoring service aimed at empowering writers and illustrators to fine-tune their work pre-submission. She is also Editorial Director for Five Quills. Find her at


Monday 20 July 2020

Do Picture Book Writing Courses Work? Pippa Goodhart interviews Catherine Emmett

I have been teaching day schools and online courses about picture book writing for some years now, and one of the joys of that teaching is when somebody comes onto the course who takes every idea and suggestion offered, and runs with it. Catherine did my four week course run though Jericho Writers, and also had critiques of manuscripts done via them. But now she's producing glorious texts, supported by her own critiquing group, achieving publication and being paired with absolutely top illustrators. I'm mighty proud of her, and delighted to ask her some questions for Picture Book Den -

Catherine, have you always been a stories sort of person?

When I was little, my dad used to make up bedtime stories for me and my sister.  I loved those stories and can still remember all of his characters.  There was a sort of magic to him weaving those stories out of thin air.  I loved writing, but my real love was always reading.  I read books about everything, but mostly horses.  I loved the feeling of opening up a book by a favourite author and knowing that you had a whole new story to read. I still get that same feeling now when one of my favourite authors writes a new book!  The longer the better - I’ve never really liked short stories as they finish too soon!

Do you think that story writing can be taught, or is it innate, and you either have the skill or you don’t?

I think that WANTING to write is perhaps innate.  I think that some people seem to spend more time in their own heads than others, and that, for me, is what makes a writer.  The characters that form in the quiet moments, the ideas that appear at unexpected times and refuse to go away!  I started writing because I constantly had ideas in the twilight of my mind and the only way to get them out was to write them down.   
I think a lot of the rest can perhaps be taught.  For me certainly I spent a LOT of time learning to write in rhyme.  It took a lot of time to understand the concepts and more time again to be able to THINK in rhyme, but now I would say it was one of my strengths.   I think that a lot of story structure can certainly be learnt, but that it is those ‘twilgiht ideas’ that can make a story magic.

What sorts of working with others do you find most helpful in the picture book writing process?

All kinds to be honest!  When I first started writing I had friends and family read the stories - in the words of my then 6-year old niece, ‘Keep trying Aunty Catherine, I’m sure you’ll get better.’!  

After that my husband purchased me a place on a picture book writing course as a Christmas present.  The course was brilliant at helping me to think about what is really important to children, and about teaching the magic of picture books - the power of ‘the page turn’!  I also found having a professional critique was incredibly valuable.  Having really honest feedback from someone more experienced really shows the issues with your story.

Once I’d completed the course, I joined SCBWI and started a critique group.  The group has been brilliant as it is so much easier to see what is working or not working in other people’s stories – and for them to see it in yours. 
Since then I have been lucky enough to work with my agent, Alice Sutherland-Hawes who has a great commercial eye for where a story needs to be improved.  And of course, with my brilliant editors at S&S, who always seem to find a way to make a story better!

But of course, the very best part of being a picture book writer is working with your illustrator and watching them bring your story to life!  That for me really is the magic!  Ben Mantle has done such a fabulous job with ‘King of the Swamp’ – the first time I saw his illustrations I couldn’t stop smiling!

What comes next for Catherine Emmett the writer? 

After ‘King of the Swamp‘, my second book will be out in Spring 2021.  It is another rhyming picture book, but it is very different!  ‘Cautionary Tales for Parents and Children: The Pet’ is out with Macmillan and is illustrated by David Tazzyman.  It explores what happens when a very spoilt boy doesn’t look after his pets!  More books are coming after that, but nothing that I can talk about yet!  I am now however, obliged to write lots more as, after years of writing on the sofa, I am I the process of building a house with a brand sparkling new writing room!  I can’t wait to start writing in it!

PIPPA: As somebody else who has been lucky enough to build their own home, and to go from writing in odd corners around busily family life to having a proper work room, I promise you it'll be strange but wonderful, Catherine!

And here is Catherine's upcoming first picture book, looking magnificent! CONGRATULATIONS, Catherine! Publication date is on August 20th, so SOON!  

Monday 13 July 2020

Biting off more nonsense than you can chew….with Mini Grey which Mini discusses complete nonsense, beards, and what happens if you leave illustrators alone for too long...

As a child in the 1970s, brought up largely by TV, I especially loved the Banana Splits Show and the Tomfoolery Show that both appeared on Saturday mornings.
The Bananas were a psychedelic collection of baggy saggy happy animals and Tomfoolery was crazy cartoonery featuring a fish on stilt-feet. So when I met the work of Edward Lear, his Complete Nonsense fitted right in.
Mr Lear's self-portrait with Foss the Cat
The world of Lear is full of troubled individuals doing their own thing, and strange creatures such as Pobbles and Dongs, often with deep unresolved longings.
But this is Complete Nonsense so there's much more: there are alphabets, stories, cookery, a herbarium. When he wasn’t making nonsense Lear was an accomplished painter and depicter of animals, particularly birds, so he knew his natural history. I just have to show you a few specimens from Nonsense Botany:
  Here we have the useful-looking Bottlephorkia Spoonifolia, the dangling bloom of the Manypeeplia Upsidownia, an impressive specimen of Phattfacia Stupenda, and the rather disturbing Nasticreechia Krorluppia

The Complete Nonsense is a compendium with something for everybody. You can have a go at Nonsense Cookery – perhaps make an Amblongus Pie, where you need 4 ½ pounds of fresh Amblongusses, and end up serving it up in a clean dish, and throwing the whole thing out of the window as fast as possible.

Last year I was invited (by Bloomsbury publishers) to illustrate a compendium from another bearded poet, AF Harrold. The Book of Not Entirely Useful Advice, was to be the title.
Now I mostly knew AF Harrold from reading his story books to my son Herbie. I remember us reading The Song From Somewhere Else –and feeling we were in the presence of a clear voice with words that made you sit up and shiver. It featured a talking stomach as one of its characters. It was funny but heart-bending, and coming after some books by other authors that had disappointed us a bit, it was like a refreshing slap by an unexpected wave at the seaside.
A lone cat by Levi Pinfold, from The Song from Somewhere Else
Now AF Harrold has worked with quite a bunch of illustrators. The Song From Somewhere Else is broodingly illustrated in exquisite monochrome by Levi Pinfold. Emily Gravett has created the magical pictures for The Imaginary and The Afterwards.
A lone cat by Emily Gravett, from The Imaginary
AF’s other funny fiction series about Fizzlebert Stump and Greta Zargo have riotous pictures by Sarah Horne and Joe Todd-Stanton. His poetry has been illustrated with delicious pictures by both Chris Riddell and Katy Riddell. 
An enormous bit of a bear erupts from cornflakes in this watercolour by Katy Riddell
An entire bear has been found in the cornflakes in this drawing by Chris Riddell. Plus an insight into how poets wear socks.
I noticed from observing the work of Chris Riddell that putting your poet in the bath or other dire circumstances, is a thing that the illustrator can do. This could be useful. 
Here Chris Riddell has depicted AF Harrold sat nude in the bath.
The Book of Not Entirely Useful Advice, like Lear’s Complete Nonsense, has something for everyone. There’s a lot of foodstuffs – sausages, jelly, crisps, toast. Rock cakes.

There’s quite a lot of animals – koalas, foxes, tigers, snakes. Some swearing Parrots. 

These are all tempting ingredients to draw. The whole thing seemed like an attempt to shoehorn Life, the Universe and Everything into a sort of bonkers self-help book with a colossal index.
.And also GIANTS.
 It’s interesting to compare illustrating poetry versus a narrative. With poetry you can have freedom from the Continuity Police: you don’t need to stick to the same characters, you don’t need to have a specific location. You can possibly be free from having to draw backgrounds at all. You can have that magical mixing where words and pictures come together side by side and by their juxtaposition create something new. It might be possible to unleash creatures like swearing parrots and ducks and just have them wandering about among the pages.
Just a fabulous collage television by David Tazzyman, from Jelly Boots Smelly Boots
 The team at Bloomsbury gave me a copy of Jelly Boots Smelly Boots, where David Tazzyman had been let loose among the poems of marvellous Michael Rosen, pictures that were awash with spontaneity and fun. And collage. I especially liked the collage. This too could be useful. 
The usual picture book is 32 pages, which is about 15 double page spreads. My usual speed of picture making was a week per spread. But this book was going to be 148 pages long – about 70 spreads. I couldn’t work out the maths but I suspected if I didn’t up my speed this project might take the rest of my life. So I had to do a spread a day, for about 14 weeks.  Working out how to start making roughs I realised the only way to get it in a manageable format was to shrink it to thumbnails and scribble on these, then blow them back up to full size to use as the roughs.
I’ve said a bit more about the Power of Teeny in this Picture BookDen post here.

In the margins of illuminated manuscripts from around 700 years ago, you can discover some quite weird things.

There are fighty rabbits doing bad things to people. There are knights battling snails.
There are nuns harvesting unmentionable fruits from trees. Clearly, someone left the illustrator alone to do their own thing, and what they’ve chosen to do is hide the scatalogical and the mad and the bizarre in those pages: demented doodles that can talk to us from 700 years ago. These illuminators were enjoying the secret power of the illustrator: to shrink and expand, to undermine, to winch things in, to be the last one on the job who got to have the last (pictorial) word on the page. 
 (Plus – I noticed this medieval appearance of the Walking Fish – the ancestor of the Fizzgiggious Fish of Lear, and the walking fish who often wander the drawings of John Vernon Lord.)
Medieval walking fish (left) Lear's walking fish (centre) John Vernon Lord's fish wearing the best hat (right)
The voice of The Book of Not Entirely Useful Advice, comes of course straight from AF Harrold. If you want to know what this voice is like, tune in to the AFHLEKPoPod podcasts.
These may be about subjects such as Toast, and brought to you by kind association with items such as Sausages (“like food but tubular…plop ‘em on your plate and stick ‘em in your mouth.”) and then at the end advise you about what to do if you didn’t like the podcast (eg “If this wasn’t your cup of tea, why not make yourself a cup of tea, and see if that’s better…”)
Edward Lear (left) Darwin (top right) John Vernon lord (bottom right)
Also as I may have mentioned before, AF has a magnificent beard, which put me in mind of other magnificently bearded individuals, like Edward Lear, of course, but also that illustrator of Lear, John Vernon Lord, and also that collector of botanical ideas, Charles Darwin.

Could I shrink AF and have him roaming though his book, perhaps with a bit of a net for catching ingredients for poems?

Yes I could.

There’s one poem in the Not Entirely Useful Advice called Winch – which gave me the idea – that maybe in this book a lot of winching can happen.
Signs could be lowered down on hooks. So there’s somewhere beyond the pages where things are being lowered in from. There’s also the chance to force your poet to do ridiculous things, like dangle a puppet version of themselves. And of course put them in the bath.

Also as the illustrator there’s the power to take over entirely and completely fill the page with knots, and also add my own useful notes pointing out where AF has got things wrong.

Luckily both AF Harrold and our fantastic team at Bloomsbury (Zoe Griffiths, Sarah Baldwin, Stephanie Amster and Jeni Child) were completely up for all this, in fact they positively encouraged it and wanted as much of it as possible. I guess we were attempting to make the ultimate unreliable narrator nonsense work.
The other good thing about just being the illustrator rather than the author-illustrator, is that I am just not responsible for the content or whether it makes sense. Actually as it turned out it seems that AF wasn’t either. I was really puzzled about the jelly in the bath in this poem here, plus why "quack quack quack"?

When questioned, the author admitted he had no idea either. So now random quacking has been turned into a repeating feature in The Book of Not Entirely Useful Advice.

When I first encountered AF Harrold, I was much impressed by the badge collection he was wearing. And badges are a perfect transportation device for good or bad advice. So to finish, here is your own cut out & keep badge selection, to create a badge for every occasion. I’m off to have another go on the Advice-a-tron 216.

The Book of Not Entirely Useful Advice by AF Harrold with pictures by Mini is published by Bloomsbury and released into the wild on the 3rd September 2020.