Writing for a Living: Q & A

January 24, 2006 @ 3:39 am | Filed under: Books, Who We Are

I get many letters from people with questions about writing children’s books and getting published. A very nice young woman wrote me this week, and I thought I’d share some of her questions and some of my answers.

Might I ask you a question (or 5!!) about getting published? What sort of process did you go through? Who did you talk to (editors, publishing companies etc.)? Were you approached to write the Martha and Charlotte books or was it something that you decided to try on your own?

I got my start in children’s books when I was twenty-three, after graduate school. I knew I wanted to write for a living, and I knew it was very hard for newbies to get their manuscripts read, so I took an extremely low-paying, coffee-fetching editorial assistant job at Random House Books for Young Readers in hopes of building relationships with editors. I fetched a lot of coffee, but the strategy worked.

I spent a year at Random House, a year at HarperCollins, and by then I was married & expecting our first baby, so I quit to stay home and write. While on staff, I had volunteered for every grunt writing task I could get my hands on—catalog copy, jacket copy, all the stuff editors hate to write but have to do. When I left, I had a chapter-book adaptation job lined up, and that led to another assignment, and it went on from there.

I had been freelancing for a few years when I got a call from an editor asking me if I’d be interested in researching Laura Ingalls Wilder’s great-grandmother and writing novels about her. It’s safe to say I was very interested, indeed!

Of course not everyone can go to NYC and do slave labor at a publishing house to get a start. The more usual route is to write write write and submit submit submit (to specific editors* or agents—this is very important—you’ll have no luck submitting to a generic “Editor” at a publishing house). And then you wait wait wait for six months or more for an answer. Which, unfortunately, is usually no. When I was on staff, one of my jobs was to read submissions, and we got them by the thousands. If I passed one manuscript in two hundred to my boss for a closer look, that was a banner week.

*Visit Harold Underdown’s Purple Crayon site for a peek at the comings and goings of editors at various houses. The Verla Kay message boards are another good place to lurk for insider info.

How long does it take, on average, to get a book published once the manuscript has been accepted by a publisher?

It depends on the kind of book. Six months to a year is typical. Illustrated books may take even longer.

Do you have to pay the publisher up front or do they give you a ‘loan’ of sorts until the book catches on and you both make a profit?

The publisher pays me, not the other way around. (Beware any publisher who wants to charge you money—that’s a vanity press—stay away!) Loosely speaking, there are two kinds of book contracts. Work-for-hire projects are for more commercial/mass market kinds of books, like some Carmen Sandiego mysteries I wrote in 1995. In those cases, the editor calls a writer and says, “We need a writer for such-and-such a project. We’re paying a flat fee of X dollars.” The writer does not get a royalty in a work-for-hire deal.

My Hanna’s Christmas picture book is an example of a work-for-hire project. I was paid a piddly sum and asked to come up with a story that fit within certain parameters. The publisher wanted a picture book about a little Swedish girl who moved to America and was homesick, and there had to be a tomten in the story. The rest was up to me to create. I had a good time with that one! I’ve done other work-for-hire projects for which the requirements were much more rigid. Work-for-hire stuff is how some writers pay the grocery bill. My husband does a great deal of work-for-hire, and some of the projects he has accepted have been excruciatingly challenging. He was once hired to write some Justice League mini-comics for Burger King kids’ meals. The publisher wanted a complete story for each character—which had to correspond with the toys included with the meals—in a format so tiny there could only be four thumbnail-sized panels per page, and only four pages, with very little space for dialogue. And the real kicker? As I said, the publisher wanted a “complete” story for each comic—”but,” the hiring editor added, “the stories should also be open-ended, so that the kids can continue them on their own with the toys.” Riiiight. Scott pulled it off, however (no surprise to his proud wife). As a matter of fact, he still gets enthusiastic reviews from collectors of those mini-comics.

A royalty contract is usually offered for a book you have written on your own, and submitted, and an editor has fallen in love with and offered to buy. Books like this are published in hardcover; this is considered the “trade market,” not the “mass market.” (My Little House books are a royalty contract, but they’re an unusual case. The editor came to me, not the other way around—more typically a work-for-hire situation—but they are literary novels requiring painstaking research; trade fiction, not mass-market. I was offered an advance against a royalty, just as would be the case if I’d submitted a novel and the editor wished to buy it.)

An advance means the publisher knows you need something to live on while you’re working on a book and waiting for it to come out. You are offered a particular sum as advance against a specified royalty. The royalty is a percentage of the book’s future earnings. When the book is published, it may take several years for your royalty earnings to catch up to the amount you were paid in advance. After the publisher has recouped the advance, all subsequent royalty earnings are paid directly to the author (usually in a lump sum twice a year).

And, lastly, and very much off topic, how old are you? How old were you when you first got published? Were the “Little House” books your first works?

I am 37. I was, let’s see, 25 years old when my first books (a series of chapter-book adaptations—not an original work) were published. (OK, technically I guess I was first published at 23, when one of my poems appeared in the literary magazine Quarterly West.)

My first original publications were the two Carmen Sandiego books I mentioned. I spent the next year or two doing other work-for-hire projects like Hanna’s Christmas—some ten or twelve books in all, I think. Then I was asked to write the Martha and Charlotte books, and those have kept me busy ever since. Those books and my four-soon-to-be-five babies, that is!


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  1. Thanks for this look into your writing career. Some day I might be able to share such advice too!