I love sharing a success story, so if you haven’t heard of Fiona Barker and her passion for picture books, please read on and enjoy! Fiona’s book Danny and the Dream Dog came through my critique service and I was thrilled to learn it will be published by Tiny Tree in October.
Welcome to the blog, Fiona, and congratulations on your forthcoming book. You started off as a self published author. Can you tell us a bit about what that was like?
Thank you for inviting me onto your fab blog! Yes, I self-published a picture book ‘Amelie and the Great Outdoors’ in 2016. I had submitted it as a text in the conventional way about 10 years previously. Looking back now, my submissions were cringeworthy! Unsurprisingly I didn’t get anywhere so I shelved it for about 7 years. Then I came back to the story, which I still liked. This time around I investigated self-publishing. I worked with a freelance book designer and together we commissioned lovely illustrations from Rosie Brooks. Then I approached Matador who took me through the process of printing and publication. By now I knew that I had the picture book bug and so I started to view Amelie as a ‘practice’ for trying to get traditionally published. I won’t lie, it was an expensive process! But once you have a book in your hands you can get experience with events in schools, bookshops and libraries. I’ve learned so many lessons and I think that would all have taken much longer if I hadn’t self-published and had to market my book myself. My current publishers, Tiny Tree, told me that they were impressed by the fact that I had some history and a track record in promoting my book and that was one of the reasons that they signed me. So although I haven’t broken even financially, nothing is ever wasted. The experience has been invaluable.
Why did you feel you wanted to pursued a traditional publishing contract?
Lots of reasons! I couldn’t really afford to self-publish again. Self-published picture book authors are at a disadvantage because they have to pay up-front illustrator costs and this puts it out of reach for many writers. Also, I had rediscovered a real passion for picture books and wanted to explore pursuing writing as a career. It’s hard to pull that off with self-publishing. I have massive respect for anyone who manages to do that. And, like it or not, there is still a stigma attached to self-publishing. Several bruising experiences when trying to market Amelie showed me that!
What attracted you to Tiny Tree? How has the process been, working with them?
I found Tiny Tree through Twitter (which is my favourite and my best!). I saw a tweet by one of their authors and decided to look them up. The information on the website sounded great, they were quite new at that stage so I thought I might be in with more of a chance than with a more established publisher and they accepted unsolicited submissions! It felt like I might be in roughly the right place at roughly the right time for once but I wasn’t confident as I’d had so many rejections in the past! They have been brilliant right from the start. They agreed to work with the illustrator that I wanted and they’ve been very hands on in getting everything just right. It’s so different from self-publishing where absolutely everything is down to you. This feels much more collaborative and it’s great to have other people who are excited about your book!
Bit of a cheeky question coming up! You had a critique done during the drafting process of Danny and the Dream Dog. How do you think this helped you?
It was HUGE! I’d advise anyone to get independent professional advice on their texts. It helped me refine the style and voice. I also changed a couple of important aspects of the plot and one of the main characters names. So some quite major revisions! But I didn’t follow through with everything. There were a couple of times where edits were suggested but I decided to stick with the original, including the title! I’ll let everyone judge for themselves whether that was a good idea or not! But it was great to be forced to carefully consider and justify the things I kept. I’m sure the professional advice helped because no changes were made to the text by the publishers!
You are very active on the literary scene with Picture Book Club, school visits and adult events such as WI and U3A meetings. Do you think this has helped your author profile?
Massively, especially Picture Book Club. That’s not why I did it though! I set up PBC as an affordable way for people (including me!) to meet and learn from established industry professionals. And it gives me something to tweet and blog about. The adult talks I do are just a chance to witter on about picture books for an hour or so. And I love doing school visits. That’s done a bit for my profile locally but I’m not famous enough to get many long distance school gigs (-;
How did you find your agent Alice Williams? Tell us a bit about what an agent does for you.
Alice was on my ‘hit list’ because she represents my SCBWI friend and fellow picture book author Clare Helen Welsh. I submitted to her and then met her in person at the SCBWI conference in 2017 and I signed with her shortly afterwards. She is awesome. She is responsive if I have any queries and takes quite an editorial role which I find very helpful (even if I cry into my laptop initially!). She also knows the industry and has the contacts that I will never have. Having spent years pressing the send button myself, it feels weird having someone else do that for you but she is getting my work seen by editors that I could only have dreamed of previously.
As an audiologist, do you think your day job affects your writing life?
I only work as an audiologist 2 days a week so writing fits round that quite well. I also have incredibly supportive colleagues which helps enormously. I’m terrible at compartmentalising things though so I always have a notebook with me, even at work and I often have to break off from working on a story to take a call from a patient. I recognise that I’m very lucky to be able to maintain both though. Variety is the spice of life!
What are your ambitions?
Ooooo! In the short term, I have one or two texts that are very special to me which I would really, really like to see in print. In the longer term, I’d like to write something that has longevity. Something that might still be in print in 10 or 20 years time. It’s a bit of a pipedream but you might as well aim high!
And finally, any words of advice to other writers?
My number one piece of advice would be to join SCBWI and find a local or online critique group. My own SCBWI crit group are, without exception, amazing writers who I continue to respect and learn from all the time. You will also meet so many other fantastic writers and illustrators as well as other industry professionals. I met Howard Gray, who has done a brilliant job illustrating Danny, at the SCBWI conference in 2016 and the rest is history!
Many thanks Fiona and the best of luck with your new book!
Danny and the Dream Dog by Fiona Barker and illustrated by Howard Gray is published by Tiny Tree in October. You can pre-order here, or why not order at your local bookshop or library?
Visit Fiona at fionabarker.co.uk or on twitter at @Fi_BGB
Find out about Picture Book Club.
And check out the wonderful dog charity Cinnamon Trust.