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.
I am delighted to share the news that one of my critique clients, Juleus Ghunta, will have his book Tata and the Big Bad Bull published by CaribbeanReads on 31 May 2018. The book is part fable, part adventure story as Tata attempts to get to school, overcoming various obstacles, not least of which is a fearsome bull whom he has to outwit. I asked Juleus a few questions about his publication journey.
What inspired you to write Tata?
I grew up in Jamaica in a single–parent home with my mother and three siblings. Due to financial constraints I began formal schooling a year later than most students. While I was in primary school, mother struggled to pay for my lunch and bus fare. I was determined to go to school so I decided to take a shortcut through a pasture. The pasture was home to some fierce bulls but the route cut the distance in half. One evening, on my way home, I was attacked by a bull. We stared at each other for a few minutes before I climbed through the barbed wire fence. When I stepped into the pasture, he charged and I got stuck. I was lucky to escape unharmed. I sprinted the long way home. It was terrifying but the following week I was in the pasture again. I had no choice. The ‘big bad bull’ character was inspired by this real–life experience; however, the bull is also a metaphor for the wide–ranging challenges I experienced as a child and the way I endured and overcame them.
Because of financial and other challenges, I learned to read at age 12 and was the only student from my class who was forced to repeat the 6th grade. Learning to read improved my self–confidence but I was saddened by the fact that there were no books in the school library with stories about black boys like me. I vowed to write such stories, I’m glad this lifelong dream has come true. There are many “hidden” stories in this book that readers will never know unless I tell them. Hopefully, I will get opportunities to share.
How old were you when you realised you were a writer?
I spent much of my childhood in the home of the late Jamaican writer, C. Everard Palmer. I couldn’t believe that such an influential writer grew up in my village. It felt surreal. Becoming a writer was the farthest thing from my mind though. That didn’t seem possible. I started writing ‘seriously’ four years ago; however, I don’t think of myself as a ‘writer’, despite my success. Writing has been an outlet for my grief; the way I unpack my traumatic childhood. Maybe one day I’ll feel comfortable with the ‘writer’ designation. I’m not there yet. For now, I’m content with the way writing helps me ‘breathe’.
How did the critique process help you?
It was a major turning point. Many of your suggestions made it into the book, including the very important point you made about humanising the bull by giving him a name. I was surprised by your detailed response and moved by your generosity. The book needed a lot of work, but you did not dwell on that. You showed me what was possible.
How did you find your publisher and what was it like working with them?
I did research to see who’d be interested in publishing Tata and received many rejections. I’m glad those publishers said no, because I kept searching and eventually found CaribbeanReads. I could not have asked for a better publisher. CaribbeanRead’s editor, Carol Mitchell, helped me rewrite and reshape the manuscript. It is a much better story than what I submitted. Her patience and vision are legendary.
Did you have any involvement in the illustrations?
CaribbeanReads helped me with the storyboard. I sent instructions to the illustrator, Ann–Cathrine Loo. Ann–Cathrine and I come from very different cultures. She grew up in Sweden so many of her initial sketches were inspired by images from her childhood. I instructed her on every detail of the illustrations and she did a truly remarkable job.
What do you hope children will gain from reading Tata?
The book reminds readers of the importance of compassion and forgiveness. There are lessons inside regarding how children should respond to bullying and ‘othering’. I hope Tata will encourage children to think more deeply about the emotions and experiences of others, especially their peers. Tata is a gift to children whose courage, resilience and leadership are needed in this troubled world.
When will you launch the book?
Tata will be launched on 30 June 2018 at Bradford Lit Fest. Please check my website for details.
And finally, what’s next for Juleus?
I’m working on a picture book manuscript and a poetry collection.
You can pre-order Tata and the Big Bad Bull on Amazon. Juleus can be found at www.juleusghunta.com and on Twitter as @Ghunta100. He is currently pursuing MA Peace Studies at the University of Bradford. His poetry has appeared in several journals including The Missing Slate, Moko, Easy Street, Chiron Review, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, and has been anthologised in Cordite 81: New Caribbean Writing and In This Breadfruit Kingdom. He was awarded the Catherine James Poetry Prize by Interviewing the Caribbean in 2017. In 2015 and 2016 he was shortlisted for the Small Axe Poetry Prize.
Following blog subscriber and critique customer Fiona Barker’s picture book acceptance by Tiny Tree, I caught up with James Shaw from Matthew James Publishing to ask him about his new picture book imprint and what he might be looking for in a submission.
What made you decide to launch a picture book imprint? How many picture books are you planning on publishing each year?
Not only am I a big fan of literature in general, I am also a huge art fan and a very visual person. Since taking over MJP I was always excited by the prospect of working on picture books, and as a father of two small boys I am constantly surrounded by the wonderful possibilities so many other publishing companies had produced. For me it was an obvious step. Although it hasn’t been easy, it has been very worthwhile.
As a small independent we don’t have a quota for how many books we publish each year and can be quite picky. Next year though we already have about 10 titles on the way, with many more submissions still filtering through. We like to keep it to no more than 1 a month though.
What length picture book are you looking for? And do you accept rhyme?
We like to have 32 page picture books, but we will stretch to 48 or drop down to 24 at a push. We have done much longer titles, but we prefer 32 pages as a rule. We accept rhyming and non-rhyming books, the story is the important thing, and as long as it is told well it doesn’t matter if it rhymes or not. Honestly not always fussed about a particular word count but we do find that around 600 words works best for children’s picture books.
Are there any topics that you are particularly attracted to? Do you like books with a message? What about humour?
Humour is really important to us. As a parent it is easier to read a book to my kids 40 times if it is funny. However, we at Tiny Tree love to provide books with a message. Bullying, friendship, loneliness, change, anything that could affect the life of a child is perfect. We want to stand out amongst the crowd, but we also want to provide something to the children, and the parents, above and beyond a beautiful book.
How are your authors paid, eg flat fee or royalties? Do you pay an advance? Do you sell foreign rights?
Our contract states a royalty of 10% on print versions, 25% on electronic versions. We also discuss with the author incremental increases in royalties based on sales. We don’t usually pay an advance unless one is required for a piece we absolutely must have. As a small independent we want to focus all our budget on producing and marketing a great product, and we like authors who are focused on that goal as well.
We can and do sell foreign rights, although we haven’t had much opportunity to up to this point. We have done our own translations for titles, to work with the authors from other countries though. Like any traditional publisher we are always looking for new avenues of sales for books and to make sure they get as much exposure as possible.
How do you find illustrators for your picture books? Is this something the author would get involved in as well?
A multitude of ways really. Sometimes an author/illustrator will come to us with a title they have already illustrated, like Binx the Jinx. Sometimes an author will know someone who they would like to use or they have worked with before, like Russ Brown and Jamie Cosley. Sometimes we get portfolio submissions from illustrators which we keep on file for possible work.
There have only been a couple of times where we have had to find an illustrator from nothing, but there are so many organisations and communities out there that it always very simple. The only problem comes with trying to match up the work and trawling through hundreds of possible illustrators when there so many talented people out there.
What attracted you to Fiona Barker’s book?
Fiona’s book attracted me in a number of ways. First, it was a simple and heart-warming story. There is a message there, but it is surrounded by just a simple, funny, inviting story that makes it easy to read and something I could certainly see myself and others coming back to. Fiona herself is also easy to sell; she provided a great deal of marketing information, she already has a great presence and she has an approachable persona that makes it simple to plan around her.
She also provided us with an illustrator that worked perfectly for her title. Although having something illustrated before submitting can sometimes be problematic, in this case it really worked in her favour.
Details on how to submit to Tiny Tree here
It’s almost a year since I started my critique service and I can’t believe how many manuscripts I have read! I have laughed, cried (well, almost) and been blown away by the talent out there. And the really exciting news is that one of my critique customers, Fiona Barker, has had her critiqued picture book manuscript accepted by independent publisher Matthew James Publishing Ltd’s new imprint, Tiny Tree Books! More about that very soon, including an interview with the publisher to find out exactly what they are looking for from authors.
In the meantime I want to thank everyone who has used the service, and also let you know that I will be changing the price structure slightly in order to reflect the time I am putting in and make it a fairer system. At the moment, if you submit multiple picture books you get a much cheaper price than those who submit one at a time, which is great for the customer but means that because I do a full report on each book, the payment per book gets much lower the more I receive in one go. So for future submissions, the price will be a set £25 per book up to 1000 words, and a further £5 per 1000 words thereafter. This will actually slightly reduce the price of longer works but will also mean that each book critique will cost the same per person per book. I hope this is acceptable and I look forward to reading more amazing writing in the year to come!
It’s nearly publication day! Fifteen years ago I started submitting children’s book manuscripts to publishers. Five years ago I decided to share my list of publishers I was submitting to by putting it on my blog. I never dreamed it would be such a popular post, with nearly 800 comments, queries and even success stories. It’s been great sharing the ups and downs of publication with so many people. Finally, on 28 January this month, my own dream will come true and my rhyming picture book, Professor McQuark and the Oojamaflip, illustrated by Julia Patton, will be published by Maverick Books.
To say thank you for everyone’s support, I would love to give away a signed copy. If you would like one, please share your new year’s writing resolution below! On publication day I’ll print out the comments and pick one at random. I’ll then be in contact to ask you for your address and dedication.
If you are still submitting, don’t give up! I made this promise to myself and I’m so glad I did. I will keep updating the publishers and agents lists and keep encouraging you all. Maybe your success story will be the next one on here? I hope so! Have a brilliant 2016 and keep writing.
One day, a creature called a Hugh came across a list of publishers accepting unsolicited manuscripts, selected one called Strident and sent off his book, The Almost Animals. The Hugh was a remarkable creature, half writer, half actor and half zoologist… no, that won’t work. Tell you what, I’ll let the Hugh tell you his own story…
Firstly, congratulations on your book deal! Can you tell us more about your publication journey?
Thank you! Well, the process was a lot quicker than I had anticipated. Although I’ve always enjoyed writing, this was the first book that I tried to get published. I came across your wonderful blog post, ‘Children’s publishers accepting unsolicited manuscripts’. Strident were the first ones I approached, and they got back to me very quickly. In fact, I think it was the same day. I was expecting to have to wait three months for a response, so when Strident’s MD, Keith Charters, got in touch asking to read sample chapters, I was very pleasantly surprised. An hour later, he asked for the rest of the manuscript. He then told me that it wasn’t quite publishable as it was, so to go away and sort out a few bits, before coming back to him. The alterations were mainly aspects that weren’t quite suitable for the young age of my intended audience. My mum and sister had given me similar advice (they were the only others to have read it at this stage), but it took a literary professional to sway me. Maybe I’ll listen to them next time. Maybe.
I made the changes and polished the manuscript further, then submitted it to Keith again. I remember, very clearly, the moment I was offered the publishing deal, as I’m sure every author does. I was spending a long weekend in Bucharest with my girlfriend. I missed Keith’s call, but he left a voicemail, saying he’d read through the manuscript and could I call him back. My girlfriend – she does have a name, by the way – decided to go and have a shower so I could be on my own to call him back. We had a long chat about the book, and then he said those magical words. ‘We would like to offer you a deal.’
Hollie. Her name is Hollie. Anyway, I had heard the shower go off ages and ages ago, halfway through the phone call. She had dressed, got ready (we were going out), and then just sat quietly waiting to come out, not wanting to disturb me. It was only when she came out and hugged me that I realised I’d been naked the whole time. Sorry Keith! Good job we hadn’t Skyped.
At the same time I approached Strident, I also emailed the Darley Anderson Children’s Book Agency
. I was just finding out to whom I should address my submission. By the time Clare – now my brilliant agent – got back to me, I already had the offer from Strident. I had a lovely meeting with Clare, and signed with the agency. She then helped me with the whole process of contracts and negotiations.
After that, several months of edits, rewrites, and the surprising realisation that I was also going to do the illustrations.
You are an actor and also a zoologist. Is writing something you’ve always wanted to do as well? What made you decide on writing a children’s book rather than a film script or play?
I have a background in natural history, including a degree in zoology, but it isn’t really a job. More of a life-long passion. It’s all just fascinating to me. Acting is my main thing, but as any actor will tell you, there’s often plenty of time for writing. I mostly work in film and television, so even when I am actually doing that, there’s lots of waiting around, which can be a good time to write. I have always enjoyed writing, and I have a trail of many books in various stages of completion stretching back to when I was in my early teens. It was always something I wanted to do some day, but was somehow always in the future. I guess I’ve caught up with myself in that respect. Is that a form of maturity? Almost certainly not, but I’ll take it.
My current project notwithstanding, The Almost Animals is the only children’s book I’ve written. It was just an idea I had, and decided to explore it. I have ideas for screen and stage, and will hopefully develop them at some point. In fact, I am keen to create a screenplay of the book I want to work on after this current one. ‘A film by Hugh Holman, based on the novel by Hugh Holman, starring Hugh Holman’. Yes, that’ll do nicely.
It’s really just about ideas, and how best to present them, whether as words on a page, or through actors on a stage.
As a zoologist you have obviously been drawn to write about animals. What made you decide to mix them up with each other? And which is your favourite?
I suppose it was a way of creating weird and wonderful beasts in a way that is more grounded than just inventing creatures. Even though they are just as impossible, they seem more real. At least, I think they do. I found it very interesting deciding which traits from each species they should have. I do actually have a rule for them, which, at least to me, stops them being too fanciful. The aminals can’t just be random hybrids. Mammals are crossed with mammals, birds with birds, reptiles with reptiles. I break my rule with only one group of aminals. The frogmeleons.
Creating these mixed up animals gave me a bizarre background in which to set my story. Or rather Angle’s story. She came into my imagination fully formed. Crocodiles and alligators are very similar, in some ways. They fill the same ecological niche, they have the same dorso-ventrally flattened bodies, lots of teeth etc. But we are actually more closely related to chimpanzees than alligators are to crocodiles.
The world would, surely, be a better place if everyone focused on our similarities. We are all just animals.
My favourite aminal is probably Spriget the snug. I’m not sure I ever actually refer to her as a snug, but that’s what she is. A bright blue snug.
The world of the aminals is so well-imagined and believable. Any plans to return to it in the future?
Hurrah, thank you for saying that! I have a second book planned out quite thoroughly, and vague ideas for a third one. I’m not working on them yet though, I have other things I want to write first. The stories will only loosely be connected. I will return to Nowhere, but not necessarily to the aminals we have already met. Though, of course, as in any village, familiar characters will crop up here and there.
Book Two, when it happens, will focus on a small pengkiwin. He originally had a slight mention in the first book, but was lost in the rewrites. Now what do you suppose a pengkiwin is?
Have you enjoyed working with Strident? What do you think the advantages are of working with a smaller publisher?
It’s been a wonderful introduction to the publishing world. I’ve been in close contact with Keith, at Strident, since the beginning, so I’ve felt very much part of the process the whole way. Also, I think I have retained more creative control than I would have with a larger publishing house. Being able to illustrate the book was great, and not something for which I had really planned. I just sent some sample drawings when Strident were looking for a suitable illustrator. Just so they could see roughly what I was picturing. The cover, too, which my brother and I designed. Well, I came up with a vague design and Michael actually created it. He is much more of an artist than I am.
As this is my first experience with a publisher, I can’t really compare it with anything or anyone else, but I have certainly enjoyed the process. I imagine that with the bigger publishers, the author has less control over the aspects other than the text. I might be wrong.
Do you think being an actor has helped your writing in terms of portraying character and action?
Yes, I would say it has. I certainly develop the character onto the page the same way I would build a character from a script. In my head at least. And I picture every scene as though it’s part of a film, and when I play through it in my mind, I know exactly what the characters are feeling and how they move. It’s then a case of translating the cinematic view into some descriptive text. Well, that’s sort of what my brain does anyway. I’m sure it’s similar to other authors who aren’t actors, though.
There is definitely an overlap between the acting and writing. It would be hard to separate two such complementary creative paths.
Any words of advice for writers who are submitting manuscripts?
You can never go over the manuscript enough. Edit, edit and edit some more, until it’s as polished as you think it can possibly get. Then ignore it for a couple of weeks. Then polish it some more. Then, if you’re lucky enough to be offered a deal, be prepared to find out over the following months that it wasn’t that polished after all.
Confidence is something that every unpublished writer has trouble with. There are days when you think ‘Hey, I’m pretty damn good at this!’ but they are invariably followed by crushing doubts about your own abilities. Once a publisher or agent has shown interest, the confidence boost is palpable. When I was offered my publishing deal, it suddenly seemed to validate everything I had written for the last ten years. Which is silly, because most of it is almost certainly dreadful. But still, at least one thing I’ve written has promise. Hurrah!
And finally… what’s next for Hugh Holman? Acting, zoology, writing, illustrating… or something new?
I’m currently working on another children’s book. This one is also of a zoological nature, but will involve real-world animals. Not aminals. After that, I want to dive into writing another book, which I have been planning for ages. It won’t be for children.
In terms of acting, I am shooting some great stuff at the moment, very exciting. I can’t really talk about that though.
In February, I am going travelling around South East Asia for three and a half months. Expect to see many photos of orang-utans and Komodo Dragons.
Hugh, thank you so much for your time. Readers, I think we can agree that the Hugh is indeed an amazingly versatile creature who proves that, with hard work and determination, you can achieve anything you put your mind to. Let’s hope that, if spotted in the wild, he remembers to put some clothes on.