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.