What Can We Learn From Elephant Emergencies?

Ashley gave us a really nice post earlier this week, about what it’s like to write your first children’s book. Today I’m going to talk a little bit about the market, and a little bit about what it’s like trying to raise a reader.

Now Market research is, at best, the sort of black hole I should be avoiding. Time is a precious commodity at the best of times, and our schedule at the moment makes my spending more time than strictly necessary on finding actual numbers for things you already know kind of a ridiculous endeavor.

There are more publishers of children’s books than you can shake a half-dead ferret at. If you walk through a bookstore you’ll see all the big names–Penguin, Scholastic, blah blah blah–and then a few dozen names that, with a little research, turn out to be the big names hiding under an imprint they’ve gobbled up at some point in time. This is as true of the rest of the book world, but it’s especially noticeable in the children’s section. People have high hopes for children’s lit, and it shows.

There are, equally, as writers on the internet, a deluge of people who’d like to tell you about the children’s book they’re writing. I encountered this first years ago, when a woman I was in a writers group with always had a new and inventive story about the people she dealt with in the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). She was consistently surprised by how much crazy there was among children’s writers. I was not.

They are writers, after all.

So what’s the takeaway from all of this as a writer, who dabbles or exists exclusively in the kid-lit world? What about as a parent?

The first question is a little easier to answer. As a writer, all the same axioms hold true. Do your best work, be patient, keep trying, don’t get discouraged, and don’t listen to the noise. There are a distressingly large number of people in any online writing universe who either write or illustrate children’s books. They all want the big contract. They all want to work for scholastic.

I’m as convinced with kid lit as I am with anything else that that’s probably not the first rung to shoot for. First, illustrating children’s books comes with a big paycheck, but the flip side of that big paycheck is an aversion to risk. If you’re a new artist I suspect it’s better for you, in the long run, to start developing a portfolio that proves you can be trusted to illustrate a book. The same is true for writers. Start working. Keep working. Try not to work for free. Be patient.

So that’s what the market means for writers and illustrators. What does it mean for parents?

Usually, it means book fatigue. My son’s school had a book fair last week. Now, these mean two things, as an adult. 1) I’m going to be guilted into working the event, and I’m going to agree for a chance to get at the books in the possibly five minutes there aren’t sixty children in the room with me. And 2) my husband will have to haul me away before I spend all our disposable income on books we’re not sure our son will like.

There are Minecraft books, and Lego books, there are books that are a little less commercially geared and require actual reading. There are comics, and early readers, and eight million choices. And this is just what Scholastic puts in a box and ships to the school. Going into the actual children’s section at your local bookstore is a million times worse.

So how do I, and most of the parents I know, find books?

The good news is that about eighty-five percent of the books I’ve bought in the last seven years were suggested to me by an actual person. A book blogger, or a friend, or another parent at school. Even more than any other segment of the book-buying world I’ve seen, kid-lit thrives on word of mouth. If you’ve written a children’s book the best thing you can do is get it in front of a segment of your population and make them like it. Offer to read at a local library. Go to a local children’s festival. Call the school librarian and ask her if she’s allowed to purchase books for the school and if she’d like a free copy of yours.

What about that other fifteen percent?

One was suggested by David Tennant. By “suggested” I mean he read it aloud on Youtube and I very nearly ordered it freight shipped from England. Emily Brown’s Elephant EmergencyGo watch that. You can thank me later. And that’s an idea. If you happen to have an in with someone famous, British, and…um…interesting, do pass it along.

Edit: Yes, I know David Tennant isn’t British. If you know another Scottish person who is actually understandable when they speak then do send that along as well.

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