Recently, I went to the SCWBI event, Picture Books: Discover and Be Discovered, at the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education CLPE where American illustrator, Paul O. Zelinski, spoke about his journey from being a compulsive child drawer to critically acclaimed children’s illustrator and Caldecott winner. During his time at Yale College, he took a class on the history and practice of the picture book which was co-taught by Maurice Sendak and it was this that inspired him to become a children’s illustrator.
Borrowing a line from an earlier talk about websites, “ It’s not about you, it’s about them,” Paul O. Zelinski tweaked and applied it to the job of illustrating. “It’s not about you or them, it’s about it,” he said, referring to the fact that each picture book cries out for its own style of illustration (or writing). Paul O. Zelinski is happy to oblige, successfully breaking the golden rule about maintaining a consistent, recognisable style.
Paul O. Zelinski’s cover illustration for his hugely popular Wheels in the Bus
The topic then switched to the marketing side of the business. Candy Gourlay focused on the target market and getting an understanding of just who actually buys books. She divides these into three categories; hot (dead certs – family and friends), warm (the ‘maybes’ who know who you are but haven’t got round to buying your book) and cold (those who’ve never heard of you). She stressed the importance of shifting efforts from the hot to the cold in a bid to move those on the outer reaches further down into the purchase funnel. Interestingly, independent bookshops feature high on the list of places where books are bought for all age groups up to 10, in addition to charity shops (0-4 and 5-7), children’s book and toy shops (0-4), and bargain bookshops (5-7).
She also talked about what she termed as ‘eggs in your basket’ – what you’ve got, what you can control and what you can create? You’ll probably have a blog, website and archive, social media platforms, research, a publicist perhaps… All of these you can control, including your publicist with whom you should be building a relationship – he or she needs to get to know you. She stressed the importance of online content, especially useful information which helps to attract and grow a fan base. On Amazon, you can control the write up as well as create an author profile with an obligatory photo of yourself from ten years ago. You can create how-to videos in order to engage with fans and, if you visit schools, teachers will often show these to the children before you arrive. She added that the resources you create will also be appreciated by teachers who always need them.
It’s important to build and join communities and visit schools, if that’s your thing. And it’s always useful to re-purpose existing material, create content that will increase your presence, and build and maintain relationships.
For the final segment of the afternoon, Candy put on her interviewer’s hat and spoke to Hilary Delamere who promptly dispelled the myth that agents are a tough, ruthless bunch, before discussing the search for representation and what happens once you’re taken on. Here are some of Hilary’s dos and don’ts:
- Think of approaching agents in the same way as a job interview.
- Don’t lie or be rude to the agent’s assistants.
- Make sure what you’re presenting is the very best it can be.
- Have a fantastic title and opening line and end on a brilliant line
- Don’t over-explain what your project is.
- Authors, don’t get your own illustrator on board – it will end in tears.
- And go for rhythmic rather that rhyming texts.