This year’s winter conference, hosted by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators boasted record attendance with 1,132 participants from 47 U.S. states and 16 countries, according to SCBWI co-founder Lin Oliver, who greeted attendees on Saturday morning in the Grand Hyatt in New York City. A record number of illustrators participated as well: 375 of them. The weekend featured speeches; craft sessions ranging from writing diverse characters, writing for middle grade audiences, and creating picture book art; and opportunities to network, meet authors and get books signed. Oliver told attendees that the purpose of the conference is to “help you hone your craft,” as well as network, and not just with the agents and editors in attendance, but to build a community of writers by networking with “the people sitting next to you.”
Read on for our coverage of just a sampling of the weekend’s many highlights, including talks by Hervé Tullet, Kami Garcia, Anthony Horowitz, and 2015 Newbery Medalist Kwame Alexander, and the perennially well-attended editors and agents panels.
Anthony Horowitz: “One Person Reading Your Book Is a Spark”
The morning’s festivities got off to a rousing start with an enthusiastic keynote given by bestselling novelist Anthony Horowitz, called “Grabbing Young Readers from First Line to Last.” Just as he said a book’s first line should do, he grabbed the audience from the beginning and never let go.
Horowitz described his boyhood awakening as a reader, recalling the excitement of reading Willard Price’s Adventure series, with compelling titles like Cannibal Adventure. He began retelling those stories to the boys in his boarding school bedroom; by the time he left school, he knew he wanted to be a writer.
“We live in an age where it’s very difficult to have childhood adventures,” he said. These days, he added, children only experience real adventure through literature. And that’s what he aims to give them.
In his early years, as a writer who was starting to make a name for himself abroad but not very well known back home in the U.K., he witnessed the juggernaut known as Harry Potter begin and explode. “You can imagine my emotions as I watched this phenomenon,” he said. “I saw at once that the world was changing.” Harry Potter had “stolen the ground beneath my feet – that’s what I’d been doing!,” he said, though to not much success. “I knew I’d have to begin again.”
Horowitz said he’d always loved the James Bond movies; “they had a very big impact on me.” Hence his idea: why can’t James Bond be a teenager? And that’s how Alex Rider was born. Within writing the first sentence of his first Alex Rider book, he said, “I knew this book would connect me with the audience I’d been searching for all my life.” (That first sentence? “When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it’s never good news.”)
Alex Rider, he soon realized, “was the first real boy I ever created.” The characters in his earlier books, he said, “always knew that they were in a children’s book.” Alex, on the other hand, did not. Horowitz threw out all of the jokes and absurd situations of his earlier attempts, “all my previous techniques.”
So given how important a role that James Bond had played in kickstarting his professional life, he said, it was an enormous thrill when the Ian Fleming estate chose him last year to write a new James Bond adventure.
Horowitz has achieved great success in his career, both with his book series and as a TV screenwriter, but said, “Money has never been a motivating factor for me, and it shouldn’t be for you.” He added, “Writers are like arsonists. One person reading your book is a spark,” a number of readers constitutes a bonfire, “but I wanted to set the world on fire!”
His enthusiasm for his chosen profession was a clear inspiration to the audience members. “The truth is,” he said, “I love writing children’s books. Children don’t just read books – they devour them.” He said his favorite age to write for is about 13. “It’s an in-between age, where anything is possible.” And he appreciates and respects the innocence of childhood. “If we’re going to write for children,” he asked, don’t we have a responsibility to be optimistic?
And then he offered a list of advice to the writers in the audience:
“Test your ideas. Live with them, turn them over in your mind. If you don’t love the idea you may be on the wrong track.”
“Write with authority, with knowledge, with confidence.”
“Remember that your first line is the one the child will read in the store. I imagine a hand coming out of a book and grabbing a kid and never letting go.”
“Go with the flow: narrative is a river that runs through the book.”
“Write up for children, not down. Ideas, descriptions, and language can always be challenging.”
“Beware of autobiography. Use your world and authority but be careful about imposing too much of yourself.”
“Ideas are out there waiting to be grabbed.”
“Plan your writing. I never write anything before knowing the beginning, the middle, and the end.”
“Never give up.”
And in conclusion:
“Write it, enjoy it, believe in it. The future is yours.”
Taking the Market’s Temperature
Four seasoned publishers followed Horowitz’s keynote with a panel called “Marketplace 2015: Report from the Front Line,” providing a valuable overview of the status quo. Justin Chanda, v-p and publisher, S&S Children’s Publishing, gave some good news to attendees. “It’s been a very profitable year,” he said. Children’s divisions of most major publishing houses either did as well as their adult counterparts or were the only profitable division at their houses. Also, he said, “teen book sales are way up. The majority of our sales are from teen.” But he cautioned that teen is up as a category only on “a handful of authors.” And the movie industry has a lot to do with why the category is so strong.
As far as picture books go: “Will we see sales like in the early 2000s?” he asked. The answer was no – there aren’t enough bookstores and not enough handselling for that kind of rebound. Still, he said, the overall sales picture, while formerly flat, is now becoming “interesting.” He sees an upswing in middle grade that he called encouraging, and he called out the myth that “Common Core has killed fiction,” pointing to a few misleading newspaper articles about this and other topics that have not given an accurate picture of the industry. “We publish good books and we let everything including the media take care of itself.”
Laura Godwin, v-p and publisher of Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, observed that the same changes in publishing that affect the adult side of things affect the children’s group too. “As an industry we’re really in a healthy position,” she said. “Independent booksellers had a rough time for a while, but are now more stable. The shift to digital readers has plateaued, and certainly hasn’t made a dent in picture books. Agents and publishers continue our pushing and pulling but ultimately we’re on the same side.”
On the other hand, she said, it’s still difficult to break out new talent, and there are ongoing issues with piracy. “But unlike the music business, which has seen a huge drop in revenue, we have not. The perceived value of the physical book has held up.” Picture books have rebounded from the retreat of previous years to “something that feels like a Renaissance. The growth of social media, and the very active children’s community on it, provides opportunities we’ve never had before. Even after all these years I can still say it’s still very exciting and terrific fun to be a part of it.”
Disney-Hyperion associate publisher Stephanie Lurie talked about disruption, saying that “those of us in the industry are facing [it] on several fronts.” For one, ebooks aren’t doing as well as they used to; “last year they plateaued and this year we’re seeing them trend downward. People are abandoning their Kindle for phones. Barnes & Noble is abandoning the Nook business.” But according to the recent Nielsen survey, she said, “Kids prefer real books, and that’s the kind of disruption I like.”
In other cautionary news from Lurie, the big bookstore chains aren’t promoting paperbacks way they used to, and library wholesalers are not taking as many copies as in the past. The biggest sellers, the books that have been turned into movies, are taking up much of the shelf space in chains, and sell in such numbers that it’s hard to break out new talent. More accounts are demanding exclusive additions.
Perhaps the biggest disruption Lurie said, is coming from the fans themselves. Fans now expect to be able to interact with writers. “An author like Rick Riordan goes where the kids are online, and feeds their insatiable appetite for content.”
Beverly Horowitz, v-p and publisher of Delacorte Press, paid tribute to George Nicholson, who passed away earlier that week. Nicholson, she said, was a pioneer in field, and began publishing children’s paperbacks for the first time ever, 50 years ago. She cited the popularity of movies like The Maze Runner and other current hits, saying that her goal is “to bring people back to the books.” And she’s encouraged by the growth in family reading, as in the young readers edition of Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken. “The marketplace is fluid,” she said. “Adults and teenagers are reading each other’s books.”
SCBWI’s Lin Oliver, who moderated the panel, asked the publishers about the diversity issue. Godwin responded, “I think we are publishing more books about a diverse number of people, citing the popularity of recent novels like Wonder by R.J. Palacio and Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin. Chanda said, “It’s not exclusively a publisher problem. We need writers, agents, publishers, and accounts to shelve these books. We Need Diverse Books brought awareness and activism. We need people to buy these books.”
In response to another query by Oliver, Horowitz pointed to what she calls “the phenomenon books,” which take away space from adult books in big-box stores, she said. “People are taking home a hardcover at a paperback price.” These days, she said, “We are keeping books in hardcover longer. A lot of people are doing that.”
On the picture book front, Chanda said that what he’s seeing these days is “short, funnier. Economy of language. The sweet spot for a picture book is age four to five.” Horowitz said that the title of the book makes a big difference: let the audience know exactly what they are going to get. (In other words, Chanda said, “Dare to be obvious.”) Godwin reported that shorter texts are “definitely more popular,” but said that “it’s really a time when there are all sorts of opportunities for all sorts of picture books.”
Oliver’s final query to the panel was to ask what an author or illustrator expect from a publishing company in 2015. “Look for someone who shares your vision and can help you get your vision out there,” was Chanda’s reply, “but is not telling you what your vision is.” Horowitz added, “You need an in-house advocate. Our goal is to sell as many of your books and as many formats as possible. Trust us. It’s not us against them.”
Lurie told the attendees to try to “take any opportunity to meet your editor or talk on the phone,” to foster a personal connection.” And Godwin had an interesting take: “Think of a partnership with the publisher as our giving you a small business loan. It costs about $50,000 to start up a picture book, and the advance is just a part of it. If we go into that partnership with you, we’re in that partnership with you. We really do try to set your books out there. We bought them because we loved them.”
Hervé Tullet: “Beyond Language: Creating Picture Books That are Read and Played”
Hervé Tullet, creator of the interactive children’s books Press Here (Chronicle, 2011) and The Giant Game of Sculpture (Phaidon, 2014), among many others published in France and the U.S., and Kami Garcia, co-author of Beautiful Creatures (Little, Brown, 2009) and subsequent books in the series, rounded out Saturday’s lineup with two keynotes.
Tullet delivered a high-energy presentation, sharing his path to becoming a children’s book author and illustrator and then performing a reading of several of his books for the audience. A native of Normandy, Tullet never anticipated creating children’s books; in fact, he joked, he “hated the people who wanted to do children’s books in school.” For 10 years, he applied his creative talents in an advertising career, yet he began to feel stifled: there were far “too many filters” preventing him from fully exploring ideas. Following the birth of his first child, Tullet left advertising altogether, because “I wanted to change the world.... Advertising wasn’t the right place to change the world.”
Tullet addressed some of the initial roadblocks to becoming a children’s illustrator – namely, that “I’m not a good drawer... that’s not a joke.” He also knew from the beginning that the kinds of books he would create would not be traditional picture books and it took some time to find his niche. “I wanted to shock and provoke,” as well as teach readers, he explained, by creating “a different kind of story.” The sorts of books he had in mind would serve as the space between an adult and a child, facilitating interaction and communication: “I need that open space for children to appropriate,” he said. Children, he believes, are a unique kind of audience, in many ways more demanding and more honest than adult readers: “I love the babies,” he said, “because they know everything.”
The more he explored creating children’s books, the more certain he was that it was the right place for him: “It was a perfect way to express my ideas and to feel free,” he said. As he began interacting often with children in school settings, he realized how important it was to him to “feed teachers and librarians with new books and new ideas,” and of course, to fortify children by allowing them to interpret ideas in their own ways. Echoing the sentiments of a predecessor, Maurice Sendak, Tullet said he believes in speaking honestly to kids and without condescension: “I like to use an equal voice,” he explained. “I learn more about my books from children.” For a grand finale, Tullet read several of his picture books, including I Am Blop! (Phaidon, 2013), soliciting the crowd to help with sound effects, and even requesting that they manufacture the noises of a Manhattan traffic jam, as he directed the cacophony, maestro-style.
Kami Garcia: “The Truth About Writing”
Next up was Kami Garcia, who shared the story behind her serendipitous path to writing and publishing the supernatural novel, Beautiful Creatures with coauthor Margaret Stohl. Before she became an author herself, Garcia had seen first-hand how profoundly children can be influenced by the books they read while working as a teacher and hosting book groups for kids. It was during a meeting with her fantasy book group, consisting of seven teenage readers, that the seeds for what would become Beautiful Creatures were first planted. It was the post-Twilight era and the kids in her group were “really disappointed because a lot of books they were reading were feeling the same,” Garcia said. Among their objections and suggestions: there are way too many vampire and werewolves – how about a new kind of paranormal creature? Also, the girls in the books are always dependent on a guy and the guys are usually the ones with supernatural powers and are always brooding and aloof – why aren’t there more books featuring tough heroines with powers?
Following the book club meeting and over tacos with her best friend, Stohl, the two discussed what the kids had said and came up with some ideas for a theoretical YA book that wouldn’t have werewolves or vampires, would feature a female protagonist with powers, and a very nice boy “who is powerless and dependent on her in a very serious way.” Wait a minute, they thought. What if we actually did write this story? Encouraged by family members and not wishing to disappoint the teenagers in Garcia’s book group, the two began co-writing the book and releasing sections serially for Stohl’s children to read and the book club teens. Then something unexpected happened: one day, Stohl received an email from a teen from a different town who had read the work-in-progress through the grapevine and was begging to read the next section. The story of Lena Duchannes and Ethan Wate already had a following without even being published.
At this point, Garcia said, the audience might be thinking that she and Stohl were “self-publishing pioneers,” but the truth was, she admitted, they had no idea what they were doing. They never had any thoughts about publishing the book. In fact, the plan was to put the entire thing online for free – until Pseudonymous Bosch stepped in (it’s not so random; he’s actually a friend of Stohl’s). He sent the book to his agent, Sarah Burnes of the Gernert Company, who soon contacted Stohl. At this point, she says, they were still pretty “clueless” about agents and how getting published works. In fact, when Burnes informed Garcia and Stohl that the book was going to auction, they didn’t know that was a good thing. Garcia’s first thought was, oh no: “That’s how you sell pigs in the South!”
Beautiful Creatures was published to great success by Little, Brown in 2009. Garcia and Stohl followed the book with Beautiful Darkness, Beautiful Chaos, and Beautiful Redemption, as well as a spin-off series, Dangerous Creatures. A film adaptation of Beautiful Creatures was released in 2013.
Garcia knows that her story isn’t typical of first-time authors, and recognizes that so much of publishing a manuscript comes down to “timing and being at the right place at the right time.” Yet she also believes that she and Stohl never would have written the book that so many readers have loved if they had it in their minds to get it published: “In writing for those teens, we took risks we wouldn’t have,” she said. After all, she says, they broke so many writerly “rules”: Beautiful Creatures opens with a dream, includes flashbacks, has a Civil War backstory, and features regional dialect – characteristics that some editors might see as the kiss of death.
As she did, Garcia urged the writers in the audience to write the book that they want to write, regardless of the current trends or how likely it is to be published. After struggling with sometimes “paralyzing” anxiety when it came time to write her first solo book, she has also had to remind herself that, regardless of critical reception or sales, you never know whose life might be changed by reading your story. When she was a teenager, S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders was life-changing for her – in fact, she’d brought to the podium the very copy she first read and has kept all these years. She never expected that her book could serve that purpose for someone else, until she received an email from a teenager struggling with being gay in his small, conservative town. He felt a deep connection to Lena’s character because she, too, feels that she is different and is living with a secret; the book and Lena’s story had helped him tremendously: “Beautiful Creatures was his Outsiders,” she said.
Agents Panel: “Charting Your Career Path”
What has become a fixture of the SCBWI conference was the robustly attended agents panel, in which (in this year’s lineup) Barry Goldblatt of Barry Goldblatt Literary, Jennifer Laughran of Andrea Brown Literary Agency, and Tina Wexler of International Creative Management answered questions moderated by Brenda Bowen of Greenburger Associates. The agents covered everything from what sorts of projects they like to work on to their pet peeves when receiving queries and the deals that got them most excited. Below are highlights on how the agents help authors forge careers.
Goldblatt started off by saying “very few agents ‘just make deals,’ ” adding that different authors may request different things, but as an agent, he always tries to think of the bigger picture. “Ideally I’m working with these clients for 30, 40, 50 years if everything goes right.” Laughran said, “Sometimes I don’t talk to an author for months, sometimes every day,” emphasizing that she gives her authors space when they need to work, and is available when they need to communicate with her. “Day-to-day author care is big at our agency.” To which Goldblatt added, “It’s a 24/7 job that doesn’t ever turn off.”
Moderator Bowen asked the agents if they had any advice for illustrators who haven’t published yet. Laughran suggested that out the gate, “it behooves you to have a portfolio and website that is easily linkable. The portfolio should have a broad range of styles, movement, and kid characters, for me to show to art directors and editors on my end.” Wexler said that she’s found surprisingly that “things that don’t appear in the traditional author bio” are what make certain properties easier to sell. Getting to know the weird quirks and fascinations that authors and illustrators have can often provide her a stroke of insight to connect her clients to new projects.
Bowen touched on the tricky subject of following an artist’s passion and paying the bills. Goldblatt said, “This is not an easy place to make a living and support a family. Luck is a huge factor in starting a career” in the industry. Wexler voiced her concern that “if you’re writing to pay a bill, it won’t have passion.... We can see your heart on the page because there’s passion.” But Bowen disagreed, saying, “I think the dangerous cliff of time and money will help you find your creativity.”
Bowen then asked the panel how a writer’s query might stand out from the crowd. In Goldblatt’s view, agents “all read differently, there are different things that we flag positively or negatively. People spend more time on the query than the manuscript and you can tell. A good query is short, simple, to the point. Don’t overthink it.” Laughran joked: “It’s probably sexist, but my boss said once a query should be long enough to cover everything, but short enough to be interesting, like a good skirt.” Wexler’s advice? “The way you pitch the idea should work with the style of the piece.” And if it’s humorous, the query should be too; if literary, the same.
Bowen asked the agents if they’d had any runaway successes. Laughran’s response was a telling one: “I read the first page of Alex Gino’s book about a trans kid and cried. I sent it out at 6 p.m., it sold before 9 the next morning. The acquiring editor got all of Scholastic to read it overnight.” While this sounds literally like an overnight success, the book actually took Gino eight years to write, and revisions took another year. “A lot of stuff goes on behind the scenes – the decade sitting at the desk – that doesn’t make a splashy PW article,” Laughran quipped.
Another question from Bowen: “How much time as an author should I spend on social media and should I compare with others?” Wexler responded: “Comparisons will make you crazy and prevent you from writing your book, and preventing us from having a conversation about your book.” Goldblatt offered: “Only be on [social media] if you like it. Authors need a website for teachers and librarians but if you’re not having fun then it won’t help.”
Bowen concluded the panel with a straightforward question: “How can I be a success?” Goldblatt’s response was blunt: “Write. Know what’s out there.” He also advised that writers read current work as a way to help write more relevant queries. Laughran suggested that reading across genres can inspire writers in surprising ways. Wexler underscored the importance of joining a community: “feed your brain, learn about the community, and the craft and as much as you can about the industry.” Goldblatt agreed: “Being part of the community is the best part, the adult side doesn’t have this.” He added, “And the person next to you isn’t your competition. Our job is to figure out the competition.”
Kwame Alexander on “Dancing Naked on the Floor: How to Say Yes to the Writerly Life”
When the 2015 Newbery Medalist Kwame Alexander took the stage for the Sunday keynote, he was welcomed with a standing ovation and a bouquet of roses. He took the podium, and showed off his new suit. “When I got the good news Monday I went out and bought a new suit. What color is it? Blueberry. What kind of suit is it? A Newbery!”
Alexander spoke of his decades-long career, in which saying yes to experiences led him to where he has arrived. Alexander carried his life’s ambition to be a writer through childhood. He wanted to be a poet, despite his father – an academic who worked in publishing – who was certain that poetry wouldn’t sustain him. Alexander trained under Nikki Giovanni in college, and he wrote and self-published his first collection of poems. “As a child I read PW,” at his father’s urging, and Alexander was inspired by an article he remembered vividly about Stephen King going on a 30-city tour, he took his collection Just Us on the road. He went to New York, London, Duke’s campus, performed at subway stops, anything to get his words into reader’s ears. His last stop was a Baptist church in Los Angeles: “I read love poems Sunday morning in a Baptist church.” And he sold some copies to the adoring parishioners, too.
Upon returning from the tour, Alexander worked any kind of odd jobs that would allow him to carve out time to dedicate to writing, including teaching poetry. Eventually he was approached by an AP English teacher in Detroit who had 150 students with written work they wanted to anthologize. He asked for a two-week residency to produce the book, but the school couldn’t afford it. They asked if he could do it in a day. “The answer is always yes,” was Alexander’s joyful refrain. In one day he had five classes of 30 students: the students wrote the title, designed the cover, laid out the pages, and proofread everything. By 4:30 p.m. they had a PDF to send to the printer. Two weeks later the books arrived. The kids wore suits and signed copies.
“What does this have to do with you, though?” Alexander asked the audience. He mentioned that at the signing, many students were motivated to publish more. One girl in particular approached him, and he guided her to do the work herself, making 100 copies of her novel which she brought to BEA and started handing to editors. An editor at Simon and Schuster met her and gave her a five-figure book deal. “She was 17 years old and she did this work. If she can do it, you can,” Alexander told the audience. The author and editor were in the audience, and met for a moment at the front of the stage for a hug in front of the cheering crowd.
Alexander wanted to participate in an international writing fellowship. He applied and was rejected, so he decided to make his own. “You can’t let others no’s define your yes,” Alexander told the audience. At a conference for English teachers before he set out to Italy for the fellowship he organized, Alexander was approached by an editor who asked if he had ever considered writing for kids. “Yes!” he shouted enthusiastically, underscoring his message that “the answer is always yes.”
Upon Alexander’s arrival at the fellowship, he admitted to a couple weeks of not writing a book for children, but rather socializing with writers, reading, eating, and exploring the beautiful Italian countryside. But Alexander knew that one can’t write a book if one doesn’t write, so on his usual walk through the countryside one day, he was inspired by the animals that wandered around a barn. The idea for Acoustic Rooster was born, and within six months he had a book deal.
And of The Crossover, the novel that netted him the 2015 Newbery, he admitted that it took two years to write, and he even hired a writing coach – Lesléa Newman – to help shape the manuscript. He emphasized the importance of finding trusted readers that will tell you what you need to hear, even when you don’t want to hear it, to make your work the best thing you can write. His work with Newman took a year, and he still received more than 20 rejections. But, in Alexander’s way, he refused to let “someone’s no define my yes,” so he decided to self-publish The Crossover, as he had with previous works of poetry. A week after this decision, he received an email from Margaret Raymo at HMH and secured a book deal. From that email to the morning of the Newbery call. Alexander’s career of yeses has paid off.