Leaping that Final Hurdle

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Leaping that Final Hurdle

mopheadThe other day I came across a tattered, unlabeled sheet of paper I’d picked up somewhere. It is a list of questions a children’s books buyer asks of picture books during sales calls.

While some of these questions should not be on the mind of writers when they are approaching agents (specifically, those questions about packaging and the publisher), other questions having to do with target audience are so savvy that they are worth asking of your own manuscript—whether you are writing a novel or a picture book. These are the sorts of challenges put to your book after it has found an agent, after it has found a publisher, when it is facing that final hurdle to get real estate on a bookstore’s shelf.

Without further ado: Questions from a children’s book buyer

  • What age group is it for?
  • Is it appropriate to that age group?
  • Do the illustrations and the text agree in age level and mood? [I’d switch out “tone” for “mood” here.—MS]
  • Who is the author/illustrator? Where do they live? Are they celebrities? What are their previous track records?
  • Will adults and children like this?
  • Is it enticingly packaged for the age level?
  • Is it unique enough in the marketplace to catch the customers’ eye?
  • What is the subject matter? Is there a need? Is there a better book from the competition? Does the format fit the subject?
  • Is the book up to date in subject and appearance?
  • Who is the publisher? What is their reputation? What is the print run? How will the publisher market the book? Does this publisher carry through with support that matches their announced print runs?
  • Will the book have media attention?
  • Does the book tie in to any planned seasonal promotions?
  • Why should I—or anyone else—buy this book? Is it worth fifteen to twenty dollars?

But maybe I’m wrong, and writers shouldn’t have any of this in mind. Certainly not while they work, but after they have a draft in hand? No? When do you think of the market? Before, during, after, never?

[And apologies to anyone if this is your intellectual property that I picked up at a conference or wherever. There really are no identifying marks on the sheet. I’m happy to give credit or pull it entirely if you send word. Thanks —MS.]

  1. The market is always on my mind when I write, though subliminally. I keep it in a locked back bedroom and only allow it to see the full light of day after the first draft is complete. The market doesn’t influence or direct the story, but it’s important to keep it somewhere in the “ether” if you’re goal is publication.

    Of course, I have a background in marketing so this may influence my opinion.


  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Debbie Ridpath Ohi and Debra Schubert, Upstart Crow. Upstart Crow said: Now on the Upstart Crow blog: Leaping that Final Hurdle (http://tinyurl.com/yf78emh) […]


  3. Good list to keep in mind. It’s a nice complement to your advice this past weekend in Pittsburgh on query letters. I am passing on some of your suggestions tomorrow on my blog, Fishing For Words (http://robinmullet.wordpress.com) Thanks, Michael.


  4. I’m working on developing new picture book ideas this month by hosting an alternative to NaNo called Picture Book Idea Month (PiBoIdMo).

    As I discover new ideas, I absolutely keep the market in mind. If I get a swell concept, is it worth pursuing? Has it been done before, are there other books like this, what is the competition, what is the value proposition? Is someone going to pay $17 for a story like this? What can I do to make it irresistible and unique?

    Considering a picture book takes months to write, rewrite and polish, it doesn’t make sense to write blindly, without any knowledge of the marketplace. The worst thing you can do is spend 6 months on a manuscript only to find out that the same concept was published last year by Mo Willems.

    I also spent a decade in marketing and PR, so perhaps my opinion is a bit skewed.


  5. Michael Chabon’s Summerland started out as a picture book. Hard to imagine once you’ve read the novel, but hey.

    I confess to thinking about the market before I write a story, but that probably has to do with my background as someone who writes lots of articles and such that are sold with their headlines. If I don’t have a good headline, it generally means I don’t have an actual story concept. For me, that tends to translate to books (though I don’t start with a title).

    I really like starting with something that seems to me like a high concept, knowing that’s ultimately how it might sell. Then I stop thinking about selling altogether and do a lot of thinking about how the concept could relate to the emotional life, experiences, and interests of my intended audience. I know many people advise starting with characters, but I find it somehow easier to imagine a world and then imagine how someone might find his/her way in that particular world.

    I try never to think about whether it’s worth $15 to $20. That just depresses me. 🙂


  6. . . . to work in a cubicle or not? All of the points listed are valid, yet stiffling to the say the least . . . .


  7. I will say to Martha that the best “advice” I ever received was when an agent looked at a list of my picture book concepts and told me the best two ideas to pursue.

    I did not discard the other concepts, but it became clearer and clearer to me that the two she pointed out were the two that would be most likely to sell. They were the most unique ideas with high-concept hooks.

    That’s why I am doing the picture book idea month–and I think you won’t find it stifling in the least. Because the more ideas we generate, the more likely there will be winners in the bunch.


  8. I particularly like the question “Will adults and children enjoy this?” I just wrote a post about parent editing on my own blog. I always appreciate those authors who seem to be aware that we parents will be reading this book to our children over and over. That’s why I like Kevin Henkes and Doreen Cronin. My kids and I both laugh for different reasons. Other books get “lost” pretty quick.

    I keep the market in mind when I’m brainstorming. I have to make sure my ideas really are fresh and not being subconsciously pulled from the shelf of cliches or what’s already been done. After that I do my best to tune out all the voices and just write. I’ll pull the judgment back after a few drafts.


  9. Gulp.
    Better put on my striped socks.


  10. When I’m planning out a new book, I try to come up with a high concept.

    For my first novel, I wrote the book first and found I wasn’t able to market it. I didn’t have a one-sentence hook. The plot was not strong enough. So from there on out, I have made a point of writing the one-sentence hook and the flap summary and the three-page synopses first. I try for a great title, too. And only when I have several of these in place and think, “This can hook an editor and eventually a reader,” will I write the book.

    The next question is, I suppose, “So, Sally, how’s that working for you?”


    But really I’m getting a lot farther now that I was before. It’s just a matter of time, now. 🙂


  11. Oh, I forgot to say: The pictures you all choose to go along with the posts are the best.


  12. I agree with MarthaBee’s third paragraph 🙂

    … except that as a writer/illustrator I CAN get my characters and situations and places on paper, and tinker with them as I write. That is how I work.

    Everyone works differently which is good. Variety is the spice of life.

    I come from a background in advertising as an artist but I wrote a lot of copy and headlines, and know that people notice provocative and intriguing ones. Sometimes catchy ones. I suppose that parents/guardians/buyers are drawn to that if they are in clear view. It makes the buying easier. When people have lots of choices for books they automatically (for the most part) pick what is easy and intriguing, and of course with subjects their kids will love and content they both can enjoy and appreciate.

    Now what I say is all about first time authors and/or illustrators. I suppose known authors have a leg up…especially if they are popular (not their legs… altho they may help).

    And celebrites get special treatment…bleh.

    The only thing I felt was a tad odd on this list is… “Where does the author live?”

    Um… if one lived in Bora Bora under a rock, the publishers would still find you and if needed get you on a book tour or at least to a couple of Bora Bora Book signings.


  13. I guess I am going to be the odd person out here. I really don’t consider market much because, honestly, by the time a book comes out that market will have changed. And I am sometimes ten years ahead and sometimes ten years behind and sometimes–as with the HOW DO DINOSAURS books, I make the market.

    However, I have on occasion been able to JUSTIFY a book to a publisher using marketing ideas, but those come long after the book is written or proposed.

    If I considered the market before or as I work, I would never have written OWL MOON or THE DEVIL’S ARITHMETIC.



  14. Sorry, I just have to write and geek out for a moment – OWL MOON is the best and my son loves your HOW DO DINOSAURS SAY GOODNIGHT. I don’t consider the market either so at least I have one thing in common with a published author 🙂 Okay, now I’ll go back to my quiet lurking.


  15. […] was fortunate to have Michael Stearns of Upstart Crow Literary Agency critique a manuscript for me. (Boy, do I have some work to do.).  […]


  16. I think it all depends on what “considering the market” means to you.

    To me, it’s considering the potential audience for a story–not trends. Most of us would reject out of hand a picture book about hemorrhoids. There is no market for that (at least not for children), no matter how much the topic resonates for you personally.

    So, when I consider the market, I ask myself whether anyone would relate to this idea. Some people might write wholly out of their hearts without regard to making a connection with others, but it seems to me you are as likely to get a work of insanity as a work of genius that way. Some people (ahem Jane Yolen) will produce the works of genius. Others (c’mon, you’ve met them at conferences) write the literary equivalent of tinfoil hats.


  17. Well, some would confuse resonate with reverberate… those would be the trend mongers… and there are SO MANY of them.

    And BTW Jane, your title “THE DEVIL’S ARITHMETIC”… really great one. Gotta read it. 🙂


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