Review: It Came In The Mail

it-came-in-the-mail-9781481403603_lgOf all the delightful picture books out there, I keep a special place reserved for those that are author-illustrated. Maybe it’s because I’m a graphic designer as well as a writer. Most people just naturally assume that means I can draw. I cannot. Designing an exhibit or a publication, or even a book is a totally different animal than being able to draw and illustrate—anything. Trust me, you wouldn’t want to see what my drawing sketches look like—they’re frightening. 
So author-illustrated picture books always fascinate me. Not only for the twin sets of technical prowess they showcase, but also because I often wonder about the process. As a writer, I’m always revising and sometimes second guessing decisions I’ve made in an earlier draft. When you’re the one creating both the pictures and the story, those lines must inevitably cross over and blur. Are there internal battles that rage between words and images? Do you wake up in the morning, knowing n your heart that one of them has to sacrifice itself for the good of good of the whole?
I’ve been musing on this recently after reading a great new author-illustrator picture book, “It Came In the Mail” by Ben Clanton just out from Simon & Schuster. Ben’s story and images work together seamlessly. The result is a quirky, funny book that will entertain young readers and also satisfy parents who will be enlisted to re-read the story nightly with witty little asides. 
“It Came In The Mail” is the story of Liam, a boy who really, really, really, REALLY wants some mail. No spoiler alert-needed. As the title suggests, Liam gets his wish—in more wild and crazy ways than he could have imagined, and of course with surprising results. Bonus points awarded to Ben for the additional life lessons Liam learns along the way, including a new understanding of the joys of giving as well as receiving and how sometimes you can have too much of a good thing.
What’s exciting about the marriage of Ben’s pictures and words in this book is how he builds his world little by little, layer upon layer. The image spreads deepen in complexity along with the story as the book progresses. Empty to full. Scarcity to overabundance. Adding meaning are the postcard, paper and stamp ephemera that Clanton skillfully incorporates into his drawings that add a tactile feel and richness to the pages. 
It’s hard to say whether, by the time Clanton’s intended audience grows up, there will even be anything sent by snail mail. But at least for now, kids can enjoy running out to their own mailbox to see what’s arrived. Kudos Ben, for giving parents extra work.  
Ben will be holding a book signing on Sunday, July 10 at Queen Anne Books in Seattle, WA 

My Book Cover—Unveiled!

So thrilled to share a sneak peak at the beautiful book cover for my forthcoming middle grade debut “Chasing at the Surface” coming in October from Westwinds Press. Could it be more beautiful? A huge thank you to Vicki Knapton at Westwards not just for the gorgeous design but for capturing perfectly the themes of the book.

Chasing at the Surface_fc


Writing Diversity

scbwiHere in the Western Washington, we’re lucky to have a vibrant local chapter of SCBWI (the Society of Children’s Book Writers and illustrators). The topic of last week’s meeting—diversity on children’s books—was right up my alley. The assembled panelists, that included Philip Lee, co-founder of Lee & Lowe Publishing and current publisher of Readers to Eaters; King County Children’s Librarian Ann Crewdson, and authors Liz Wong and Kelly Jones, contributed some great perspectives. Here’s a link to a great recap of the panel.

This topic is of particular interest to me for a couple of reasons. I experienced a teachable moment in the process of including characters and traditions that represented Native peoples of the Pacific Northwest in my debut middle grade novel “Chasing at the Surface” which will be out from WestWinds Press in October of this year (that’s a whole other blog post). But I’ve also been trying to interest agents and editors in another story I’ve written, told from two characters’ perspectives—both 12 year old girls, one black, the other white—whose lives and fates intersect across the span of 35 years.

I’ve lost count of how many times the story has been rejected. No one has ever said to me, “You shouldn’t be writing this,” but its hard to push that away in the space of my own head. Beyond whether or not the plot or the actual writing is appealing, is my race a factor? Am I distracting more than actually doing any good? These are questions that pop up for me with each new rejection.

But the fact is, this story won’t go away. It wants to be told. The theme and message it carries is, I believe, important, and I truly believe there are children out there, beyond the publishing gatekeepers, who need to hear it, read it, and find something to value in it. After much reading, thinking and meditating, and bolstered by last week’s panel discussion, I believe that, yes, I can write this story, carefully and with respect.

At the end of the day, I’m trying to contribute to the conversation by utilizing the tiny platform I may have as a writer, to engage the next generation. It’s uncomfortable, and it comes with a lot of fear of not wanting to mess up, of not wanting to say the wrong thing. But in the end, isn’t that the same that can be said of most things worth doing?

Writing Real

Illustration by Suzana Apelbaum

Booksellers continue to tell us that girls will read books where the protagonist is a boy but it doesn’t work the other way around. The concept is controversial and debatable whether this is yet another self-inflicted bias perpetuated by how our society divides and compartmentalizes according to race, class, gender and ability. As author Shannon Hale notes, “I’ve heard it a hundred times with Hunger Games: “Boys, even though this is about a girl, you’ll like it!” Even though. I never heard a single time, “Girls, even though Harry Potter is about a boy, you’ll like it!” Read Shannon’s excellent post on her experiences being stamped as a writer of books intended for girls only.

So when I stumbled on Mary Hershey’s novel, The One Where the Kid Nearly Jumps to His Death and Lands in California, (Razorbill) I was pleased on multiple fronts. The book has an unwieldy title, a complicated plot with too many subplots, creepy characters, difficult father-son relationships, rough language…hey, wait a minute…this is starting to sound pretty appealing!

It also had something else to recommend it. The story centers on thirteen-year-old Alastair, who calls himself ‘Stump,’ who is shipped out to spend the summer with his estranged father in California. When Alastair was eight, he lost one of his legs after a too-soon jump from a ski lift. Guess who was supposed to be supervising him at the time? Now Stump is ready to confront his father for ruining his life. Except he didn’t count on a host of new discoveries he makes, not least of which is the unrelenting optimism of Skyla, his father’s new wife who also happens to be a double amputee.

Hershey has woven macabre humor and irreverence into Alastair’s life that I suspect young readers will find satisfying. The jump in the title is both literal and metaphoric, as the best jumps should be. Both Stump and his father are on the brink of looking at each other in new ways. Hershey lets us see their journey with wicked humor and underlying affection.

But the real star of this story is Stump and his voice. Hersey skillfully writes Stump’s disability as just one facet of his personality, not the story’s focus. Stump is the first one out of the gate to crack jokes about his own disability, such as when he takes off his leg at school, puts it in his locker, then ties a rag with fake blood around it. It is worth noting that the author is a former juvenile probation officer who says she has had ‘the great privilege of working with some very funny, smart, and resilient kids.’ In her wonderful depiction of Stump, it shows.

What Kind of Book Makes a Good Candidate for Crowdfunding?

Crowdfunding a writing project has its own success factors to consider, ideally in advance of undertaking the project. Fortunately, crowdfunding has been around now for enough years that we can start to see trends in the success and failure rates.

Unlike publishing a book through a traditional house, books that are good candidates for crowdfunding tend to have one of two factors working in their favor.
• the author already has an extensive social network in place
• the topic of the book is timely or aligns with organizations that would likely support it

There is simple logic involved with both of these factors. For the first, given that crowdfunding is generally accomplished online, it makes perfect sense that social media plays a significant part in a successful campaign. Therefore, a writer with 1,000+ Facebook friends has a higher chance of running a successful campaign than someone with zero presence on social media. Someone with name recognition (an already published author, an artist crowdfunding for a book to document their art project, etc) also vastly increases their chances of reaching their crowdfunding goal.

In the second scenario, a new author with a book project that touches on a topic of timely importance should seriously consider leveraging public interest in the topic. For example, my children’s chapter book “B in the World” told an anti-bullying story about a young gender nonconforming child. The public interest in this topic naturally led me to contact human rights organizations, local school districts and parents organizations, regional centers for disenfranchised youth and centers that support issues surrounding gender inequity for GLBT youth. Although there’s a lot of legwork (and social media work) involved, this is generally a win-win situation for everyone involved.

If neither of these two factors apply in your situation, think again. Sometimes, building up a social media platform first is a smart move before undertaking a crowdfunding project. Similarly, look for any and all connections your book may have to public interest and organizations—really, the first step any good book marketer should take anyway. In the end, crowdfunding a book may be more nuanced than it appears at first glance.

Does Crowdfunding Support Writing Projects?

CrowdfundingIf you’ve made the decision to crowdfund your writing project, you’re probably curious about the success rate of writing projects and how the projects fare compared to other proposals. When I set out to crowd fund “B in the World,” my chapter book for children about a gender nonconforming child, I was curious too, so I did my research. If I was going to invest time and energy into launching the project, I wanted to know that it stood at least a respectable chance to success. Here’s an updated overview of what I learned.

I choose Kickstarter as my funding platform. This was a personal decision, based on several factors, including its standing as the industry leader in crowdfunding (close to 2 billion raised) and its easy interface, so note that the information I’m presenting below is specific to Kickstarter. If you’ve decided on another funding platform such as Indigogo or Go Fund Me, you’ll want to do your own research.

Publishing projects on Kickstarter
One of the most interesting things I learned about publishing projects on Kickstarter is that they’re in the top 4 for both the most successfully funded categories AND the biggest losers. The top 4 winning categories are: film/video; music; games and gaming; and publishing. The top 4 categories not to achieve funding are: dance; journalism; art; and publishing.

Yet even with this benchmark, publishing projects still only make up about 10% of all proposed projects on Kickstarter. Within publishing projects, 30% succeed, which is roughly in line with all proposed Kickstarter projects which overall have a failure rate of 64%

So what are the actual dollar numbers within these statistics?

More stats
The 30% of publishing projects that were successfully funded on Kickstarter in the last quarter raised 79 million dollars. Although that sounds like a lot of money, and it is, it pales compared to the dollars raised for a category like film and video, which comes in at around $297 million.

If you’re interested in actual numbers of projects, here’s a sampling of the number of both successful and unsuccessful publishing projects compared to all projects on Kickstarter since the platform launched in 2008:

All Projects ➡ 254,934
162,755 😦   92,179 🙂

Publishing projects ➡ 26,700
18,754 😦  7,944 🙂

So, really, the actual number of publishing projects, both proposed and fully funded, since 2008 is a small fraction of Kickstarter’s crowdfunded consumption. Now it’s up to you to decide if there’s room in there for your project.

In real dollars raised, of those 7,944 successful publishing projects, only 40 of them raised $100,000 or more. The largest number by far (5,063) fell into the $1,000– $9,999 category.

Kickstarter publishes all its data on the success and failure of all of its projects, which are updated constantly, so don’t be surprised if my numbers above which were accurate as of 9/10/15, are already a little off. If you want more info, here’s the link.

Next post, we’ll look at what tips the scales for a publishing project to make it into the funded category.

Why Crowdfund a Writing Project?

3f3e0bdIf you’re considering crowdfunding a writing project, the first question you should ask yourself is “Why?”

There are many good reasons to undertake a crowdfunding campaign in publishing, but it’s safe to say that most of them will not result in high financial paybacks for the author. Now, I don’t know you or your writing project, so they might, but for the majority of writers who choose to crowd fund, the rewards are much more personal and often intangible.

So Step 1 in my opinion is deciding why a particular project you may be working on is a good candidate for crowd funding. Here are some questions you may want to consider regarding your project before moving ahead. Considering these criteria in advance will save you many headaches in the long run.

Have you done your homework?
You wouldn’t start a draft of your next book without doing some preparation, right? Whether it’s researching, outlining, or fact-checking, the skills you use in writing need to now be parlayed into preparing to self-publish. Depending on your goals, here are some starters:

  • talk to booksellers about your project
  • build your support base and author presence
  • spend time on crowd funding sites, and contribute to several projects
  • look at the design and layout of books similar to yours

What do you want to accomplish?
This is probably the most personal criteria. Pre-determining what you would need to achieve to deem your own crowdfunding project a success. In many cases, these yardsticks will not be financial, but setting them in advance will save you from being caught up in the “comparison game” since it’s far too easy to find other projects that seem more “successful” than your own. So, ask yourself, would you consider your project a success if you:

  • made progress on building a platform as an author or tested your platform as an author
  • tested out the various ways you feel most comfortable engaging with your readers on different social media platforms
  • learned more than you ever wanted to know about book production, book marketing and publishing services first-hand
  • fulfilled a personal goal to bring your project into the world

Are you setting realistic goals?
Crowdfunding a book project has a better than average rate of success, but there are many other factors to consider before you hit the “Publish” button. Consider the following before starting out:

  • put together a team, which statistically achieves more success in crowd funding ventures?
  • fundraise for the lowest possible amount—you can always up the ante if the campaign takes off
  • decide if you are willing to subside unanticipated costs, because trust me, they will appear
  • sometimes a successful project creates a life of its own—decide on your own criteria of success, so you’ll know when it’s time to move on

Next post, we’ll consider different crowdfunding models and take a look at how writing projects fare within those models.