Event Recap: David Michael Slater Talk

Event Recap: Author and BSD Teacher David Michael Slater Discusses the Path to Publishing Children’s Books at Wilsonville Public Library

By Cara Holman

It seems like we always have good weather the day of the Northwest Author Series, and Sunday was no exception. I almost stayed home to garden instead, but I’m glad I opted to make the drive down to Wilsonville. Children’s author and local BSD high school teacher David Michael Slater gave a highly entertaining and informative talk entitled “Publishing Books for Children: Plotting Your Success”.

Slater published his first children’s book, Cheese Louise! in 2000, and since then, has gone on to publish a total of 16 picture books to date. He has also published two YA books in the new Sacred Books series, and an adult novel Selfless. But as he candidly shared with the audience, the path to publishing has been anything but smooth sailing. In fact, this workshop could well have been subtitled “Perils and Pitfalls on the Path to Publishing”.

Slater very visually illustrated that rejection is part of the process by passing around three voluminous binders filled with rejection letters he has acquired over the years. Some were as dismissive as “Dear Writer, thank your for your submission. We’re sorry to say…”, while others were somewhat more encouraging. Although a ripple of sympathetic laughter ran though the audience (been there, done that!), the message was clear. The secret to getting published? Relentlessly submitting again and again. Seeing the spread of the books that he had published on the table was proof positive that with hard work and determination, it is possible to get published on a regular basis.

One of the most helpful parts of the talk for aspiring writers was when Slater proceeded to share with us his somewhat unorthodox “Top Ten (Truthful) Tips for Tackling the Tricky Terrain of a Writing Career”:

  1. Targeted submissions are fine… but shoot at LOTS of targets!
  2. CONTINUALLY search the web for possible new contacts.
  3. STRIKE while the iron is hot… because your promising news may be temporary.
  4. BELIEVE that your time… is as valuable as anyone else’s.
  5. NEVER hold off submitting based on vague hints or promises… or even not so vague hints or promises.
  6. GO ON to your next project while you continue to submit the last.
  7. ACCEPT that little or no marketing will happen for your book unless… you do it yourself.
  8. DON’T scoff at any chance for publicity…
  9. NEVER burn bridges because you never know…
  10. KNOW that that persistence is every bit as important as talent when it comes to success.

The last part of the talk dealt specifically with writing picture books. Like novels or short stories, a narrative arc is required, beginning with a set-up plus an inciting incident. Then complications and increasing conflict must ensue until the story reaches the climax, and then finally culminates in a resolution. Slater highly recommended the book Story, by Robert McKee, which although aimed at screenwriting, is also applicable to writing picture books. Other facts I learned about writing children’s picture books:

  • Unlike novels, you don’t query picture books—you just send the entire manuscript along with a cover letter. The response time is generally in the neighborhood of six months.
  • When submitting, always make sure you address your cover letter using the actual name of the editor, not “Dear Acquisition Editor”. The internet is a great resource for finding names.
  • Whenever possible, push for an advance. A publisher is more likely to promote a book that they had to pay for upfront.
  • In his experience, the average amount of royalty that an author can expect to receive on an $18 hardcover picture book is 50 cents.
  • Barnes & Noble won’t even consider ordering a book unless it has received a national review, which are hard to come by.
  • With some of the larger publishing houses, the picture book author has no input (or contact) with the illustrator. Smaller publishing houses may allow authors to have more control over the illustration process.
  • There is a lot of luck involved in the publishing of books. Slater’s first picture book was accepted because the editor had “been dreaming his whole life of publishing a book with vegetables in it.”
  • The most powerful scenes are almost never about what they seem to be about on the surface.
  • Readers are most readily disarmed by humor.

For more information about author David Michael Slater, check out his website. There is also a great Podcast there with Slater being interviewed by with Jody Seay from “Back Page” about his adult novel Selfless.

This concludes the 2009-2010 season of Christina Katz’ NW Author Series. Christina hopes to have the schedule for the 2010-2011 season finalized by July.

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