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So what do writer and illustrators need from our publishers? If you'd have asked Babette Cole and me at the end of the London Book Fair at the Booktrust party, we would most likely have answered:
* Ponies
* Frocks
* Smooches
* Pink sparkly drinks

But no... *switches hat* ... I am a SERIOUS WRITER AND ILLUSTRATOR. And yes, I need stuff from my publishers. Booktrust invited me to speak about this on a panel with this most excellent gang. From left: PR guru Justin Somper (who chaired and gave the most carefully researched intros, bravo!), Bookbrunch founding editor Liz Thomson and Curtis Brown agent Stephanie Thwaites (who's good friends with my agent, so we'd had a few laughs over drinks before then).

I had thought we might be speaking with a room full of publishers, but almost everyone in the audience was a writer or illustrator, with one or two agents and publishers. I was hoping very much that it wouldn't turn into a big moaning session (and it didn't); I so often hear writers and illustrators saying their publishers aren't doing anything for them, and they're wondering why the publisher even bothered to publish their books. Often they follow this by saying that they've been thinking about self-publishing, perhaps use online crowd-funding. We KNOW our publishers can't do everything, that readers look to authors themselves to be inspired to buy their books, that publishers have limited budgets, and that it makes business sense not to devote quite as much of their time to a book that's selling millions of copies versus a book that sells hundreds.

At the same time, we're expected to be writers, artists, bloggers, e-mailers, stage performers and educators. (I itemised the jobs from my blog post, The McIntyre Way™, and added two more jobs: accountant and housewife. Possibly lobbyists, too.) I estimated that I can easily spend 70% of my time doing publicity work when, really, I'd rather spend 70% of my time writing and drawing. So what CAN our publishers do to help us so we actually have time to write and illustrate?

I blogged about this earlier, putting the question out there, and had some insightful responses. (You can read them here, in the comments.) The number one thing all the authors seemed to be saying was:


Let us know what you're doing: You may be the most amazing publisher ever, getting the book into all the shops, news agents, supermarkets, selling co-editions, getting top media reviews for it, etc. But if you don't TELL the author any of this, the author may assume you're not doing anything. In the panel discussion, a couple people mentioned that they'd be happy to forgo expensive lunches with their publisher, if only they could have a chance to find out the basic facts.

Spell it out: Royalty statements can be very complicated to work out; an incomprehensible sheet of figures. So communicate, but in a way that authors can understand, not just in Book Speak, with all its abbreviated terms and acronyms. It's also helpful to a new author to let us know what we can expect to pay for and what you will pay for (business meals, website work, a sandwich on the train, stickers, etc). We can be embarrassed as newbies to ask, because we don't want you to think we're greedy or pushy prima donnas and decide you don't want to work with us anymore.

It makes business sense to let us know: People in the audience mentioned co-editions being particularly mysterious, and only finding out via Amazon that they have a book published in another language. Surely, we agreed, there must be a systematic way to let people know they have books coming out in other countries, so they can do their best to publicise them. Since so many readers look directly to the author instead of the publisher to find out about the books, it's really missing a trick if publishers don't keep their authors on the leading edge of what's happening.

It makes business sense to know us: Justin leads seminars on building up Author Brands: how do we project to readers what we're passionate about and make them remember us? Since our publishers are dealing with hundreds of books, they'll churn out very generic publicity unless they work with us to communicate the same thing. We've all seen perky publicist tweets that look like every other perky publicist tweet. Publishers need to know what makes us stand out and work with us to push this forward. And, as Justin said, our 'brand' may change over time, as we develop in our career.

Justin trying to decide if he wants to make a significant change to his author branding. With Author Profile colleague PJ Norman.


One of the things I've struggled with the most lately is dealing with my e-mail Inbox. We're expected to do lots of events to promote our books - and I love doing them - but sometimes a one-hour event can involve twenty back-and-forth e-mails, a day of travel and another day of being too tired to accomplish much. When I started with Scholastic, I fell in love with the itineraries they create for my events. Itineraries. They're so simple, but brilliant! The publicist chases down all the event details and, in a single attachment, sends me everything I need to know: contact details, contact people, relevant addresses and maps, bookselling details, and a scheduled breakdown of where I need to be every minute of the event, from the time I need to catch the train to the time it returns to my home station.

When I have a good itinerary, I don't need to trawl through the 20 e-mails, trying to find all the relevant details, missing a few, accidentally writing down something that was changed in a later e-mail. ...Event itineraries. The way forward.

Itineraries give us time for other Very Important Stuff


My studio mates and I talk about this a lot. Publishers, it's in your best interest to:

* Follow us on Twitter
* Retweet our relevant tweets
* Keep an eye out for new releases and tweet something about us, or retweet us
* Have an author page and a book page, so we can send the people who want to buy our books to you instead of to Amazon. You may not actually handle the sale on your website, but you get good publicity if we can send people to your page to find out about the book. It's amazing how many publishers have no profile for writers or very out-of-date profiles.


Very few illustration or writing courses really prepare us for the all-singing, all-dancing, hard-core-business skill we'll need. Once publishers spot illustration or writing talent, can they help fill the gap?

Both Justin and Stephanie give courses to train writers; Justin coaches with Author Profile, and Stephanie has taught with writer Tony Bradman on the Curtis Brown Creative Writing for Children course. This is when the discussion got very heated. Liz cautioned people against throwing huge sums of money at courses which seem to promise that by going on the course, we'll somehow be getting a foot in the door to being published. She saw it as potentially a very cynical attempt by publishers to 'monetise the slushpile' (ie, in the old days, you just had to submit your story and get rejected, but now you pay to be rejected.)

Stephanie argued very passionately that this wasn't the case on their course, that they were very careful whom they accepted and only took writers whose work seemed very promising.

I proposed a sort of middle ground. I think we DO need training, and I think it's great when publishers run short courses on various things we need: social media skills, school visits, dealing with taxes, etc. But I think that the idea of a single course as a one-stop shop to being successfully published is flawed. I compared it to developing a style in illustration: We're doing something wrong if we only let our work be influenced by one or two other illustrators, but if we let our work be influenced by hundreds or thousands of other artists, our influences will melt together and swirl about and shape themselves into something new. So why wouldn't it be the same with training? I think we need to create our own training:

2009: the very first time I ran a table at a comics fair!

1. Self-publishing: I argued that self-publishing can be our training ground. Liz spoke disparagingly about self-published books, that there's an occasional winner, but usually their quality is very low. But Stephanie said that one of the hardest recent developments for writers is that there's very little or no development time; in the past, publishers invested in writers who had potential, but weren't expected to turn out instant best-sellers. She said that now debut authors are expected to be instant successes or they're dropped. That sounded scary to me. Since the room had so many unpublished and newly published writers in it, I thought we needed to address self-publishing.

We need time to take risks and fail. I've made lots of mistakes in marketing my books. I remember when my studio mate, Gary Northfield, and I thought that knitters would be a great market for selling our comics about sheep. (Knitters like sheep, right?) Our other studio mate, Lauren O'Farrell (aka Deadly Knitshade) is a graffiti knitter and we thought we'd make a foray into her world. We paid for a stall at the Alexandra Palace Knitting & Stitching Show and basically wasted five days watching the world go by; knitters who wanted knitting, not books.

My other idea was to market children's books at dentist conventions, because hey, dentists need fun books in their lobbies. But the knitting fair lesson made me think, actually, people are much more likely to buy books when they go somewhere to buy books. I sold comics at an indie comics fair and the comics went flying off the table: people were there to buy comics.

Loot from Comiket comics fair, much of it self-published

The first time I sold Morris the Mankiest Monster at a comics fair, I made very good sales to lots of dads who almost never bought picture books for their kids because the didn't find the picture book section of shops very inviting to grown-up men. (They were like, 'Hey, you do comics AND you do picture books! Wait, I have a kid! I could bring back a picture book!') At the indie comics fairs, I looked around at the way other people made their tables attractive, things that sold well, and honed my selling technique.

We don't even have to be grown-up to self-publish and sell at comics fairs!

We need time to learn how to blog and use social media: if you go back in my blog to 2006, I had no idea what I was doing. But when I started to make and sell my own comics, and interact with the comics community, I discovered more about who I was, what I liked, and how I wanted to express myself. If someone has The Big Important Novel coming out, and they've never blogged before, it'll be murder to expect them instantly to know how to do all that stuff. Why not self-publish, make some bad books, make some mistakes before we hit publishers with the big book that might make or break our career? Our bad writing and illustrations will slowly turn into better writing and illustation and, in the meantime, we will have picked up our own social networking community and people will be aware of what we do.

2. Cobbling together our own training may not give us a big certificate for the wall, but we can decide what we need.

I'm so glad I got an MA in Illustration at Camberwell art college, and my course leader, Janet Woolley, was brilliant and really put her heart into teaching.

Janet Woolley and Camberwell Alumni Day speakers

But I was also glad that I'd done a BA degree in something entirely different (Russian lit, with a minor degree in Art History), and then worked on seven books with a small publisher before starting my MA. Working with that first publisher didn't go particularly well, but it gave me an idea of the kinds of questions I'd want to ask, and the training I'd need when I did go on an illustration course. Even when I was on the MA course, there wasn't any training for writing picture books, and not much specific training about how to work in children's book illustration as a business. But that was okay, because I was able to seek out the training I need, mostly through seminars, conferences and talks run by the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators (SCWBI), the Business Start-up Classes run by the Association of Illustrators (AOI), events run by the year-round Comica Festival, talks at the Society of Authors, and by taking part in my LiveJournal blogging community. (Yes, I'm still a loyal LJ blogger, even though I don't get much time these days to be a more active part of the community.)

And as if to prove the point, there was a big group from SCBWI in the room, people who had come to the fair in a companionable group to acquire more training on the subjects they wanted to learn about. SCBWI coordinator Anita Loughrey stood up and gave a short impassioned speech about the great things SCBWI are doing to help both published and unpublished writers, and got a big round of applause.


Throw us together with your other authors! We can learn from them, and feel less alone in this business. (SCBWI and Society of Authors are great for this, too!) Many publishers do this already, and I've learned loads of things at festival, when my publishers take take me for a meal with their other authors and we all swap stories about the day and find out what the other people do. One of my books coming out this autumn, Oliver and the Seawigs, came about from meeting Philip Reeve at the Edinburgh festival and staying in touch.

Twitter makes it easier. I'm not sure how people stayed in touch after festivals in the days before e-mail and Twitter. When I first met Philip, I would have been too nervous to ring him on the telephone in the following days, no way. Even a letter might have seemed a bit presumptuous, he's a busy guy and might not have time to write back. But with Twitter, everything's much less formal and we can be in touch with people without it being a Big Thing, or claiming an intimate sort of friendship. And through Twitter, we can visit each other's blogs to get a sense of what the other person's about. Twitter's great that way.

A big thanks to the Booktrust team, who put so much into running a whole programme of amazing talks during London Book Fair! From left: Claire Shanahan with Viv Bird; Liz Neville, Katherine Woodfine, and Claire. (And Rosi Crawley, too, but I somehow missed getting a photo.)

And a couple more photos from the Booktrust party. Hurrah for Liz Pichon, who was the book fair's Author of the Day that day! That's John Agard behind her, and then Babette Cole in her magnificent hat. (And Chris Priestley, up at the top of the blog post, getting smooched.)

Whew, that was an epic-long blog post! Ha ha, leave a note at the bottom if somehow you managed to get all the way through.

Edit: Kate Wilson from Nosy Crow just sent through this link on Twitter, an excellent post, What is a Publisher For?

Edit 2: Just found this good talk about the state of publishing by Neil Gaiman at this year's London Book Fair Digital Minds Conference, via the LBF website. He also says we need to be able to take risks and fail sometimes:

Edit 3: Hey, more news just in! See that self-publishing kid further up in the blog post? That's Zoom Rockman and The Evening Standard have featured him today. Zoom's a great example of someone who makes and makes, and is learning so much about marketing simply by doing it. His comics aren't the best I've ever read - he is 12, and he won't be able to rest on his being-young laurels forever - but if he keeps going like this, his work's just going to get better and better and he'll be in a great place to decide where he wants to go in publishing. Zoom (and his supportive parents and brother, Ace) are awesome, I think when he's an adult, he'll still be very proud of the work he put in now.

I wish I'd realised I could make and self-publish comics at his age. I was always trying to write a big long novel (with no pictures), but if I'd tried to make more manageable-length comics, with writing and drawing, I would have enjoyed assembling them and learning how to promote them. I thought all comics had to have funny punchlines, like the strips in The Seattle Times, and I didn't realise I could make serious comics. (I was quite a serious child.) Zoom's inspiring.

Edit 4: And another related blog post fresh in from Howard Hardiman! (He's the guy in the red t-shirt in the Camberwell Alumni Day photo, on the far right.)


( 21 comments — Leave a comment )
Bridget Strevens-Marzo
Apr. 21st, 2013 08:43 pm (UTC)
Got through it
Yes - got through to the end of the blog - and the reward - your and Babette's edible looking frocks and hats! Thanks Sarah - will also know to avoid knitting and dentist conventions!
Apr. 21st, 2013 09:16 pm (UTC)
Re: Got through it
Yay, thank you, Bridget! :D I can't say for certain about dentist conventions, but I'll leave them to someone else. ;)
Candy Gourlay
Apr. 21st, 2013 09:08 pm (UTC)
What a great post! I was sorry to miss your event at LBF ... I decided to stay home and actually work. But now you've filled me in so comprehensively I feel loved. Thank you, thank you.
Apr. 21st, 2013 09:17 pm (UTC)
Hurrah! It's my birthday gift to yoooou... :D
Apr. 22nd, 2013 07:13 am (UTC)
Tony De Saulles
A interesting an insightful post - I'm sure many illustrators and writers will identify with the frustrations described. I guess communication from all parties is key. I don't believe that creative people only want to hear good news from their publishers. It can sometimes be important to hear the not-so-good-news too so that constructive decisions can be made. Thanks for the post.
Apr. 22nd, 2013 07:23 am (UTC)
Re: Tony De Saulles
It's true, if something's not working, it's great to know so we can think about what we might do differently. Thanks for leaving a note, Tony! You're another one of these people I met at a festival dinner, it was great being able to connect with you. :)
anne rooney
Apr. 22nd, 2013 07:37 am (UTC)
'make some bad books'
This is a great account, Sarah - I wish I could have come to that final event at the Author's Lounge (and it was on my list), but pesky meetings got in the way. That makes me extra grateful that you've written it up. I'd take issue with one point, though:

"Why not self-publish, make some bad books"
- because then a publisher who Googles you and looks at your bad book will hold you in low regard; because the multitude of self-published bad books make it even harder for the good ones to be discovered by readers; because it is probably depressing to self-publish a bad book and get very low sales and poor reviews...

There's nothing wrong with learning your trade and then self-publishing a good book when you get to that stage. But crit groups, courses, writer-friends, SCBWI.... are for helping people to learn, not jumping straight in. A major problem for new writers is impatience. Self-publishing seems to provide a solution to impatience, but it's an illusion. Self-publish good books, but never bad. I blogged recently about how writers shouldn't publish crap (http://www.stroppyauthor.com/2013/03/dont-publish-crap.html) because I really do feel it will damage our 'brand' to have sub-standard stuff hanging around our names.
Apr. 22nd, 2013 08:01 am (UTC)
Re: 'make some bad books'
No worries, I've unspammed it! (LJ's being tighter with things that have links because it's been inundated with Russiam spam.)
Here's your link, thank you! http://www.stroppyauthor.com/2013/03/dont-publish-crap.html

Those are good points! I think I agree and disagree with them at the same time. I agree that the market's awash with substandard writing. But I also think that we can't learn how to make good books until we've made lots of bad ones (which we might think are good at the time). 'Self-publishing' doesn't have to mean a book that's available on Amazon, it can mean something as small as photocopying pages, stapling them together and giving them to friends and family and using it as a sort of business card. ('Look, here's what I can do.') It's something I tell kids in schools: If you want to be an author and make books, don't wait until you've grown up and gone to college, start making books NOW. The best way to learn how to make books is to make books. And I'm certain that marketing my own early illustrations and comics helped me learn how to market my large-publisher books.

I'm not sure that my past bad books would hurt my career now. Only about 100 people probably own my early stapled-together comics. And I think sometimes it's the reverse; it's quite nice to point to stuff I drew badly fifteen years ago and say to kids, 'Look, I'm no genius, you can see I wasn't born a great artist. But I love it, so I kept doing it and doing it and got better at it, and now I do it for a living'. I tell them that it's about passion and practice, not being born into a sort of special elite.

About there being bad books everywhere: I think that's what makes reviewers particularly important now. And it's also a very levelling thing: anyone can start up a book blog, and the good ones will rise to the top. I mentioned at the event that reviewing books is a great way to get into publishing: if someone does it well, publishers will send them free books and invite them to book events, and they'll get to meet the editorial teams with whom they'd potentially be working. Blogging IS self-publishing, but it's only the good blogs that will get retweeted and talked about.

About the low-tech point you made, and bad video editing: I agree, there are some terrible videos out there, particularly the ones that try to be swish with tacky fonts and cheap special effects. But sometimes it's a great way to communicate with the public in an informal way that lets them see us as people, not as words on a screen. The good thing about doing it ourselves is that if, three years down the road, we realise it was a naff video, we have the power to take it down, it won't linger about to embarrass us.

Thanks so much, Anne, Your blog post really gives food for thought!
anne rooney
Apr. 22nd, 2013 08:42 am (UTC)
Re: 'make some bad books'
Thanks for replying, Sarah. I totally agree that making books is the best way of learning, and I think we all made little hand-written/drawn books as children. Yes! Making and stapling is brilliant and I don't think that can hurt someone's career. Even 'proper' self-publishing (like Lulu) is OK if people are selling/giving to family and friends. I would draw the line at self-publishing on Amazon, though. When someone publishes a book that is not ready and promotes it all over the place, that spreads their amateur efforts too widely and it *can* hang around. Yes, you can take it down. But there might already be comments and reviews elsewhere (if the publicity was at all successful) that you can't take down. And you can't take the memories out of people's heads, either. There are (established) authors whose books I'll never buy because I've bought rubbish they've put out on Kindle.

I agree about having a personality, too. But it's a very different thing to show off your amateur efforts to children later in life when you are already successful. It's a great thing to do, generous and encouraging. It's not the same as putting them out while you still think they're good, though. (I think many of us are grateful that early books were rejected and aren't out there to haunt us.)
Apr. 22nd, 2013 08:55 am (UTC)
Re: 'make some bad books'
That's a great point about Amazon, and yes, I'm glad my early efforts aren't posted there. Maybe there's a point to be made about self-publishing, that we try to keep the main listing on a website we can control, and where we have the ability to remove it. I've had errors linger on Amazon and a publisher website for months and months that couldn't seem to be changed (including my first UK book being credited to another illustrator), even though I asked the publisher four times. (It was something to do with being tied into the Nielson listing...?)

Also, we all know that having books put out by a publisher is no guarantee of quality. I have published books lingering around that I did before going to art college and I'm very glad the first two went out of print. Also, there's always the possibility of signing on with an editor, that editor getting pregnant and leaving, and the following editor wanting a very different book than the one the author contracted to make. That could be embarrassing, it happens all the time. I've also had publishers replace my cover artwork with that by another illustrator, still crediting me, and I have no control over that (or time to deal with it, it happened before I got an agent).

Plenty of potential for cringe factor stuff, but we just get on with our work, I guess. If we have enough new, good books under our belts, hopefully no one will notice or care, it will just be a quirky little bit of trivia for future die-hard fans.
Apr. 22nd, 2013 10:10 am (UTC)
Re: 'make some bad books'
(This is Howard, for some reason my ipad is huffy about letting me not be anonymous!)

I think the point about knowing what you should and shouldn't reprint is a really sound one. Yes, be happy that early work sold, despite its flaws, but know when to consign it to the "early work" pile and walk away from it.

I suspect I'm at about the point where I really should be looking quite seriously for an agent, as I'm starting to get into those negotiations about publishing things and I know I'm not well-equipped to deal with it!

It's a bit quirky on lulu at the moment as they offer a default option to offer ebook versions of your book with them, but I ony realised that Badger was listed on iTunes and Amazon when copies had sold, which was a bit of a surprise and I kind of want to let that book fade onto the Early Work pile now, even if it's still selling. It just makes the existing copies collectors' items, right?
(Deleted comment)
Apr. 22nd, 2013 08:57 am (UTC)
Re: Thanks for a great post
Thanks so much for coming along! And do post a link here to your blog post about the event, it would be great to add it to the discussion. (The link will make it register first as spam, but I'll unspam it.) :)
Apr. 23rd, 2013 09:21 am (UTC)
Re: Thanks for a great post
Argh, sorry, Emilly, your post somehow got deleted with the spam! Here it is, copied from my Inbox:

Subject: Thanks for a great post
I caught the last half of the London Book Fair talk you mention here. It was fantastic, and I wished I'd been there at the beginning (was too busy trying to be everywhere at once). I am also blogging about LBF '13, starting this week with 'How to Market Yourself as an Author', a summary of everything I learned at the book fair on the subject.

And your follow-up comment:

Subject: Re: Thanks for a great post

Thanks Sarah.

Here is the link to my post entitled 'The London Book Fair 2013 - How to Market Yourself as an Author' http://bit.ly/14LuM4I. It includes a link to your above post. I'd be happy to get any feedback and comments on my blog or on here.

Your giving a very encouraging message to authors and illustrators, that you don't have to get everything right the first time - and you can learn as you go along : )

Edited at 2013-04-23 09:22 am (UTC)
Apr. 22nd, 2013 01:44 pm (UTC)
Book Fairs
Jon Stevens here...a voice from your distant past and the other side of the world and author of "Dear Friends" full of stories about life on our little hobby farm, self published and marginally marketed. Saw my first copy on the library book sale table Friday and found humility.

Your blog has opened my eyes to the value of a publisher at the right time in a writer's career. I read my first book now and cringe. It so needs re-working and tweaking. But without seeing it in print I would be less inclined to do that. The pride of holding a copy of the first book in one's hands will become balanced by the remainder tables I suppose. At this time I would lean toward those who self publish at first figuring a publisher worth their salt will be smart enough to not leave the millstone of an earlier work around the neck of a probable best seller on their desk.

Do you have any recommendations of a book fair here in the US which might be useful to attend? And thoughts on serializing in magazines?

Happy Hoeing,
Apr. 23rd, 2013 09:28 am (UTC)
Re: Book Fairs
Hi, Jon! Yes, a blast from the past, and congratulations on your book! :)

I don't know much about US book fairs, but I think the big one is Book Exp America. Looks like the new one's in NYC. I've been to it twice (once in NYC and once in LA) and it's very friendly and open to non-rights-agent people milling around, with seminars you can attend. You probably wouldn't be able to set up any meetings when you're actually there, but you could set them up in advance. The other thing I'd recommend is the SCBWI Conference, but that's focused on children's books, so probably not what you're looking for.

Good luck with it all! :)

Tarsila Kruse
Apr. 22nd, 2013 09:08 pm (UTC)
Insightful article
Hello Sarah! I always follow your articles and they are always so relevant. This one is particularly inspiring because it covers so many important aspects that pertain the Illustration and Publishing world and there's so much to learn from. I thank you immensely for your epic blog post. Completely worth reading every single word. Cheers
Apr. 23rd, 2013 09:28 am (UTC)
Re: Insightful article
Thanks, Tarsila! So glad you found it helpful. :)
Apr. 25th, 2013 02:45 pm (UTC)
Love the dresses!
x Heather
Apr. 25th, 2013 05:39 pm (UTC)
Thank you, Heather! :)
Apr. 27th, 2013 03:43 am (UTC)
Value in going in on your own at first
I think what's interesting, is that by going on your own at first, you learn to be smarter about who you do business with down the road. Rather than leap to the first publisher who makes an offer, what do they bring to the partnership, short-term and long-term? I like the list you've shared in this post!
Apr. 27th, 2017 06:51 pm (UTC)
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( 21 comments — Leave a comment )


Sarah McIntyre

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