I’ve been asked quite a few times regarding the nitty gritties of working in picture books. How do I get my book made?! What’s an advance?! Who’s this Royalty I keep hearing about!?
So I figured, well why not put up a whole post on the matter for any folks interested.
This post is referring to Picture books, as it’s the only format that I’ve had wheelings and dealings with. I’d presume other formats are similar, but what do I know?!
I’ll also point out that this is just my experience. Your experience may be different. Your opinion may be different. You may be different. But hey, hopefully you find something in here helpful, interesting, or thought provoking.
Let us start at the start.
Say you have your book idea, let’s call it “Gus the Mer-Pug”
Now as hopefully you know, an idea is great, but an idea isn’t really anything until you actually put some time, thought and work into it. You can tell people you have this amazeballs idea of a Mer-Pug named Gus that is going to take the picture book world by storm, but it’s gonna take a lot more than your constant yammering and daydreaming to get Gus out there.
That’s the most I’m going to talk about the fact that you actually need to work to get a book out. From this point on, I’m going to assume that you are more than the standard person shouting out they have a great book idea and waiting for it to magically happen.
Hey you dummy!
When pitching a book, there is a thing called a ‘Dummy’. It’s a dumb name and hard for anyone to take you seriously when mentioning working on a dummy, but it’s a thing.
A ‘dummy’ is essentially your book’s pitch.
A dummy generally consists of your entire book roughly sketched out, with the full manuscript placed on the pages, as well as a page or two fully coloured to show what you intend the final product to look like. If I’m pitching a dummy I try to keep it pretty clean and easy to read, as I don’t want the publishers or editors confused at what their looking at, or assuming anything. In many ways this is your one shot at getting the idea out there, so it’s worth your time to make sure it’s ready to go. Don’t rush Gus! Make sure you feel the dummy, the manuscript, and the art are all working well and getting across the Mer-Pugs adventure as you intended.
I’m obviously coming at this from an author/illustrator perspective. If you’re purely an author, then I would assume it’s more about simply having a solid written manuscript and perhaps some descriptions.
The dummy is now what you will be sending out, in hopes an editor’s eyes light up seeing the words “Gus”, “Mer”, and “Pug”.
What a book pitch consists of can certainly range as you go. If you begin to make relationships with different publishing houses and editors, than you may be able to pitch ideas without using a full Dummy. This all depends on your own discretion. No matter what, I would still suggest to always put in that extra time hammering out what you are about to pitch. The only one missing out when a rushed pitch gets turned down is you. You and Gus. Don’t let Gus down…
To give you an idea of how pitches can vary, here’s an example of what I pitched for some of my books:
To the Sea - I actually created the entire book in final art before it was sent anywhere.
Explorers of the Wild - Full Dummy (Book sketched out, Full Manuscript, Colour samples)
Where Oliver Fits - Full Dummy
Maxwell the Monkey Barber - Full Dummy
Off and Away - Paragraph pitch with some concept art
Abit of a range there. As you can see with Off and Away, since I established a working relationship with my editor, I felt confident attempting to pitch that book with less than a fully realized dummy.
But Cale! How do I send my Dummy to the publishers! Gus is ready to go!
This part can be tricky. My suggestion. Get an agent.
I wrote a post on agencies awhile back. If you have Q’s, you can always check it out HERE
Agents can help in a lot of areas. From helping to refine your pitch, to using their connections to actually get it infront of publisher’s eyes.
Agents can also have a keen eye on what may work for what publishers, and how to push your pitch to give it the best shot. If you find the right agent that gels with you and your ideas, it can be a truly helpful hand. (For more info on agents go read that post!)
If you want to go at it without an agent that’s also totally fine, but it’s up to you to do your due diligence on who to send to, how to send, and giving it all you got. Sadly if you’re just planning on cold mailing or emailing your pitch to numerous publishers without putting in the research, than most likely 99% are going to toss it, delete it and/or not read it.
Let’s fast forward and say you got a positive response from a publisher! Woooo! They love Gus! “I never thought I could fall so hard in love with a Mer-Pug!” You are on mer-cloud 9! But what now?
A couple things can happen from here.
They send you an offer to publish the book
They have some notes
They love it, but still pass
A lot of the time when an editor receives a pitch they like, for instance Gus. They then have to be ready to pitch Gus themselves, to their whole team. This leads up to them pitching it to their acquisitions department, who are the final yay or nay. This means that the editor has really got to believe in your idea and feel it’s ready to pitch. Don’t be surprised if you get a positive reply but also revision shifts and notes to look over.
I feel this is an area that many fear. We’ve all heard the stories where the evil corporate publisher rips your idea apart, turning your piece of art into a frankenstein commercial property. Forcing you to change your story into an unrecognizable puddle for the masses. Oh the horror! Those damn monsters!
Let me just say that I have never experienced this.
Have I had changes on my stories while pitching? Absolutely.
Have I had notes that I didn’t care for? Absolutely.
Looking back, did those changes actually help my story? Yep.
Was I ever forced to do the changes at knifepoint? Nope.
Have I ever reasoned my take on the note to change their mind? Uh Huh.
When To the Sea was first pitched, I got a positive response from Disney Hyperion. It then took OVER A YEAR of doing back and forth, shifts and changes before I actually got an offer. I remember fighting some of the notes in my mind at the time, now when I look back, I completely agree with every change.
Everyone just wants to help try and make the story the most it can be. If you’re hoping to be picked up by a publisher, they deserve to have a say in it since they are backing it, and to be honest, probably have some damn good ideas since it’s literally their profession. So get over your own ego and make sure you look at notes with a critical eye and not simply a defensive one.
Good news! Gus the Mer-Pug got an offer! Ahhh! Excitement! Champagne! Happy Dancing!
Wait, how does an offer work?
A publisher’s offer includes all sorts of details, such as your payment advance, royalties, various rights, submission dates, etc. It’s your contract.
At this point usually your agent will be in full superhero mode, stepping in to go over the details, negotiate on your behalf, and make sure you aren’t selling your soul. It’s also not unheard of to have multiple publishers put an offer on the same book. Not a bad problem to have! I haven’t experienced this myself, but your book then can go to auction between the publishers, each putting out what they offer and you get to feel like a popular kid in grade 5.
Regardless, the contract will probably go back and forth between your agent and the publisher a couple times as they hammer out the details.
Let’s break down some of these basics:
The publisher will offer you a certain amount of monies as a payment ‘advance’ to purchase the rights and your time/energy to make the book. This is great for us, because it means we get money to buy food and live while making the book, regardless if the book turns out to be a big seller. You do not have to repay the publisher the advance if it does not end up making said monies back. It is the hope of the publisher (and you) that your book will indeed make back the monies and more. Generally the advance will be broken up into 2-4 payments (Upon signing contract, finished sketches, final art, and sometimes upon publication).
How much should I accept for my advance on Gus the Mer-Pig?
This is a tough question as there is no right answer. My advances have varied project to project and still vary pending the book, publisher, etc. In the end I think you have to break down the amount of work the book will take (amount of pages, illustrations, detail, time) and whether the amount of the advance feels worth the work. If you’re being offered $2000 to illustrate 32 pages, that’s only $62.50 a page. Which in my opinion would be ridiculous to accept. This is of course, all your own decision, and really just up to you. I get it, we can’t always be picky when need to eat and live and have no other work on the horizon. BUT do try and remember you are worth it and deserve a fair payment for all your hard work!
Advances can come in all shapes and sizes. Many smaller avenues may offer you low payment with promises of big royalties to come later once the book is done and out in the world. I would caution you against these, as much of the time they turn into you working like mad to get it done, only to have minimal copies sell, and those royalty payments never come.
Standard publishers advances can range from the low unattractive amount of $5,000 to the top dogs being offered $60,000- $80,000+. An agent can be very helpful in helping with this area, but regardless of everything, it’s something where you want to be comfortable accepting and not all angry later on. Yes, others around you may be getting offers double the amount, but don’t get too lost in comparisons. You are on your own path and have to remember to keep your eyes on it.
But I want a juicy giant advance! Don’t I? Where’s my $50,000!
Here’s where things get sort of interesting. In my opinion advances can be a weird double edged sword. As an individual it’s easy to see advances as a sign of progression. Sure I’ll take a low advance for my first book, but then want to see my advances grow the more I do books, right?
If I start at $7000, then next one should be $12k, then 20k, 40k, 60k!
The thing is, when a publisher gives you that advance, there is a hope and bit of expectation that the book will earn out and prove it was worth those advance monies. It you’re being given a big ol’ advance for Gus, then that Mer-Pug better sell some copies!
The battle of higher advances and challenge of earning out.
Cale, what the hell does earn out mean? Does that mean I’ve sold all books and am full of monies now? And explain royalties you book making monkey!
Royalties: An amount or percent you receive for each book sold. Generally I’ve found it be 10%. 5% if you are only the illustrator or author, as the two of you split it. You will only receive royalties once your book has earned it’s advance.
Let’s say you got a book advance for $20,000. And have a royalty rate of 10% on each book sold.
What that means is, you need to sell X amount of copies until the 10% of sales = back that $20,000 to ‘earn out’. So say the book costs $20 to buy. That means you would get $2 per book. So to earn out, you would need your book to sell 10,000 copies. It’s simple math people! Once the book sells 10K copies then you would start receiving royalty payments on any copies sold thereafter.
Now let’s say you landed your $50,000 juicy advance. That means you need to sell over 30,000 books in order to earn out. That’s not so easy to do.
If your book doesn’t earn out, that doesn’t mean it’s a big failure and all over for you. BUT it is sort of looked at as a loss money wise, and a publisher may start thinking twice about how much they want to spend on you if all your books never earn it back.
Again, to reiterate this is the business side of Picture books. Of course the joy of creating, sharing your stories, and getting them out into the world to connect with others is the most important part, but we’re not here to talk about that stuff today.
Numbers do help when you’re working to get new book deals and negotiate offers. Having sweet sale numbers obviously makes a publisher more confident betting on you. This is where I find it tricky, as you do want to push towards getting better advances, yet at the same time, want to be able to actually ‘earn out’ those amounts to see royalty payments and know the book proved itself to publishers.
Earning out is not easy. I don’t think most books earn out. Out of the 5 books I’ve written, only one has very recently actually earned out. Out of the other 5 that I illustrated, I know that 2 earned out (possibly 3, but I don’t get royalties on that one, so am not informed on it’s sales).
It’s not always cotton candy and celebrations. I’ve gotten back progress statements on books where my sales for the quarter show 0 and sometimes even going backwards due to bookstores returning unsold copies to the publisher!
Are you doomed if you don’t earn out, exiled to a deep dark nowhere for the rest of existence?
Just keep on making books! Keep trying to improve! And keep making what you believe in!
At the end of the day there is only so much you can do to influence sales. Yes of course get out there! Do your tweeting! Your instagramming! Try to get out and do some school visits. Do some interviews! Do all the things! I’m still figuring this out myself! But when you need to sell 10,000-20,000 copies, I would say don’t get too caught up in thinking it’s all in your hands. Once the book is out, it is on it’s own path, and hopefully with the publishers help, it will get into the right hands, who pass it into more hands, into more hands, and more, and more.
Try to let your book go, let nature take its course, put your blinders on, and get concentrating on the next book!
But wait, are there other ways you can earn out besides selling copies?
Well funny you should ask!
A nice way to take a bite out of the advance sandwich is when other companies purchase the rights for your book property. Foreign language rights are a popular one to see authors post snaps of. Foreign publishers pay a certain amount to your publisher for the rights to print your book in their country/language. You receive your cut which goes towards earning down that advance. Another rights example is if a company purchases the rights to make a cartoon or movie. It seems unlikely, but at the same time, you never know!
Does a gold plated Unicorn bearing gifts and trinkets await you once you earn out?
Not a whole lot happens, but hopefully you start to see some royalties/passive income, as well as some proof to publishers that you are worth handing out a decent advance for the next one.
For those wondering about some of the other parts of process, including distribution, printing, and getting into bookstores. Everything after you submit the final book art/manuscript is in the hands of the publisher. You don’t have to worry or think about the creation of the book past that point.
Once the final files are sent, you can dust off your shoulders, and get ready to do it all again for the next book.
‘Gus, Return of the Mer-Pug!’
I hope you found this beastly post helpful! Feel free to comment any added questions or note if I happened to miss something.
Otherwise, until next time!