I’ve been asked a number of times what the process was for getting my first written/illustrated picture book deal. How did I navigate the rejection infested jungles of pitching and get a publisher to actually peek out their door as I wildy knocked hoping to sneak a foot in?
Let me preface this post by saying I have no secret tips or wise knowledge on how to get your manuscript into publishers hands and placed on bookshelves everywhere. I have no ‘how-to’ formula to write at the bottom of this page. All I can write is my own hodge podge route.
So how did I manage to get my foot in the door?
The two things that I believe immensely helped get my first book deal are as follows:
I made a book for myself
I have an agent who got said book in front of editors
Let me explain.
Long before my first book deal, I was toiling away on a separate book idea/pitch. After much re-working, rewriting and re-thinking I was getting frustrated with the ever changing frankenstein on my screen. My initial story idea had transformed from a simple fun tale into a bloated over complicated story. The overthinking of what a publisher may want and what an audience may like, had me forgetting what I liked and thus left me with this broken story.
As a creator, I hate the idea of only having half finished projects and nothing to show for them. I really wanted to make a picture book, but was getting concerned that my current path may plateau into having numerous book pitches and nothing finished to ever show for it. I think of an architect having piles of blueprints but never getting to make an actual building (that was my first ever architect metaphor *checks off list). What if a publisher keeps turning down all my ideas and I never get to finish them?! I wanted to make a picture book.
A brief pause to say, this is really the normal process. It’s all about making pitches, re-working them and hoping a publisher believes in them enough to put an offer on them. They aren’t going to like every idea you wave in their face and most will likely need big changes along the way. I’m just an impatient and stubborn kinda fella.
Also, at that point we hadn’t even sent my first *bloated* story out to any publishers yet, it was all rework between my agent and I. But regardless...
I needed a break from the ever-evolving pitch I was fumbling with. I decided to do what I wanted to do, I wanted to make a picture book. Somewhere along the way I had another idea for a story about a lonely boy who finds a big lost whale sitting at his school playground. In my mind, the idea, mood and colors I wanted to use seemed like a tougher ‘sell’ to publishers, but that wasn’t my intention with this story. I decided that I just wanted to go straight into writing, illustrating and completing a finished picture book. I longed for the relief of completing something to how I pictured it in my mind. At the time I had no expectation of it even being seen by my agent, never mind a publisher. It was simply a ‘me’ project.
In my free time for the following months I wrote, illustrated, and completed a book titled ‘To the Sea’. This ‘completed book’ was now a series of jpgs or PDF on my computer, but still it felt great having accomplished my goal. I really didn’t have a specific plan past this point. On a whim I decided to send it over to my agent to get her thoughts and feedback. Maybe she would have some good ideas for small tweaks or text edits. I did value her input and opinion, even if it was just going to be a personal project. To my shock, she responded swiftly, declaring how fond she was of the story and felt it was ready to send out to publishers immediately. What in the what!!? I honestly did not expect that response. AT ALL. I think it was pretty much the next day that we were putting together a list of our top publishers, the dreamiest of dreamy to imagine publishing my story. The worst that can happen is they’ll say ‘no’, so why not give them a try? My agent had contacts in the different publishing houses which made it MUCH easier getting in front of their eyes.
On that dreamy list, was Disney Hyperion.
Shortly after my story was sent to Disney, we got a very positive and exciting response back. To answer your question; Yes, of course I ran and jumped around my apartment in excitement. The editor at Disney was really stoked with the story and willing to work together to refine it, until she felt it was ready to bring to the ‘acquisitions department’ (AKA the yay or nay deciders). We went over the artwork and text, implementing changes which I believe all helped strengthen the story. I’m actually still completely surprised how much of the story and art stayed exactly the same as my original. I don’t know about you guys, but I always pictured book editors like in the movies, yelling at you, ripping your book apart and calling your out for the fraud you surely are (I still am waiting to be called out as a fraud). I am happy to report this has not been the case and book editors are some of the loveliest of lovely people I know! :) Well at least kidlit book editors… Who knows what’s going in that crazy world of adult literature o_o
While this all sounds like one grand swoop over the course of a week, let’s put in some time reference for context. I was working with my editor at Disney for over a year before it was taken to acquisitions. A YEAR, people! Let me make it clear that after all this, acquisitions could still very easily say a big NAY to it. So when my editor finally presented it to acquisitions, what did they did say??
BUT, it was a small ‘nay’ with an asterix next to it recommending some edits/additions to the end of the story. I wasn’t out of the picture just yet! The notes were hard to take at first though, and I admit to thinking for a moment “I can’t add in these changes! This is my vision! That’s it! I’m walking!”. I then did the sensible thing and started realistically thinking about the notes and how they could work. Looking at the book now, I have to say I can’t imagine it without these new additions. Remember we’re all working towards the same goal of making something the best it can be, drop your pride, and be willing to listen and try ideas that may initially hurt your brain.
We made the new changes and my editor stormed back to the acquisitions department, busting down the door, sunglasses on, attitude up to 11, riding a badass horse named ‘The Convincer’. She threw the new pages into their mind-blown faces, lowered her shades a smidge, and boldly asked “We done here?”. The department signed all papers that needed signing, threw them up in the air with a cheer, and then proceeded to carry The Convincer and my Editor away in an impromptu celebration parade.
Or at least I’m pretty sure that’s how it happened. I wasn’t there. BUT I did get a call not too long after from my agent letting me know we got a ‘yay’ and indeed have an offer from Disney for To the Sea. Hurray!!
And so ends the story of how I wrangled my first book deal.
To close let me say that this is merely what ended up working out for myself. I truly have no idea what the real right way is to get your first book picked up. While I think a large part is in thanks to having an agent with the proper connections, this isn’t to say you can’t get published without an agent. It may just take more hustle and effort to get it to those people. I think the main thing is to work on those ideas and develop them so you actually have something you’re proud to share.
For those wanting to know more about 'agents', feel free to check out my earlier blog post: AGENTS
Don’t lose hope if your pitches aren’t getting picked up. Keep at it and keep trying to learn and grow. Ask for feedback from any of the publishers that turn you down. Most importantly, keep working towards stories that you believe in and regardless if published, are excited to tell.
Don’t worry if your story seem to be turning into a pit of overthought ideas. Take a break from that story. Let it settle. I came back to the initial story I mentioned at the top of the post and reworked it to how I originally envisioned the idea/feel. It was just published this August, titled ‘Maxwell the Monkey Barber’.
Good luck! I look forward to reading your book!