"Today the greatest challenge in publishing is distribution and discoverability. As a result, sites like [PictureBooksReview] are more important than ever to discerning readers, new authors and independent publishers."
-Steve Floyd, chief executive officer of August House books

"The interview is so amazing! I appreciate you picking up on all these aspects of what I've been doing. It's always great to talk with someone who understands what goes into these things."

- Jose Lucio, self-published author of Heave Ho!

9.16.2015

A Conversation with Emma Walton Hamilton

Emma Walton Hamilton
Emma Walton is the author of several books for children, including the popular "Very Fairy Princess" and "Dumpy the Dump Truck" series. and non-fiction works such as "Raising Bookworms."

I would imagine she grows weary of having this pointed out, but she also happens to be the daughter of Julie Andrews, a fact only pertinent because the two of them have collaborated on several books.

I met her through the promotional efforts of the people behind Picture Books Summit 2015, where she will be speaking on the topic of "Is Your Manuscript Truly Submission Ready?"

The conference will be held on October 3rd, 2015 and should be a big deal. More information can be gleaned at their site!

Emma was good enough to answer some questions about the industry and her career.

How has the picture book industry changed? Was a submission-ready manuscript in 2005 the same as a submission-ready manuscript in 2015?

I have seen the industry change quite a bit over the last 16 years since my first picture book was published. The word count has shrunk tremendously - where 1000 words was more or less the norm back then, now the ideal word count is somewhere between 250-500 words.

There’s also much greater pressure on sales numbers. When my mother and I first started writing together, a good general sales number to aim for was 15,000 units in order for a picture book to “earn out.” Now, that number is closer to 50,000.

On the plus side, I’d say that we’ve seen the pendulum swing back toward picture books in terms of their popularity in the market place, and as a result they are being taken more seriously in the industry. They are being appreciated for the works of art that they often are.

When a picture book marries the perfect text with magnificent art, it’s a rare pleasure for readers of all ages.

From a writer's point of view, it seems almost counter-intuitive to storytelling to have to take into account as-yet non-existent illustrations. Shouldn’t a story work regardless of whether it is illustrated or not?

Remember that they are called “picture books” for a reason. The pictures are as important, if not more so, as the text. The idea is for the young reader/listener to glean as much from the art as from the narrative - the art should complement and further the story, not be a mere mirror or reflection. With this in mind, the goal should be to write as much as you need to initially to get the story down, but then to whittle it down to its most economical form.

If you are fortunate, you may be asked for your input when the time comes to pair you with an illustrator. For instance, we were able to convey to Christine Davenier, the wonderful illustrator of our Very Fairy Princess series, that we hoped Gerry might have red hair and have her socks around her ankles and holes in her tights, in contrast to her wings and tiara. Fortunately she was open to this and ran with it. But there are other illustrators who prefer to have autonomy,  and the rewards are often surprising and delightful.

In my experience, picture book texts are best when they focus on character and action, rather than description - in other words, nouns and verbs rather than adjectives and adverbs. The wonderful author/illustrator Dan Yaccarino, who taught for the Southampton Children’s Lit Conference that I am fortunate to helm, says, “The illustrations are the adjectives!”

The way I work - and the way I advise my students and editing clients to work - is to write the story first, using as many words as it takes to get it out there. Once I have a first draft, which is always much too long, then I make a “dummy”... in other words, a mock-up of how I think the text will lay out across the 32 pages, assessing where the “page turning” points are and imagining what the illustration(s) will be that accompany each page. This is the single most valuable revision tool I know of for picture books, and I invariably end up slashing and re-writing and learning so much about how to improve the text from this exercise. Then I convert it back to narrative prose format for further revision and submission. 

Dumpy the Dump Truck

Do you encourage the traditional publishing route, or is self-publishing a viable alternative?

Self-publishing is a viable alternative for some, but I don’t recommend it - yet - for picture book authors.

The vast majority of successful self-publishing ventures are in the realm of adult non-fiction - Self-Help books, and the like. There are also a few success stories with respect to Young Adult (YA) novels, but there are still very few successfully self-published picture books.

There are several reasons for this. The first is that there are still a lot of “gatekeepers” in the world of children’s publishing - reviewers, booksellers, schools, librarians - who have a good deal of power with respect to how and where a book gets sold or reviewed, and they maintain high standards with respect to the quality of the picture books they will advocate for. They still believe strongly in the value of the editorial process and the “vetting” that a traditionally published picture book goes through.

As you know, there are certainly some very high quality self-published books out there, but there are many more that are not - and there isn’t yet a system to help booksellers or librarians - or bloggers! - distinguish between the two when they are presented with so many to choose from each year. So they often resort to a blanket rule that they won’t review or sell self-published books. 

The other issue is the challenge of marketing and promotion. Writing and publishing a book doesn’t mean anyone will know it’s out there. There are tens of thousands of books published each year - so unless you have the skills and resources to invest in some significant promotional efforts, there’s a slim chance of it being found amidst all the other noise. Just because a book is available on Amazon, for instance, doesn’t mean anyone will find it or know to look for it, no matter how wonderful it is.

The exception can be books that speak to a very specific niche market. This is one of the reasons that adult non-fiction/self-help does better with respect to self-publishing - they tend to have a specific audience to reach out and promote to, or who are actively looking for books on a specific topic. The same is true of YA - that readership is hungrier and more likely to go looking for something fresh or different.

Remember, too, that YA and adult readers buy their own books, but picture books are bought by "middle-men" - parents, grandparents, teachers, librarians - not by their intended audience. Those buyers tend to be too busy to do extensive searching. They tend to buy what they a) have heard good things about, or b) are drawn to on the bookshelf, not by doing internet or Amazon searches… unless, again, it’s a particular topic or “niche” they’re looking for. 

All this may change, down the line, which is why I say “yet.” Publishing is undergoing sea-changes, as everyone knows, so it’s possible that trends may move toward better supporting self-published picture books. But I don’t think we’re there yet.


The Very Fairy Princess

How did you first become interested in writing picture books?

I was an avid reader as a kid, and very aware of how much I learned about the world from reading. I also spent long hours writing stories as a child, and all the way through my teens, so I think it’s been an interest from day one.

Even in my early adult years, when I was working as an actress and then a theater director and producer, I wrote a lot of stories - often in verse. My work in theater then led me to dramaturgy - helping playwrights with their plays - and later to teaching playwriting to middle and high school students. That taught me a lot about story structure, since the principles of good storytelling are the same whether you write fiction, plays or screenplays.

My mother wrote two middle grade novels in the ’70’s, and was later asked if she might consider writing a picture book series. She felt she didn’t know much about picture books, and I was a young parent at the time with a lot of interest and insight into the picture book format, so she invited me to partner with her. I jumped at the chance. Eventually I left the theater to pursue writing, editing and teaching full-time.

Emma Walton Hamilton and Julie Andrews

How is it to write with your mother?

Our process is very organic. We brainstorm ideas together, and then rough out an outline before we start writing. We need to know what the central dramatic question of each book will be, what the theme and plot will be, etc. Then, when we start writing it’s literally a process of finishing each other’s sentences. We talk it through out loud, and I type as we talk.

We tend to overwrite to begin with, so once we have a first draft, we go back through it together and revise, revise, revise. We make dummies of our manuscripts so we can visualize what the illustration progression will be, what the balance of text per page is, etc. and we tighten and trim and polish, then convert it back to narrative format.

It takes a long time to get it to the point where we feel ready to share it with our editor, but thankfully it’s usually a mutually respectful and creative process.

How heated do the arguments about the fate of Dumpy the Dump Truck become?

I’m happy to say that we seldom get into arguments or debates. We think very similarly, and generally live by the motto that “the best idea wins.”

In your book Raising Bookworms, you talk about getting kids to read. So you've now approached the topic from two different sides - from the point of view of the child reading for pleasure, and now from the point of view of the author writing for the child reading for pleasure. How do you see these two as being connected?

I see reading/literacy and writing for children as being intricately intertwined.

Children’s literature is one of the few writing genres where you have to take your audience deeply into account as you write, and keep them in mind at all times -- and this is true across all formats. With picture books, you have to keep two audiences in mind: the very young child who is most likely studying the illustrations and listening to the story as it is read aloud, and the adult who is reading the story aloud to the child/children. You have to keep in mind the vocabulary and emotional development of your youngest reader, in order to engage them and allow them to take the emotional journey alongside the hero or heroine, without ever talking down or preaching to them. You also have to – hopefully - write in such a way that the story is “reader proof.” In other words, the adult reader, no matter how comfortable they may or may not be with reading aloud, can convey the spirit and story you intend to deliver. 

With chapter books and novels, you no longer have the middle man, for the most part, but you still need to be cognizant of your audience’s level of development, and how that impacts their ability to absorb ideas, language, imagery, themes, etc. My good friend Patricia McCormick, who writes YA novels that are often quite dark, says something I love: “I am always aware that I am writing for other people’s children.”

Writing for children and young adults carries with it a unique responsibility, one which doesn’t necessarily exist in adult literature.

For more about Emma, visit her website!

Part of our Conversations with Storytellers series.

2 comments:

  1. Excellent interview and information. It's refreshing to hear such clarity in terms of what goes into a picture book and what makes it good. Good writing AND good illustrating. Yes, often the illustrations make or break a story and that's the truth. The pictures need to appeal to the reader and the person purchasing the book. The industry is still changing but there is still a lot of great art in picture books.

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  2. Very glad you enjoyed it, I am often stunned at how experimental and sophisticated the artwork in picture books is. It's an exciting time to be a fan of the genre!

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