Hope Against the Naysayers

If you travel in publishing circles, you hear lots of different opinions about what topics will break through and become bestsellers. Mostly these thoughts are thrown out on the negative side of things. I’ve heard the same things. People have been saying, “The children’s book market is completely flat.” Now there is some validity to this viewpoint and I’ve read articles in the trade magazines to validate this comment. Does this mean that you shouldn’t write children’s books? Not necessarily. Bounce that view off another conversation I had in a major literary agency about a year ago. I was a few blocks from Times Square in New York City meeting with a fairly new literary agency. Two former publishers at a major publishing house had opened their own shop. While the bulk of their work was with clients in the adult book area, one agent told me that the week before she had negotiated a major deal for a children’s author.

If you are a children’s book author, it is difficult to find a literary agent. The reasons for the difficulty are fairly straight forward. Literary agents work on a commission basis for their sales. In general, these agents follow the ethical guidelines of the Association of Author Representatives (whether they are members of the organization or not). You probably don’t want to be working with agents who charge reading fees. Most children’s books have modest advances (especially first-time authors). It takes a similar amount of time and energy to negotiate a $1,000 advance book contract as it would to negotiate a $10,000 advance or a $100,000 advance. Where do you think the agents would rather spend their limited resources of time and energy? That’s why in general, it’s difficult to find a literary agent for children’s books–not impossible but difficult. Also many book packagers are producing children’s books. The naysayers are everywhere saying, “Don’t do it.” Or “It is hard.”

With fascination, I read this Soapbox article from literary agent Stephen Barbara in Publishers Weekly. Barbara specializes in young adult and middle-grade novels. It’s an area of the market where there are many book packagers and long odds to place a project with a publisher. Yet in some circles the teen fiction market is really selling like crazy. Read the entire article but look at the hope in his conclusion, “Maybe there’s another way: write a work of highly individual imagination and flair. Build a world. Push the culture in a new way. Explore a taboo. Reinvent a classic. Experiment with the language. For the packagers do have a weakness: they’re good at sniffing out what’s hot now and producing that book, but they can’t create the Harry Potters, the Book Thiefs, the Looking for Alaskas–works that are ahead of the pop culture or beyond the vagaries of time. For a writer–and for publishers, too–that’s a pretty good place to be.”

It’s easy to get discouraged in the writing business. Rejection comes hard and fast. It’s the writer’s responsibility to put together a compelling case why you should be given the chance to write your book. It may be your writing needs some work and improvement. Or it may be that you are not writing a compelling pitch or book proposal. What are you going to do in the face of this rejection? You have a choice to set it aside and try a new type of writing (which can be a step of wisdom for some writers). Or you can labor on looking for the right connection.

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