I am so honored to introduce you to Deborah Underwood, our March featured author for 12 x 12. I, like many others, came to Deborah’s work first through THE QUIET BOOK. I loved it so much that one night when my mom came over for dinner, I read it to her and said, “THIS is why I love picture books and THIS is why I want to write them.”
THE QUIET BOOK is one where, after you read it, you smack your forehead and say, “Of COURSE! What a great idea. I SO wish I’d written that book.” Yet, writing a book with the word quiet in the title at a time when agents and editors reject manuscripts all the time on the basis of their being “too quiet” takes courage. A trait Deborah carries in spades. So instead of asking her to write a post on one topic, I (selfishly) sent her a series of questions so we could dig deeper into the choices she’s made in her career and her writing. I was beyond inspired by her answers, and I’m sure you will be too. Please welcome Deborah!
1. As if picture books weren’t hard enough to sell, you’ve been published in two niches that are especially difficult to break into — concept books (The Quiet Book) and and holiday books (The Easter Cat). Agents and editors often advise authors to shy away from writing these types of books, but many of us (myself included!) still do. What is your NUMBER ONE piece of advice to authors attempting to break into these niches?
It would be the same as the number one piece of advice I’d give to authors trying to break into any area of kids’ publishing: write to please yourself, not the market.
It’s funny you mention those two books, because they were the two manuscripts that might have seemed the most hopeless in terms of marketing. If I’d been focusing on marketability, I certainly wouldn’t have written a book called THE QUIET BOOK when so many manuscripts are rejected for being too quiet. And I wouldn’t have written an 80-page picture book, or drawn my own rough illustrations for HERE COMES THE EASTER CAT–talk about breaking rules!
I think both of those books turned out well because I was writing them for myself: because *I* was fascinated by the idea of different types of quiet, because *I* was snickering on my bed as I scribbled out the conversation between Cat and the narrator. And I hasten to add that it is not easy for me to ignore the lure of trying to write for the market; I have to continually check myself and steer back on course if I’ve veered in that direction.
2. Authors are also told not to pitch manuscripts to agents or editors as potential series. Did you pitch THE QUIET BOOK as a series or were THE LOUD BOOK and THE CHRISTMAS QUIET book only suggested after the success of the first?
Nope, I didn’t pitch it as a series. After we finished work on QUIET, my editor suggested LOUD, so we were working on that even before QUIET came out. Then after QUIET pubbed, I suggested CHRISTMAS QUIET, and she said yes.
3. Did you feel pressure for THE LOUD BOOK to be as beloved as THE QUIET BOOK? What advice would you give authors who are writing a second or even third book and beyond following a popular title?
Oh, absolutely. Honestly, the time before LOUD came out was one of the most stressful periods I’ve had as a writer. There’s *so* much self-inflicted pressure to live up to a previous success. (I want to be clear that this pressure wasn’t coming from my editor at all; it was all my own doing.)
And on top of that, it feels churlish to complain: “Boo hoo! Poor me! I’ve had a successful book and I’m worried about the next one!” Before I’d sold a book, if one of my friends had whined about the burden of doing a sequel to her bestseller, I would have wanted to whap her. So the difficulty is magnified because you don’t have your usual support system.
My advice would be what a well-known author told me when I asked her for advice: do your best to keep the publisher from rushing you. I think a lot of the sequel-fail incidents come about because the author just doesn’t have enough time, and when a publisher is pushing you, it’s hard to push back. And sometimes you can’t. But you can, as always, try to focus on the work itself and not all the external pressures.
4. I feel a kinship with you because, like me, you wrote a storybook app. The app is called SPATTER AND SPARK, is fully-interactive, adorable (we own it), and was published by Polk Street Press. How did you get involved with that project? Did you find your writing process was different for the app versus your picture books?
I’m so glad you like it! I’m really proud of it. I was approached by the Polk Street founder, who happens to live in my city. We had tea and it felt like a good fit, so I pitched some ideas, she chose the one she liked best, and we took it from there.
The process was different in some ways. Since apps were so new to me, it was hard to wrap my head around the possibilities at first. It was really important to me that the interactivity be part of the story; I didn’t want just goofy things to poke and swipe that didn’t advance the plot. So it was fun to stretch that way. And the speed with which it came together–partly because of the incredibly quick yet fabulous work by the illustrator, Luciana Navarro Powell–was mind-boggling, since I’m used to glacial picture book timeframes.
But of course I also wanted to make sure there was a strong story, just as there would be in a traditional picture book. So in that way the writing process was the same.
5. Do you foresee more digital publishing projects in your future? Do you recommend authors and illustrators explore digital publishing as a means of publishing more of their work?
I’d love to do more app work, and I have a lot of ideas. But it seems like confusing territory right now. I think everyone’s wrestling with the how-do-we-make-money-on-apps question. I’m hoping things settle down so there’s a clearer path for those of us who want to get involved.
Digital book publishing is also a murky area for me. For now, focusing on traditional makes sense for me, and probably makes sense for people who don’t have the inclination to do all their own marketing. Plus I think there’s nothing like a physical picture book in the hands of a child, and I want to help get those books out there.
BAD BYE, GOOD BYE pairs a very spare rhyming text with wonderful illustrations by Jonathan Bean. It’s a child’s emotional journey as he moves from one town to another. It was my first rhyming manuscript to sell, and I was particularly excited because I got to work with my fabulous QUIET BOOK editor again. It started out as a few words that I scribbled on a page, then abandoned in my “ideas” file for ages. I’m fairly sure I pulled it out again because I had a critique meeting coming up and nothing to bring–critique meetings are great motivational tools!
There will be about two months between EASTER CAT and BAD BYE releases, but the pub dates still feel pretty close. It is tricky trying to juggle promotion for two books at once, especially since I’m also writing the third book in the Cat series now as well as working on some educational projects.
But my first three picture books were released within two months of each other, so it could be worse!
7. How involved are you in the marketing and promotion of your books? Do you advise authors to establish a platform before publishing?
Every author I know struggles with this. I do some things–bookstore appearances, guest blogs, etc.–but I don’t take months off to promote the way some folks do. I’ve been a bit more involved than usual in CAT marketing: I drafted a letter that went out to booksellers about it pre-publication, and I’m doing the same for HERE COMES SANTA CAT, and I’m doing more interviews/guest posts than usual.
I’m sure a platform is a great idea for some folks, but I don’t think I could manage that and write. I advise people to do what feels comfortable to them PLUS a few stretch things. For example, I love Facebook and am very comfortable there, but that feels less like promotion and more like just being part of a community. But Twitter is tricky for me, so I’m making more of an effort to have a presence there–that’s one of my marketing-stretch things for this year.
One lucky 12 x 12 participant will received signed copies of both HERE COMES THE EASTER CAT and BAD BYE, GOOD BYE from Deborah. Plus, I am throwing in a copy of THE QUIET BOOK from me (not signed). In addition to being fabulous books to simply read and enjoy, they make excellent mentor texts for writing spare rhyme, holiday themes and concept books. Are your fingers in position over those keyboards? Good – because I’m sure you’ll want to write and revise this month to improve your chance of winning this trove of books.
Deborah Underwood’s books include Here Comes the Easter Cat; Bad Bye, Good Bye; A Balloon for Isabel; Pirate Mom; and the New York Times bestsellers The Quiet Book and The Loud Book! She co-wrote the Sugar Plum Ballerina chapter book series, and she has written over 25 nonfiction books on topics ranging from smallpox to ballroom dancing. Her magazine credits include National Geographic Kids, Ladybug, Spider, and Highlights. Please visit her online at DeborahUnderwoodBooks.com.Categories: 12 x 12, 12 x 12 Featured Author, Apps, Authors, Books, Children's Books, Digital Publishing, ebooks, Picture Books, Publishing, Rhyming, Social Media, Storybook Apps, Writing · Tags: 12 x 12, 12 x 12 Featured Author, Author, Bad Bye Good Bye, Books, Children's Books, Deborah Underwood, Digital Publishing, Easter Cat, Picture Books, The Loud Book, The Quiet Book