Starting this month, I will be highlighting debut picture book authors in Q & A form. This segment will get into the minds of the authors in hopes to unlock the secrets to their success. There will be a lot of great tips and advice for aspiring picture book authors. I'm sure you will be inspired. So please check back!
This month’s author is Amy Dixon, author of MARATHON MOUSE, which will be released this fall. This interview is packed with valuable tips you don’t want to miss! There is a lot to cover so let’s get started:
When did you decide you wanted to write a picture book?
I really fell in love with picture books while at the library with my kids. They would have to drag me away from the stacks when it was time to go home. They would each choose one or two books to check out, and I would have a pile of twenty. It was really after I had my third child, Gracie, that I decided to try my hand at writing them. Being a stay at home mom of young children meant that I was pretty tied to the house, and most everything revolved around the kids. Writing was something that was MINE, something that I could do after the kids were in bed, something that gave me a connection to the outside world.
How long did you work on Marathon Mouse before you decided to submit it?
I had the idea for MARATHON MOUSE in November of 2010, the same week of the New York City Marathon. I began working on it right away, and took it to my critique group in January of 2011. In March of that year, I went to a conference where I submitted it to an editor for critique. She told me it was a unique storyline, but the story itself was BORING. (Okay, she didn’t actually use the word BORING, but it was the essence of what she was saying.) I was pretty discouraged. I sensed that perhaps this was a story that only a runner, or someone who had experienced a marathon (even from the sidelines), could appreciate. I honestly didn’t know if that meant this story was dead. I just knew that if I could get the manuscript in the hands of someone who had experienced running race culture, it had a shot.
Tell us the path you took that led you to a contract.
In June of 2011, I read that Skyhorse Publishing was launching a kids’ imprint called Sky Pony Press. I saw that Skyhorse published sports books and thought that maybe they would “get” a book about a marathon. Jean Reynolds, who is known and respected in the kidlit industry, was a consulting editor with Sky Pony at the time, and I submitted the manuscript to her. What I didn’t know then was that Jean Reynolds has three kids who RUN MARATHONS. Timing and luck were in my corner, and that manuscript found its way to the absolute perfect person! I got an offer from Sky Pony just two months later. Jean was a huge advocate for the book, and while she ended up leaving Sky Pony just as we were beginning edits, I am forever indebted to her for really understanding MARATHON MOUSE (and for not thinking it was boring!)
At the same time, I had queries out with a couple of agents for a different story, but hadn’t heard back yet. Once I got the offer from Jean, I asked her for a little bit of time to contact those agents and see if they might be interested in partnering with me. She graciously agreed. That day was a flurry of e-mails (putting OFFER RECEIVED in the subject line helped J) and phone calls, but by the next day I had signed with the fabulous Karen Grencik of Red Fox Literary.
What are the advantages of having an agent represent you?
The big reason I wanted an agent was access. As you know, there are a limited number of houses that will look at your manuscript when you are not represented. I sold Marathon Mouse on my own. But I knew I could use my sale to get the agents' attention and open up the possibilities for my other work, so I did.
Besides subbing for me, Karen Grencik helped me navigate the editorial process and has been my cheerleader behind the scenes. So I would definitely say I am glad to have her on board.
What did your agent expect from you?
Karen definitely wanted to know what other work I had. She read several manuscripts of mine before offering to represent me. She wanted to know that I was serious about writing and had other work that was ready to go. She is submitting another manuscript of mine right now and I have fingers and toes and everything else crossed that it will eventually result in a sale.
Do you have any advice for querying agents?
For picture book writers, I think it is important to develop a "portfolio" of stories before querying agents. You should probably have at least 3 manuscripts that you feel are strong enough to compete in the market. Every agented picture book writer I know queried with one manuscript, but was asked for at least 2 more before representation was offered. So if you go the agent route, make sure you have enough strong work to show them. Another thing to think about is, if you have already submitted to several houses with the same manuscript that an agent is interested in, they may consider the manuscript already "shopped." That would be one reason to hold back on subbing to houses if you feel you really want an agent. If your story has already been rejected in several places they may feel you have limited their options for a sale.
On the other side, I know a lot of writers who didn't get agent interest until they already had a sale under their belt. Picture books just aren't huge money-makers for agents, and it isn't in their best financial interest to carry a huge roster of picture book writers. It’s a catch-22!
Was there any one thing that stood out as the most important thing you did to get your book to where it is today?
I think the most important thing was recognizing the type of book this was and targeting my submission. Though the feedback from the conference editor was discouraging, it also caused me to realize that this book had a specific audience. I didn’t do a mass submission to every open publishing house. I perfected my story, researched my brains out, and sent it to the right place at the right time. Granted, not all of this is within our control. Timing and luck will always be a part of it. But knowing what your story is, as well as what it isn’t, is a huge part of finding success.
What is the most important advice you can give writers that will lead them to the road to publication?
Be free to fail. Open yourself up to critique, to rejection. Don’t be ruled by fear. Most of us get it wrong a whole bunch before we get it right, and there is much to be learned in that process.
Thank you, Amy, for taking the time to explain your process and offer us thoughtful and honest advice. Now for some light-hearted, fun questions I call QUICK PICK:
PEN or PENCIL? Pen with a fine point, please.
APPLE or PC? PC
NOTEBOOK or COMPUTER? Both
COFFEE or TEA? Coffee, coffee, and more coffee!
CAT or DOG? Neither…personally, I’m partial to mice.
LIBRARY or BOOKSTORE? Oooh, too hard of a choice! I want to say bookstore, but with 4 kids and a limited budget, it’s more often library.
Hope you gained a lot from Amy Dixon as much as I have. Be sure to check out her picture book, MARATHON MOUSE, coming this fall!