Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Conference Surprises--Ah ha moments from SCBWI-Iowa

by Cat Woods

I don’t want to rehash agent and editor blogs, nor do I want to repeat what writer-bloggers tend to discuss on a fairly regular basis. Instead, I aim to provide you with the top ten shockers I learned at my SCBWI conference in Iowa this past weekend—a place where industry professionals ran the gamut from well-known authors and illustrators to agents and editors to marketing directors.

10. Many panelists were not opposed to picking up successful self-published writers. HOWEVER, the average self-pubbed writer will likely be consumed by sharks long before s/he sells enough to be noticed by the publishing professionals. My words, not theirs. I think editor Molly O’Neill said winning the lottery would be easier. Michelle F. Bayuk, Director of Marketing, cautioned conference-goers that the problem with an already pubbed book is the initial reviews—critical components of a marketing campaign—are impossible to get, virtually rendering a previously published piece invisible to school and library markets.

9. Nor were the panelists afraid of the e-book. Rather, many embraced it as “the wave of the future.” They tended to view it as simply another format in which to sell a project. None of the panelists believed the e-market would replace illustrated pieces any time soon. Tip: Retain your e-rights.

8. The idea of Bloggers as Booksellers has been circulating, so I asked panelists to weigh in. Of those who answered, the consensus was that bloggers can and do create buzz. But—yes, the answer always came with a “but”—anybody can write a review. Not every blog reviewer has clout and some have more than others. So, use this technology if it’s you, but don’t fret if your book isn’t making the review rounds.

7. Marketing and promotion. It is not our job as writers to sell books. It is our job as writers to create connections that will sell books. Convoluted? Here’s an example given by Ms. Buyak. Never ask a bookseller to carry your book. EVER. Form a relationship with that bookseller so he wants to carry your book and let your marketing team get the books onto his shelves.

6. Which leads me to the whole school-visits-are-a-good-thing shock. Self-promotion is all about connections. Create them at schools, churches, organizations, non-profits, fire departments, etc. Book signings are a different can of worms. Do those to celebrate you, not to sell your book.

5. Whatever your book’s audience, engage in those communities as often as possible. The more ties your book has, the bigger your market. This equals backlist potential, and the ability for a book to backlist well is one of the defining factors the panelists look for when considering a project. So, what does this mean for us? Exploit natural tie-ins, and do not ignore the library/school potential.

4. Writing is two-fold. Business and craft. Each is distinct, yet inextricably entwined, like DNA. Be aware of both and the impact one has on the other, but do not sacrifice one for the other. Without true art, there is no product to market. Yet without a market, art cannot find a home. Need a boost right about now? Agent Stephen Fraser believes that every project has a home. It is just a matter of finding it.

3. The universal message of every speaker: “Write your own story in your own voice with your own vision. Do not write derivatives. Know the trends.” So what are they in the juvenile lit arena? According to Mr. Fraser, chapter book series will continue to do well, as will books with metaphorical or spiritual components for YA readers. Historical fiction and picture books are slow now, while graphic novels will become commonplace.

Ms. O’Neill believes character-driven books are key, even in picture books. This plays largely on a reader’s ability to make solid connections with the story and the MCs. All panelists agreed that while picture books are a hard sell now, agents and editors will advocate to the end for a picture book that tugs at their heartstrings and speaks to them.

2. Talent is a must, bios are optional. Everyone loves debut authors. Yes, yes and YES! From agents to editors to acquisitions boards, the excitement of finding a fresh, new voice is akin to finding a trunk of jewels at the end of a treasure hunt. Ms. O’Neill explained that a debut novelist has no mixed track record and can often be an easier sell.

1. And the biggest shocker of all: series are it. I’ll say that again. Series are desirable. They are easier sells on the bookshelf than single titles, and successful series are the biggest money makers. Why? The short answer is because readers have an instant connection and familiarity with the characters. They are comfortable and satisfying. The long answer is far too complex to go into now.

Want more on series? Come back May 6th when I post what I learned from a master, Ms. Lin Oliver.

Want more depth? I’ll do my best to answer any questions.


Robbie said...


I read number one and I said, "Whaaaat." This is an awesome, awesome list, Cat! Thanks so much for the nuggets of inside info! =]


Darke Conteur said...

Series are in? Wow, that goes against EVERYTHING we've been hearing lately.

Richard said...

Thanks for the info. This is all informative and worth knowing.

Cat Woods said...

Anticipa, I was surprised by this as well. Obviously.

The agent said that when he was working as an editor, he personally contacted a self-pubbed writer who had done exceptionally well.

I think the cautionary tale for kid lit writers is that going this route makes breaking into the school and library markets extremely difficult.

Cat Woods said...

Darke, I was shocked myself. Hence the number one spot on my list. I was also thrilled, as several of my projects run along this vein.

But, the nuances of doing this right and well are crazy complex. Series and trilogies are two different creatures. Also, some markets are more open to series than others.

Aaaand, it's all in the writing, the pitch and the committment--both the writer's and the reader's.

Can't wait to spill on that next month!

catwoods said...


I think the most hopeful note across the board for us fledgling writers is that being an unknown novelist isn't as scary as we all think it is. When we fret over those bios in our query letters, we shouldn't put so much pressure on ourselves.

It is freeing to know we can just be ourselves: new writers with great stories trying to break into the biz.

Cristin Terrill said...

Great write-up! I really appreciate seeing something different. But I'm a little confused about number six. Can you explain this a little more?

Book signings are a different can of worms. Do those to celebrate you, not to sell your book.


Jemi Fraser said...

So exciting to hear about series being in! My students LOVE series books for just the reasons you mentioned. I do as well.

Also - very exciting to hear debut novelists are desired! :)

Belle Wong said...

Great write-up, Cat! That was a very interesting bit about the series. I know as a kid I devoured the series that I loved and was always on the lookout for the latest, so it makes sense.

catwoods said...


A book signing is generally held at a book store or library. These events are usually a bust unless you're a well-known writer. Mostly they are filled with the people we know and invited.

Several authors at the conference talked about how frustrating it was to have book store patrons walk around them with eyes averted because they didn't want to feel guilty for not buying a book.

These do not typically generate sales.

A school visit, library presentation or speaking at community meetings are much more valuable in terms of creating connections and selling books.

By consciously exploiting natural tie-ins to our books, we can hit a broader audience. For instance, if a bug played a significant role in my book, but it didn't matter what type of bug, per se, I'd do well to make it a butterfly so I could do presentations at a Sertoma event.

There are so many communities out there and by tapping into those that our books naturally touch on, we can create and maintain interesting connections that will sell our books better than sitting in a corner of a book store.

Does this answer your question a little better? I know some of the information is very nuanced. But that seems to be the rule with writing!

Thanks for commenting.

catwoods said...

Jemi and Belle,

You two hit on the reason series are successful to readers. Perfect example: my oldest son has only ever read series. He is dyslexic so reading is hard to begin with. Once he finds a cast of characters he loves and a writing style he connects with, he's loyal to the end.

In hindsight, it makes perfect sense. And, children are renewable resources, if you will. We always have a new crop of readers coming of age to read a series. Junie B. Jones will never get old. To the newest kindergarteners, she's always the perfect age.

Thanks so much for your comments.

The Blogger Girlz said...

It was very interesting to hear what professionals think about blogging buzz. Thanks so much for the prospective.
- Aaron

catwoods said...


It was eye-opening. The resounding answer to whether a writer should blog was that we should only do so if we feel comfortable with it. Don't do any of these things if we can't do them well lest we become just another dead blog to clog up the information highway.

Ms. O'Neill did state that she looks to a writer's online presence as one of the factors in her decision making process, but that it isn't paramount for a writer to be active to garner an offer from her. But there are many forms an online presence can take and blogging is only one of them.

Thanks so much for the comment.

cherie said...

Wonderful post, Cat. Very informative. Thanks! I've always been scared of the bio portion since I don't have any writing creds, but now I feel better. There's hope for me :)

catwoods said...


There's hope for all of us! LOL.

Just write a compelling story, wrap it up with a good edit and tie it with a beautiful query bow.

Best luck~

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Yay for series! Thanks for all the insights! :)

Leslie Rose said...

Interesting to see how the take on e-books is evolving. Yipee for series being IN.

catwoods said...

Susan and Leslie,

I agree. Yay for series. Now to write them right...


RSMellette said...

Just added the phrase "first of a series" to my query.

catwoods said...


You may want to read my post on series before you pitch that!