Postscript to How Did I Get Published

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As I was typing the four parts of “How Did I Get Published?” so many memories, stories, anecdotes came flooding back to me.   Believe it or not, those four postings were the condensed version as to how I got my break in New York publishing.

I thought it might be interesting to include a few anecdotes and afterthoughts here in this postscript.

I think I made a mistake in my recall in creating the dummy for No One Will Come to Dinner.  I distinctly remember that we were living on Midvale Avenue in Philadelphia at the time that I worked on that dummy to take on the rounds of the meetings I had set up with editors and art directors.  That means that I actually worked on that dummy in 1978 and took it to New York City in 1979.

I’m a stickler for details and accuracy!

One of the first art directors I worked with was David Rogers at Holiday House.  He was much older than me and literally took me under his wing and called me “Pussycat”.   It was David who told me not to pay attention to the negative reviews that criticized my generous use of “white space” in my illustrations.   He said: “One day, Pussycat, all that white space will make you famous and make your work stand out from the crowd.  Don’t stop using it.”

Not knowing how unusual it was to sign multiple book contracts before I had ever had anything published I honestly didn’t quite know what I was doing.  I had no agent and no expertise in contract negotiation (I DO now!).  It was the contracts manager at Harper & Row, the renowned Barbara Dicks, who called me and pointed out that “…in that you are signing multiple contracts with various publishers there is a clause you might want to strike out…the first right of refusal to your next book…you can’t very well grant that right to any of your publishers, not even us, in that you are signing so many contracts.”

I will be forever thankful to Barbara for pointing this technicality out to me so that I didn’t make a huge legal blunder and get sued by any of the publishers I was signing contracts with!

Then I discovered the best reference book I could ever have come across:  The Writer’s Legal Companion.  This book gave definitions to all the myriad technical contractual terms and their use (and misuse) by publishers.  I still refer to this book even today if I don’t quite understand a clause in a contract or come across a clause that I have never seen before.

At the start of my career I used to make numerous public appearances and do book signings (NOT anymore!).  Obviously, I spent a great deal of time waiting in airports and on airplanes (in 1993 I was in 37 states from Maine to Alaska!).   I am not the most comfortable flyer/passenger and back in those days reading material was crucial.  I always travelled with a number of books or manuscripts that I was working on—notebooks, NO laptops back then!

I came across an ad in the In-Flight magazine that struck a chord and made me think.  The headline in the ad read: BUSINESSMEN GET WHAT THEY NEGOTIATE, NOT WHAT THEY DESERVE.

Aha!  If businessmen can negotiate deals and contracts why couldn’t I?  I learned that contracts are slanted 90% in favor of the publisher (or whoever is offering/writing the contract).  As the party on the other side of the contract I realized that it was in MY best interest to 1) ask questions if I didn’t understand something in the contract and 2) negotiate better terms and percentages wherever possible.

The business side of publishing is something that is learned: from experience, from books, from other writers and illustrators. And even from editors.   An honest editor will inform a writer or illustrator about any clauses that they might want to take out or renegotiate.

Since 1979 I have worked with more editors, art directors, book designers, contracts managers, subrights managers, marketing folks, etc. than you can shake a stick at.  I have learned something from each and every one of them.

There is an old adage: Forewarned is forearmed.  To paraphrase that as a writer I always think “Better informed is forearmed.”  I make it my business to ask questions and understand that everything in a contract is negotiable.

I might ask for the Sun, the Moon, and the Stars knowing full well that I might only get the Sun and Moon and not the stars.

Understanding the terms of any contract is vital to anyone’s success.  And there is no reason why writers and illustrators should NOT understand what they are signing and what they should ask for.  ASK QUESTIONS!

The final thought is: As in any business the more you know about your particular business, the better your understanding will be as to how YOU fit into the overall scheme of things.

Editors really do want to publish interesting and original stories/manuscripts.   But they also expect writers to know the marketplace and who publishes what.   Many writers set themselves up for rejection simply by submitting a manuscript to the wrong publisher who has no interest in their particular subject matter or story.

Do your homework.  Know which publishers publish what.  There are numerous professional reference books on the market these days that provide exactly this kind of information.

I always quote Gertrude Stein when it comes to how I regard my own writing: “I write for myself and strangers.”   I LIKE my writing!  I LIKE my stories!  Even when no one else does.  I write the kind of stories that I find interesting in one way or another.  IF you don’t find your own writing interesting/fascinating why should anyone else.

Something to think about.

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