Monday, March 12, 2012

Have you ever waited at a bus stop? Waited and waited at a bus stop? You watch cabs rolling by, watch buses going the other way, watch your watch with increasing irritation. Finally your bus does come--with two or three other buses right behind it. A herd, a pod, a troup of buses. Very annoying, isn’t it?

A similar thing has happened to me in the publishing world, but I’m not sure whether it’s annoying or not. In 2004, I had five books come out in one year. And, up until a few months ago, I thought I would have four coming out in 2012.

How does this happen? I’ve never written four or five books in one year, so how do they get bunched up on the other end like buses? Good question. Some books go into production relatively quickly, while others take a long time to write. For example, I wrote a book called Skyscraper that chronicled the making of the Random House Building and I couldn’t write any faster than the construction. It had a four-year gestation period and came out in 2004 along with Choppers! that took about two years from research to release. Other reasons? Editors have babies. It can take a while to find the right illustrator or to wait for an illustrator to finish two other projects before starting yours or the illustrator goes on strike. The economy tanks and publishing houses thin their seasons and spread out the books so your pub date jumps a year or so into the future.

Let me be clear, I’m not complaining, really. I know having a bevy of books is an embarrassment of riches. It’s certainly better than no books at all, or a surfeit of buses traveling in a pack. But what are the pros and cons for the author—and the books?

In the old days, the perception was: bringing out more than one book a season or a year meant the author was competing against herself. Mark that down as a notch in the “con” section. Of course in the old days, most authors published with only one house so the publisher would be competing against itself too; they controlled supply and demand.

Today many children’s book authors work with several houses. We cannot act as traffic cops giving Simon & Schuster the green light for one season and putting Penguin on hold. Now publishers are competing against each other. Has that changed the model? Does it help or hurt the author? And given the increased avenues of media, does having multiple books out at the same time increase buzz? Advertising wisdom says the more consumers hear something, the more likely they will remember it, perhaps become interested and start word-of-mouth.

In 2004, I decided that if there was any time to hire a publicist, having five books come out was it. Susan Raab and I concentrated on three of them. Susan was great and responsible for a good deal of the media coverage they received. So having that many books in one year pushed me to hire a publicist. Having her work on three in one year was also cheaper than if I had hired her for each separately. Furthermore, it may have garnered more results. If a journalist wasn’t interested in one, Susan had an opportunity to mention two others that might be more tempting. Three checks for the “pro column.”

There is another serious con, however. Just as a band of buses assures someone is going to have to wait a long time before the next clutch arrives, if you have four or five books come out in one year, chances are, it will be a while before the next release date. And if it’s quite a while, you feel the effects. Without something new in the offing, your name isn’t as much in the public eye as a reminder of your whole body of work. You get fewer invitations to speak at conferences during the lull. You, or at least I ended up feeling de-energized, even though I knew I had “books in the bank.”

That’s why I was so easygoing when my editor called a few months ago to say we had to delay my fourth 2012 release, How Do You Burp in Space?, a kids’ tourist guide to space travel. I was gracious and calm in response to a conversation I’m sure she had dreaded having. After all, I’m an experienced professional who knows that these things happen.

And now I also have a book coming out in 2013!

Here's my 2012 line up:

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