Friday, February 13, 2009

A guest blogger, Jill Davis

Susan Goodman here: I know that this is my normal blogging day, but I.N.K. has decided to have a occasional guest blogger and I can't think of anyone better to invite than Jill Davis. Jill is one of the best nonfiction editors I know. I owe her a debt of gratitude for making my book See How They Run as fun as it was, I bet a lot of authors feel the same. P.S. Jill is also a writer herself, The First Rule of Little Brothers came out this fall. So here's Jill....

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I have been lucky to be a children’s book editor for 17 years, and have worked at many terrific and unique places, including Crown, Knopf, Viking, Bloomsbury, and FSG. My early days were filled with nonfiction more than anything else, but I worked on it all the way through. Over the years, I have noticed how things have changed:

Back in the day, nonfiction had much more of a Life Magazine book series look—straight text and photos. Some people still refer to children’s photographic nonfiction as “a photo essay.” Trade houses would publish a fair amount of these and expect them to do fine. Usually, a publisher would publish a few nonfiction titles per year--most of them books about a specific topic—Dogs!, Adolph Hitler!, The Cuban Missile Crisis!—often they’d take a chronological approach, use a generic-sounding title. Of course there were always the mavericks--like Russell Freedman and Jean Fritz--but the general tone was a bit unadventurous.

Fast forward to nowadays, when so many exciting, innovative books are coming out every season. Commercial is the “insider” buzzword of the day, and it means lots of different things at once. When I explain that a book idea is or isn’t commercial to an author, sometimes I get a confused look. The label “commercial” had me wondering too. Eventually I came up with my own definition: A book is commercial if it’s so appealing in some particular way that you want to buy ten copies and ten people spring immediately to mind that would love it.

The book doesn’t have to appeal to everyone. How can it? It doesn’t have to be flashy. A few examples: The Dangerous Book for Boys, 101 Things to do Before You Die, The 39 Apartments of Ludwig Van Beethoven, See How They Run: Campaign Dreams, Election Schemes, and the Race to the White House.

So the obvious question is: How can I make my nonfiction commercial?

Here are a few ideas:
1. Humor is not for every book, but it sure helps—try a humorous voice or a funny illustrator. Humor makes a book feel LESS like a homework assignment and more like fun. This can apply both to picture books and longer nonfiction. Kids love nonfiction naturally, but we teach them to be afraid of it.

2. Picture book biographies have to sparkle! One way to do that is to narrow it down. Just because you love some amazing person’s life story doesn’t mean kids are going to want to know everything about them, including where they were born and what kind of diapers they wore. Pick a subject, and isolate an event in their life that you can highlight gorgeously in a picture book text. One example, When Marian Sang by Pam Munoz Ryan and Brian Selznick.

3. Get a little bit edgy: That’s what the rest of the world is doing, so why not nonfiction? Some children’s nonfiction has been pushing the envelope for decades. So don’t be afraid to get obscure, or super specific, or down and dirty when writing for kids. A good storyteller can bring any good story to life, so pick something YOU would have loved to read about. Of course, if some important historical figure is having a huge birthday—that’s never a bad topic, either!

P.S. Something to realize about nonfiction: Publishing nonfiction is what we editors call “labor intensive”—and not just for the author. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it, but it takes a lot of people at a publisher to work on one detailed nonfiction book. Maybe five times as much work as a novel or a picture book.

Think about it. Fact-checking, design (this part is huge), photo research, illustration research, illustration proofreading, fees, permissions, source notes, index, front matter, back matter. Often, a freelance designer is needed because large-scale nonfiction takes up so much of a designer’s time. So authors: realize that committing to a big nonfiction book is like deciding to have a baby. You never have any idea how much work it’s going to be until you are there doing it. And even though you love it, it takes a lot out of everyone—most of all, you! And like a baby, it’s always worth it in the end, but not often a great plan for getting rich.


Jeannine Atkins said...

Thanks, Susan (nice to see you in Milwaukee!) and thanks, Jill. That was interesting!
Jeannine Atkins

Melody said...

What a terrific post. Thanks for sharing your take on picture book publishing, Jill.

Gretchen Woelfle said...

Thank you, Susan and Jill. As Jill said, we writers can often be "confused" about industry priorities and definitions, and these hard times will only increase that. Your advice is much appreciated by this dedicated nf writer.

StoryForce said...

Thank you so much for taking time to give us some tips. Four out of five in our writing group write non-fiction, so it is helpful to have an inside look and to hear "it's always worth it in the end."


Anonymous said...

Jill -
I appreciate the "historical perspective" on nonfiction for children then and now. Your tips for writing engaging nonfiction today are terrific. Thanks so much for sharing.
Alexis O'Neill

Unknown said...

Thank you for your insights, Jill. I agree with your comments about what “commercial” means. The phrase that runs through my head is that a project should have “entertainment value.” Sounds frivolous, but if it isn't fun and/or engrossing, why would a kid bother to read it?

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

We must share a brain. I agree with every single word in this post in spades. Except one, that is. Absolutely yes to using humor, narrowing things down, and getting edgy (I get in trouble for this one sometimes). And yes, it takes forever to make these books. But it takes about 10 times as long to do nonfiction illustrations because the amount of research required to make the pictures accurate equals or surpasses the time it takes to write the book. Since I do everything myself, you're right that these are no way to get rich either.