Friday, October 14, 2011

How Far Would You Go to Sell a Manuscript?. Marc Tyler Nobleman's "Picture Book Experiment"

Most of us know what it's like to pour our hearts, soul, and time into a manuscript only to have it rejected by numerous publishers. But, how far would you go to market your manuscript?  Marc Tyler Nobleman decided to kick the promotional energies into high gear with a well-targeted, public campaign with a visual twist.
Mock book cover by Kevin O'Malley



You may know Marc for his 70+ books for children, including the smash-hit picture book biography BOYS OF STEEL (Knopf, 2008.) He was kind enough to agree to an interview for me back on Nov. 23, 2010.  A few weeks ago, I heard from Marc about his self-declared "picture book experiment." It's the ultimate example of being a champion for your own work. He graciously agreed to sit in the hot seat of my little blog for a Q&A about this latest campaign. 


Welcome back, Marc!

Recently, you began an online initiative to garner attention for your as-yet-unsold manuscript titled Thirty Minutes Over Oregon. What editorial journey has led to this very unique  public pitch campaign for the manuscript?

Up to a point, the journey was a familiar one; rejection is part of most writers’ experience. What stood out to me here was the WAY I was being rejected—the language the editors used to say no was not pat form letter praise. Quite the opposite—some editors seemed genuinely moved by the story (and I mean the events, not necessarily my telling of them, though some did say nice things about my writing, too). This is why I started my post with their words. With such humbling feedback yet no takers, I felt it was a challenge to find a way to overturn whatever it was that made their concerns trump their compliments.

You’ve shared some intriguing snippets about your story, along with a compelling flap copy summary on your blog. What is it about this story that speaks to you on a personal level?

Well, not combat! As I state in the post, I’m not a war buff—or a Japanophile, or an Oregon native. My connection to the story is wholly as an outsider. I think it boils down to a simple formula—it’s half action and half emotion. The first half—the war half—is not only edge-of-your-ledge harrowing, it’s also rich with opportunities for an illustrator. To wit, the opening scene is a plane launching off a submarine! The second half of the story spans 1962-1997 and is one of the most astounding accounts of reconciliation and redemption I’ve personally encountered. There are multiple moments that elicit a gasp or a gape or a choke, and none feel manipulative or cynical. The real-life story is a writer’s dream from start to poignant end.

Many writers (especially nonfiction) are guarded about their works-in-progress for fear that another writer will “steal” their idea. Do you have any concerns about this?

Not anymore! Now that the story has gone public via this experiment, I feel secure in believing that if anyone is going to get it into a picture book, it’ll be me.

You have shared the glowing responses from editors in your original blog post, and your post addendum on October 6th that includes feedback from teachers, librarians, and other readers. Why do you think the manuscript hasn’t been acquired yet? 

Of course a thought that crosses every writer’s mind: maybe the editors like it less than they let on and are just trying to let me down easy! In this case, however, I think the reason no one has yet acquired the manuscript is indeed the reason many have given me: nonfiction is a tough sell, quirky nonfiction is way tougher.

A few also felt the story would suit an audience slightly older than the picture book crowd. I agree. But I feel it also needs to be told at the picture book level, and can be done so sensitively, as many have before on delicate topics ranging from the Holocaust to cancer. See Marc's related blog post here.

Besides, as more than a couple of the teachers/librarians have commented in response to my experiment, there is still a need for picture books in upper elementary and middle school—examples include boys who are not drawn to fiction and students reading below grade level.

Why did you choose to pursue mock book covers at this point? And how did you entice seven professional illustrators to volunteer their art?
Mock book cover by Justin LaRocca Hansen
Mock book cover by Julia Sarcone-Roach
Even though editors were recognizing the value of the story, none had yet acquired it, so I was interested in a way to further validate it. I could prattle on for paragraphs with reasons but thought it would make a bolder statement if OTHERS would go to bat for it instead.

I actually asked more than seven illustrators and was touched that more than seven were interested in contributing, but my preferred time frame was off for some; they had particularly pressing deadlines, travel, etc. Truth is, I was surprised that ANY were willing to do something that might not make any difference for me, let alone them! Truly selfless talents.

Someone asked me if I was nervous about this experiment. I was, but I think the most nerve-racking part was approaching the artists.

As for how I enticed them, I e-mailed them an impassioned manifesto about my story and quirky nonfiction in general (and that became the foundation for the blog post). It was rather long so some artists might’ve said yes because that was quicker than reading to the end. : )  (Note to readers: All seven mock covers can be seen on Marc's blog post.)

You mention this in your original blog post, so I have to ask; What are the “Thirty Reasons to Acquire Thirty Minutes?”

Ah, great question! Some were repurposed in my blog post. Others are in the reserves—to be trotted out if none of this works! But the key words are “first,” “only,” and “whoa.”

What responses have you gotten from editors and others in the publishing industry, since posting the mock book covers and launching your public pitch?

I’ve been compiling and sharing them in a follow-up post. One editor called my approach innovative. Some have praised my passion. My favorite editorial response to date is included at that post. Several editors have requested the manuscript since (in addition to some who had requested it before the post went up); I’m doing interviews like these to increase the chance that more editors will learn of this.

What’s the next step in this pitch campaign?

Follow up with editors! Find more booksellers, librarians, teachers, parents, and so on who want to see this manuscript become a book! Thank the mock cover artists any chance I get!

Any cautionary advice for writers tempted to contact illustrators to create art for their own work?

Another great question. I felt comfortable enough to do it for two reasons: one, I had gotten such positive feedback from editors and two, the illustrators knew me already. If both of these factors had not been the case, I would not have pursued this idea. In exchange I did offer the artists what I could, which was admittedly not as much as they deserved, but I wanted to be as fair I could; also, for whatever it’s worth, in promoting my experiment, I’m promoting the holy heck out of their work! My wife had an idea I love: if the book is to be published, include all the mock covers as endpapers (if the terms, whatever they end up being, are acceptable, of course!).

You are a tireless pro at promoting your published books through on-site sales, school visits, speaking engagements, social networking, and impressive blog content.  Before a manuscript is sold, however, what other ways do you market yourself and manuscripts to editors?

I think you covered it! But before all that, I do what all we writers strive for: find a good, fresh story and try to tell it well.

I can add that before this Thirty Minutes Over Oregon experiment, all my pitches were more traditional—sending a selective group of editors a (private!) letter summarizing the story and the marketing points. Of course, that approach has worked for generations—and I hope this new one will work, too!


Local news of interest this week:

Philip Yates' adorable picture book, A PIRATE'S NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS, is available through Scholastic book fairs.There's something super exciting about seeing the title in the school-distributed order form.

Austin authors P.J. Hoover and Jessica Lee Anderson will be launching their respective titles with a joint book signing this Saturday, October 15th, 12-2pm at The Book Spot: 1205 Round Rock Ave #119 : Round Rock, TX 78681. I hope you'll join me in welcoming SOLSTICE (CALLI. For the most entertaining peek:

SOLSTICE book trailer: 

CALLI promotional video clip:

And, don't forget the book launch/signing for Shelley Ann Jackson and Jeff Crosby, Sunday, October 16, 2011 at the Writing Barn. See previous post for more details.

What's coming up on my blog: My next post will be a Q&A with author E. Kristin Anderson about her use of mock covers as tools to inspire her writing.

2 comments:

carmenoliver said...

Fabulous post, Donna!! Thanks to you and Mark for sharing more of this experiment with us.

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

Thank you a mile high, Donna, for your interest and your great questions. I really appreciate it!