Monday Meet-Up for February 15, 2016

Children’s book author, Monica A. Harris


  1. Please tell us a little about yourself, and how you became an author?

Hmmm….how much do you want to know? (insert wicked laugh here)  My educational background is in Medical Technology with a Masters in Physiology Education. Now before you get all impressed or anything, let me ‘decode’ what that means….I’m an overqualified science teacher.

When my husband’s job kept moving us overseas and I could no longer teach in the schools, I decided to pursue my childhood dream of writing children books.  It was a bumpy process but thanks to SCBWI (Society of Children Book Writers and Illustrators), I learned quickly about the process of submitting manuscripts, the importance of networking, and the undeniable ‘put your butt back in the chair’ that’s necessary after an editorial rejection letter.

My first publishing successes came in educational magazines. My “fancy degrees” came in handy understanding the needs of teachers – lesson plans, teaching objectives, and cross-curriculum teaching styles. From there, various editors contacted me to do work-for-hire nonfiction books (Heinemann publishing and Publications International).

My first picture book, Wake the Dead, came about after a trip to the Bologna Book Fair (I was living in Germany at the time).  I walked around the massive show room of book publishers and just happened to chat with an editor from Walker & Company. I told her about my manuscript, which she thought one of her fellow editors would love. I could say that it was just a ‘by chance’ situation but it wasn’t…I had the manuscript with me and she took it with her back to New York!  Soon after, her colleague contacted me and said he loved the book. (It really was a fairy tale come true, to be honest)

Since then, my publications have flourished with children’s magazines (nonfiction, puzzles, fiction), assessment writing for various states, and Korean publishers who are scrambling to keep up with the demands of ESL programs. Every project is a new adventure and I’m constantly challenged as a writer. Luckily, I like challenges.

  1. What do you wish aspiring authors knew about the book industry? (Maybe things you wish you had known, or things you had learned the hard way…)

There are a couple of things I wish I knew going into this career:

  1. Writing is a lonely business. You sit at home with characters’ voices in your head and often, they’re not very happy or pleasant about what you’re doing with their plot line. If that isn’t enough, there are always household chores that, for some reason, seem to pull you away from the writing process.
  2. You will not make a lot of money at this. Royalties are small and inconsistent. Doing school visits does help pay some bills but these gigs are getting harder and harder to find due to educational budgeting. Plus, until you’re published, it might be hard to even get into a school as a writing presenter.
  3. Don’t expect your friends and family to understand why you NEED to write. They see it as a hobby or as a passing phase. “Why do you continue when you haven’t been published in years?” they ask. If you’re like me, my fellow minions, writing is as essential as breathing….it’s energy boosting, calming, and frustrating all at the same time but I wouldn’t give it up for a regular 9-5 desk job. No, thank you! (Besides, could I wear my pajamas all day long at a desk job? I think not)
  1. What are some of your projects that have been released that you are excited about? 

In the fall of 2016, I have 15 books coming out with Caramel Tree Publishing in Korea and I can’t wait to see how the illustrations turn out. The books are for beginning Korean readers learning English.  Caramel Tree books are written by Western English speaking

authors but the illustrations are done by Korean artists, so I’m anxious to see what they come up with. The few sketches I’ve seen so far are amazing and filled with adorable characters.

  1. How important are literary agents? Should an author secure an agent first?  

This is an interesting question. When I first began, back in 1991, hardly anyone had an agent for writing children’s materials.  It just wasn’t necessary. I found all of my editors were open about answering my questions about contracts and were financially generous concerning my contributions.

Currently, I do NOT have a literary agent. I would love to have one though; someone to handle the submission process and business aspect so I can focus on my writing instead. It’s not like I haven’t tried either! I’ve been ‘rejected’ by more than a dozen agents. (Insert gasp from the reader). Most of them have said that, while they love my picture book ideas, they’re looking for a writer who also does novels.  Apparently novels are where the money is.  At this time, I don’t write novels so I plow forward on my own in the hopes that, someday, an agent will see my shiny potential.

  1.  Is self-publishing just as good as traditional publishing? What actions should an author take before making this decision?   

Janice is throwing me under the bus with this question!  Let me start with this disclaimer—this is MY opinion and may not reflect those of others.

I have found that self-published materials are of lower quality than those things put out by a traditional publisher. There…I said it!  Grab your pitchforks, you self-published folks and I’ll start running.  The truth is that when you have an editorial team behind your project, it will always be more professional and polished. You’ll have dozens of ‘eyes’ on it checking for grammar, plot development, appropriate illustrations, marketing, and so much more.

If you do this alone, there are just things you’re going to miss.  Perhaps your protagonist isn’t strong enough to grab the attention of readers?  Without a marketing team, how will you get it in book stores?  Once you’ve sold a copy to every family member and friend, how do you sell more? Pushing books from the trunk of your car isn’t really ‘literary’, is it?  Hiring your high school buddy to do illustrations doesn’t always mean the art will be appealing to the masses and especially if ‘buddy’ isn’t familiar with the children’s / young adult market.

I have found that many self-published authors are not patient or experienced enough in the business to do things on their own. Of course, there are exceptions, but let’s face it…would you want someone who just happens to tinker with car parts to repair your broken down car? If you want to be a professional writer then you must schlep through the trenches and rely on your fellow warriors to make your project explosive.

  1. What is the most important piece of advice that you can think of to give to aspiring writers?

If you love to write….write! But if your goal is to get published, then treat it like a career and get the education you need to succeed. Go to conferences and workshops to find out the proper protocol. Listen to what editors and art directors are looking for. Join a critique group of other children’s writers (avoid adult writers—they just can’t offer proper insight into this realm). Treat it like a job and set up an office or writing space. Keep a schedule and force yourself to focus on your projects.  Learn about social media and marketing so you’re prepared when that first book deal comes through. Like any other professional job, keep yourself up-to-date and current with the market.  And most of all, have fun!  Because if you’re not having fun, neither will your reader.

Thank you, Monica, for such excellent advice!