Monday Meet-Up for January 18, 2016
The delightful, Shutta Crum!
Shutta is the author of several books, ranging from picture books through to middle grade fantasy.
I was fortunate to be born in the mountains where listening to tall tales long into the night is part of the Appalachian heritage. In the hollers down there I’d cling to my father’s tall legs and stare wide-eyed as I listened to the hair-raising tales my relatives told. We are all big talkers and stories are the cement of generations.
What was wonderful was that no matter your age, if you had a story to tell you were given “the stage.” Everyone listened, young and old. The important thing was the story. This still happens in our family. When someone starts telling “a good one,” all eyes switch over and a kind of holy silence descends until the (usually) uproarious conclusion.
And imagine my wonder when I discovered that stories were also contained in books! Naturally, I had to read as many as I could get my hands on. I think it was inevitable that I became an English teacher, a librarian and a writer.
2. 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…)
Some things I know to be true about the writing life. (However, I’m not sure aspiring authors want to hear these things—it can be frightening to the less than stout-hearted!):
–“Editorial time” is glacial in nature. It takes forever to hear news about your projects. Then—when you do get an editorial letter—it’s like icebergs calving off. Everything happens quickly. They want edits back within days, etc. After waiting months with no activity, you suddenly have to stop everything and meet your deadlines.
–There is no substitute for good writing. (Having “connections’ in the publishing world won’t help if the writing is not good.) The most useful thing you can do to push your publishing career forward is to hone your craft. That means practice writing—and yes, despite what you might have heard—grammar, syntax and punctuation are important.
—No one can do your homework for you. A writer needs to research publishing and current award winners. You need to know what is already out there so you won’t waste your time, and so it will inform your writing. You’ll be building a base of knowledge about your craft. That knowledge must reside in the writer’s mind.
–Everyone gets rejected. This applies to well-known authors. There are many reasons for rejections. Get used to it. A lot of authors had hundreds of rejections before an acceptance. (I did!)
–The majority of authors make very little money. The basic contract for a novel is 10%. That’s $1.50 for a $15 novel. Generally, first or second print runs are only a few thousand copies. For picture books, it’s worse! 10% must be shared with the illustrator. (No one magically comes up with another 10% .) Thus, 5% of a $16 hard-cover picture book is only 80¢! An author must sell thousands of copies to realize very little money. So what’s the up-side?
–The Up-side: Authors are hugely rewarded in a variety of other ways! The best things that happen to authors are usually NOT quantifiable. Children write letters to us. These are fun, and often moving. One child collected over $500 to donate to the Blind Babies Foundation in San Francisco after reading my novel, SPITTING IMAGE. Also, you never know the places you’ll go because of your books. I’ve been invited to read at the White House and to do a month-long tour of Japan. Wow! And, of course, there is always the reward of a job well-done and recognition from people you admire.
3. What are some of your projects that have been released that you are excited bout?
I’m always excited when a new book comes out. Of course, I worry about whether the critics will like it. If they do, it generates good PR so families will know it exists and it can get into the hands of kids. Every author puts a little of themselves into their work. Some of my books are a bit more special to me, because of personal connections. MY MOUNTAIN SONG, THUNDER-BOOMER! and THOMAS AND THE DRAGON QUEEN are especially dear to me. And I’m very proud of the fact that THUNDER-BOOMER! made several prestigious lists including being recognized as a Smithsonian Notable Book. In addition, my book MINE! garnered four starred reviews and the NY Times said of it, “a delightful example of the drama and emotion that a nearly wordless book can convey.” Finally, I did a little video full of babies and books—just for fun a couple of summers ago. It still delights me, and I’ve heard from others who love it. It’s at this link: http://blog.shutta.com/2014/10/howtochooseagoodbook/
4. How important are literary agents? Should an author secure an agent first?
I do think agents are important. I could still publish without one, and did sell my first seven books myself. But going it alone today would be more difficult, because a lot of publishers will only look at work submitted by agents. Thus, many avenues to publishing are blocked if one does not have an agent. I always advise my writing students to simultaneously submit to publishers and agents. An agent can only handle so many clients, making it just as onerous to get an agent as it is to get a publishing contract. And if you do get a contract before you get an agent—that can help you sign with an agency. Here is a link to an article I wrote about getting and working with an agent: http://shutta.com/agentchecklist06.pdf .
5. Is self-publishing just as good as traditional publishing? What actions should an author take before making this decision?
Speaking as a writer who has only been traditionally published, I don’t think it’s a matter of whether one type of publishing is better than another. It’s a matter of which type will do the job intended. Meaning: for some things it may be better to self-publish. This would be for things like family genealogy, bringing together a collection of poetry or short stories that have been published in a number of literary journals or by small presses (Those things edited and published, but scattered thither and yon.), bringing back out-of-print work, or publishing something on a narrow non-fiction topic for which the author already has a successful platform. (For ex., an authority on children’s dentistry with an active speaking schedule at national conferences, publishing a book on dentistry for kids.)
I believe the main things to avoid self-publishing are novels and picture books. There are, of course, the few odd exceptions, but most self-published fiction books sell very few copies. The last statistic I heard was that these average less than 250 copies sold per title. And that statistic includes those few titles that do go on to sell into the hundreds of thousands! The problem is there are so many new self-published books each year and no way for a reader to easily discover them. Very few self-published (or independently published) books are reviewed, and many need a professional edit badly. However, things are changing slowly in this arena and may get better in the future.
6. What is the most important piece of advice that you can think of to give to aspiring writers?
Woody Allen said, “80% of success is showing up.” That’s the truth. It is in the action of creating that more ideas worm their way in. A writer has to show up at his/her computer and begin. Just begin! See where it takes you. See the scenery along the way, enjoy the ride, and when you return from one adventure take off on another. Being a writer is a way of living—not a series of individual activities.
Thank you, Shutta! Find out more at Shutta’s website: www.shutta.com