Why it’s tough – a word in the ear from Wolfie
The wolf leaps at the opportunity to give a talk… and give the audience a good old scare. Grr!
Back in March this year, I gave a member talk at the Victoria branch of SCBWI (the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) in Melbourne.
Wolves do so love to hold forth, but this talk had to stay within twenty minutes and it had to be relevant. These SCBWI members travel from all over Victoria, after all. I guessed – though this was not stipulated – that it also had to contain true facts; so it was important not to get carried away, as embellishments, lies and poor analogies tend to roll off the wolf’s tongue like rum truffles from a porcelain platter.
So I decided to tell THE TRUTH – everything that had happened to me since I started in the industry all those many (ok, three) years ago. I wrote and gathered my material. Ta dah! Then I read out my talk – it came to one hour and 14 minutes.
A bit of abridgement later, and I was set. Ready? Read on!
It’s tough. And why that’s not a bad thing.
Hi everyone. This is my personal journey in the children’s book world, but I hope each of you is able to take something from this presentation.
I had a great start in the industry just a few years ago. And that was because, although I’ve been fiddling around with writing and drawing books since my 20s, it was only recently – in 2014 – that I finally sent my folio out into the world.
That year, my folio won the Five Mile Press Prize, which was a contract to illustrate a picture book. I also sent it up to the SCBWI conference and through that 3 publishers offered me work too. Suddenly, I had more work than I could handle – but I took it all on anyway. I worked and worked and worked. I had a 3-day-a-week job in an ad agency but I soon quit this job to work on my books.
Now… I have a strong work ethic – especially when it comes to writing and drawing. Work gives me a sense of purpose and a structure to build my life around. I just work hard, stay polite, communicate clearly and deliver on time. After 20 years in advertising and design I’m good at that: producing work for other people to sell.
But if this industry was just about working hard, then things would be straightforward. It’s not though – and that’s what makes it tough, for me at least.
Five reasons it’s tough
1: CREATING IS HARD
It’s hard to keep coming up with new ideas, and even harder turning these ideas into a book. It’s also hard to be consistently creative, especially if you have a ‘creative personality’.
The above process can get exhausting. After 2 years’ solid work, I found I wasn’t enjoying drawing as much, or writing. I had loads of ideas, but couldn’t face working them up; it seemed so gruelling. I avoided the work and didn’t quite trust the ideas, and so I got stuck.
I also received my first spate of rejection letters, which is part of the process but – with all this work going on – it was getting too much. Had my ‘bubble’ burst?
Here are some pointers that have helped me:
- Ask yourself: is the work ‘good’ or ‘great’? Can you ‘push it’ further? How? Is there a flaw? Work through it in the early stages, before it pulls you into a swampy mire of technical problems and editorial changes.
- Do solid research, planning and exploration from the start of a project. You’ll get that time back in abundance when you’re plugging through the final work and find you actually know what you’re doing.
- Be firm and realistic – and communicate. Don’t agree to do something within a ridiculous timeframe if it’s going to affect quality of life. I used to hate saying no to work, and often took on too much. Even worse: I hated quoting, so tended to undersell myself. No more!
- Enjoy the good times. The launches, the genius moments, the friendly librarians, the kids clutching your book, when you complete that tricky chapter/page… They’re great moments – cherish them!
- Plan something fun for the end of the project.
2: WORKING ALONE IS HARD
Dressing gowns and grilled cheese sandwiches aside, working alone from home has its challenges. Here’s how I’ve been handling it:
- Keep a schedule and try to keep to it.
Is everything on schedule, really? Does the client know how the project is going? Let the publishing team know ASAP if you’re running behind, as they are often used to adapting to changing situations. Share your work with the right people as you go along.
- Take regular breaks and arrange one event out of the house every day.
I get out and swim or walk – or go for a quick coffee with someone interesting (though this can take up several hours if they happen to be a writer…)
- Have realistic expectations.
I don’t want my young children to languish in after-school care all week. This means I usually head out to pick them up at 3.35pm (mmmm yes, school finishes at 3.30pm). So I’m working a part-time job, and need to be honest about how much can be achieved in this time.
- Limit internet.
It’s very easy to go off track, and to succumb to the internet. Develop a routine that works for you. For me it’s 20 minutes social media a day: 10 minutes in the morning, and the rest after 2pm.
- Enjoy the benefits
No office bore! No commute! No OHS meetings or excruciating, snail-pace conference calls with ‘The Singapore Office’.
3: CREATING BOOKS IS ALL-CONSUMING
We all need some kind of work-life balance. It pains me to say it, but there’s more to life than making kids books: there’s family, as well as sleep, exercise, dinner parties and visits to the beach. And apparently other people have interesting and important jobs too…
My way of coping is to keep track of my overall goals – why I’m doing this:
- I want to write and draw for the rest of my life and I want to be paid to do it;
- I want recognition;
- and (as you can see above) I’d also like a nice house in France or the Cornwall or the Blue Mountains one day, where I can rule the roost and spoil visitors.
It’s important to be honest and keep the big picture in mind, as this can determine long and short-term goals, avoid distractions, and guide you in choosing where to focus your energy.
A few years ago a made a list of everything I wanted to have achieved with ‘my’ books. It seemed unrealistic, but everything on that list has been ticked off. Of course, the house in France wasn’t on the list then…
4: BRANDING, PUBLICITY, SALES: IT’S ALL PART OF THE JOB
I find publicising my work exhausting and distracting. In 2015/16, I was too tired to promote my books. I missed opportunities and forgot to thank some key people.
Now I’m getting my head round it all. Here’s what works for me:
- School visits. Great for getting out of the house and getting to know your real audience – kids. It’s a fun way to promote your book(s), your publisher’s books, and to find out what does and doesn’t work (children are excellent critics). Expect to be paid!
- Bookstore/library storytimes. Storytimes are short, fun and funny. They’re usually unpaid so, depending on what you have on, it may not be worth your time travelling too far afield. Bookstores will sell your book at the same time, though, and usually pre-order copies.
- Helping publisher sales team. Once your book is ‘out there’ you have less than a month to publicise while it’s in the shops. Outside of that time, you need to do quite a bit of legwork. I’ve found that keeping a ‘sales folder’ for each project has helped. The folder is both real and virtual, and contains useful bits and bobs that might be useful for key occasions (Hallowe’en/Mothers’ Day/Christmas, book launch, interviews, reviews etc.) Show the sales team you’re willing to produce additional material if they ask. And when they send that lovely advance copy or review through, with a thoughtful little note inside, send a THANK YOU!
- Facebook author page. My author page allows me to connect with an audience outside my circle of friends (currently this is about 20 extra people but they are all very precious to me).
- Online and industry newsletter interviews. Online children’s literature websites and newsletters can have a surprisingly wide readership. Filling out an author questionnaire doesn’t take long and is definitely worth it, as is offering to do one on spec.
- My website(s). My illustrations, writing and books are easy to find on my folio site lucindagifford.com and the bigbadbook.com. I’ve tried to set it up so I don’t need to update these sites too often, as I’m not at a point where I can consistently do that.
- Sharing and promoting other peoples’ quality work. Always!
- Helping friends out when they ask you where they can buy your book. I haven’t always been very good at this. My responses have ranged from “Don’t feel you need to…”, to “From a bleedin’ BOOK SHOP, FFS. You know it’s a real, actual book, right?” (it had been a long day)… Now I am polite and thankful. Good friends believe in you, so let them help.
- My business cards. My business cards are printed by moo.com. They have my logo and details on the front. The backs are all different: there’s a choice of at least 20 different images. When there’s an opportunity to connect with someone, I’ll show them a bunch of my cards and invite them to pick one, and that makes it a “I’m giving you a cute piece of artwork, for free”, which feels like a nice thing to do. It’s also been revealing to see what people’s favourite images are. The cards are more pricey to produce, so I wouldn’t leave a pile of them lying around in the hope they’ll be picked up. I like to pick and choose who to pass them on to. If you have one of my cards, you’re a special person and important to me.
5: NOT A LIVING WAGE
If you just want to get a book out there, then I think any income is a bonus. But if, like me, you need to make a significant contribution to the household, then this is the time to be hard-headed. I gave up an advertising job to do this, after all.
If you’d asked me what I expected to earn, I would have thought hard and said – about $60Kpa – 80K once I’m established. And about $120K once successful. I’d like to earn that one day because I’d like a house (we still rent) and to go to the UK to see my family more, and to go to Japan and to travel round OZ in a cool bus in the holidays (I have to keep reminding myself I’ve only really seen Melbourne, Queensland and Cooper Pedy).
(At the talk I ,erm, shared my actual earnings. Everyone sat up, I’ll say. Probably best not to do that on the world wide web however.)
As an illustrator I have other options to earn money, though sometimes thinking about them all makes me feel tired. However, I’ve taken on some freelance work – this is also good for my self esteem and stops panic. Some thoughts:
- Value your time Are you illustrating your friend’s book – for free? Who is benefiting? Are you ‘building your folio’ when you may not need to? Are you entering a competition with a paltry prize? Writing a long internet piece for free (AHEM)? Reviewing a book? Doing a blog tour? All these things are fine but work out who is benefiting from it – long and short term. Be polite, be kind and respectful. But if there’s no benefit to you, then save your energy because… YOU’LL NEED IT.
- Don’t give up the day job! Or at least leave your options open because, with writing/illustration: the pay is not steady; there may not be any pay (for a while at least); and the rewards are not immediate.
- Speakers agencies and school visits If you can get an agency to sign you up, then this is a great and easy way to earn a bit more. If not, then it may be worth organising yourself, but do the sums first and factor in that extra organisation time.
- Licensing art Everyone keeps telling me to do this. So it must be worth it. My drawing hand hurts at the thought…
- Plan for earnings. Or lack of them… Don’t expect the money to just roll in. Now and again there’s a windfall, but it can be hard to predict in the early days.
What do you reckon, reader? My allocated 20 minutes went by too, too fast. And I didn’t get time to cover my finale Why it’s ok that it’s tough.
This is why it’s ok that it’s tough:
- Getting and staying published is a ‘long game’, and everyone knows it’s not easy.
- If it seems easy then you’re probably doing something wrong.
- Good books are valuable and important.
- And they’re challenging to create – that’s ok.
Further reading on this topic (of toughness!):