Years earlier, I had joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. They are, without a doubt, one of the best organizations in the world for aspiring children’s writers and illustrators. The information and contacts their organization provides are priceless. They have a wealth of information about publishers, what they accept, who to contact, and how to submit stories and book dummies to them. I went to their website and saw that they would be holding their annual L.A. summer conference in a few months. I had roughly 24 hours before registration would close. This was it. Everything had been leading up to me going to this conference. Los Angeles is about a 3-hour drive, and I was able to find a modestly priced hotel nearby. The Hyatt was full. Undoubtedly booked by hundreds of other hopeful authors and illustrators and, hopefully, hundreds of publishers all dying to see my book and sign me to a big fat contract.
In the weeks before the conference I put together a full-sized book dummy. I also had some business cards and postcards made with some of the final art from my book and interesting bits about me and why I’m so dang wonderful. These would surely seal the deal!
If you’ve never been to one of the SCBWI conferences, either the summer one in L. A. or the winter conference in New York, you owe it to yourself to go. They are well worth the cost of attending both in content and in the access you get to very important people in the industry. Plus, they’re just a whole lot of fun. Interesting, funny, and creative people surround you. The energy is inspiring.
The SCBWI Conference was an amazing three days of shameless self-promotion and information gathering. I met dozens of fellow illustrators and writers who I have kept in touch with and will be long-term friends and collaborators.
While at the conference I was in constant self-promotion mode, which is very difficult for me. Like most of us I’m a hermit by nature, preferring to spend long hours in dimly lit studios writing, tinkering and doodling away. Email, facebook and blogging are my communication tools of choice. I own an awesome iphone but never use it except for ordering pizza or as a GPS on those rare occasions I find myself more than 3 miles from home. My phonebook has two entries, my wife and me. I’m not sure why I would call myself, unless I was experiencing some existential crisis.
But there I was, outgoing, positive and infused with new-found networking energy. By day three I had met a hundred people and was starting to hone my pitch. But I still hadn’t landed any one-on-one time with that elusive of all creatures, the Children’s Book publisher.
The right place at the wrong time
Late in the evening on day three I decided to attend the portfolio display. Since I registered late, I missed the opportunity to have my portfolio included. Under a huge tent, a hundred amazing portfolios from talented illustrators were laid out on long cloth-draped tables for art directors and publishers to drool over. They would pick up business cards from their favorites and contact them later begging them to illustrate their latest and greatest children’s book.
Tired and hoarse I edged my way through the crowd to look with envy at all the wonderful artwork spread out before me. About halfway through the portfolios I stopped to take a closer look at one of the artist’s books. I don’t recall whose book it was now, but the artwork was absolutely wonderful. Beautiful colorful illustrations jumped off the page and sang with life and emotion. I commented out loud, “Wow, this guys work is really amazing.” A woman standing next to me looked over and replied, “Oh yes, we’re currently working on a book with him.” To which I replied, “Oh, and who are ‘we’.”
The woman introduced herself as the Creative Director for HarperCollins Children’s Books, at which point I became a monosyllabic, lobotomy patient. I had just spent three days searching for a needle in a haystack and upon its discovery, was unable to pick it up. I mumbled something semi-coherent like, “I draw stuff ”, and, “have book dummy”, (managed two syllables on that one). And handed her one of my postcards before embarrassing myself further. She said, “Very nice, hope you enjoy the rest of the conference”, or something equally polite. At that point my brain was experiencing a complete systems shut down. I grunted, drooled and quietly slipped away through the crowd.
After three days of extolling the prolific virtues of my creative genius to anyone who would stand still for 30 seconds and listen, I was rendered mute when it actually mattered. I was tired. I called the other person on my phone list and told her how I had just totally screwed up.
Dig, James, Dig
Not only did I completely blow it with the one person I was hoping to meet at the conference, but, in an attempt to get away before exposing myself as a total idiot, I didn’t get her business card or contact information, enshrining me in the Idiot’s Hall of Fame. But I had a name, a company and a title. And with that, even an idiot can elevate himself to, well, less of an idiot.
I went home and started digging, trying to find, online, what I could about the “Creative Director who got away”. I could find her name, I could see her in various directories, and I found wonderful articles about her but nothing with a phone number or email address. I had almost given up when I discovered we shared something in common, a certain social media group.
Up until then I viewed social media with some level of skepticism. For me, It fell somewhere between annoyance and disdain. But now, all that connecting, “friending” and “liking”, was finally going to pay off.
I sent her a message, mentioning our brief meeting. I was hoping she had met other artist that evening and might confuse me with someone who had the ability to speak in complete sentences. And I asked if I could send her my PDF book dummy. A huge perk of attending the SCBWI is that if you attend these conferences you’re more likely to get a response from a publisher or an art director. It’s a courtesy they often extend to would-be authors and illustrators who’ve shown initiative to get involved and learn about the business. It’s no guarantee, but it does increase the likelihood of them actually looking at your book or manuscript. The creative director told me I could go ahead and send my PDF dummy, and she’d take a look when she had some time. Cool, she didn’t remember me!
You have Mail!
I sent my dummy to HarperCollins on a Monday afternoon. The next morning I had a response in my inbox. I really wasn’t expecting to get a reply for a few weeks, so I figured it was an auto response saying, “I have received your submission and if you don’t hear back from me in 8 weeks or so, have a nice life.” What I got was a personal reply saying how she really liked my book and could she let me know in five days whether or not they were interested. Uh, OK, yes - back to my single-syllable vocabulary.
Friday morning at roughly 8:30am, my normally quiet iphone rings. HarperCollins loves the book, and they want me to write and illustrate a series of three, to start. I promptly got an agent as I quickly realized I was in over my head and needed an expert. So now, I have a lot of very talented and amazing people working with me to help me build my dream. And for that, I am truly grateful.
Yes, it does happen, even when you make mistakes along the way. I know for my story, there are hundreds of other stories that don’t end the same way. But there are many that do. I started the process with passion and determination, and it has paid off. I feel very lucky, but I think we make our own luck.
My advice to would-be authors and illustrators is: educate yourself to the process; learn everything you can from all the great online resources out there; join and participate in organizations like SCBWI; build a social network; and always do your best work. Lastly, if you ever get a chance to talk to someone influential to your career, try and use words with more than one syllable.
Now go out there and make some luck!
My book Dig, Dogs, Dig: A Construction Tail is out for pre-orders right now at all major online booksellers. Please visit my facebook page and “like” the book.