I love that I live in a city that switches the streetlights off at night. You’re welcome to have a pleasant evening in Exeter but, anyone out and about after the streetlights have gone off had better have a good explanation. On Saturday I was up before the streetlights came back on again and my explanation is a good one. I was heading to St David’s to catch the train to London for a course aimed at debut authors about school visits and events.
Here is the front entrance to Goldsmiths University where the course was held, hallowed ground for art college students because of its notable alumni. The course was put on by the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), and hosted by the brilliant Sara Grant, Mo O’Hara, and Candy Gourlay. These three ladies have written a lot of children’s books between them and are tireless volunteers for SCBWI. What they don’t know about being a children’s author is probably not worth knowing.
One of the big reasons for me attending this course was a serious lack of confidence on my part. I find it nearly impossible to tell people that I have a children’s novel coming out in the summer. I might just as well be telling them I’ve killed a kitten. And I know it is utterly, utterly ridiculous. Having a book published is a really wonderful thing and I should be super proud. Instead I want to hide under a rock. For me there’s something toxic about the combination of sending the book I have put my heart and soul into, not only out in front of strangers for their approval, but attempting to sell that book to them too! And you know what, I would feel exactly the same if I had crafted a beautiful wooden bench, and definitely do feel the same about my illustration work. Now, if I were a skilled plumber offering to install a toilet, I would feel very different.
One of the questions Sara Grant asked us was about our values. What values underpin my writing? And that question stuck to me like loo roll on the sole of my shoe for the rest of the day. I couldn’t shake it off. What am I saying about how I value writing and books, if I can’t bear to tell people about my book? I’m saying that it, and they, don’t have any value, not in monetary terms anyway. Not like fitting a toilet. And the bizarre thing is that’s not what I think at all! I looked around the room at these marvelous writers there, many of whom are award-winning, and I thought how wonderful it is that these brilliant new books are going to be read by children up and down the country, if not the world. I absolutely believe that well-written, carefully edited, wonderfully illustrated children’s books change lives. So maybe I should start acting like it!
Of course, it hasn’t helped that when I have finally plucked up the courage to mention my book to someone, I’ve had a few thoughtless responses which sent me scurrying back under my rock. Here follows my top three things not to say to a debut author…
1. If you don’t know of any other publishers than Penguin and Harper Collins, DO NOT ask a debut author who their publisher is. When they tell you the name of their publisher and you pronounce, “never heard of ‘em”, it feels awkward to explain that from tiny indies through to global giants, there are tons of great publishers, who you will not have heard of, doing amazing work. For the record, I am being published by Discover Kelpies, an imprint of Floris Books, a large independent publisher based in Edinburgh, who publish an array of dazzling books 🙂
2. DO NOT tell the debut author about your friend who ‘dabbles’ in children’s writing/illustrating, and subsequently turns out to be a Carnegie Medal winning writer who the debut author idolizes. If Carnegie medal winners only dabble, the work of this little debut doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.
3. DO NOT tell them about your children, who are voracious readers, but will only read J.K. Rowling or David Walliams. You may as well have said your children love to eat but will only have white bread. Authors write books for readers and there is a feast of great books out there.
On the other hand, here are some great responses…
1. Tell the debut author what an exciting time it is for children’s literature, a golden time in fact…because it is!
2. Remind them how well they have done to a get a publishing deal, especially in such challenging times for publishing.
3. Ask about their book. They will be excited to tell you, because it means they don’t have to talk about themselves…and it might actually be quite a good book.
4. Put a note in your diary of the publication date (June 18th by the way) and then, if you like the sound of it, go out and buy it or borrow it from a library.
5. Tell people about the book. Only if you liked the book once you’ve read it of course. It’s really hard for authors without a celebrity profile to get the word out about their books.
6. Go to author events and book festivals with your children to support debut authors. Hearing that a child (or parent!) has genuinely loved a story lights up authors’ lives. And you might also enjoy the event.
7. Find out about the amazing children’s authors out there who write marvelous books that don’t make awards lists and don’t get featured in the press, but are often some of the most borrowed books in libraries.
I’m not going to say anymore about the course because Sara, Candy and Mo were super kind and generous with their advice, and you will just have to get along to one of their courses to find out more. Suffice to say, I came away enthused, full of ideas, and ever so slightly more confident in talking about my book.