Wednesday, November 25, 2009

I`m an aunt! And Yokohama Writer`s Conference

I have wonderful news! I`m an aunt! On Sunday November 15th at 8:00pm in Oklahoma City, my sister-in-law Emily gave birth to a 7 pound 7 ounces bundle of baby boy! They tell me he has black hair, and that both he and Emily are very healthy! As soon as I got the email, I jumped up and told everyone in the office. They were all very excited (which is saying something for Japanese) and wanted to see pictures as soon as I get them. I`m hoping to do better than that! I hope I will be able to skype Tony and Emily soon and see baby Hayden face to face (almost)!

Besides that, last weekend was very fun and productive in other ways too. I spent the first half of the week fretting about how to get to the Society of Children`s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference in Yokohama (near Tokyo) from Nabari. The shinkansen or bullet train that I took to Nagasaki to visit Charlie would cost about $400 round trip to get to Yokohama and cuts a huge chunk (a total of six hours both ways, including getting to the shinkansen train station and back) out of the day. I heard from the woman running the conference that a good alternative was the night bus. I looked it up online and sure enough it was less that half the price, would get me there at 5:30 in the morning and not leave until 11:15 all night. I`d have the whole day in Yokohama and wouldn`t have to pay for a hotel or anything! The downside, of course, is that you have to sleep on the bus.

I decided to go with it and began researching routes online. It was very confusing with so many options, and I thought I would have to go through the bus terminals in Osaka or Nagoya, which aren`t exactly close, or fun to get to and from late at night on jam-packed trains. Fortunately, one of the other teachers asked me what I was doing, and when I told her, she laughed and said I could catch the bus right here in Nabari. She helped me set it up over the phone. How nice! (That`s why I made her the rice pudding I mentioned in my previous blog.) So I bought my round-trip ticket one day in advance, which cost around $130, got on the bus at 9:30 on Friday night at the bus station just across the street from my apartment, and arrived 5:30 on Saturday morning. How can you beat that? Here`s a picture of the bus:

It wasn`t terribly uncomfortable; the seats reclined about half way and the drivers turned off the lights about two hours after we started. But I`m not used to sleeping on buses, so I don`t think I slept a wink all the way there, though I had my eyes closed with my face mask on, so I sort of rested. Since I had five hours before the conference started, I had all sorts of things planned for when I arrived.

But I was in a surrealist, half-dream state when I got there, the sun just beginning to rise over the harbor, enshrouded in a light, misty rain, and the dew sparkling like tiny diamonds on the rose bushes in Americayama park as I stumbled toward Yokohama International School. So I just wandered until I found the conference site with the correct entrance, which took awhile. Then I waited around, hoping to meet the publisher, but she had manuscript critiques in another building (which I had been too late to sign up for because I just found out about the conference two weeks ago). So I decided to explore.

Yokohama has so many parks and gardens! After Japan finally gave up its closed-country policy in 1848, Yokohama was one of the first ports that opened up to foreigners, and quickly became the largest. (Some say it is still the largest.) So there were a lot of old fashioned, Western-style gardens and houses. Here`s a picture of a gorgeous rose garden along the road:

A lovely rose shot:

A fountain with flowers in Minato no Mieruoka Park:

A waterfall and gazebo:

A weeping willow tree and pond:

And a man-made waterfall with flowers:

About this time I came to the harbor view. Here is what the great Yokohama bridge and harbor look like:

I continued walking until I came to Yamashita Park, which is supposed to be the heart, both literally and figuratively, of Yokohama. It grew up naturally by itself, after a huge earthquake in the early 1900s. I didn`t find it particularly beautiful (maybe I missed the good parts), so I didn`t take any pictures, but I enjoyed walking among the trees and down the side of the slopping mountain overlooking the harbor. That`s where I met this not-so-little guy:

I walked all along Harbor View Park and saw some more roses until I finally decided it was time for me to head back to the conference. Only I promptly got lost. I ended up running into a Japanese woman who was also looking for it. She had a charming British accent because she was raised in the English-speaking world as a child, and together we found the conference, about fifteen minutes late.

The conference itself was very beneficial. For the first session, Ms. Ling described her own path to becoming a publisher, and how her father met and married her mother. “We both had very clear goals,” she said. “The most important thing to becoming a published writer is to have a goal, make a plan, network like crazy, and persist, persist, persist!”

The next session was about her day to day life as a children`s publisher. Turns out she spends most of her time in meetings with other editors, the marketing team, designers, illustrators, etc. Any free moment is spent checking and answering email, though she admits that she, like most publishers, is always 2-3 months behind on this. Most of the actual reading of manuscripts goes on at home, after hours. So in other words, she really loves her job, because it`s her life.

There are four major stages in “bringing a book to life” she said. Acquisitions, editorial, production, and marketing. In acquisitions, she reads the manuscript to see if she would be interested in taking on the project. She has to be really passionate about it, because it will take at least two years before the book is actually on the book shelves in Borders or Barnes and Nobel making money. Also, she has to come up with a publicity pitch for the production and marketing staff and the head publisher to make everyone excited about it. It`s sort of like bearing your soul, she said. She admitted that there were a few times she was really in love with a project but it was rejected by other employees in the house, and she actually went in the bathroom and cried. It was really reassuring to hear that publishers know what it`s like to be rejected too. That`s the sort of publisher you want, she said. One who will be so dedicated to your work that he/she will fight for your book. A lot of times she says she knows something is good, but she just doesn’t feel she`s passionate enough about it to be the right publisher for the project. From personal experience, it can take six months for the publisher to get back to you about whether he or she is personally interested or not. Then it can take another six months until they tell you whether the whole crew is on board or not.

The second stage is editorial, which usually take from 6 months-one year. She said that, contrary to popular opinion, editors do still edit. That doesn’t mean you should send in your first or even second draft. You want the book to be as good as you can make it, but then expect the editor to make massive revisions if he/she sees fit. (Sometimes the editor may even ask you to rearrange plot points, take out or add characters.) Does that mean you have to accept all his/her suggestions? No. If an editor agrees to a project, that means he/she believes in it, and is usually willing to make compromises. But don`t just dismiss what your editor says either. Editors are insiders to the business and know what will sell and what won`t. Their primary concern is making money, and the way they do that is by making the book as good as it can be.

The third stage is production. It costs a lot of time and money to produce a good book. And another “contrary to popular opinion” point, nearly all children`s books are assigned illustrators after the text is accepted by the publisher. Author/illustrator duos are very hard to break in. If the author is also an illustrator, that`s another story, but even then, for a new writer, publishers usually prefer to assign them a well-known illustrator. Sort of how a producer might package a new screenwriter with an experienced director.

There`s also design to consider. Little Brown`s head designer, Alison Impey, talked quite a bit about this stage throughout the conference. In addition to your typical illustrated children`s book for 2-8 year-olds, for middle grade novels (ages 10-14) the publisher might want half-page illustrations at the beginning or end of chapters, illustrated inserts with small text, ornamental lettering, maps or diagrams (especially for fantasy and mystery) a character bio page with pictures, an illustrated glossary, any number of things. This was really exciting to me, because I always pictured these sorts of things for my middle-grade novel Dargon, the Human Slayer that I`m submitting to Little Brown, but a lot of publishers don`t do that sort of thing for middle-grade novels anymore, especially in the older (12-14 year-old) range.

Last of all she talked about marketing. She said another common misconception is that publishers don`t do anything to promote their books anymore and leave it all up to the author. This is simply not true. There is a lot they do behind the scenes. At Little Brown they get it into all the major book stores, into the school catalogues and major libraries, book a few primary interviews and school visits, and get reviews. But alas, a lot of the publicity is up the author. She recommended doing school visits like crazy and charging for them, as this is how most professional children`s authors actually win their bread and butter. Only about 1 in 100 children`s authors make it on writing alone and even then most of them choose to do visits anyway to get more kids to read their books. I`ve had a number of old-time writer friends tell me that the best way to become a published author is to quit your job and do some decent starving. I hate to break it to you, but these days even if you were to sell a story the day you quit your job, you wouldn`t see that paycheck for at least six months. Even in the short story market, it`s not pretty. Of the ten on spec (submissions without commission) stories I have been paid for, I have never received a pay check sooner than four months after sending in the story, and in that one case, the publisher was less than a twenty-minute drive from my house. I receive my average paycheck about six months after I send in the story. Most “professional paying markets” only pay about one cent per word, so a three thousand word story gets you $30. Woohoo. You probably spent half that much on paper, ink, and postage just to get it to them and receive their response, not to mention the sample copy of the magazine or any hard copies you gave your friends to edit before you submitted the story. Ms. Ling said, and I quote, “Either find yourself a day job that leaves you plenty of time to write, be a paid speaker every weekend, or marry somebody rich.”

Not that I`m trying to preach doom and gloom or that it`s impossible to become a professional author. I`m just trying to emphasize that if you want to make a living at it, you have to be creative about marketing and publicity, not just your writing. Also, on a brighter note, commissioned work is much better. I`ve done two writing jobs on commission, three if you count a presentation on business writing that I wrote and presented myself. All of them paid me within a week after I turned in the final draft and, except for the fiction script, paid at least ten times as much as I`ve ever received simply sending stuff in on spec. Even the fiction script paid more than twice as much. So commissions are awesome! If you`re willing to give up a certain amount of artistic freedom, and know how/where to get them. That`s another topic entirely.

For lunch, I took my bento to the rose garden and ate in the gazebo. Then I walked along the harbor view again. On the way back, I passed by a shop titled in English “The Best Cheesecake CafĂ©.” I couldn`t resist. I went in and ordered some cookies and cream cheesecake with fruit garnish and whipped cream. It was expensive, but incredibly melt-in-you-mouth smooth and rich, and float-off-your-feet light. Other than my own cheesecake and perhaps that of the world-famous cheesecake factory, I would say it`s the best I`ve ever had. It was pretty small, though. Here`s a picture:

There were also lots of snacks at the conference. The Japanese chocolate wafers with green tea were simply delightful. I really do eat too many sweets. Oh, well.

In the next section Ms. Ling discussed the “good, the bad, and the ugly” of the publishing business. There were a lot of good pointers in this one. First of all, she said if you want a good publisher, you need a good agent, because most publishers these days don’t take unagented submissions. There is the small press route, but the chances of “hitting it big” with a small press are next to nil. They just don’t have the distribution and marketing. I also asked about self-publishing, e-publishing and vanity press, to which she replied with words along the lines of, if you want something for your friends and family to enjoy, those are great, but if you dream of the world reading and enjoying your book, your best bet is still large or mid-sized traditional presses. She said e-publishing has more than quadrupled in the last year at Little Brown, but still accounts for less than 1% of their sales. The same is true for most big houses.

She also mentioned that it’s better to have a small advance (money upfront) and a good royalty (percentage of profits after you earn out your advance). The last thing you want is to have a big advance and not earn it out. In the end, publishers` decisions are based on profit and loss charts, and if they paid you more than the book sold, they are not likely to work with you again. And neither is anyone else. A good advance is about $5,000, and a good royalty rate is about 6%. Of course, this varies from publisher to publisher. Ms. Ling said you know you’re doing well when a royalty check can pay the mortgage for that month.

After that session, Ms. Ling got together with Little Brown’s head designer, Alison Impey, to talk about how they pair books with illustrators and cover designers. It’s a really interesting process. They look at an illustrator’s style, themes, past projects, notoriety, and of course whether or not they have the time. Interestingly, Ms. Impey said she finds most of her illustrators through on-line forums and networking, not through submitted work. Also, the person who does the interior illustrations might not be the same person who does the cover, or other interior work such as text ornamentation or maps. Writers at Little Brown have some say in the cover, especially if they have an agent or a general idea such as “I want a dragon” or “could this be a collage?” But writers almost always go with what the publisher suggests.

We had Q&A from 4:00-5:00, but the only question that stuck out in my mind was “How long should you wait after querying an agent or publisher before you ask them about the status of your book?” She said four months. Sounds reasonable. She said if they don`t respond within a month to that question, you have every right to start submitting to other publishers, even if that publishers says “no simultaneous submissions.” Then if the first publisher gets back to you a year later with a yes that you haven`t gotten from anyone else, you can still follow up with them without feeling as if you acted unprofessionally. If you have gotten a yes from someone else, that`s when you seek out an agent in earnest, and they negotiate an auction. Auctions can be good or bad. Sometimes they make publishers competitive and they`ll bet as high as they can to get the book, other times they`ll back out of the competition. Overall, an auction is a good thing. If nothing else, it boosts your reputation and career, making it easier to get an agent and publisher in the future.

Personally, I feel that I gained a lot from the conference. I was afraid it might be a waste of time, because I`ve been to so many already, and there`s only so much that can be said about improving characters, plotting, editing, etc. But this conference was different, because it gave me a clear view of what exactly goes on in a publishing house, and what an editor does on a day-to-day basis. It was very encouraging. All writers need a reminder every once and awhile that editors are people too. They`re not out to rob you of your dreams. In fact, they really want you to succeed, because they love books.

At the end, Ms. Ling mentioned that there should be no reason why we can`t at least begin our published careers here in Japan. Later on it might put a damper of publicity and sales, but many English writers find creative ways around this, such as holding book signings at international schools, doing week-long tours twice a year in their home countries, and of course, lots of internet publicity. She said living in a foreign country does not effect a publisher`s decision to publish an author. We also received a list of resources such as online critique groups, publishing and writing conferences in Japan, support groups, and useful English market guides we can get in Japan. This was the most encouraging thing of all, because I was thinking I wouldn`t have the resources I needed to publish a book while in Japan. It`s going to happen. It`s just a matter of time…

Speaking of that, as with over 90% of publishers these days, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers is a closed house. They only take submissions that are represented by an agent, or ones that receive a recommendation from someone they trust. But for being at the conference, Ms. Ling gave us permission to query her through March 15th! She`s looking for middle-grade books (ages 10-14), so first I`m querying her about Dargon, the Human Slayer! If she dosn`t like that one, I`ll query Treasure Traitor. Wish me luck!

Here`s the group photo. Unfortunately, not everyone’s in it because some people had to leave early, but most of us are here. Ms. Ling is second from the left in front. Holly Thompson, the woman who organized the conference, is on her left. She`s president of the Society of Children`s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Tokyo chapter. The woman on Ms. Ling`s right is Alison Impey, senior designer at Little Brown.

After the conference, we all went to dinner in the Minato area. I was hoping we would eat in Chinatown, but I wasn`t about to pass up the opportunity for some more networking. Again, it was one of those annoying “everybody pays for everybody else,” arrangements, but fortunately they let me pay a little less, since I didn`t order any drinks. Everybody sort of ran out the door in a hurry around 8:00 to catch taxis to the airport or their hotel or home, so I was the last one left. There was a bit of food on the table still…so I stuffed it in my empty bento. Ate it for dinner the next night. Is that cheap or just thrifty?

After dinner, I went to Chinatown. It`s the largest Chinatown in Japan. Nowadays very few people actually live there, but the streets and lined with all kinds of shops and oddities. Here`s me standing in front of the Buddhist temple in the center of town:

Unfortunately, the Chinese museum was closed, and I was a little low on cash, so I didn`t eat any of the food from the over-priced vendors or do much shopping. But I definitely plan to go back, because the clothes were so cheap! You could buy a beautiful (imitation) silk dress for only ten dollars! There was so much I didn`t get to see in Yokohama, I`m definitely going back. Next time with a friend, maybe with my Japanese friend Kayoko who hasn`t been there or another JET (Japanese Exchange Teacher).

Speaking of Kayoko, I was planning on going to Akame waterfalls with her after I got back, but after two nights on the night bus, I was so exhausted that as soon as I got home on Sunday morning (7:00), I just crashed and slept until almost 2:00. I was really disappointed, mostly because I keep making plans to go to the waterfall with her but they keep falling through. But luckily she called me the next day, and told me she wanted to go to the Christian conference in Yanamakako National Park near Mt. Fuji! Yea! So we went together. But let`s save that for next week`s blog!

Prayer requests for this week: Thanksgiving! I am extremely thankful for all God`s blessings in my life. He`s provided very well for me here in Japan. We have a big Thanksgiving dinner coming up next week either on Thursday or Friday at my church; please pray it goes well and lots of people attend! Last week Thursday was my first “church class.” I only had three students, but that was one more than actually signed up! Maybe more will come? Hopefully. You got to start somewhere. Every soul is precious to God.

Until next time, keep reading and keep praying,

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