Highlights of the SCBWI Western WA, 2011, Book to the Future conference…

This is such a great conference. You’ve gotta go next year!  It’s held at a ubiquitous Marriott in the middle of an outdoor shopping mall disguised as a faux town in Redmond, WA which, though lacking charm, has utilitarian appeal.  Everything is under one roof and the Marriott staff does a great job, though I don’t think they knew what to do with 400+ children’s book writers and illustrators descending on their little lobby bar.  There are even a couple of good restaurants within walking distance.

Disclaimer: Obviously, I could not attend all the breakout sessions. The lengthy notes below are mine.  I did the best I could to note and quote accurately.

 4/15, Friday afternoon…Master Class for Illustrators, featuring work dog illustrator Dan Santat and the sniffling, but gracious Anne Moore of Candlewick Press.

Dan Santat was up first. He had us send ahead 5 illustration samples which he had “improved” in any number of ways via Photoshop and who knows what all else. He tweaked the composition by playing with the foreground, mid-ground and background, adjusting contrast and palette, light and shadow, all to boost the mood and readability of the illustrations. It was quite the show and we were all amazed at the amount of work Dan had invested to make his points. It was a powerful demonstration of his work ethic and daring do.

Some takeaways from Dan’s presentation: Find you style by “not trying”.  Don’t judge your work by its salability.  Make sure your portfolio has a good balance of everything intended for children’s books.  Never copy photos, use them as reference only… try drawing your remembered version of the object before referencing photos.

Next up was Anne Moore, and though she suffered from a head cold, she soldiered on. Anne assists (receives, filters and shares illustrators’ submissions with) the creative director, designers and editorial staff at Candlewick Press. What she looks for in illustrations:  an emotional connection between characters as well as depicting a range of emotion. Show that you can create identifiable, memorable characters with special gestures, personality and physical traits. Prove that you can carry a unique character through a story (carry the likeness through the story). Demonstrate your unique color palette, props, details and great composition.

4/16, Saturday morning… Editor/Agent/Art Director Panel 


Lionel Bender (editorial director of Bender Richardson White), book packager, ages 7 and up, buys work-for-hire. 

Justin Chanda (VP and publisher for S&S, BFYR & Margaret McElderry imprint), publishes 300 books/yr from youngest to YA. Looking for good stories, interested in authors/illustrators careers. Authors and illustrators come first. Looking to the future, “we create stories” – everything else is just a way to get it out there (referencing the rise of e-books).

Sarah Davies (agent, Greenhouse Literary Agency), fiction for children – YA (but not PBs). She describes Greenhouse Literary as a very nurturing and editorial agency. Looks for uniqueness, craft, great commercial appeal and great writing quality. Looks for potential and they often do complete re-writes.

Martha Mihalick (associate editor at Greenwillow Books), Greenwillow is a literary and commercial imprint. They produce about 35 books/yr. She works very organically, is open to every genre – looking for innovative ideas which translate across all media.

Joe Monti (agent, Barry Goldblatt Literary) – his sweet spot is middle grade (says he is a 9 yr old boy). Joe has a great, biting sense of humor, but I had a hard time keeping up with his rapid fire style. He’s a real fast talker. 

Anne Moore (art resource coordinator, Candlewick Press), supports 10 editors and the creative director – also reads manuscripts and offers suggestions as to which illustrators would be a good match.

Timothy Travaglini (former editor, G.P. Putnam’s Sons – now free-lance acquisitions editor), looks for quirky.

Liz Waniewski (senior editor, Dial BFYR), walks the line between literary/commercial, PBs-YA. Character driven.

Tina Wexler (agent, ICM), mid-grade and YA.

Marietta Zacker (agent, Nancy Gallt Literary), works with authors and author/illustrators.

Question: What do you not want to see in your slush pile?

Liz – No sob stories.

Anne – Nothing from your child. 

Sarah – Don’t rush it… take your time to get it as good as you can.

Martha – Don’t write to a trend – tell your own story.

Question:  What is the current outlook?

(Sorry, I can’t remember who to attribute the following to)

Debut authors doing extremely well.

Industry is looking for best sellers.

Deals are being done. 

Justin – Publishing 13 new authors this year. Advances scaling back on PBs which gives opening to new authors/illustrators.

Martha – Looking for “her people” – who will be with her in 20 yrs.

Question:  What strategy for mid-list authors?

Justin – Be aware of the marketplace – how can you self promote (online and otherwise)? 

Lionel – Don’t discount non-fiction

Tina – Stay hungry – just because you’ve had one or two books it doesn’t mean you know what you are doing. Keep putting your blood, sweat and tears into your work. Make sure what you are putting out is getting better.

Question:  Is the picture book dead?

Liz – Certainly hopes not. Has a couple series going. Author/illustrators are amazing, especially for marketing.

Marietta – Even with PBs, needs voice. Must have characters that carry you on that journey – has to be a good tale.

Justin – We published too much and oversaturated. He was quoted in a NY Times article about the death of the picture book – the part of his quote that was omitted is that “we have to make it work; the ones that are out there – there has to be a reason to be out there.” “I love picture books and I’m also the guy who said they were dead!” Picture books will survive.

Anne – We’re going to have to prove them wrong.

Question: Any best advice for illustrators?

Anne – Need imagination –  to be able to dream and let it out. We are saturated with data. We need illustrators. There are seasons in people’s lives – an ebb and a flow – let the story come in its own time.

4/16, Keynote Address: Deborah Wiles

She is still a learner – stands on the shoulders of so many. She has been buoyed by them. It’s made all the difference.

Deborah’s best advice: Write from what you know, what you feel and what you can imagine. Read what you want to be able to write. Use where you came from, your family, your growing-up experience. Keeps notebooks, even if it is just lists. She talked about heartbreak, derailment, left turns – early, unhappy marriage, two children before the age of 20. She read to her children and remembered who she was. She stands on the shoulders of the children’s books she has read – learned to read like a writer. Couldn’t have happened had she not read books like When I Was Young in the Mountains, by Cynthia Rylant and Honey, I Love, by Eloise Greenfield.

Deborah started with her head (what she knew), then connected to what she felt (where your voice comes from.

She counsels to “ignore any prohibitive thing”, advice she received from an editor. Heeding this, she wrote Countdown, which she describes as a “documentary novel”. The reason Deborah wrote it is because “history changes things, places and you.”

“When I was disenfranchised and invisible, no one cared whether I lived or died”, says Deborah Wiles. As long as you tell your story you will never be invisible.

4/16, First Pages critique – Picture books (Marietta Zacker and Liz Waniewski critique first pages of picture book manuscripts submitted earlier)

  • Be careful with vocabulary
  • Be careful voice is not too “adult”
  • 1st person POV in a PB is really hard
  • It is hard to care about a character who is a victim (doesn’t make things happen for him/herself)
  • Kid should be main character
  • Keep sentences short – they drive the story forward
  • Editor/agent sees/reads through the eyes of a 4 yr old.
  • Holiday stories are hard for publishers (more returns, shorter selling time)
  • Remember your audience

4/16, The Little Picture in the Big Picture (Anne Moore)

Focus and illustrate what you love. Share yourself on your blog or on postcards.

Anne used Peter Reynolds’ picture book The Dot as an example. Peter used this PB to illustrate his heartfelt mission: to make the world a more creative place – to make your mark and see where it takes you.

Another of Peter Reynolds’ books, Ish illustrates this message: it might not be perfect and might not be your best work, but it’s “ish”. The beauty or meaning of an image is in the eye of the beholder. Sometimes you don’t see certain things in your own work. Others can see it. Allow the creative flow.

Peter loves the creative process and hones in on those themes in his work.

Universal Questions:

What do you care about? What do you find bothersome? What needs to change? What is your hope or dream? What brings you joy? What is YOUR mission?

Anne used a third book by Peter Reynolds, The North Star to examine what takes you down a certain path. What catches your eye or makes you think twice is important. Is there an urgency or pressure that makes you feel insecure or not where you are supposed to be and undermines you? Wherever you are there is something to learn. Ask where it is you want to go and go about taking steps toward that place. Read the signs along the way. Watch for vehicles that can move you. Follow your passion.

Two case studies:

Anne used two illustrators as case studies of artists who are connected to what brings them joy. They bring themselves and their life experience to the process. Check out Timothy Basil Ering’s illustrations for Snook Alone and Julia Denos’ work in Grandma’s Gloves.

4/16, The Future is Coming! What Does it Mean? What Do We Do? (Justin Chanda, VP & publisher, BFYR, Simon & Schuster and Margaret McElderry – publishes around 300 books/yr)

Justin said he is here to dispel a myth that S&S is not interested in literary acquisitions. They ARE interested AND he ADORES picture books.

The difference between literary offerings and commercial offerings?

Commercial = something kids want to read. But, we need to publish for kids on the fringe too, as well as best sellers. 

What is the future: What do we do? We write, we edit and we publish… rinse, repeat.

Electronics do not trump story.

Marketing is absolutely imperative, but does not trump writing. 

Publishers exist on the profits of, and in the shadow of their backlist.

There is a timeline and continuity from what came before… no Fancy Nancy without Eloise.

Children’s publishing is withstanding the recession. 2011 is shaping up to be terrific.

Even though sales of PBs are down we can’t forget them because they create teen readers.

PBs have taken the biggest hit today. They are expensive to produce.

If you look at Amazon and Baker & Taylor (which sells into schools and libraries), the rate of sales of PBs and teen literature is the same.

Some PBs are really working – texts that are shorter, great for re-reads – quirky or classic characters and books for younger readers 3-6 age group.

Publishers are buying fewer PBs, which is a good thing, as we were oversaturated.

Large chains don’t have the staff to hand-sell so they look for books they can look at and say, “you have a girl, here’s your book!”

He will guarantee if his editor loves a book, he will buy it, even if only two books sell.

Middle grade today

Middle grade boys are reading, but we lose them as teens. 

Down-trending: Pink princess-y books.

Market has no idea what it is looking for next (Diary of a Wimpy Kid – example of what they weren’t looking for).

Finally, the editor is there to see what the writer is trying to do and to help them do it.

4/16, Keynote Address: Emily Jenkins/E. Lockhart (Emily Jenkins writes for children, E. Lockhart writes for adults – they inhabit the same body)

Emily sees children’s books as keys to happiness. Picture books articulate the connection, rather than separation from adults. Children are learning how to negotiate with adults, learning appropriate behavior. She likes books in which the child’s wild version of the world is somehow affirmed.

Funny books made her feel consoled as a child. Quoting Roger Scruton she says, the consolation of imaginary things is not imaginary consolation.

You want your reader to wonder what is going on, suggested the use of foreshadowing.

Start your book with something that gives you a need to know, written in a unique sentence and voice. This will tell you something about the protagonist. Be a stylist through use of rhythm and cadence. Then proceed to the 1st line in every chapter, paragraph, etc.

4/17, Sunday morning… Keynote Address: Dan Santat

Dan regaled us with images/videos illustrating his life as a visually creative only child and his adulthood which has been focused on succeeding as a picture book author and illustrator.

Life is a series of baby steps.

Loves his work, is passionate about it and works harder than anyone else.

Learned to make art, initially, by copying and reading books about it. After earning a degree in microbiology and getting into dental school, he changed course and attended Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

He now puts 150% into it. Knows what his “A” game is.

Go and promote your book yourself.

He is seeking to do more writing and illustrate more of his own books. Arthur Levine gave him a 2 book deal in 2002 and the second book is coming out this year. He says he knows his earlier books weren’t perfect, but he learned from each of them.

Give them more than what they expect.

He idolizes author, illustrator and filmmaker, Bill Joyce.

Gave credit to SCBWI for getting a start and making important professional connections.

Dan concluded his talk surprised and overwhelmed (I think) by the fact that he really had arrived at a place in his life where he is doing what he’s always wanted to do… just write and illustrate children’s books. We all appreciated his openness and honesty about how hard he had worked and what a struggle it had been.

4/17, Editor/Agent Mock Negotiation (Tina Wexler, Justin Chanda)


  • Receives query letter
  • Reads and maybe revision sessions
  • Goes through editorial round
  • Looks for a name to come to her (of editors to submit to)
  • Comes up with a firm submissions list
  • Phones or emails & sends manuscript & bio
  • Waits (1day-6mo)
  • During that time the writer continues working on the next thing!


  • Manuscript arrives from agent (receives 200-300 unsolicited/mo.). No time for these. (Does read those of conference attendees, however.)
  • If you are looking for an agent, ask what editors they work for – it is key.
  • Editors are prioritizing (while you wait), they have many manuscripts they are considering.
  • Getting from “I like something” to getting back to agent may be a long time. 


  • This is good from the agent’s perspective because she knows the editor is interested in shaping the book


  • Talks to author – this conversation is important to know they can work with writer.
  • Gets together with all the editors and discusses books under consideration – round table discussion – how this book could work on list, how it can be sold. Or there are too many concerns. 40% end there.
  • He’s in touch with the agent during this process.
  • Acquisition meeting: discusses P&L (profit and loss statement), what they will net, will it be profitable? Look at comp titles. It’s a numbers game and everyone wants it to work.
  • Justin’s job is to call BS on something or say to editor, “you can do more.”
  • Everyone has to agree with the number on the “acquisitions line”.
  • Then, Justin offers less.
  • 50% of projects die in acquisitions.
  • Sometimes younger editors have a harder time with this process.
  • How accurate is a P&L? Here’s the post mortem: 15-20% are accurate. The ones that do succeed – one book can make every other book on the list profitable.
  • Processing and acquiring is an absolute crap shoot.
  • For those projects that do survive this process: Justin asks the editor to write up an “offer letter” which expresses passion for the book, then nuts and bolts including foreign rights, advance, royalties, sub rights (book club, audio, etc.).


  • Agent calls you with offer. Everyone does a jig or squeals. Explains terms. Author should feel comfortable asking questions.
  • Agent may come back to editor to say offer is too low (if there are multiple offers pending).  If this is the only offer, publisher won’t want to bid against itself. Agent may re-envision comps for editor, bring up author’s blog or twitter account. May ask to limit foreign rights which would bring more $ to author (less to split with publisher) and look at royalties. 


  • The higher your advance, the longer you wait for royalties to kick in.
  • Publisher always allows for returns. Sellers can return books years after purchase. This is factored into royalty payments.
  • Justin may offer a two book contract with the agreement to pay much more for a third book (to save on upfront costs, but hopefully insure they get the third book if the first two are successful).


  • She tries to keep audio, TV, film rights.
  • Talks about deliver date.
  • Comes back to publisher with request for higher advance, reduced rights.
  • Usually strikes the “option clause” from picture book contracts, so the author isn’t tied to one publisher. While it is not her practice with novels, due to the unique nature of picture books, options don’t make sense to her.


  • Editor goes to publisher to ask for more $$.
  • Important for author to ask who the agent works with at different houses (Justin has agents he won’t work with if negotiations have gone bad (sort of a blacklist). Other agents he has worked well with and has had successful negotiations with have a “boilerplate” contract.
  • He comes back to agent with (possibly) revised offer.


  • Agent might ask for “earn out bonus” (book has sold well enough to earn out the advance) – Justin loves these.
  • May ask for Caldecott or Newbery bonus.


  • They make the deal and you can announce – or THEY may want to announce on a certain schedule.


  • Contract is drawn up and then further haggling with the legal dept occurs – may be a month or two before contract is finalized.
  • Option is a two-way commitment.


  • Good to have an agent who shops foreign rights.
  • You must LOVE revisions.
  • There may be rounds of submissions – DO NOT blog or tweet about it – a publisher does not want to find out he is not your first choice


  • Decides the 20% of list to focus on for marketing. They then formulate a marketing plan. How much they spend on marketing depends on how many publishers are bidding on a manuscript (this info is provided by agent) which indicates interest in market.
  • 6.5-7% royalties for paperback.
  • eBook royalties are now the least flexible of all royalties.
  • Justin negotiates few un-agented deals per year (1-3).
  • Works with agents because they do the work of sifting through for things editors will want.


  • 50% of her list comes via queries.


  • Tip: Google author(name)+agent to find which agents rep which authors.


  • Knowing the players in publishing is a big job.
  • Multiple submissions? (authors querying agents) Tina sees it as very democratic. It’s not fair to the author to wait. Competition is healthy. Just be sure you let the agent know that yours is a multiple submission.

4/17, Wrtng & Llustratng: Why You Need to Add the “I” (Marietta Zacker)

Your voice needs to be memorable, authentic.

Take your audience into account.

Write what you don’t know (Richard Peck).

Your work needs to bear your mark.

It’s not the topic you choose, it’s your voice, told by you.

Young readers pick up on inauthenticity.

Good writing, in itself, is not enough. The young reader wants to go on a journey with the characters – they need to feel it – and so does the author.

Treat your work with heart and love.

Marietta strives to help her clients “get there” with their work. She is careful about taking work to publishers who will be right for the client and the work. She helps author/illustrators make their work ready or right. She does not do editorial work, but helps authors/illustrators “see” their work.

Don’t copy, but let others inspire you.

Make sure we see the soul in your work.

Don’t stick to convention.

Write or illustrate with a pulsing heart and a voice that is unique and relatable to children.

4/17, Keynote Address: Holly Black – How I Leaned to Love Plot and Stop Worrying

Questions Holly asks herself:

  1. How do you know what scenes are the right ones?
  2. How do you choose what your character does?
  3. How do you figure out what happens next?
  4. And if you don’t know what happens next, now the HELL do you figure out what happens after that?

Michael Haig says there are 4 kinds of plots:

  1. to stop
  2. to escape
  3. to retrieve
  4. to win

Holly spoke about the importance of subplot as in the interaction between plot and subplot. The rising action goes back and forth between the two. 


Plot:  The king needs to save his kingdom from a dragon

Subplot:  The king’s wife is in love with her brother-in-law (the king’s brother)

The dragon is part of the plot because he time-limits the book

2nd Subplot:  The king’s relationship with his own position – perhaps he never wanted to be king. 

 Holly talked about The Spiderwick Chronicles, which she co-wrote with Tony DeTerlizzi. She realized that by co-writing she could talk about plot and look at the big picture – and “get to” the story. She felt free to try out crazy ideas.

Start working on plot by asking YOUR questions and getting answers.

You need to be able to change your mind.

You need to be able to unlock your mind.

Writing with others allows you to be less committed and less solitary.

She gave an example of making a linear list of 4 different plots and subplots. This helps to unbraid the story, to learn what it is you don’t know.

They throw out bad ideas to each other (you get the good idea out of it).

When she is WRITING the story she is “in the book”. When she TALKS about it she is “above the book”. You can’t see the picture when you are inside the frame (this from an audience member).

Try changing places and have the other person be you and ask the questions.

Ideas are free and no one owns them. You trust the people you write with to be generous with you and vice versa.

She talks out loud to herself, but it’s not as good (as talking it out with others).

Being present and keeping you honest is a critique group’s greatest role.

Recommends Scrivener software (use for organizing and saving your book).

A book starts when something changes (this is the subplot). The plot starts when something goes wrong. Set up personal stakes. The book should end with the reader asking, “what happens with you?” (“you” being the character)

I’m off to the stupendous SCBWI Western WA conference!

I’m all packed and ready to go – picking up my critique buddy Kate Berube tomorrow morning – stopping for a dry cappuccino and heading up I5 to Redmond, Washington for what will sure to be a challenging and invigorating SCBWI conference (they do the BEST job!). 

We’ve signed up for the Friday Illustrators’ Intensive, completed our assignments and are eagerly awaiting our critiques with Anne Moore, Art Resource Coordinator for Candlewick Press. Our portfolios have never looked better and we are ready for our First Pages critiques, our Query Letter critiques and lots and lots of networking with other crazed author/illustrators. Woo, hoo!