We talk a lot about middle-grade books here at From the Mixed-Up Files. But most of the books we highlight come from the big, national publishers in New York City. I’ve been curious to learn more about smaller publishing houses.
Luckily for me, I ran into a good friend of mine, Carol Lynch Williams, a well-known MG and YA author. Co-writing with her friend Cheri Pray Earl, they’ve published their lower middle-grade Just In Time series with a new and very small publisher, Familius. Today I talk with them, their illustrator, the company’s design director, and the company’s CEO to learn the process of publishing a book with a small press.
The cast for today’s interview (click on the links below for a more detailed bio of each of our players):
Carol Lynch Williams, co-author of the Just in Time Series
Cheri Pray Earl, co-author of the Just in Time Series
Manelle Oliphant, illustrator of the Just in Time Series
David Miles, Director of Digital Development and Design at Familius
Christopher Robbins, Founder and CEO of Familius
MUF (the Mixed-Up Files interviewer, aka me)
MUF: Welcome to all of you! First, let’s start at the beginning of this process. Carol and Cheri, how did you decide to write this series of books together?
Cheri: I asked Carol to write the series with me because (a) we are hilarious when we are together. We sort of feed off each other . . . or something. It’s magic; (b) neither one of us writes lower middle-grade novels—we write YA and adult mostly—but somehow we can achieve a younger perspective when we write together (The Dumbening Effect?); and (c) when the idea for the series first jumped into my head, it came as a story told by both main characters, George and Gracie. I love the variety of personality and the texture that format gives to our writing and to our stories.
Carol: Cheri called me one day, told me her idea of twins traveling in time and started to ask if I might want to write with her. The words weren’t even out of her mouth when I said, “Yes!” Her idea was fun and intriguing. While I have written plenty of middle grade novels, and several young adult, too, together Cheri and I can write for a younger reader. It was scary when we started. But it’s been a lot of fun. We’ve researched like crazy. Gone back and forth like crazy. Worked crazy hours to get the best books we can.
MUF: How did you find Familius, and what was the submission process like with a small press?
Carol: Cheri and I had the first two books written when we went to visit Christopher Robbins. We’d actually sold them to another small press. But things hadn’t worked out there. I’d met Christopher before, was actually working on a nonfiction book with him (a book I wrote with my second daughter entitled SISTER, SISTER). I kept thinking Cheri and I should see what he thought of the Just in Time series. I knew Christopher wanted to start publishing young adult books. I was tentative about approaching Cheri. We were headed to another small publishing house. And a brand new house, at that.
Cheri: Well, our good friend, Rick Walton, put us in touch with Christopher Robbins and we pitched our idea for the series to him. We drove out to his beautiful home in Huntsville, Utah where he introduced us to his family and made us lunch. He liked the idea of Just In Time, and after some follow-up discussions about our target audience and marketing and such, we started working together on the series. I’d say maybe six weeks went by before he said yes to us. That doesn’t happen in big publishing houses, I can tell you. Your agent does all the pitching and the publisher doesn’t make you lunch at his/her house. It could take months and months before you get an acceptance or a rejection, or it could happen on the spot. That happens too. The same with small presses, but in my experience they tend to be even slower at responding than big houses. Fewer hands to manage submissions?
MUF: Since there are two of you writing the series together, how do you decide on a story for each book? Is it harder to pick an idea with two heads in the pot, or do you find The One comes just as easily as it does when writing your own books?
Cheri: Carol and I begin a new book in the Just In Time series by digging around in whichever state we’re writing about to find interesting people or events in that state’s history. We look for lesser-known historical events, at least lesser known for most people. We talk back and forth for a week or so about the cool stories we’re discovering and then decide which we like best. We’ve never had problems deciding on The One; not sure why. I think maybe we have the same taste in suspense. For instance, Book Four (coming out in Fall 2014) is about an event that happened off the Georgia coast in early 1942, right after the United States entered WWII; Georgia is our state for Book Four. Most kids don’t know that WWII was fought in part on US shores; in fact, most adults don’t know that either.
Carol: And Cheri and I wanted to write about facts that kids might not know about. Sure, lots of children in Pennsylvania know about the chocolate factory there in Hershey. But few kids in other states know what a kind and good man Milton Hershey was. We seek out stories we know little about. That spark our interests.
MUF: So, what happens at Familus after you finish writing a book in the series?
Cheri: Carol and I draft a book, revise and edit it to get it as clean as we can—for content as well as micro stuff—before we email it to Maggie Wickes, the executive editor at Familius. She emails the manuscript to our editor for the series, Amy Stewart, who then reads the book and gives us input on the story (macro stuff). We revise and email it back to her. We do this back and forth until Amy thinks the book is ready for micro editing, which she also does. Then she emails the manuscript to Maggie. David designs the book and emails the galleys to Amy, Carol, and me before the book goes to press, then he inputs the edits we suggest.
For our first three books, all of this back and forth was done via email. But starting with Book Four, Maggie will send us (me, Carol, and Amy) hardcopies to look at just before and just after the book is designed. The beauty of working with a new and small press is that if a process, for instance the editing process, needs some tweaking we get to say, “This needs tweaking,” and our publisher listens to us. We negotiate the new process until everyone is happy. That’s why we now work on hardcopy pages instead of electronic pages midway through the editing process; it was a negotiation. Very cool.
Carol: This IS one of the cool things about being at a smaller house. We work closely in all parts of the process. Again, that’s different in the national world of publishing.
MUF: And that’s a great segue into the art and design aspect of creating a book. David, as Cheri mentioned, you are in charge of the book designs for the Just in Time series. How does the design process work with a small press?
David: As we’ve talked with librarians and sales reps, we continue to find that design is a critical—and sometimes tricky—part of the success of a series. On one hand, you want the books’ look to be fresh and original. On the other hand, I hear from librarians that they’re expecting a certain “look,” a result of years of successful children’s series that have inadvertently set the conditioned standard for children’s packaging. And therein lies the challenge: make something different, that isn’t. We’ve worked to create a series look that we feel incorporates our favorite elements of some of the most celebrated children’s series packages, while still offering our own flavor. It took a few goes to find what we wanted, but we’re excited with the result. That new look will be rolling out later this year.
The art department of a small publisher is, well, small. For the Just in Time series, I’m acting as both the art director and the book designer. This presents some definite challenges, but it does have some pros to it as well. Between just Manelle and myself, we complete every detail of the cover illustration, the cover design, the series logo, the layout, the interior illustrations, the back-cover marketing copy, the visual extras in the front matter—all down to the last semicolon. It’s a lot of work for just two people, but it also means that we have a cohesive, solid package that’s consistent throughout. And it means that we work more as a team. I work to guide Manelle in the development of her illustrations, but Manelle is also welcome to offer critique and suggestions for the development of the front cover or book design. The emails fly back and forth and the result, I think, is a much stronger package. Roles do emerge more strongly when final decisions need to be made, but for the most part, it’s a team effort.
MUF: Manelle, as the illustrator, when were you brought in on this project?
Manelle: I was chosen as the illustrator when Carol and Cheri had the manuscript at a different publisher. It was a project I was really excited about so when they decided to move to a new publisher I was disappointed. I found Carol at a writers and illustrators conference and told her I really wanted to illustrate the books and to suggest me when she found a new publisher. I sent her the sketches I had been working on and later when they found Familius they recommended me. I was lucky that Christopher and David thought I would be good a illustrator for the project too.
MUF: What is your process for creating illustrations for this series?
Manelle: I usually don’t see the manuscript until one of the final drafts. I know I can start sketching and the story isn’t going to change. It makes for less work that way.
As I read it, I underline things that are important for the illustrations, scenes, descriptions etc. Then at the end of each chapter I write down a few ideas of what in the chapter will make a good illustration. After that I start researching. It’s important to get the historical details right and I usually need a good amount of photo reference. I usually use the internet for this and I pin any relevant image on a Pinterest board. By the time I’m finished with the book I have around two hundred images pinned on my board. The images can be anything from pictures of the historical character in the book, to costumes, to a picture of what corn looks like. I also ask the authors any questions I have about the story or the time it takes place.
After that I start sketching. Before I can do the images I have to makes sure I know what any new characters look like. I sketch up quite a few character sketches before I can start drawing the images that actually go into the book. I have to make sure the new characters will look the same every time I draw them, as well as fit the style of the reoccurring characters like George and Gracie. After that I start on the sketches that will become the finished illustration.
When the sketches are done I send them to David. We talk about any changes that need to be made and make sure everything is reading clearly. Once we make changes if any I can then finish the illustrations.
MUF: Let’s talk a little bit about the business side of a small press. Christopher, as founder and CEO of Familius, you can see the company’s big picture. Is the process of editing and publishing a book the same with your press as with the larger publishers?
Christopher: The process of editing and publishing a title is basically the same between national publisher and small press. Both have an intention to publish nationally, even globally. However, the large publishers sometimes have more influence due to economies of scale and size to influence buyers. Editorial still requires careful editing, but large houses traditionally have editors who have had decades of experience while small presses are either start ups or houses that depend on quick learning and intelligent editors with less overall experience. However that is not always true as I know many small independent presses who have editors with 40 or more years of experience.
MUF: Cheri and Carol, what do you see is the biggest difference between publishing with a small press and one of the Bix Five?
Cheri: You’ll be, as my agent, Steve Fraser, says “A big fish in a small pond” with some small presses. You may get more attention, more marketing dollars, more access to your publisher, depending on the press.
Carol: Cheri and I know the owner of the company. He’s our friend. He’s invested in this series. When we met with him in his office that first time, he wanted to know what Familus could do for us, as writers. In all my years of publishing, I’ve never had the big boss say much more than, “Love your book.”
MUF: Speaking of the business side of things, marketing and distribution make up a huge part of publishing. How does Familius, and other small presses, compete with the larger publishers, Christopher?
Christopher: All publishers regardless of size have the same access to the traditional bookstore market, either online or brick and mortar. For titles with established authors or platforms, both types of publishers have opportunity to influence in store marketing. Where national publishers have an edge is that they have larger marketing budgets. This does not always result in success however. I have published multiple best-selling authors who then left for much larger houses for large advance royalties who were extremely disappointed in the sales results with the national publisher. Smaller publishers often have a competitive advantage in that they are more hands on and able to reach niche markets. The internet and democratization of publishing has leveled the playing field and independent presses and self-published authors are dramatically influencing the industry with bestselling titles, marketing creativity, and industry innovation far more than the national houses.
MUF: It sounds like, because your company is so small, that many of you do the job of several people, particularly when it comes to the marketing side of this business. Do you find this to be true, David? You did more than just the book design, is that right?
David: Because Familius is still launching out of the gate, your hats don’t end there. I’ve also been heavily involved in the marketing strategy for the Just in Time books, doing everything from designing bookmarks to creating a website to planning virtual author visits and book orders. Again, there are challenges, but the pros are rewarding. I love seeing a book progress from start to finish. I see the earliest, roughest manuscript filled with notes from Cheri and Carol to each other (and believe me, those are hi-la-ri-ous), the illustration sketches, the marketing copy, the layouts, the advanced galleys, the finished book, the book signings, the school visits, the notes from kids that love them—even a photo of one girl that dressed up like a horse to deliver a book report on the first book in the series (whose courage I applaud—I was Augustus Gloop in 3rd grade). It means you get a bird’s eye view of the full series progressing while simultaneously wringing your hands over the details. And that’s honestly fun!
MUF: Thanks to all of you for sharing your journey with us. It’s been illuminating to see how small presses, and yours in particular, are making a difference in today’s publishing world. We wish all of you the best of luck with this and the rest of your projects.
Readers, check out Carol and Cheri’s newest book in the Just in Time Series, THE WIZARD OF MENLO PARK, out May 20, 2014. Also check out the other published titles in the series, THE RESCUE BEGINS IN DELAWARE, and SWEET SECRETS IN PENNSYLVANIA. And be sure to visit Familius on the web at www.familius.com.
And as an added bonus, Familius is offering the first two books in the Just in Time series to one lucky winner. Please leave a comment below to be entered. The winner will be announced Sunday, April 6, 2014.
Elissa Cruz likes to talk to her writing and illustrating friends about today’s kidlit publishing world. In addition to working here on this blog, she is also the founder of #MGlitchat and ARA for SCBWI Utah/Southern Idaho. She writes middle-grade fiction and is represented by Josh Getzler of HSG Agency.