Saturday, December 10, 2011

Interview with children's book seller: Cerelle Woods

This is the first in occasional blog interviews with ‘people in the know’ in children’s writing. My first interview is with the Cerelle Woods who works in the children’s department at Barnes & Noble Books in Fort Worth. But this is the least of who this amazing woman is, including a dear friend to me. She herself has written and been published for children in magazines. She has a witty and charming voice and I hope to see more of her stories in the future.

Cerelle has worked in the children’s department at Barnes & Noble for the last seven years. She is one who talks and listens and reads and pays attention to what is going on with kids, parents, and teachers who come into the store.

How have things changed since you first started working with children’s books?

Cerelle: Mostly, we have fewer books and more toys. But that’s the way of things in the 21st century. What’s the same is that we still have kids coming in who LOVE to read. And for that, I am so grateful.

What do you notice most that parents want to buy for their kids and as gifts?

Cerelle: We always have people who want to know what the best sellers are for a particular age and gender. I respect that. But we also have people who are looking for ‘their’ favorite book from their own childhood or their children’s childhood, and I love that. Sometimes that book (sadly) is out of print, but I always reassure them that they can still find it online. And there are publishers who are bringing back those vintage (and overlooked) classics. My favorite example is Purple House Press. I am featuring their recent re-release of “The Christmas Cookie Springle Snitcher,” by Robert Kraus on our theme wall right now.

What about what teachers are looking for at the bookstore?

Cerelle: I love teachers because they keep good books current. A great example is “Thank You, Mr. Falker,” by Patricia Polacco. Teachers always request this one. Also, the Tacky the Penguin books by Helen Lester. Another thing I love about teachers is that they bring me reviews of new books. I might never have read the Newbery winner, “When You Reach Me” if a teacher hadn’t given me a glowing review.

What about kid buyers themselves?

Cerelle: Now you’re talking about my favorite part of my job! There’s just nothing better than seeing a kid come in with that light in their eyes, on FIRE about an author or a series. The truth is that it’s usually a series. I get that, because I was an avid reader of the Oz books, once upon a time (All 35 of them!). Kids love series, there’s no way around it. Whether it’s th Magic Tree House series or Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Percy Jackson or The Ranger’s Apprentice, children love to keep reading about their favorite characters. That’s something I’ve learned during these past seven years.

Do you see an area in books that is lacking? Topics or subjects or age groups that people want more of?

Cerelle: “First experiences” are a topic or genre that people can’t seem to find enough books about. First time on a plane, first time at the dentist, first time to move, first time to have a new sibling. You wouldn’t think these subjects would be so in request, but they are. There’s also a scarcity of kids’ books about math. They are out there, but they’re rare.

As far as age groups, I think there’s a real need for “tween” books—both for boys and girls. Parents really hesitate to buy teen books for their 12-14 year olds. They are worried about the content. Another thin genre is realistic fiction for young boys. I hear so many parents tell me that their sons simply don’t enjoy fantasy and want something more ‘true-to-life.’ Those books are out there, of course (the wonderful Okay for Now leaps to mind), but I think there could be many more.

What do you think about bookstores shaping an author’s career? Do they have that much influence on sales?

Cerelle: That’s a hard one. I try to keep my ear to the ground for books that may not get sent to me automatically, such as by Barnes and Noble corporate, but I’m often taken by surprise when the awards get announced (Newbery, National Book Awards for Young Readers, even the Caldecott). I would say that sometimes in spite of B&N’s best efforts to roll out a wonderful and worthy book (case in point: Gary D. Schmidt’s OKAY FOR NOW), the public just doesn’t always cotton to it. Maybe it’s the cover art. Maybe it’s the title. Who can say? I thought this was one of the best books of this past year, for any age, and I wasn’t alone. But, it really didn’t sell that well.

What kind of book signings work best at your store? Is it more about the name of the author, the subject of the books, or an author’s self-promotion for an event?

Cerelle: I asked our CRM about this, and he said, “One word: Cookies!” Ha! As for me, I think it’s all about the author’s own networking efforts. Twitter, Facebook, e-mail, community network, whatever—seems to me that the best signings we have at our store (other than HUGE name-brand authors) are a result of that author’s own elbow grease. Sad to say, but that’s my experience.

How can an author spend time productively in the children’s/YA section of a bookstore to research what’s there, what’s saleable, what’s needed, and where their ideas would fit?

Cerelle: That’s another hard question. I like talking to the kids themselves. One of my favorite questions (and I stole this from someone else) is, “If I only read one new kids’ book this year, what should it be?” In my experience, children really like that question and think hard to answer it seriously. But coming at it from a different angle, I agree with the advice to write the book you’d most like to read (assuming you’d like to read a kids’ book!). I always remember what Madeleine L’Engel said in her memoir—she was writing children’s fantasies in the wrong decade; no editor would touch them. But that was what she loved, and the time for them did finally arrive. Maybe realistic fiction for boys is the ‘Next Big Thing.” Who knows? If you’re out there writing that, and that’s what you love, keep the faith!

Anything else you’d like to say as both a writer and someone who loves/sells/promotes kids’ books?

Cerelle: First of all, please be advised that there are children out there who do love to read. LOVE to read! I see them every day. It’s extremely reassuring! Also, I would say that it’s impossible to predict what the next huge trend may be. Who could have predicted that Rick Riordan would introduce an entire generation to Greek mythology? Part of me wants to promote those books that get anti-readers reading. (i.e., Captain Underpants, Wimpy Kid, et al). Another part of me wants to promote books like Jeanine Birdsall’s – The Penderwicks series, which appeals to those children who already love to read. Let’s just say that I’m divided. Maybe the lesson here is that there’s a place and an audience for ever kind of writer.

Thank you Cerelle for your insight! I think I’ve learned some very important things from your answers.

Friday, November 18, 2011

What does a blogger do?

Here it is November and I realized I planned to start a new blogging event in March. Time flew by this summer with various events and writing projects, plus preparing for a workshop at our local SCBWI conference in October. Will definitely get back to my March plan of interviewing people in the trenches of children's publishing.

In this day and age, blogging is a huge part of the NEW world that writer's have found themselves in. Facebooking and tweeting and being linkedin as well as having your own website and trying to create an online as well as in-person presence. Somewhere in all this, we search for time to actually do more writing.

This is my downfall as a personal marketing entity. I admit, I would rather do the actual writing than all the other stuff. It's the shy person in me, the one who began writing in the first place because she preferred that to speaking in public. And yet, since I've become a writer, as I tell students when I do school visits, I have spoken to groups of people and sat nervously in booksignings waiting for people more than I ever imagined.

But even though the actual writing can be frustrating, tiring, confusing at times, banging your head against the computer screen thinking...I still love the act of creating, of putting words together and hopefully coming up with something that will inform, educate, inspire, entertain, challenge readers and take us both into new worlds and new worlds of thoughts.

I've met writers who dislike the writing process and I wonder if they are actually sure they want to be a writer? The process afterwards of marketing and waiting and promoting can be fun, but filled with stress enough to where if I hated the actual writing, I'd find a job washing elephants at the zoo instead.

I'm 7 chaptes into a new novel and having a glorious time with it. I know when I get closer to the dreaded middle, the lengthy and plot important part of the book, it'll be more of a struggle. But I like my characters, my story, and the surprises its bringing. And it keeps me from worrying about the book sitting with an agent that has come close to selling twice and the new book I've worked on for over a year that is sitting with an editor who'd asked to see it while I ponder sending another partial of it to another editor who is waiting to see it.

So, I'm back to blogging and hoping to find ways to bring readers here and give them interesting, important, or thought-provoking stuff to read.

I'll be a Magazine Expert Guide for a respected children's writing organization soon, and I'll have links to this blog. So it's time to get moving. If I can just slip away for a few moments from these 6 fun characters who are tellng me their story.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Coming Soon!

Will be getting back to blogging soon. And once every week or so, will be interviewing published authors, writers, and illustrators as well as editors and bookstore people.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Writing your Personal Experiences

My first writing sale was a personal experience piece about my husband and I getting to know and helping local Hmong refugee children. Since then, I've had over 1000 personal experience pieces published in magazines and anthologies. We all have personal experiences in our lives, so why not write about them?

But how do you know if YOUR story can sell?

• Is it something that many can relate to, or only a few? Example: A short humor piece told of the struggles with ‘one size fits all’ for bodies that don’t seem to fit. Most women relate to this humor and would rather laugh along with the author than feel they are alone in their frustration.

• Does your story have a take-away message? In other words, when the reader finishes your piece, will they have learned how to do or not do something, how to handle a similar situation, or understand their own feelings? In my “Be Angry And Sin Not”, I told about my experiences with anger and how I overcame them. It was geared toward MY problem, in a way other readers with a similar problem could learn something without feeling fingers were pointing at THEM.

• Can you tell your story objectively? Sometimes we are too close to an experience and the writing is over-emotional or stale with an effort to hide from our emotion. For several years after my false pregnancy, I couldn’t write about it. I had to step away and understand my feelings and how to express them first. Later, I sold a dozen essays and articles on the experience as well as infertility.

• Will your story elicit emotion from readers? Whether it’s laughter, tears, cheers, surprise, or the ability to relate; the easiest stories to sell are those ones that editors and readers feel some emotion towards. Whenever I write about any aspect of my daughter’s adoption, it sells and sells again. There are a million adoption stories, and I’ve learned the areas of my own that brings emotions to my readers.

Writing about yourself isn’t as easy as it sounds, but it is rewarding. Warn your family first. Mine has learned that anything that happens in our lives is grist for my writing.


Friday, August 27, 2010

Friday Tips for Writers-Market Smart


When I first started submitting my writing, I knew I had a lot to learn. Yet, my heart was ready to make a move and I leapt into marketing with only my heart thinking, not my head. Yep, the creative side of my brain took over and left the organizational side far behind.

My first marketing attempt was a very long short story for children that was basically a Bambi knock-off. I had worked hard on it, writing during my lunch hour or slow times at my secretarial job. When I was done, I had an enthusiastic story full of description and about a million adjectives. The first thing I did was find a magazine I’d seen regularly and send the story with a short letter telling the editor (I believe I sent it to the editor-in-chief) how much I wanted them to buy it. Who did I send it to? Redbook magazine. A 2500 word children’s story to Redbook magazine.

They sent a polite rejection, but I wondered how big a laugh the office had over that one!

I kept sending things willy nilly for a couple of months to magazines I read or saw at the grocery store. After attending a writer’s group meeting, I heard more about marketing. I suddenly realized that my marketing was easy because I didn’t make an effort at it.

My first sale was the result of submitting to a Sunday School take-home paper that I read every week. I knew what kind of pieces were in there and that if I wrote my own experience, I might have a chance. I wrote it, I sent it, I sold it.

Whether it’s a magazine article, an essay, or a book, how much time is spent on finding the right market and following all the rules?

Market Smart.

S – Send your writing to the right place. You’ve wasted your time and theirs otherwise. Just because it’s your favorite magazine doesn’t mean that ‘any’ piece is right for it. Get your marketing off to a great beginning by making a list of who IS perfect for that piece. Then, if it is rejected by perfect place #1, you can send it on to perfect place #2.

M – Millions of others will also be searching for the right market. So make sure that you follow all the rules, all the guidelines for that perfect publication. Don’t email if they prefer regular mail. If the guidelines say 1500 words max, don’t send 1800 just because you feel sure they’d love those extra 300 words. If your guideline information is old, make sure you have the correct editor’s name before you submit. Finding the perfect publication and then losing the sale because of a quick mistake is still wasting your hard earned writing time.

A – Always be aware of what’s out there. Maybe you wrote that short story with the dream of selling it to a giant magazine with a giant readership and getting a giant check. Go for it. But keep an eye and ear out for other opportunities. Just because all the big markets you submitted that piece to have rejected it doesn’t mean it’s hopeless. I’ve sold stories to coffee can labels, to testing companies for school groups, and so on. If someone mentions a market in passing, I write it down and check it out. I’ve sold many a piece to a new market because some kind writer told our writer’s group about a small magazine, travel magazine, etc., looking for articles and no one else submitted to them from this group.

R – Read the markets you are wanting to submit to. While it’s true I’ve sold occasionally to markets I’ve only read ‘about’, when possible I try to get ahold of at least one copy of a publication or read several books published by a specific publisher. With magazines, this has become much easier with the internet. Many publications have samples or recent past issues online.

T – Taking time to market properly increases your chances of selling a piece sooner. There may be dozens of women’s magazines out there, but only 3 that would work for the piece you are suggesting. There may be a myriad of travel publications, but only a few that want personal experience essays on a travel experience. Don’t waste time marketing sloppily, save time by marketing smart and see if your acceptances, bylines, and checks don’t increase.

Write with your heart, but after that, take the time to market smart.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Create an Expert File

Whether you write nonfiction or fiction, sometimes you just need to talk with an expert.

When I wrote Cave-a-Phobia, published by Spider magazine, I talked with the father of a friend of my daughter's who had spent years speelunking. When I wrote CROWN ME!, I talked with someone I met at Scarborough Faire about working in a Renassaince festival. When I wrote about child safety for Kiwanis magazine, I spoke to a dozen experts who dealt with swimming safety, bicycle safety, and more.

When you need an expert, the quicker you can find someone the better, especially if you're on a deadline or stumped on a book project for lack of information.

Try creating an expert file. With a 3X5 card box, I began creating a card for every expert I could think of. First, my friends and relatives who were experts in something whether because of their jobs or hobbies. Then their friends they could tell me about. Then I started watching the newspaper for articles about local experts and wrote down their information. Then there were people I'd met online.

Now, I have a box full of experts. Occasionally I still have to search for someone specific to talk with in an area I haven't found an expert in, but as my list grows, I sometimes find that I have the expert I need to interview or ask a question to right in my box, ready to call or email.

Who do you know that you can put in YOUR expert box?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Living the Dream

When I first started my writing career back in 1991, I dreamed of someday being famous. I dreamed of piles of fan mail from kids everywhere and walking into bookstores where I would see a row of my book titles.

But then I found that writing is more than just writing what I feel, what I enjoy, what I dream. It's learning the craft, it's research, it's studying markets, it's find editors and publishers who like what I'm saying and how I say it.

Back then, every little sale; whether a short story to an obscure literary magazine or a personal experience essay in a church take home paper was something to celebrate. I still hoped for those mega book sales, but acceptance letters and the sight of something I'd written printed in a publication that people I didn't know would be reading made my head swim.

Then after awhile, the quest for publication became a goal and a challenge. I'd had tons of those short pieces published in lots of magazines and anthologies and newspapers. I was still hoping for the big time.

When that first book sale finally came, that amazing phone call, I was delirious and right away imagined my career had suddenly exploded onto new heights.

But the road was still tough and still is. Yet, I love it too much to give up.

19 book sales later with nearly 2000 articles, essays and stories printed, I've been slowly learning that the joy of writing is once again a joy of writing. I'm not a household name. My books have had some fun things go along with them, taken me on some fun adventures, but titles aren't on the lips of every child.

For a time, my sales have changed to work for hire sales with educational markets. At first I was embarrassed to say aloud where my contracts were coming from. But with the joy of each book, I've found that yes, again, it's the joy of writing that still thrills me.

And then I realized the other day that yes, I'm living my dream. I'm a writer. This is what I do every day. I get to come up with ideas and put them on paper and sometimes, they are published and other people read them. How amazing is that?

When I keep focused on that, I am back to being thrilled with every sale. As writers we sometimes compare our career to those who are more famous or our work to those big award winning books. And though it's not a bad thing to shoot for the stars, reach for the moon, and climb every mountain; it's even more exciting to find joy in the moment.

As I hold my newest work for hire contract, I feel that joy and it's amazing. Are you living your dream?