Thursday, March 15, 2007

Q & A 104

I've been planning to write a children's nonfiction book for some time on Language. It's supposed to fit into those series of nonfiction guides for 7-11 year olds that have titles like Pirate, Weather, Ancient China, and Music. I would be adding one - Language. The most prominent publisher of these sorts of guides is DK with their Eyewitness series, but B&N seems to do their own print, and there are a couple more as well. Anyway, the guides all do seem to have a single author, so someone is writing the main content, but the guides are extremely visual. Typically, there is a single paragraph that's general and then there are drawings and images covering the whole thing with little 3 sentence explanations for what they are seeing.

The question comes with these images. There is a huge list of credits in the DK books for people who located and acquired the images, as well as the illustrators who created new ones. The problem for me the writer is that I can't write the book without knowing the visuals. I can plan all the topics, as I am doing. I can brainstorm the types of things to find, but the final content is somewhat beyond my control. So, how do I handle this? Do I essentially write a book proposal with what should be in there and then fill in the details later? I've read some useful stuff about writers looking for illustrators in children's books, but not really yet on the non-fiction side. DK simply states that they don't take submissions, so go find an agent.

If I were in your shoes, I would shelve the whole idea and go play golf. But I sense you are determined to go through with it. If you take DK's advice and find an agent, the agent will find out everything you need to know. Of course, finding an agent for a book you haven't written may be tricky.

As I understand the question, you want to write an illustrated children's book, and you want to see the illustrations before you write the text? All you need is an artist with a bunch of pictures of languages. Good luck.

I'm going to make a wild guess and say that the text gets written first, the illustrations are then created or located, and the editor then makes any appropriate adjustments in the text that might be needed to deal with unexpected oddities in the illustrations. I can't imagine a publisher approaching an artist and the conversation going:

Publisher: We're planning a book on language, we need you to provide some illustrations.

Artist: Sure, what do you have in mind?

Publisher: Your guess is as good as mine. The book hasn't been written. The author's waiting to see what you come up with.

Artist: Hmm. I can do alphabet blocks. Those are easy. And smoke signals. I'm really good at drawing puffs of smoke.

Publisher: Perfect. I think we've got a winner here, as long as the author doesn't screw it up.


Marissa Doyle said...

I would love to find a book on kiddy linguistics for my kids, but then again, I think consonant shifts are sexy. Yes, as a matter of fact, I am weird.

But I would imagine that this would be handled like any non-fiction proposal--you've got to have the text before you can do the charts and find all the photo bites and so on, so that the series editors can make sure it's appropriate for their line.

Start hunting agents who represent children's non-fic, and maybe have another two or three ideas semi-thought-out to pitch as well so that you're not a one book wonder. And I hope you get to do this project some day soon.

Andrew Wheeler said...

I'll take a wild guess myself and bet that most books like that mostly come out of packagers to begin with, probably through multi-book contracts. (If a publisher's list has the same author doing several of the books in a series like this, that would be evidence that my assumption is correct -- those writers might even be staffers at the packaging company.)

This author might be better-served searching out packagers who put together childrens' non-fiction, and trying to get into the business from that end.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, this sounds probably right. So if I wanted to have a page where I explained how people make the cool clicking sounds like the Bushmen make in The Gods Must Be Crazy, then I'd do my own bad drawing of the throat and mouth with the tongue and larynx in the appropriate place, or find a drawing in textbook X which I might not have rights to, and write the text based on that. Then, when the book is being sold (hahahaha), the real illustrator would do it right, or the publishing crew would try to obtain rights to the image.... Maybe.

Well, when it's done and the query/proposal is written, people can weigh in and tell me if I did it correctly.

pacatrue said...

Thanks for the idea, Andrew, about packagers. And yes, Marissa, this is a kiddie linguistics book where I try to leave in all the cool things and dump the boring stuff, which means no sentence phrase structure. Even though I just wrote a paper on phrase structure, I don't know how to keep myself interested in it, much less a 9 year old. I'm going to stick with freaky sounds, weird meaning things, and cool writing systems. Freaky, weird, and cool. That's the mantra.

Robin S. said...

"I'm going to stick with freaky sounds, weird meaning things, and cool writing systems. Freaky, weird, and cool."

This sounds really good - best of luck with it. I would have loved to have something like this for my girls.

Anonymous said...

pacatrue -
I, too, think this sounds like fun. Okay, yes, I have a degree in linguistics. But I think it would interest my daughter as well.

Anonymous said...

There are specialist organizations and publications for children's books, you know. Research skills are essential for nonfiction writers.

All the nonfiction writers I know do a lot of proposals and pitching, most of which come to nothing - sort of. It's not unusual to pitch Project A and be asked: "But do you think you could do Project B?" As in: We've already contracted for a book on linguistics, but what do you know about etymology?

Work on a book, learn the ropes of the business, and be flexible - all at the same time. Don't get so married to one project that it's the only one you're ever willing/able to do.

And don't tell me you don't have time, or don't know where to start finding out. If you want to do something, it's your business to make time, and to learn where to find out.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, how about a proposal? Send it to agents. Wait. Wait some more. Then wait some more. When you're finally ready to jump off a bridge, you'll get an answer. Hopefully, it's a good one.

pacatrue said...

Thanks, everyone, for the advice. I think I'll write the whole thing with bad design and images as if it were a member of the series I have in mind. And actually a blog reader has contacted me about that. Even though the odds are low that my exact idea will pan out, I'll have all the materials for a stand-alone if desired. Worst case scenario, I'll have a bunch of images to teach my college student with, should that day arrive.