Aaron Reynolds, After the Fall, Beekle, Bloomsbury, Brown Books, Caldecott Medal, Creepy Carrots, Dan Santat, Dude, illustrator, interview, Little, macmillan, Neal Porter Book, picture book, Roaring Brook Press, Scholastic, writer
In April, I had the pleasure of watching funny men AARON REYNOLDS and DAN SANTAT dazzle elementary school kids by acting out their new one-word picture book, Dude! Afterward, they graciously shared their wisdom and expertise.
CHRISTINE VAN ZANDT: What advice do you have for prepublished writers and illustrators?
AARON REYNOLDS: Realize that authors who make it big with their first books are the exceptions. Slow and steady is the way it works. You join SCBWI and you send your stuff out a lot. I had 390 rejection letters before I had my first sale.
DAN SANTAT: With illustration, the talent is a little more concrete, you can see it, whereas writing is more subjective. Illustrators can work for one publisher, then another publisher will see your work and you’ll get work that way. Your publications become your promotional mailers. Three or four years into the business, I didn’t have to do promotional things anymore, but I did them to stand out from the other illustrators and to help improve sales. It’s worth more to a publisher when it seems an illustrator will promote the heck out of the book and give it a better fighting chance.
Early on, I was discouraged when I would work really hard to get my book in a look and feel that I was proud to have published then it would just sit there for a season before disappearing. I got to a point where I said, “I want to publish a book that has a fighting chance. I don’t want to just throw my kid in the pool, I want to teach it to tread water” and, hopefully, I can earn my royalty out.
A lot people are discouraged about not getting their first opportunities. Others get those opportunities, but they might end up being “one and done,” they don’t have a huge list of books. There are a lot of midlist people with a whole other set of problems and they get down on themselves because they’re not on the New York Times bestseller list. It’s really tough and competitive to stay in the business these days. If you’ve been in the business seven, eight, twelve years and you’re doing it, that’s not an easy task.
AR: Being a midlist author is something to aspire to. I would rather be a midlist author and have a career than have my first book hit the New York Times bestseller list and then all my next books don’t live up to those very high and unattainable expectations. Being continually published and earning out that advance is a beautiful thing. Making a steady living as an author is a beautiful thing.
DS: Big advances are shelled out for no-name authors and illustrators because of the potential rather than recognizing a dependable person who will produce a good product.
AR: Midlist was my career for years and I was proud to have it. I was getting steadily published with two or three books a year. None of my books then were best sellers, but they were all solid and earned out. I was making a living at this. That was my dream.
Until Creepy Carrots! won the Caldecott Honor [Simon & Schuster, 2013, illustrated by Peter Brown], it never occurred to me to be on the New York Times bestseller list. That wasn’t even on my radar. I can’t think about or count on stuff like this or things like having a movie made out of a book. You can’t go into your career and have your eyes on stuff like that.
DS: The only difference between Aaron and I and somebody else is that we had a little extra luck. I go to the original art shows in New York and I see all the amazing work on the walls. When I looked at the honor books that year I won [the Caldecott for The Adventure of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend, Little, Brown Books, 2014], I wondered, “Why me? Why did this book win or that one?” It’s really subjective. Fifteen librarians in a room can determine your future, achieving this next level. Because I consider this a very lucky thing, I don’t take it lightly. I still feel it’s very important to work hard on my craft and earn out my advance.
AR: A huge advance scares me to death but that also means you’ll have more marketing and investment from the publisher. It’s the same philosophy as buying a really expensive car, you’ll take good care of it. If you buy a junker and it dies in a year, who cares.
CVZ: How has social media changed the game?
AR: Dan taught me the best trick in the world, I post to Instagram and copy Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and everything else. That has saved me hours. I try to post stuff because it honors the schools I’ve visited. Whether social media’s a main revenue or marketing stream isn’t quantifiable or measurable. But it makes the publishers happy and it excites the schools that you posted about your visit with them.
DS: You benefit from social media because librarians want you to come and speak. You’re broadening your market. It’s never about marketing to the consumer. I find a librarian and say, “I hope you like my book” and then that person becomes my champion for that region. When I’m on social media, it’s never “please buy my book, please buy my book,” it’s rather “my book came out today but look at this weird waffle that I’m having for breakfast that’s shaped like the state of Kentucky.” I’m selling a part of my personality.
It was my resolution to back off social media a bit because it can be a little toxic. My first order was to not post anything about politics. As a result, it got me to wean myself off social media almost entirely. I still have the commitment of saying I’m going on tour and posting the dates. I don’t tweet about the honors that I’ve received to fluff myself up but if Bank Street goes out of their way to say I’m on their list [After the Fall: How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again, Roaring Brook Press, 2017] that’s humbling and honoring, and I should say I really appreciate this.
Social media is also a place I’ve built a community of friends. After corresponding for years, I may finally meet someone at a book festival. Be frank and honest with them and don’t try to put up a wall that you’re glitz and glam; just be yourself. Have a conversation to have fun.
At SCBWI conferences, there are people who think it’s a means to an end. After a panel, people will think if they tweet a certain way then they’ll get a book deal but it’s always about the content. There is no shortcut. They’re looking at the pebbles and not the entire beach.
AR: As someone who got my start at SCBWI, I realize that the majority of the people who are going to read this are aspiring, and I can’t stress enough there is no shortcut. Those people who make it big on their first book deal or sell the first manuscript they write are the exceptionally rare exception. It’s not going to happen like that. You can’t go through life with that as your laser focus. It’s slow and steady, a journey, learning to be a better writer than you were a year ago, and sending your stuff out.
My first deal came from sending to a publisher I had never sent to before and didn’t know a thing about their publishing house—Bloomsbury—but I sat in a session and was able to submit an unsolicited manuscript [Chicks and Salsa] because I was there. It wasn’t magic. I was showing up at conferences. Learning and growing. Doing the work.
CVZ: You’re trying to be in luck’s path.
AR: Yes. My focus was to become a better writer, a more publishable writer.
CVZ: In the presentation, Dan shared that he illustrated Dude! entirely without killing any trees, by drawing on his iMac using his Wacom tablet and Photoshop. Working in this manner, he created about one illustration per day. Aaron, how long did it take to write Dude!?
AR: I stewed on it for one, two years. I had to let it simmer. I knew I wanted to write a one-word picture book. I knew the word was “dude” but I didn’t have a story. I let it ruminate while I was working on other things. You can’t hurry it because you want to get it in front of a publisher.
Even after I wrote Dude!, I thought it was terrible and sat on it. Finally, after tinkering with it, I sent it to my agent. It was a long process, about three to four years. Meanwhile, I was working on other stuff. You’re always working on other stuff.
You can’t put all your eggs in your first story because your first, second, and even probably your tenth story won’t get published. You need to know that you’ll have many rejections between you and your first sale. But I do believe that if you have some talent and are diligent, there are a finite number of rejections between you and your first sale. That was always my mindset when I was prepublished. My job was to get my best current work in front of as many people who could publish it as possible.
When the rare occasion came, when someone gave me a grain of golden magic in terms of a critique, a way I might improve this, a nugget of wisdom that might make it better, I did that. That is how I just grew.
Your stuff’s not doing its job if it’s sitting in your computer or on a page in a drawer. Its job is to be out there trying to sell itself. You need to thicken up and get as many rejections as you can. Collect those rejections, those are badges of honor. I keep all 390 rejections I have received in a box at home. They are my badges of honor. I would not be a published author if it weren’t for that box of rejection letters.
CVZ: Any last words of wisdom?
DS: Keep working.
AR: You have to love the writing. I spent five years collecting rejection letters and seriously writing and seriously submitting while working at another job. I probably would still be doing that now even if I had never been accepted. If it’s all about getting published and you hate doing it, then it’s sucking life from you. You’ve got to love doing it, even if you never get published.
To me, writing is fun. I love the act of writing and learning about the industry, I loved going to an SCBWI conference and coming back with more knowledge and getting better, getting a manuscript critique and saying, “Why didn’t I think of that?! That’s great!” I love the process of watching my stuff get better. For some people it’s about getting published and getting rich. None of that is true. I don’t drive a Lamborghini, I don’t live in Downton Abbey. If you can squeak out a living, you’re one of the lucky ones.
DS: It’s harder and harder every year. I’d be very stressed out if I was starting out right now. A lot of your growth relies on how well you do in bookstores, word of mouth between book buyers and librarians, and what they think. Do we think Barnes & Noble will be around in five years? You need to ask yourself how you’re going to stand out, how you’re going to be the signal through all the noise. Everything filters through Amazon and only a handful of independent bookstores struggle to make business. They have to stock their limited shelf space with books they know they’ll sell. It’s going to really steepen the curve in terms of trying to get some staying power in this business. You’re going to burn yourself if you’re chasing a trend. If you write something good, that will be the staying power.
AR: It’s all about getting better.
CVZ: Yes, it is all about getting better, putting yourself in the path of luck, and perseverance. Thank you both for your insight and inspiration!
AARON REYNOLDS is a New York Times best-selling author of many highly hilarious books for kids, including Carnivores, Chicks and Salsa, Joey Fly Private Eye, the Caldecott Honor book Creepy Carrots!, Nerdy Birdy, and its follow-up, Nerdy Birdy Tweets. He lives in the Chicago area with his wife, two kids, four cats, and between three and ten fish (depending on the day).
DAN SANTAT is the Caldecott Medal-winning and New York Timesbest-selling author and illustrator of The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend and the road trip/time-travel adventure Are We There Yet? His artwork is also featured in numerous picture books, chapter books, and middle-grade novels, including Dav Pilkey’s Ricky Ricotta series. Dan lives in Southern California with his wife, two kids, and many, many pets.