Monday, April 26, 2010

Publishing futurist, film director, and sports editor

Growing up (and still today), one of the reasons I love(d) shows like Super Friends is because of the team-ups. I liked to see what combination of heroes would form to take on the latest challenge.

I also like this in real life. Within a circle of friends, I like to observe who ends up doing what together. (I actually used to “take attendance” at certain gatherings. Yes, said friends would mock this.)

Over the past few months, I’ve noted three disparate quotations that each seemed like a good catalyst for a blog post. They are unrelated other than the fact that they are all quotations. So in the spirit of the randomness of Super Friends splinter groups (which, in this context, is in and of itself random), here they are, with my reasons for mentioning them.

quotation #1

“In the digital age it will make much more economic sense for the owner of the audience to find the content rather than the way we’ve always done it, which is the other way around.”

Mike Shatzkin, expert publishing consultant and founder of The Idea Logical Company, digital book publishing futurists

I found this both exciting in its perception and scary in its implication.

Could it be true?

Mike seems way ahead of many of us in understanding of the industry (he’s earned his futurist badge at least in part from decades of experience) and I do think he is on to something here. (The rest of the article of which this is the last line is also compelling.)

However, I still believe that a well-done book is capable of attracting a sizable audience that includes people new to the subject, the author, or both. I think the biggest factor in that is marketing, a huge part of the marketing is the author himself, and a huge part of that is indeed the author’s digital presence. (The cost of this is often only the author’s time...and Internet service provider charges.)

But I feel personal appearances remain hugely important, even for those, like me, who are not household names. Maybe especially for those like me. If an author does well at speaking engagements, that can keep building an audience, even for a book that is long past new.

For every person who is loyal to a subject, there is a person loyal to an author (regardless of subject). I have not scientifically tested that but do believe it holds up.

To relate Mike’s comment to my work, Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman is a picture book that has found an audience beyond young readers. Predictably, that audience consists largely of comic book fans. I could keep writing books about superheroes (indeed I do have one on Batman in the works) and that audience may stand by me. But eventually, fatigue may set in for me or the audience (or both).

But if I write my passions, the work is stronger, and if I market passionately, those with similar passion (for the subject or the author, if not both) will be my audience. In other words, I still believe someone who loves my book about Superman may also love my book about a WWII Japanese pilot. (And not just because both fly.)

quotation #2

“The thing that worries people most is often the thing that makes it work.”

Tim Burton, Entertainment Weekly, 3/5/10

I responded to this because I am among a growing group of picture book authors drawn to subjects that are atypical for picture books. And we all know that new can equal scary. Too few want to take risks, or at least be the first to take a certain risk.

I wrote Boys of Steel because I felt it was a powerful story for multiple ages on multiple levels, but it’s still uncommon to see pop culture figures featured in nonfiction picture books (at least relative to “textbook names” such as Lincoln and King). People may not (at first) look past the pop culture to discover the human condition underneath.

But in recent years, we’ve seen an explosion of both pop culture and lesser-known figures in picture books thanks to authors including Meghan McCarthy, Don Brown, Jonah Winter, Chris Barton, Barbara Kerley, Catherine Brighton, Elizabeth Matthews, Shana Corey, and Gary Golio (not to mention their editors). Kids (and adults) will be richer for these unorthodox experiments.

And in his world, Tim Burton does the same thing. A thin comedian as Batman? A guy with scissors for hands? A corpse bride? (Interestingly, much of his source material is literature, some of which surely seemed radical upon first publication, from “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.) He is eminently qualified to make the observation he did.

We in picture book publishing should keep his boldness in mind.

quotation #3

“The resurrection of Christ was incredible. Little since then has been.”

Gil Rogin, former Sports Illustrated managing editor, in a memo

Rogin was referring to the use of the word “incredible” in writing. It has become devalued by overuse. So have its cousins “amazing,” “fantastic,” “wonderful,” and so on. In everyday speech, they are dependable workhorses. In print, they have little impact.

Generally speaking, description is usually better without resorting to adjectives at all (or at least adjectives alone). That is one of the central challenges to authors—how to describe something familiar in a new way. We won’t be able to do that using the same old adjective.

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