My friend Ann Ingalls is the perfect example of a writer who thinks outside the box. First of all, in addition to fiction picture books, she writes nonfiction picture books, emergent readers, series nonfiction, and co-authors an early reader series with her pal Sue Gallion. She also has an overall attitude that I find inspirational — and I think you will, too. She and I chatted recently…
When did you fall in love with picture books, Ann?
I have been interested in picture books for as long as I can remember. I was late to learn to read and write. My Dad determined that I would learn how. He took me and my seven siblings to the library every week in the old green and white Ford station wagon. We were each allowed to check out three books. That is when my love affair with books began.
As a mother of three and teacher of over 850 children during my years in the classroom, I was introduced to so many wonderful books. I bought loads and my students brought others. When I left the classroom, I gave 500 books to the incoming teacher. I took the other 500 home with me.
WOW! You could have started your own library. Well, I guess you did, for yourself AND for that lucky incoming teacher. How did you get started writing your own books?
I began writing seriously in 2002. I retired early from teaching as my daughter, Sarah was in a very serious car accident and needed care. She is fine now. I began by writing rhyming text, some of the worst ever. I wrote something called “Ocean Commotion”. I have since purged it from every device. I pulled books apart, literally, and studied page turns, the amount of text on a spread, the story arc, tension, and all that needs to be in a picture book. If the book I pulled apart was about beavers, I would try to do something the same length about robots, or cooking, or whatever. I then started in earnest to submit. An article in the Kansas City Star, one for Focus Magazine, and then a few short stories for the High Five Magazine. When I subbed for a music teacher, I got the idea to write a book about Mary Lou Williams, the First Lady of Jazz. I shared my rough draft with my sister, Maryann, and we decided to partner up. In 2005, we sold that to Houghton Mifflin. The editor found it in the slush pile. It came to print in 2010. Maryann and I also wrote a book on teaching young children to pray. Both projects were satisfying.
Your “I have since purged it from every device” made me laugh out loud, Ann. I can relate. You clearly did your homework before diving in. Must have been really gratifying to work with your sister, and I love hearing that your first book was plucked from the slush pile. So, did things continue fairly smoothly after those first published books?
Nope. It was another three years before I sold a book, and then I sold three—all emergent readers, and all within a 24-hour period. I had just secured an agent, the ever so sweet Karen Grencik at Red Fox Literary. I shared Biggety Bat with her. She was new to agenting and didn’t think it would sell so I sent it to Jenne Abramowitz at Scholastic on my own. They asked for a duo, so I wrote a second one. Karen did like Ice Cream Soup. I asked her to submit it to Bonnie Bader at Penguin Books for Young Readers because they had a call for leveled readers. Karen kindly sent it and Bonnie Bader liked it.
Those three books are still by best-selling books. Pencil: A Story with a Point! is close behind.
Obviously, you’re a very versatile writer. What happened next?
Thanks for that! I really do like to read and write all kinds of things. Karen, Jenna Pocius (my second agent), and Liza Voges (my current agent) have all targeted certain manuscripts they thought would have the best chance of acceptance. I began to wonder about other work I had authored. To whom might I send that? I make a point of studying other writers’ work and which houses published those books. At that same time, I studied new publishers, small publishers, overseas publishers, etc. I was doing a fair bit of work for hire and so I looked closely at that marketplace as well. This is all fairly time consuming but well worth one’s time and attention.
Clearly, you are not afraid to do the homework, Ann. I, too, hate putting anything into the Drawer of Nevermore, so I can understand the temptation to send out work yourself. Since I know you, I know that you dove right in and have done a fair bit of that. Tell us about it, especially when it comes to houses that say they’re closed to submissions.
First and foremost, I do it politely. I tell an editor that I have studied his/her list and especially like several books—I name these and have actually read or studied their descriptions online. Then I say why I think my work may be a fit.
I submit work that my agent doesn’t think she can sell. At this point in time, Liza has agreed to send three or four manuscripts around. I’ve got loads of other stuff that might find a home. Of the 60 books I’ve sold, only a handful were submitted by agents.
It is discouraging when you’ve written a manuscript that you’re proud of and an editor decides for whatever reason to pass. I used to go into a funk, but really, how does that serve any useful purpose? It just drags you down. Producing books is a business and if a publishing house doesn’t take my work for whatever reason, and that may include their own profitability, how can I change that? I let myself feel bad about it for a day or two. Then I determine to not care. I care less than that. That is what I mean when I say, “I negative care.” I don’t make a big issue about it. What really is the point in that? Try it and see if it works for you.
I could not love your “I negative care” attitude more. I have friends who have suffered crushing disappointments when their agents have decided not to submit something or other they wrote. So I love that you just hike up your BGP and submit away (after doing the research, of course). Your next step, then?
Now, as regards the actual submission process, I begin in this way:
If I have an idea for a book I go to Amazon to see if similar books on that topic have been written. How many aardvark picture books are out there? I may open up one or two, read the publisher’s description of the work, sometimes I read reviews to see if anything I write will be as good as what is already out there.
Maybe there aren’t lots of aardvark books. Who published the ones that are out in the world? Then I decide whether or not to proceed. If I go forward, I pick a handful of publishing houses who might like what I write. Who works there? Do I know someone at that house? Might they have interest in an aardvark book? If I think the house might like my silly or serious work, I begin to read online interviews, study #MSWL and ask fellow writers if they of someone who might have interest. I keep a list of submissions and add to it until the books sells. Sometimes I send something out a dozen or more times. But really, I rarely give up on a project. Dear Jody Jensen Shaffer suggested that I try Pajama Press with Pencil: A Story with a Point! so I sent that to Ann Featherstone, and she loved it. Clever, clever Jody.
Back to that aardvark book. If I don’t have an email address, I go to the contact link on a publisher’s site, use the end of the email and puzzle out the address of the individual I am seeking. It looks like this. FSG books’ emails end with @fsgbooks.com.
I really admire Janine O’Malley. If I try her name and that suffix and it doesn’t go, I get that email back in my inbox. I then try a couple of others. Eventually, it does go. Yes, this is tedious but most often it works.
Now for the really important part. I always try to be absolutely as polite as I can. I say that I know how very busy he/she must be, and I am most grateful for his/her time and attention to this submission. I note that I am agented, and I am sending this on my own. I do copy Liza. During periods when I have been without an agent, I had equally good luck. That is pretty much how this process goes. Please feel free to email me if you have a question. You can do that through my website. www.anningalls.com (Note from Jill: Be sure to check out the rest of her books there, too.)
Ann, that is very generous of you! Any final bits of advice for our readers?
Not really. I know anyone who reads this is as passionate about writing as I am. Don’t let rejections beat back that passion. Stay focused on your projects and seeing them through to the end. Whether your work is traditionally published, self-published, or for your own enjoyment. Don’t quit.
Well said. Thanks for stopping by, Ann!