Wednesday, 4 February 2015

The Debut Author Series: Rebecca Colby

The Learning Curve - Insights from Debut Authors 


Nicky Schmidt

For many the road to publication is long and fraught. For others, a publishing deal comes relatively easily. Those who are still trudging the path may find it hard to imagine what it’s like to be a debut author, and authors with a few books to their name may only dimly recall the original experience.


So what is it like? Does life change? Do dreams become reality and with a deal to your name does it all become plain sailing? And what is the process from slushpile to contract to published novel actually like? I asked debut Picture Book  author, Rebecca Colby, about her journey to publication. 

From the time you first started writing, how long did it take to get a publishing deal? 

I’ve always aspired to write a book, but it wasn’t until after my first child was born and I rediscovered children’s books that I started writing in earnest. Like many people before me, I picked up a picture book and thought, “I could write one of these. It’ll be easy.” I wrongly presumed I’d be published in no time. 

But, of course, it wasn’t easy. In fact, it’s actually pretty hard to develop a good story with a beginning, middle and end in less than 500 words. However, that didn’t stop me from writing lots of bad stories. I even sent one to the illustrator, Korky Paul, after reading on his website that he was taking commissions. Talk about being an overly-confident beginner! 

My first book didn’t sell until seven years later. So writing picture books wasn’t exactly the quick path to publishing that I thought it would be! 



It is said that writers have to be persevering and have a tough skin – did you find you grew in endurance and perseverance? Did you ever think about giving up? What made you keep going? 

My skin toughened up early on, and I plastered my writing area with motivational quotes. But despite my determination to succeed, there was some time in 2012-13 when I thought about hanging my hat up. I’d lost my job working in libraries and was retraining as a primary teacher. The course studies had taken over my life and after yet another rejection, I decided I didn’t have the time or energy anymore to get up at 5am to write and send out submissions. I wasn’t planning to give up as much as take a couple of years off. 

But then Christmas break rolled around and a story idea came to me that wrote itself. This was the Wee Lassie idea. And less than two months later, one of my critique partners forwarded a tweet from an agent looking for picture books with little witches. Within a day of answering that tweet, I was offered representation from my agent, Kathleen Rushall. I credit the story idea that wouldn’t let me sleep and the constant support of my critique partners with keeping me going. 



How did you feel when you first landed your deal? Did it feel like the world had changed? How long did the excitement last? 

I like to tell people that it was my week of big breaks. On Monday, I broke my wrist ice skating and was in absolute agony, but on Tuesday, I had my agent contract in hand. I’m right-handed and was forced to sign the contract with my left-hand so it doesn’t look much like my signature, but it must have been binding because a week later Kathleen sold my picture book, It’s Raining Bats and Frogs. That truly helped to cushion the pain! 

Unfortunately, picture books take a good 2 to 3 years from sale to publication so I knew it was going to be hard to maintain the excitement. But then a second picture book, There was a Wee Lassie who Swallowed a Midgie, sold a month later and I was able to sustain the excitement until well after the book came out in March 2014. And the novelty of becoming a published author hasn’t worn off yet. I’m perpetually excited and pinching myself. Ouch! See what I mean? There’s another bruise! 


If you think about the amount of work you did on your story pre-deal, how much more work did you have to do once you’d landed your deal – did you realise the real work had only just begun and how surprised where you by that? 

The post-deal editing experience was a real eye-opener. Wee Lassie was virtually rewritten whereas Bats and Frogs was hardly touched. The amount of editing required really depends on the publishing team’s vision for the book and the shape the manuscript is already in. 


Assuming you took the majority of suggestions on board, how do you feel it impacted on your story? 

It was decided that Wee Lassie should only swallow birds and animals. As the first draft had her swallowing a thistle, a wild haggis and a bagpiper, I took all suggestions on-board and substituted these items. While I felt my first draft lent to more humour, my vision for the book was probably not appropriate for a young girl character. 


How have you found working with illustrators and cover designers? How much involvement have you had with the graphic content of your book (covers or illustrations)? 

My experiences working with the graphic content of my books was different in both instances. For Wee Lassie, I wasn’t shown the illustrations until they were finished. Whereas with Bats and Frogs, I was sent a PDF dummy of the book and asked if I had any concerns with it. It’s quite usual not to be in communication with one’s illustrator until after the book is finished. And I’ve been blessed to work with two fantastically talented illustrators in Kate McLelland and Steven Henry! 


Do you think that having had your first book published, your writing life will be easier and your career will be on track? Do you think it will all be easier the second time round? 

I foolishly thought it would become easier the next time around but rejections are already rolling in for further projects I’ve written. They’re very nice rejections, but rejections nonetheless. It’s par for the course and I’ve realized I can’t rest on my laurels. I just keep writing. 


Aside from the editing, what other aspects of being an author have you had to come to terms with? 

Marketing has been the steepest learning curve for me. As a stereotypical shy and retiring author, I’ve had to step out of my comfort zone and find ways to promote myself. Early on, I set up a mini-marketing collective with other children’s authors in the UK and US. Being in the collective takes some of the sting out of having to promote myself. Instead, I promote the other members in the collective and they return the favour. Currently, I’m looking at more ways to promote myself to teachers, and producing a teacher’s activity guide to Wee Lassie has certainly helped. Teachers are some of the busiest people I know, and they don’t have time to regularly draw up brand new lesson plans. By producing a cross-curricular teacher’s guide to Wee Lassie, I’ve made it easier for them to teach my book in the classroom. NB: The teacher’s guide is available to download free from my website: www.rebeccacolbybooks.com/teachers 



What have been your biggest lessons since landing a deal? 

Do you mean other than making the mistake of quitting my day job and falsely believing that a professional photographer could make me look 10 years younger? Well, other than that, I guess it would be to make sure you still find time to write. It sounds silly and it may not be the case for everyone but for several months preceding and following the launch of Wee Lassie, I did everything but write. It was all writing related, like designing bookmarks, writing a teacher’s guide, updating my website, preparing school workshops, setting up a marketing collective, running PB writing courses for adults, researching my next book, guest blogging, registering with author booking sites, and the list goes on and on and on. But the bottom line is that NONE of it was writing. Not a bit of it got the next book written. So now I’m trying to find a better balance in my life and next time around I won’t sacrifice all of my writing time for writing-related activities. 


What one key piece of advice would you offer unpublished writers when working with an editor for the first time? 

Don’t be precious about your work! Be fully prepared to revise according to your editor’s vision for the book. Firstly, he or she usually has a lot more experience in this business than you do and is working hard to do what they feel is best for your book, and secondly, you don’t want to be the difficult author who never sells another book. 



Now that your first book is out – what next? 

I’m working on several new picture book ideas, which include non-fiction as well as fiction. I’ve also had an idea for a MG novel but I don’t know yet if I’m ready to move on to books for older children. The problem for me has always been too many ideas and too little time! 



You can find out more about Rebecca Colby on her website: www.rebeccacolbybooks.com

You can follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/amscribbler 

And you can buy her book on Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Lassie-Swallowed-Midgie-Picture-Kelpies/dp/1782500480/ 




Rebecca is represented by Kathleen Rushall of Marsal Lyon Literary Agency. Her debut picture book, There was a Wee Lassie who Swallowed a Midgie, is published by Floris Picture Kelpies.








SCBWI-BI “member abroad”, Nicky Schmidt  is an ex scriptwriter, copywriter, and marketing, brand and communications director who "retired" early to follow a dream. Although she still occasionally consults on marketing, communications and brand strategies, mostly she writes YA fiction (some of which leans towards New Adult) in the magical realism and supernatural genres. When not off in some other world, Nicky also writes freelance articles - mostly lifestyle and travel - for which she does her own photography. Her work has been published in several South African magazines and newspapers. As well as being a regular feature writer for Words & Pictures, Nicky also runs the SCBWI-BI YA e-critique group. Nicky lives in Cape Town with her husband and two rescue Golden Retrievers.

32 comments:

  1. Inspiring & very interesting, especially about not being precious. Thanks Rebecca and Nicky.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Rowena! I'm glad you found it inspiring. I love reading insights from other authors about their journey to publication.

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    2. Me, too, Rebecca. It's so generous the way people share experiences, even really tough ones.

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  2. Thanks for this, it's a great series Nicky. Picture books are SO HARD Rebecca - of course you're ready to try older fiction, it's so much easier!

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    1. Ha! PBs are hard to write but I don't know about them necessarily being harder to write than fiction for older children. I'm quaking in my boots at the prospect, Kathy.

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  3. Picture books really are a tough sell. Huge congrats on your successes, Rebecca. And, Nicky, great interview, as always!

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    1. Many thanks, Candy! It wouldn't have happened without SCBWI. And I agree. Nicky always does great interviews!

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  4. Picture books really are a tough sell. Huge congrats on your successes, Rebecca. And, Nicky, great interview, as always!

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  5. Hi Rebecca and Nicky, a very realistic interview. Personally being Scottish ,A Wee Lassie is one of my favourite books and loved by all the children I have read it too. Can't wait for the next one to come out.

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    1. You're a star, Morag! Thanks for sharing Wee Lassie. I so love to hear things like that.

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  6. Yay - I love this series, and this is a lovely interview. You learn so much from other people's writing journeys. I particularly like all the info here about post-publication lessons/advice.

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  7. Thanks, Sue! I, too, love learning from other people's writing journeys.

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  8. Thank you for sharing your special writing journey with us Rebecca. You know this fan admires you! ~Suzy

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  9. And I admire you! Thanks for stopping by and reading the interview, Suzy!

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  10. Wonderful interview with smart and savvy answers! Thanks for the reminder, too, that all of those other really great things like promotion and research still don't equal the actual work of writing.

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    1. Thanks, Kristin! I'll forever be grateful to you for that tweet you passed on! And yes, it's so easy to get stuck into writing related activities without ever writing a word.

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  11. Excellent interview! I see your trademark humor coming through loud and clear in several of your answers, Rebecca. I appreciate your honesty. about publishing..it's not easy and it's not fast.
    I'm going to try to heed your advice about the months leading up to the launch. I don't want to totally abandon my writing but I'm already see that time will be short.

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    1. Don't you mean my trademark immaturity?! :) Thank you, Penny! I'm sure you'll get started on promotion sooner than I did, and forewarned is always forearmed. Btw, I can't wait for your book to come out this summer!

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  12. Wonderful interview! Loved Rebecca's first book and the second one looks just as fun!

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    1. Cheers, Marcia! I appreciate you stopping by and the kind words about the interview and books.

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  13. Great interview. Very inspiring. Thanks, Nicky and Rebecca!

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    1. Many thanks, Sue! Nicky always conducts great interviews for Words and Pictures.

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  14. Thank you Nicky and Rebecca. Really enjoyed this and any insights are always welcome by us lot! Keep up the good work :-)

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    1. I agree. Any insights from other children's book creatives are always welcome. Thanks, Dennis!

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  15. I found this really interesting and enjoyable! Rebecca.. I notice you're with a US agent. Were you living in the UK when you signed with her and would you say it's worth UK writers approaching US agents? I haven't considered it before.

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    1. Hi Lynda, Great question--I was living here in the UK at the time and wasn't having any luck with UK agents and felt it might be in part because my writing was more appropriate for the US market. If you don't mind the risk of your books not coming out in the UK market (and having them on hand for school visits!), then I'd certainly consider submitting to US agents. The US market is much bigger and school visits can be done via Skype these days. However, if you have your heart set on having books to sell here, you probably wouldn't want to consider this option. Most US agents won't know the UK market and won't be submitting for you here. Wee Lassie had gone out on submission before getting my agent--hence the reason I do have a book available here in the UK (although I did ask Kathleen to help with the contract which she kindly agreed to do).

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    2. Thank you Rebecca, that's a really helpful reply. I've only recently started submitting in the UK and I would prefer to see my books published over here (if that ever happened!) but it's nice to know there's a whole new set of agents across the pond should I run out of UK ones!

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  16. I was wondering that too Lynda, in fact I have just queried them anyway! Thanks Rebecca for all the tips and info and thank you Nicky for a great article.

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    1. Thank you, Fran, and good luck with your queries!

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  17. Thank you both, Rebecca and Nicky. This is a wonderfully comprehensive read. Congratulations for reaching your goal - your story is truly inspirational.

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  18. Thank you, Nancy! I appreciated the opportunity to share my story on Words and Pictures.

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  19. Such an insightful interview with honest, eye-opening answers, Rebecca. It is a clever solution to employ the use of the writing collective to share the marketing for your books; I think, other than the writing itself, putting yourself out there in public view as it were, must be the scariest thing! Well done on never giving up.

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