Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Apples to apples: checking out the competition.

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I wrote last week about the one thing you must do before hitting Publish – pick up a kids’ book and flip through it to make sure YOUR book looks and feels the way a children’s book should. The truth is, I was letting you off easy.

By the time you publish, whether on your own or through a traditional publisher, you should have held in your hands – oh, DOZENS of children’s books… and picked at least three to be your “comps” – your prime competition.  Here’s how I did this step recently with an upcoming book of my own.

What are your comps?

Probably the best place to start looking is Amazon.com. I’m finishing a story right now which centres around the Jewish festival of Shavuot. Because this important holiday doesn’t get as much coverage as some of the others, I want to position it as a “Shavuot book,” which I hope will get the attention of Jewish children’s-book publishers.

Amazon offers an Advanced Search feature – not easily visible on the home page, so

use this link – that lets you search not only by category but by publishing date, so you can find what’s most current, or popular. You can also filter your results by age group / reading level. This is great if you’re looking in a crowded category, though in this case, there is so little that I didn’t really have to narrow it down much.

For my search, here’s what I turned up:

image  Comp #1: A Mountain of Blintzes

Barbara Diamond Goldin (Author), Anik McGrory (Illustrator)

Kar-Ben Publishing (January 1, 2012)

 

image Comp #2: Sadie and the Big Mountain

Jamie S. Korngold (Author), Julie Fortenberry (Illustrator)

Kar-Ben Publishing (2013)

 

imageComp #3: The Vanishing Gourds: A Sukkot Mystery

Susan Axe-bronk (Author), Marta Monelli (Illustrator)

Kar-Ben Publishing (2012)

This last book, by the way, isn’t specifically a Shavuot book, but it is about another Jewish holiday, Sukkot. I didn’t find enough books for the right age group that were just about Shavuot

What do you do with your comps?

Once you’ve found the books… read them! If at all possible, hold them in your hands, turn them over, look at the art and read them to a child.

That’s not always possible, of course. You don’t have to spend a fortune if you have a local public library, but here in Israel, it’s not likely we’ll come across many English-language children’s books at our local public library. If you’re writing in a niche that’s close to your heart, you may have likeminded friends who already own the book, so you can check it out at their house. Ditto with bookstores: if you have a bookstore nearby, it might be enough to go and look at the books in question… but we don’t.

If you can’t read your comps in person, look through them on Amazon (it helps if they have Look Inside. You can also do a Google image search to find as many interior views of the book as possible. Also helpful are professional reviews, positive and negative. Amateur reviews on Amazon are less helpful, since they don’t usually tell you enough about the plot.

What you want to find out, for each book, at the very least, are a) the book’s THEME, b) the main character and his/her problem, and c) how the problem is resolved. The more information you can accumulate, the better. Here’s what I turned up for my third comp, The Vanishing Gourds:

Publisher’s Description:

When Sara’s gourds-- decorations for the family sukkah – start mysteriously disappearing, the hunt is on for the culprits. The family of squirrels who are to blame pay the family back for the missing gourds in a surprising way.

Kirkus Review:

The Jewish fall harvest festival celebrated in a temporary hut known as a sukkah is the focus of this slight story about sharing.

Having carefully selected several gourds to hang from the sukkah roof as decorations, Sara and Avi are dismayed when the hard-shelled vegetables begin to fall, split open and are ravaged by the squirrels in their yard. Sara’s anger inspires a dream she has that night in which the offending squirrel emerges to apologize and promises to bring new gourds the following year. Once awake, Sara imagines squirrels shopping for gourds at the local market and acknowledges their hunger with a pile of nuts carefully placed on the sukkah table. As the holiday ends, Sara makes sure the squirrels are well-fed throughout the year. When Sukkot rolls around again, Sara begins to clean up the patch of grass for the sukkah and is surprised to find a number of gourds growing there, sprouted from the seeds left by the squirrels the previous year. This contrivance—gourd vines are hard to miss, and does this family never mow?—fatally weakens the conclusion, with its implicit lesson of sharing. A more creative and endearing version of this theme can be found in Jamie Korngold’s Sadie’s Sukkah Breakfast (2011). Acrylic and graphite sketches in earthy tones add mild amusement to Sara’s infuriating dilemma, though they do nothing to mitigate the implausibility of Sara's discovery.

Even given the paucity of books on Sukkot, this is one to skip. (Picture book. 3-5)

1. Topic: Sukkot, Jewish festivals

2. Theme: Giving is the spirit of the holiday… and sometimes, what goes around comes around.

3. Plot:

1. STORY PROBLEM

Sara’s gourds go missing from the decorated roof of her family’s sukkah (a hut like a plant-covered gazebo that Jews sit in during the festival of Sukkot).

2. STORY CONFLICT

Sara tries to solve the “mystery” of where the gourds are going. From the reviews, I understand this is done numerically, with fewer and fewer gourds hanging from the roof of the sukkah.

3. STORY RESOLUTION

Sara realizes that hungry squirrels have been stealing the gourds and decides to feed them all winter long. The “payoff” is that the seeds from the stolen gourds sprout and grow in time for the following year’s holiday.

4. What’s it about (nutshell) ???

WHEN gourds go missing from the family sukkah, Sara, a young girl, must figure out where they’ve gone, and along the way, develop compassion for squirrels.

5. The plot (expanded):

Act 1

Gourds go missing from Sara’s family sukkah.

Act 2

Two sources of conflict here. First, the “mystery” of figuring out where the gourds are going, and then Sara’s increasing impatience with those nasty squirrels.

Act 3

Sara realizes that the squirrels are hungry… and does what she can to take care of them. Then, as they have promised, they turn around and take care of her with fresh new gourds the following autumn.

This is a little long and detailed… but it’s exactly the level of detail you NEED, even if you never manage to hold the actual book in your hands.

Noticing patterns.

Look carefully at anything your comps have in common – is this something your book needs as well?

In this case, many holiday books, regardless of their topic (and regardless of which religion or nationality they’re celebrating!), have an underlying theme of inclusiveness, or generosity. Few publishers are going to look at a holiday book that depicts it as a time to huddle close and do secret things with a few family members – most books in this genre show characters interacting with others and including them in their celebration.

This tells me I’d better include something like this as well.

I like all three of the books I chose because any explanation of the holiday is interwoven naturally into other activities – there aren’t long passages of description of what the holiday’s about. I hate books that stop and explain stuff. And because my kids have been celebrating this festival their whole life, they would probably be bored by that sort of thing anyway, though it has its place in a book aimed at kids of other faiths. (Read this holiday-book writing post to help you choose which audience you’re writing for.)

The most important pattern

Finally… did you notice the most important thing all these books had in common? They are all published by a single publishing company. That company is Kar-Ben Publishing, which happens to be the main venue for children’s books of this type.

If two or three of your comps have the same publisher in common, it’s worth checking out their site in depth. Kar-Ben’s website, for instance, says “With over 300 titles in print, Kar-Ben publishes 12-18 new, high quality children's titles with Jewish content each year.” That’s not many.

Happily, they also have submission guidelines on their site to give me a few clues about what might succeed. I love it when publishers make things very clear. “We DO NOT accept manuscripts for books aimed at young adults or adults. We DO NOT publish games, textbooks, or books in Hebrew. Your story should be concise, have interesting, believable characters, and action that holds the readers’ attention. Good prose is far better than tortured verse.”

Most publishers have similar guidelines available. There are tons of blogs around that will tell you how to navigate the ins and outs of publisher guidelines, so I won’t belabour the point, except to say that it’s a Very Good Thing if you can come away from checking out your comps with a strong sense of what they have in common and who’s publishing books like yours.

Should you share your comps with publishers?

It depends. Often you’ll hear this suggestion if you’re submitting a book proposal for adult non-fiction. In that case, the book isn’t written yet, so listing your comps can give publishers a better idea of where you see your final book fitting in. With kids’ books, you’ve generally completed the entire book already, plus, it’s probably pretty short. So it’s probably best to let it stand on its own merits.

The exception to this rule is, of course, if one or more of your comps is from the publisher you’re sending your manuscript to. In which case, the answer is a resounding YES! Familiarity with the type of material they publish puts you ahead of probably 80% of every manuscript they likely receive.

Adding a sentence to your cover letter like, “This book would fit right in at Bovine Publishing, given your success with books like Tracey’s Dream of Cows and Jumping Over the Moon,” lets them know you’re more clued-in than their average submission. Be careful to ensure that your comps are current – many publishers change focus over the years, and Bovine Publishing may have moved away from cows and into stories about cats instead if that’s what’s selling in today’s market.

One last benefit of comps:  other writers!

One last thing that may help your book tremendously, especially if you self-publish.

Knowing your comps means knowing who’s succeeded in your niche. See those three author names listed above? A couple of them are bound to have websites… and websites means contact details. And that means I can get in touch to find out if they’ll say something kind about my book, once it’s finished.

1490581839At this point, your book is presumably ready to publish, so you’re looking for a blurb, not a detailed critique. When I approached writer and illustrator Ann D. Koffsky to blurb my book Zoom: A Trip to the Moon, I actually sent her two books so she could choose the one she was most comfortable putting her name on.

It was well worth the angst of putting myself “out there.” Here’s what she wrote: “...A charming story that touches on the natural wonder and attraction that many kids have towards outer space, and adds thoughts of Hashem [God] into the mix. The illustrations and photos enhance its appeal, making for a book that parents will enjoy sharing with their children.”

(Which, coincidentally, is exactly what I was going for when I wrote the book!)

Sure, you may feel like a stalker, approaching writers out of the blue. I sure do, when I’m inquiring about interviewing them for this blog. Most will probably say no; they won’t or can’t blurb your book. But if your query is personal enough (mentioning their book in detail and explaining why you thought they were a good match for yours), eventually you may strike pay dirt.

Indeed, researching comps is a process you should probably compare to digging for gold. If you want your finished product to really shine – whether it’s professionally- or self-published – you’ll need a little of that gold to rub off on your own book. So what are you waiting for??? Get digging!

What’s your favourite way of turning up great comps? Has researching comps led you to change your own books in some way?

[photo credit: Michael Johnson via Wikimedia]

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