Publishers will reject your best ideas.
How I used social media and a little persistence to get my book published.
It’s no secret that publishing is full of rejection. Even the biggest name authors have trouble selling their manuscripts. If you stick with it, your persistence can pay off, but it’s not always clear when it’s time to shelf an idea. My board book series began as a rejected editorial illustration. A publisher thought I should pursue the idea as a picture book but changed course and rejected it, too. I pitched the concept to many more editors, each of whom rejected my manuscript, until finally it became a book series.
Before making picture books, I made art for magazines and newspapers including Time Magazine, Real Simple, The Washington Post and for several years I illustrated the column Modern Love for the New York Times. These days I mostly make picture books and book covers for novels, though I still take on the occasional editorial assignment. The process goes like this: Read the manuscript and attempt to distill the story down to a simple theme. Send three or so sketches based on that theme. The Art Director or editor picks one. Make the art and (minus a few tweaks) you’re done.
A magazine had just green-lit one of my sketches for a personal essay about friendship and how the author and her best friend, though different as night and day, compliment each other. The art featured two cats (a stand in for the two women) curled up in a ball to form a yin-yang symbol. A fun metaphor, cuddly cats, what’s not to like? The final art was eventually rejected. The editor wanted to go in a different direction. Fair enough.
I still thought it was a fun image so I put the rejected art on my social media and called it a day. A few months later, an Art Director from a children’s book publisher got in touch. He thought the idea would translate to a board book. I immediately sat down and worked out a few rough ideas and brought them into his office. We had a great brainstorming session and he eventually asked an editor to join in. The idea for the book was a mash up of animals and shapes: A frog mixed with an octagon becomes a hoptagon. Cats and a circle become a purrr-cle.
This publisher is known for making smart, beautiful, design-forward board books. It’s exactly where I thought this book should be. It seemed too good to be true. Turns out it was. Over the next few months I refined the concept and created a mock up that I called Animal Shapes. The Art director was excited to move forward but the editor just wasn’t feeling it. She wanted to scrap what we had done and her new suggestions were out of step with the original concept. We eventually parted ways.
I was bummed to say the least. I had already worked hard developing this idea and foolishly assumed a book deal was a given. The publisher that had sparked this process was no longer interested, but what had started as a whim was now conviction. Animal Shapes was fresh and unique and reading it to kids would be pure joy. I needed to make this book.
My agent suggested I come up with a companion book idea and that we sell it as a series. I figured if this idea has merit, the extra effort would be worth it. I came up with Animal Colors as a companion book—when a yellow kangaroo and a green moose mix, they make a chartreuse kangamoose. I flushed out ideas for both books and my agent sent them out to several editors including publishers I had worked with in the past as well as editors who specifically asked if I was working on any new ideas. My agent and I were feeling pretty good about our chances.
One by one, we watched the rejection emails roll in. Some thought it was clever but not suitable for kids. Others thought the ideas were too sophisticated for the board book format. A few folks just didn’t find the idea funny or entertaining. My agent was surprised no one jumped on it. After a year plus working on this project it seemed like it was time to bury this idea for good.
I considered self-publishing the books or even going more grass roots and putting it out as a zine. Nothing wrong with either of those formats and in fact, self-publishing channels allow creative freedom and in some cases earn a little money. But, I was so close to having the work published at what seemed like the ideal publishing house and rejection felt like defeat.
In publishing, everyone gets rejected. Authors like me who have a few successful books under their belts and contacts at several publishers get rejected. Even big time, famous authors who have best selling books and movie deals are turned away. Publishers are like the Oprah of rejection, “…and you get a rejection, and you get rejection, and you in the front get a rejection too”. Your best ideas will get rejected. For some creatives, the better your idea the more publishers will reject it.
I put the idea aside and tried to focus on something else. Fortunate and grateful to have a solid foot in this business, I had other opportunities. Being an illustrator, I could make art for another author’s picture book whose manuscript had already dodged the publisher‘s gauntlet. Book cover assignments and more editorial work helped me stay engaged elsewhere rather than dwelling on defeat. I also had the benefit of an agent who having been through this dance many times could lend a broader perspective or least a shoulder to cry on.
I was already working on illustrations for another book when my agent called. A publisher named Little Bee Books was interested. They loved the idea and wanted to talk. And there you have it. Turns out it wasn’t such a bad book idea after all.
Eventually we made both books which have had starred reviews from Kirkus (no small feat) and Publisher’s weekly and was featured in the New York Times. The sales have been modest but strong enough that I’m creating two more books in the series, Animal Sounds and Animal Numbers, and we’ve had interest from big retailers about reprinting an exclusive edition.
All this to say If you’re going to make books, you’ll need to embrace rejection or at least get used to it. Everyone goes through it. Neither your first book nor your tenth are immune. Rejection in publishing is relentless, but then out of nowhere someone gets what you’re trying to do and when you least expect it… bam, you’ve got a book.