Friday, April 08, 2011

"Trending" and the Dread "Selling Out"

Below is a slightly edited excerpt from a discussion on Facebook after a recent Society of Children's Book Writer's and Illustrator's Conference. It was a good conference, and I was a runner up in the best in show competition, but it was also a little frustrating because it was suggested that my style wasn't in fashion, or "trending", that slightly annoying invented verb that simply means, "what's in fashion". It's not a permanent condition, and what's in fashion doesn't always mean what's good, it just means that some kinds of books are more likely to sell based on market trends, and others, less so. And they have to sell books. That's the bottom line. Otherwise they won't have the opportunity to sell more books.

The other reality is that great books don't have an expiration date. A truly great book will be as great at the time its written as it will forty years from the time it's written. Especially children's books. Because kids have no idea what's "trending", they just know what they like. And the judgement of kids is pretty ruthless, so great or not, there's something about a book that resonates with kids that's special, even the ones that a lot of adults think, suck. I'm no fan of the Twilight series, but there's a reason why kids respond to it. Who knows what that reason is, but something about it clicks with teenagers, something that I wouldn't too easily discount. Is it a great book? I have no idea. And it may well fall out of fashion at some point, but to a lot of teenagers right now, it's a great book.

On the other side of the coin, it's hard to identify those great books before they become great books. It's the job of editors to identify them while they're still manuscripts, and there are a lot of editors out there who have regretted passing on manuscripts that later became great books. But it's always a risk; that you've picked a book that may well be a great book, but doesn't resonate with enough people to sell well or to sell well right now, or that you've passed on the next Where the Wild Things Are. So even if you have great taste, you can't always pick those books that will do well. There are a lot of great books that simply don't appeal to the masses. But the only way to stay in business as a publisher is to sell enough books that have mass appeal. And sometimes, if you sell enough of those kinds of books, you have the wiggle room to sell a few books that you simply think deserve to be read. The job requires both a passion for books, and a savviness about the often contrary demands of commerce. It's a hard job, one that I would never want to hold. At times, I imagine, it can be as heartbreaking as it can be rewarding.

So here's a part of that discussion, and my response to the question, "would you ever sell out?"

Some of what's "trending" makes sense--more expressive, animated characters--I need to work on that in my drawings of kids. This wasn't always the case--Tenniel's original Alice's Adventures in Wonderland has a very un-kid-like placid Victorian face, and though I love the book, that's not exactly the direction I want to go in. Some of it makes less sense: right now they like to assume that only very young kids are being read picture books, then they work their way up to early reader (The Cat in the Hat) and then they jump right into chapter books, skipping the step in between. This is why they want Picture books with less words, chapter books with more words. And this isn't their fault really--it's the way parents are thinking about books for their kids right now. They're very anxious to have them jump right in to chapter books and skip that important step in reading. There used to be something more akin to a storybook somewhere in there, but those have all but disappeared. But that's how books are being marketed, so if you can think of how images are marketed to very young children in the most obvious sense--bright colors, sweet, or endearing characters that have simple but expressive features. The more you head in the direction towards realism the trickier things get, because images get more complex and are thought to have less appeal to children, another concept I'm not sure I subscribe to.

But I do tend to spend a lot of time on environments, and less time on what my figures are doing in them, which is something that I genuinely need to work on, among other things. The editors and art directors aren't the bad guys. Sometimes they do have useful things to say. And in the end they need to sell books. Print media has been hit hard, and they're all terrified, and you can't really blame them. They're taking less risks because they simply can't afford to take risks right now.

As for the dreaded "selling out": my favorite quote from the comic book writer, Harvey Pekar is, "I'm ready to sell out, but nobody's buying what I'm selling." But that's only half true for me, and a little too easy. At least if you want to make a career out of the work you do. I think there's such a thing as a certain amount of flexibility in style, that you can bend without breaking. That I am capable of doing work that sits well with me but that better fits what they're looking for. It doesn't have to be that much of a stretch.

The true test is if you can sit alone in a room with a pencil where you spend most of your working life as an illustrator and get some kind of joy out of what you're doing. If what you're making is a joyless exercise that you exchange for money, I don't know what you call it--selling out, selling your soul, but whatever it is, it's simply not worth it. If I ever find myself doing that, then yes, I've strayed pretty far from the whole point of why I started doing this.

But so many people don't enjoy their jobs, and I think it would be overly simplistic to say that they were "selling out." If this is selling out, then most people would sell out in a minute for their kids or their spouses, and I admire the sacrifice. People sometimes don't think of art in the same way they do other work, that somehow it's special, but art produced to be sold, is, in the end, work. Selling yourself out as an artist isn't much different than selling yourself out in any other soulless job. Being fulfilled as a working artist isn't much different than being fulfilled in any other career.

But I don't have kids, and the way I'm talking here is from a real place of privilege. If my wife wasn't the primary bread winner, I wouldn't be able to invest as much energy and time as I have in building my career. That time is a gift and I don't take it, or her for granted. She's the most important person in my life. And if I had to, I'd sell out, for her. But right now I'm trying a different path. I'd like to make a career out of writing and drawing books, and we'll see where that leads.

What I've Been Doing Lately

I haven't been posting much art lately because I've been concentrating on typesetting and rewriting a middle reader chapter book dummy that's heavily dependent on illustration placement. The illustrations are very much integrated into the text to the extent that at some points in the story, it's told exclusively through illustration. This is an unusual approach to children's chapter books, a sort of chapter book, picture book hybrid, so its a bit of an experiment, but I'm excited about the book and I'm anxious to get started on the illustrations. I just need to finish typesetting!


  1. Sorry to hear about them telling you your style wasn't "trending". I don't know what to say about that. However, it never hurts to reassess things while staying true to yourself. I can't wait to see your new project. Will it have a graphic novel look to it?

  2. Thanks!

    And no, it's pretty much traditional chapter book format (Think: Spiderwick Chronicles, How to Train Your Dragon, Magic Treehouse) but with passages of illustrations only, serial sequences of single page illustrations and spreads, and a couple of serial sequences that are more akin to comics, though largely it sticks to the standard formula.

    It was originally intended to be a storybook, but as mentioned, that format is no longer in vogue. Fortuitously, the word count matched the chapter book format, so it's just a question or reformatting and rethinking it as a chapter book. Originally, it had already been broken down into chapters, just conceived with larger pages and larger illustrations.

    I'm typesetting it on InDesign in the new format with 14 point type, factoring in space for illustrations on smaller pages. It's the only way I can conceive of doing it, since it's the only way I can account for page turns and spreads. Just handing in the manuscript as, is, without illustrations wouldn't really tell the story I want to tell.

  3. This book project sounds great, Jed. Right up your alley!