Tuesday, November 1, 2011

5 Amber Keyser on How to Find Your Way in the Publishing World

We do have a craft post coming next week, I promise, and it is based on the new hit TV show REVENGE. I'll let you stew on that for a while.  In fact, comment on your prediction of what I'm going to write about, and I'll give away a great YA novel for the most creative answer.  BUT meanwhile....

We have a guest post today! Amber Keyser is a former ballerina and evolutionary biologist, who writes about science and adventure for tweens and teens.  Currently, she’s the go-to-girl and YA novelist for Angel Punk.  Look for action-adventure heroine, Mara Layil, to burst onto the scene, fists flying in summer 2012.  Find out more at her website or on Twitter. 

Mastering McBean’s Machine (Or How to Find Your Way in the Publishing World)

If you’re like me, you write stories because you want people to read them.  That means tangling with the illogical, capricious, and sometimes downright unfair business of publishing.  Sometimes the behemoth resembles the Star-On/Star-Off Machine of Sylvester McMonkey McBean, but deal with it we must.  So here’s my absolute best advice for you with examples from my own fledgling writing career.

1.  Strive to improve your craft.
2.  Cultivate meaningful relationships.
3.  Learn everything you can about McBean’s Machine.

I’m not going to linger on CRAFT in this post.  Suffice it to say to survive the Star-On Machine, you’ve got to write freaking good stuff.  Attend workshops, write often, read up on craft, and get thee to the best critique group you possibly can.  (Shameless self-promotion: The brilliant Viva Scrivas and I blog about critique and the writing process at vivascriva.com).

RELATIONSHIPS matter in this business.  My first children’s book (Paddle My Own Canoe, Friends of Algonquin Park Press, 2007) was published by a small niche house in Canada.  I wrote the text as a eulogy for my grandmother’s funeral.  The editor who had published my grandmother’s memoir attended the funeral.  She acquired my text as a version of my grandmother’s story for young readers.  My first magazine article happened because a member of my critique group, who writes regularly for Odyssey, told the editor I was the person to fill a gap for a particular issue.  

Get to know and support other writers through your local writing organizations, conferences, and social media.  Build real relationships based on shared interests and mutual helping hands.  Not only is this great for buoying your morale (check out Kristen Lamb’s #myWANA hashtag on Twitter), but the industry functions on connections between people.  We often rely on agents to be the connectors.  It’s their job to know what kinds of books editors like and are good to work with, but it’s our job too.  We need to know who is working on books like ours.  Who are the movers and shakers in our genre.  Yes, agents and editors fall in love with manuscripts (I found my agent through a cold query), but they work with people.  Be a person worth working with. 

Master the MACHINE.  Publishing is a business.  Typically when people announce this, they segue into something like “so write what people are buying and reading.”  When I say it, I mean that there are nuts, bolts, and schematics that you really need to understand.  How are books acquired?  Who are the team members that shepherd a book through to publication?  What are the conventions for your genre and age-range?  What’s the role of reviewers and bloggers?  How are new technologies changing the publishing landscape?  I still want you to write what you love, but I want you to survive the machine not get chewed up by it. 

When I first started writing seriously for children, I had a plan.  My background is in biology so I started with science writing for kids to capitalize on my area of expertise (not very many children’s writers have a Ph.D. in genetics).  I sold magazine articles in order to build up my publishing credentials (I eventually sold four to Odyssey Magazine and five to other mags).  I connected with Laura Purdie Salas’ excellent class on writing for the educational market and learned how this huge arm of children’s publishing differs from the trade houses.  Using tips from Laura’s class and my magazine articles, I approached educational publishers and ended up doing freelance work for Capstone Press (Basics of Cell Life, 2010; Decoding Genes, 2010; Anatomy of a Pandemic, 2011).  Working on these projects taught me how to work with editors and meant that I could query agents with a letter that included the titles of four published books.

When it came to finding an agent, again I had a strategy.  At the time, I was writing both nonfiction books about science for the trade market and middle-grade fiction.  I studied everything I could about agents, how they work, how people get representation, etc.  I learned that most people land an agent with a novel manuscript because both nonfiction and picture books are hard sells right now.  While I polished my novel, I researched agents like crazy.  I identified twelve agents that I thought would be a good fit for both my fiction and my nonfiction, but I queried with a focus on the novel.  I had interest from three of the twelve, and the one I went with actually signed me based on a nonfiction manuscript, which was a surprise.

In landing my current gig, craft, relationships, and McBean’s machine all came together.  Angel Punk is a  transmedia storytelling project, which means that we are telling interwoven stories through multiple forms of media.  In our case, the story of Mara Layil, a seventeen-year-old, action-adventure heroine with supernatural powers, unfolds through a feature film, a comic book series, a fan engagement site, gaming, and a young adult novel (my bit). 

The founders of Relium Media, the start-up behind Angel Punk, had put out feelers for a young adult novelist through The Attic, a resource for writers in Portland, Oregon.  A member of Viva Scriva teaches there, and she put them in touch with me.  I sent a resume and writing samples, went in for an interview, and finally wrote a sample for them set in the Angel Punk universe.  Ultimately they gave me the book contract because they liked my writing, knew I could bring my connections and knowledge about kid lit publishing to the table, and they thought I would be a good fit for the creative team. 

I’m not trying to horn toot here, but I do want to emphasize that my writing alone was not enough to get me the job.  Just as I brought scientific expertise to my first foray into writing for children, I brought my expertise about this crazy business to the table. 

Now if you’re groaning at my advice for mastering the Star-On Machine, remember this.  The publishing business is made of people—typically nice, smart people who love good stories as much as you do.  Dive in.  I think you’ll have fun, and you’ll probably end up eating frankfurters on the beach with all the Star Belly Sneetches. 


  1. Well, your request is a little like Daniel having to tell Nebuchadnezzar what his dream was, but I'll guess that you're going to write about getting revenge on editors and agents by writing an over the top opening that takes away their power to lay your manuscript down.

    : )

  2. Great tips here, worth bookmarking! Thanks for the insight...

  3. P.S. Also: thanks, Amber, for your good writing insights. : )

  4. Nice! Learning all we can about the industry is the way to do it. Writers can bumble their way into an agent or an editor, but it takes a lot longer. Being informed helps a lot. Thanks!

  5. Thanks! I always love hanging out with the @4kidlit team!


Tell us what you think. We'd love to hear from you! :)