Friday, August 24, 2018

Stolzer and Skaggs Talk on Working with an Illustrator

Article by Lauren Miller
Photos by Steven Langhorst

Illustrators Jennifer Stolzer and Craig Skaggs spoke July 14  at the St. Louis Writers Guild’s monthly workshop about the process of authors working with illustrators.

Jennifer Stolzer

Jennifer Stolzer
Stolzer’s talk focused primarily on picture book illustrations, as well as examples of interior art illustrations for traditional chapter books for older readers. Putting out a picture book is quite different from books for older readers, she said. Before contacting an illustrator, have your manuscript completed and in traditional manuscript format. Some authors separate the story into pages, leaving spaces for pictures, but this forces the illustrator to scroll through dozens of mostly blank pages looking for the actual written content. Don’t annoy your potential illustrator by making this rookie mistake!

The age range of your target audience will dictate what subjects publishers will be looking for, based on what’s commonly taught/experienced. Here are some standards:

·         Board Books: Feature individual words, no story, basic concepts like colors, numbers. Parents read these books to their children.

·         Pre-School Books: These will begin to have stories with a theme (e.g. going to the park, visiting the library, etc.)

·         Kindergarten – 2nd Grade: At this age, children are learning to read for themselves, but they need a simple vocabulary and a good story.

“There’s a swamp of color books. If you don’t have a specific angle, try something different [for board books],” Stolzer said. Common Core guidelines are a great way to find out what the government’s guidelines on age-appropriate levels are, especially if you’re hoping to have your book eventually picked up by the Scholastic book fair (and potentially purchased by hundreds of schools).

Market Research

It can be difficult breaking into the book market when there are a gazillion books already out there on a handful of basic concepts. How will your book be better than what’s already available? Doing market research for comparative titles can be a time-saver. Also keep an eye out for what’s trendy now, because it won’t be by the time your book is in bookstores. “It takes about two years for a concept to get from manuscript stage to being put out by a major publisher,” Stolzer explained. Instead of chasing trends, look at what the children around you are interested in. Chances are good the   next great trend may be nearer than you think it is.

Test your future book on children (with parental permission, of course!). Create a dummy copy of your book with mockup illustrations and the text as you’d like it laid out in the actual publication, and then share this with a child. How do they respond? Is it a winner? Also test the idea out on parents. Even if you’re not an illustrator, use your skill with writing to convey in words what you want the illustrations there to be (ex: there’s a picture with a rabbit eating carrots, etc.) What do parents, educators, librarians think of your book? Take notes.

Please remember that this dummy copy is solely for testing out your idea with your potential reader base. Your future illustrator does not want this! Chances are high if you sign a contract with an illustrator, they’ll have their own ideas on layout and illustrations.

Your future picture book probably will be shorter than you think it is.  A standard picture book has 32 pages of actual content, and an additional 8 pages of front and back matter. As a writer, unless you are self-publishing, you won’t need to worry about the layout of the story and the photos, your publisher will handle that. If you do go the indie route, the minimum page count is 24, comprised of 12 leaves, printed front and back.  Color as an option is always more expensive than black-and-white-only images.

On Publishing

In fact, if you’re going the traditional publishing route, it’s likely better not to even hire an illustrator if you’re hoping to get picked up by one of the larger publishing houses. Stolzer explains: “Big publishers have a stable of illustrators they’ll draw from […] the publisher will have a say in the final product. Illustrators may be paid by the house, or may be the author’s responsibility.” Research these larger publishers to identify their backlist – what have they been publishing? What are their new releases? Children’s literature is a huge category. When a publisher says they want children’s, do they mean board books, chapter books, middle grade, or young adult? Their focus can vary widely per publishing house.

If you do need to select an illustrator on your own, make sure you understand the rights you are paying for, and always, always have a contract. How do you find a great illustrator? Find a children’s book you love, and then contact their illustrator directly. You might also contact various artist’s guilds like the SCBWI. (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) Some authors may even find success on sites like or Check the artist’s portfolio. Ask for samples. Keep in mind that the more rights you request, the higher the price. Ideally, if you can obtain the rights to the work, you may want to consider reprint rights for related products (marketing materials or products you can sell).

For the indie publisher, every aspect of the book is your responsibility, from initial concept to finished product. Don’t hesitate to admit you might need help in an area and outsource. Maybe you need an editor. Probably you need someone to organize the layout of your book (they’re called book designers). When working with an illustrator, from storyboards and dummies, to layouts and artwork, trust them to get what you are hoping to accomplish. Ending with a smile, Stolzer summed it up by quipping, “Pick something that you are proud of showing off. It’s kind of like taking someone to the prom.” In other words, when they look good, you look good, too.

Craig Skaggs

Craig Skaggs
Fine illustration artist Craig Skaggs has a colorful career ranging from product design (he has several patents) and medical publications to cover artwork and most recently, as an official painter for Lucasfilm. Skaggs presented several examples of his work during his portion of the talk and expounded on the business end of being an illustrator.

Asking “what do you charge to do an illustration?” is like asking “what do you charge to build a house?” he said. “My answer is, ‘well, is it a chicken shack or a mansion?’” A lot depends on your budget. Be upfront with a potential illustrator and don’t skirt around the money talk. A direct conversation about your budget will quickly reveal whether it’s something the illustrator can work with (or not) and what you can expect to get for the price, Whatever number you throw out at them is very likely not going to be “too high.”

For an illustrator like Skaggs, your asking price won’t include the original artwork. Most illustrators will offer print rights (so you can include their work in your book, or on the book’s cover). The cost goes up exponentially to purchase the original artwork as well -- that’s called a “buyout.” As an alternative, you might consider partnering with your illustrator to share a booth at a convention where the original of your book cover/illustration can be on display, advertising both your services (and likely, prints for sale) and your book, as well.

At the minimum, when you approach an illustrator, say for a book cover, you should have in mind what you’re hoping they’ll be able to convey. What is a strong visual element in your story? What mood do you want to evoke? When you picture your book for sale, what’s that image in your mind you think will capture someone’s attention and say, “Buy me!” This is your concept for the artwork.

Based on a concept, a good illustrator should be able to do a sketch and go from there. Depending upon skill level, this may take as little as an hour, and a finished painting, much longer. Your purchased product should be a digital file that you’ve purchased the rights to use on your books, on a giant banner for book sales, etc. Expect to pay anywhere from $500-$1,000 for a cover design (or more) depending upon the artist, likely less for children’s book illustrations.

The workshop concluded with an exercise in dissembling a short story (provided by Stolzer) and breaking it down into a layout for a children’s picture book. Stolzer recommends The Artist and Illustrators Ethical Pricing Guide for researching the rates, which can vary widely.

Speaker Bios:

Craig Skaggs has more than thirty years’ experience in illustration. He recently became an official fine artist for Lucasfilm, but still does covers for self-published authors. His work can be seen at Craig Skaggs Illustration on Facebook, and his official Star Wars art can be purchased at ACME Archives Direct and Dark Ink Art.

Jennifer Stolzer Illustration has served both independent authors and publishing houses for over eight years. She graduated from Webster University with a degree in digital media and animation, and uses this skill set to create bright and engaging characters in both pictures and words. She will discuss strategies available to both writers and illustrators to best utilize visual storytelling for all markets and age groups. Find samples of her work at or on Facebook under Jennifer Stolzer Illustration. She is also the author of Threadcaster and other books for children and young adults.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Resources for Indie Authors at St. Louis County Library, with Sarah Steele, Reference Specialist

Article by Jennifer Stolzer

“A lot of people think about libraries in terms of resources for readers, but we have lots of resources for writers as well,” Sarah Steele said at the August 4 workshop. “Without you, there'd be no library!”

Sarah is a Reference Specialist for Reader's Advisory at the St. Louis County Library (SLCL) headquarters.

“Pew research data shows that those who use libraries are more likely than others to be book buyers and actually prefer to buy books rather than borrow them, especially those who want a book right away,” she said. According to a Library Journal survey, more than 50 percent of all library users purchase ebooks based on books they read at the library. So it's a great outreach program. She cited two ways the library can work with independently published and small press authors: the SELF-e program and the print collection.

SELF-e is a royalty-free discovery platform designed to expose your ebooks to more readers via public libraries locally and nationally, Sarah said. It's sponsored by Library Journal and will get your book into many libraries all over Missouri and nationwide, if it is chosen for that program. The SELF-e Select Collection offers nationwide distribution through SELF-e's platform. It takes some time, however. Once you upload your book, it will automatically be included in the St. Louis County Collection and the Indie Missouri collection, but going national might take some months. “Don't lose heart if you aren't picked right away. Click the box and just let it go.” Having a really well-presented ebook helps get your book selected for nationwide collection, and the library has resources to help you make your ebook look super awesome.

SELF-e is not for everybody, but it’s a good fit for unknown indie authors. “It'll get your name out there … people who wouldn't find your book otherwise will see it.” Indie authors who want to grow their following would also benefit from SELF-e by reaching new readers with previously published books, in addition to new releases. It’s also good for traditionally published authors who own the digital rights or have permission from their publisher to distribute through the program. This usually applies to authors' backlists or books that are old or out of print. Authors can keep these titles alive and reach out to new readers. Books can also be for sale or featured on other distribution platforms as long as SELF-e has permission to distribute it.

Most SELF-e authors are independently published, which gives writers a lot of control over how and where their book is distributed. SELF-e is a good place to experiment as well. “A trendy and also historic way to use SELF-e is to serialize your work,” Sarah suggested. “You can put your work up a chapter at a time to SELF-e to drum up interest and add intrigue.” Additionally, putting your book up through SELF-e will not prevent it from being picked up by most publishers if authors intend to continue querying it. “Publishers don't seem to mind too much if you're still hoping to pursue traditional publishing.”

Books intended for SELF-e need to be up in PDF or ePUB format, and ePUB is greatly preferred. It's easier for readers and is more likely to be picked up by the national collection. “ePUB allows the text to flow and allows for hyperlinks and that sort of thing,” Sarah said. ePUB book formatting must look as nice as possible and have all the bells and whistles. Some things about ebook formatting are different from traditional formatting, so pay attention to detail.

Among the popular options for getting your book into ePUB format are:
  • the free online converter (, which will code the file but limits the control you have over the final product, 
  • a free open-source software called Calibre (, which has a learning curve but comes with tutorials, 
  • and Adobe inDesign which is the professional standard. It allows the maximum amount of control. 
“You can book a trainer at the library to help you with this process,” Sarah said. “The Creative Experience Lab at the St. Louis County Library has all the tools you need to make your ebook. That would be an option for using Adobe without buying it.” 

“For a long time there was an unspoken rule that the library did not acquire self-published books, but that has changed over time,” Sarah said. SLCL buys self-published books both in print and on Overdrive, which is an ebook portal for the library. “One of the reasons we weren't buying self-published authors was there was no way to buy.” They were not allowed to buy books from private websites, but now a lot of self-published works fall within the acquisitions criteria. 

So what is the library looking for? SLCL seeks books that meet current and potential relevance to community needs and local demand, interest, or significance. If it's got local significance, it doesn't matter how many sales the book’s made or how big the publisher is -- if people want it, the library will pursue it. Suitability of subject and style for intended audience will determine if it's appropriate for the library, especially for young readers. Reviews in professionally recognized sources add clout to your book, making it a better candidate for purchasing. “Getting reviewed is one of the biggest hurdles to jump to getting in the library collection,” Sarah said. 

Timeliness and/or significance of the subject will also determine its likelihood of being acquired. The library uses tax dollars to buy books for its collection. Since their policy requires the purchase of four copies of any print book, stewardship of money is a priority. The library also considers contributions to diversity, depth, or breadth of its collection when selecting books. Books in niche or sub-genre topics or that fill a specific need are always being sought. 

When you upload to SELF-e, you have an opportunity to include information that will help readers find your book by including accurate metadata (subject headings, age ranges, abstracts, etc.). Make it as easy for readers as possible. 

All books submitted should also have high technical quality and formatting in both ebook and print. A book must have an attractive cover, especially in ebook or audiobook. Self-published authors are competing with the professional cover designers of traditional publishers. “With SELF-e, you can select an option that will create a generic cover for you, but if I were you, I would not choose that.” Books submitted to SELF-e must be in English. 

Cover design also includes interesting jacket copy. For ebooks, book blurbs replace the back-jacket. “When readers hover over the book and read the blurb, you want that blurb to catch them,” Sarah said. Like the library, they do not have time to read every book, so they rely on jacket copy and reviews when choosing what to buy. 

Suitability of format for library circulation is also essential. Many books, especially children's books, come with add-ins that can't be circulated. “There's no way for the library to keep track of tiny pieces,” Sarah said. Books that come with stickers, notes, or toys will be separated from them because they are impossible to distribute, and some books like James Cameron's S will not be accepted at all. 

At other times, the authority and competence of the author or the publisher’s reputation will determine whether a library will take a book, especially for nonfiction works. But if library patrons can get the same information through the library or its online systems, it is less likely to buy a new self-published book on that topic. Librarian objectivity helps ensure that purchasing funds are spread evenly across many different authors and books. 

Finally, acquisitions should fit the library’s mission of providing learning resources and information services that support and improve individual, family, and community life. Therefore local media coverage plays highly into the desirability of books for acquisition. “We buy what people in St. Louis want to read!” Sarah said. “If you can get into local media, it’s a good way for people to find out about your book. In some ways, it's even more important than getting a review in a big literary journal.” Not to say that reviews by national-level journals are not highly regarded. Submitting to entities like Booklist, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, and Library Journal will net you esteemed reviews. 

Make your book easy to buy. “One of the reasons we didn't buy self-published books before is because we have specific ways we are allowed to buy books.” The first is through print distributors. The biggest one they use is Baker and Taylor, but they also use Midwest Library Services, Brodart, and Ingram, which allows self-published distribution. The library uses Overdrive for ebooks, so if you want your book to be bought by the library, you're going to want it to be listed there. On very specific occasions, they are able to buy through local bookstores. “It's usually about St. Louis history,” Sarah said. “We really can't buy books from your website. I would definitely recommend going through the print distributors or Overdrive. Unless there's a high demand, we won't buy through local bookstores.” 

Encourage readers to request your book from the library. A great way to do that is with the Suggest a Purchase form on the library website; Another option is the Book Discussion Kit. “We aren't allowed to get a Book Discussion Kit for a book that isn't already in the collection, but once it's there, you can suggest it,” Sarah said. The librarians choose the discussion books three times a year. A ballot of collected titles is assembled and the library book group leaders pick from those selected titles. To get your title in the running, get readers to suggest a Book Discussion Kit at The St. Louis County Library also has an author visit program, but your book has to be in the collection already to qualify for that, as well. 

So with so many rules and regulations to meet, it seems difficult for authors, especially independent authors, to get their book in the stacks. The good news is that the library is also the place to go for learning new skills. “One of the joys of being a self-published author is having complete control, and we have the resources to learn the skills you need,” Sarah said. 

The library offers free eCourses. You have to be a cardholder, although there is a reciprocal agreement through the St. Louis County, St. Louis City, and city consortium libraries like Webster Groves, Kirkwood, and the St. Charles city/county library system, so members of those libraries can apply for cards in the other systems. St. Louis County's eCourse offerings include Universal Classes, which are self-paced, instructor-led courses you take at your own pace. They also count for CEUs (Continuing Education Units). Gale Courses are six-week classes that start each month, which are also instructor-led. Lynda programs --video courses and tutorials specializing in a variety of tech and business topics – are free through the library. 

“If you are self-editing, we have some resources for you at the library, including classes to take. Paying for a copy editor is an option, as well. Do your absolute best to have really great copy editing,” Sarah said. 

Many courses at the library appeal to specific kinds of writing. Writeriffic focuses on creativity in general. The Craft of Magazine Writing would be great for nonfiction writers. Novel Writing 101 and courses that are genre-specific, like Mystery Writing and Romance Writing, are great resources for both beginner and veteran writers. 

Editing courses include Punctuation and Grammar 101, designed for student and business writers; Proofreading and Copy-Editing 101 for content editing; and The Keys to Effective Editing, a Gale course that gives an editing overview. 

Design and formatting courses offered include tutorials in Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, and inDesign, Lynda courses including the Become a Graphic Designer and the Become a Digital Illustrator learning paths, and one on publishing. 

“I recommend Adapting a Print Layout for Digital Publishing because of the specific rules and coding required for formatting a high-quality ebook,” Sarah said. 

Marketing has changed a lot in the past decade. To help authors sell their books, she suggested Using Social Media in Business, Internet Marketing Basics, Become a Social Media Advertising Specialist, Email and Newsletter Marketing Foundations, and Pitching your Ideas Strategically, among many others. 

Some upcoming in-person classes that might be of interest to SLWG members include: 
  • Worldbuilding – A little bit of research can turn worldbuilding from generic to magical. Learn how to use the library's free resources to get the information you need and how to incorporate it into your story. 
  • Creative Writing Workshop – An eight-week workshop where writers and aspiring writers examine basic principles of good writing and share and critique personal work. 
The library also has a Book a Librarian service that makes reference librarians available for one-on-one appointments to help you learn how to use the library's electronic resources, work with a U.S. Census data, or begin your research project. There are also Write Along Workshops, write-ins, and writers groups that meet in different library locations. All branches have free wifi, public computers, comfy chairs, and quiet areas to write in every day. Check out the county library website ( for information on single-branch events, the online courses and classes mentioned above, and much more. 

Additionally, for the readers out there, the library offers a Personalized Reading List program for book suggestions and Book Discussion Kits for book clubs.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Thompson Talks the Seven Deadly First Page Sins

Article by Lauren Miller.
Photo provided by Arianne "Tex" Thompson.

Western fantasy author Arianne “Tex” Thompson spoke at our June 2018 monthly workshop series, joining attendees via Zoom technology. Drawing inspiration from Dante’s Inferno, Thompson and book editor Laura Maisano (not at the meeting) compiled a list of seven first-page sins editors frequently encounter that can send your manuscript into book hell.

“Every sin is equally bad if it gets people to not read your work,” Thompson said. She launched into a discussion of red flags that may make your work stand out (in the wrong way) to editors or slush-pile readers. The first of these seven sins is perhaps the most-easily avoidable -- carelessness.

Failing to clean up your writing before sending it to an agent is a big mistake. Basic things like correct punctuation, typos, homophones, etc. can be caught and fixed with a readthrough prior to submission. If it helps, get a second pair of eyes on your project. A copy of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style is a must-have in every writer’s arsenal of tools. For the digitally-inclined, Thompson recommended Grammarly or Dragon Naturally Speaking, although the built-in spelling and grammar checker in Microsoft Word should not be discounted.

Arianne "Tex" Thompson
Another way to be careless in the submission process is to be too informal. Stalking the agent’s social media page is probably not going to be helpful, nor is a query letter that is gimmicky, or characters that are overused or offensive. Be sure to pay attention to the submission requirements and use standard manuscript formatting, too.

That first page of text is your opportunity to really catch an agent’s eye, and like a first impression, you’ll never have the chance to do it over again, so get it right the first time. A novel  stuffed with extraneous words that distance the reader from the character and events is equally a “sin” in Thompson’s eyes. Avoid words like “thought,” “saw,” and “wondered.” Instead, “rewrite for immediacy,” Thompson said, “combining actions where possible. Dashes are a way of transitioning (with a pause) and indicate an interruption or a sharp change of plans.”

The third major sin is “perdition”, what Thompson calls a rambling text, where the prose lacks polish and needs tightening. This can be taken to obsessive lengths – Thompson’s example being if your work doesn’t really start until the third chapter, it doesn’t matter how well you fine-tune and polish that first chapter; you just need to cut it out. Don’t throw it away, however; you never know when you’ll find a use for it for some other project. Frequent symptoms of a work that may be committing this sin include words that aren’t pulling their own weight, frequent spelling and grammar errors, and words that have a different meaning than what you think they do, and thus, confuse readers as to your intent.
Writing sloppy and then writing well is called code-switching. “We’re very practiced in changing our speaking style depending on whom we’re speaking to (our boss, our toddler, etc.) You can use text abbreviations on the phone that we’d never use in a business email. This is a skill that you can practice and continue refining [just] from your daily life.”

The fourth major sin has two sub-headings: sins of excess -- either your work has too much description (purple prose) or too much action (and no narrative). In the former problem, your work may read like something out of a 19th century novel, but most readers have shorter attention spans and don’t care to read a chapter just on the foliage of the moors or the cost of every window and fireplace in a manor house. “The more you can infuse your description with the POV character’s actions and feelings, that adds zest [to your work],” Thompson said. Use strong verbs and nouns. You should also keep an eye for descriptive text that is redundant. You do not need to say that the door swung open and shut on the way out (we know it did) or reiterate normal activities everyone encounters unless something unusual or unexpected occurs.

Never sandwich important action in the middle of a paragraph. Always lead in (or exit) a paragraph with action. If you’re writing a mystery, however, the middle of a paragraph is the perfect spot to tuck away a detail you don’t want a reader to notice, but that will be important later. A narrative packed with action but too little motive can leave readers wanting more. The story has to be consistent throughout, with a compelling reason to read so your audience does not skip ahead to get to the good parts.

Another big sin is using clichés. We’ve all encountered them at some point -- characters describes themselves looking in a mirror, an exposition-heavy dialogue, the false opening that’s an action scene but turns out to be a dream sequence, etc. Clean this up in your second draft. Remember, the first draft is just to get all your ideas down on paper. In your second draft, look for the clichéd choices your character makes and begin brainstorming for a new or unique approach. Your work should always have an element of surprise that transfers to the reader.

The sixth sin is failing to create clarity in your work. If your manuscript, or your query letter, or back cover blurb, etc. causes confusion in its intended audience, then you have gotten something wrong somewhere. This is usually preventable by not writing under pressure or under deadlines. Make sure you tick all of the boxes for your genre. For example, if you are writing a mystery, there are good questions (who is the killer?) and bad questions to avoid (where am I?). Make sure that action and dialogue are clearly assigned to characters, too.

Finally, the last sin to avoid is perhaps the most difficult – boredom. If you fail to capture the reader’s or agent’s attention, they’re just going to put your manuscript down and that’ll be the end of that opportunity. It’s impossible to satisfy every single reader, but with a strong hook, a new take on an old problem, or a fascinating setting, character or plot, you could have the makings of a great story. 

Bearing these sins in mind, what steps can you take today to improve your drafts and avoid book hell?

Speaker Bio:

Tex Thompson is a rural fantasy author, egregiously enthusiastic speaker, and professional ruckus-raiser. She is the author of the Children of the Drought, an epic fantasy Western trilogy from Solaris, as well as an instructor for the Writers Path at SMU and chief instigator of WORD ñ Writers Organizations Round Dallas. Now she is blazing a trail through writers’ conferences, workshops, and fan conventions around the country as an endlessly energetic, catastrophically cheerful one-woman stampede. Find her online at and