Tuesday Debut is always a fun and exciting day, but it’s especially fun and exciting when the debut-ess is a hackey-sack queen and a personalized license plate fan 🙂
I am thrilled to introduce you to Janet Johnson and her debut picture book!
Help Wanted, Must Love Books
Written by: Janet Sumner Johnson
Illustrated by: Courtney Dawson
Published by: Capstone
Fiction, ages 4-7
March 1, 2020
When Shailey’s dad starts a new job, and it gets in the way of their bedtime story routine, Shailey takes action! She fires her dad, posts a Help Wanted sign, and starts interviews immediately.
SUSANNA: Welcome, Janet! Thank you so much for joining us today! We are so excited to have you!!! Where did the idea for this book come from?
JANET: This story idea came from my husband and daughter’s own bedtime story routine. One night, my then-7-year-old came in and announced it was time for bedtime stories. My husband had a work presentation the next morning and lots to prepare, so he told her he couldn’t. My daughter didn’t beg. She stomped her foot and said, “I’ll read my own story!”
I laughed, and said, “I think you just got fired!” And boom! The idea struck. It wasn’t fully formed, but over the next hour, I asked myself a bunch of questions: If she fires her dad, what will she do next? And if she puts up a help wanted sign, who can actually apply for the job? Siblings? Mom? Neighbors? I didn’t like those ideas, so I kept digging until I stumbled on the idea of book characters. That led to brainstorming a list of possible candidates, and what problems they would each bring to the story.
SUSANNA: How long did it take you to write this book?
JANET: My first draft went fast. I had it done in about an hour. That is unusual for me. What really helped was that I had a great model for who my character was (through my daughter). I knew what my character’s problem was. I knew what she would do to try to fix the problem. And I knew how I wanted it to end. By answering those questions before I began writing, the actual writing went very quickly.
Revision took much longer.
SUSANNA: Did you go through many revisions?
JANET: Haha! Yep. Lots of revision. First, I had several rounds with my critique partners. They pointed out some problems I hadn’t thought of. For example, while Shailey put up the help wanted sign, she didn’t really do anything else in that first version, so I needed to make her more pro-active.
It was hard to hear, because I loved what I’d written, but I turned off that urge to argue, and instead worked on finding a solution. That took some more brainstorming. I had to re-organize my characters, and find some new ones that would work with the new structure. And amazing, I liked that new version even better!
My agent also asked for several revisions. She pointed out some characters who might be too obscure for kids. She also pointed out inconsistencies with who I’d chosen. For example, in that earlier draft, one candidate was the monster in her closet, who, she rightly pointed out, was not a book character. That meant more brainstorming to find more characters.
The key to good revision is listening. Readers could see things I couldn’t because I was too close to the story.
SUSANNA: When did you know your manuscript was ready for submission?
JANET: When my agent had no more comments on my draft! I’m a huge proponent of agents, and critique partners. If it had just been me, I would have sent that first draft because I loved it so much. If that had happened, it would not be a book now.
SUSANNA: When and how did you submit?
JANET: I have an agent, so when the manuscript was ready, my agent sent me a list of publishers she was sending it to. She forwarded responses as she got them, and my main job was to sit back, forget all about it (haha!), and write the next thing.
SUSANNA: When did you get “the call”? (Best moment ever! 🙂 )
JANET: The whole submission process was quite the ride. We went out in January, and in February, I got an R&R. The editor really liked it, but felt the ending was too obvious. I talked with my agent about it, and we decided to go for it, because we had ideas. This isn’t typical, but my agent decided to send the change to every editor who had it.
Once we did that, I had a lot of interest. My book went to several acquisitions meetings (some with the old ending, and some with the new), and I had a lot of close calls, but in the end, none of them offered. That was really hard.
By July, my agent and I had moved on to submitting the next book. So, when she called, I had zero expectations. I was in the kitchen, texting with some author friends, glumly reporting that I had nothing to report. And then everything changed with those four magic words: “We have an offer!”
And because I’m guessing some of you are curious, my editor allowed me to choose my preferred ending. I went with the original which she confessed was her favorite, too. Writing really is so subjective!
SUSANNA: Those words, “We have an offer!” really are magical, aren’t they? There is nothing like them (except for maybe it’s a girl! or it’s a boy! 🙂 ) How did you celebrate signing your contract?
JANET: I went out to dinner with my family. (After an impromptu dance party in the kitchen!)
SUSANNA: Was the contract what you expected in terms of advance, royalty percentage, publication timeline, author copies etc.?
JANET: Because I had already published a middle grade book with my publisher (Capstone), my expectations were pretty grounded. However, the advance was significantly lower than I expected (under 5K) because they had recently gone through a re-organization.
We sold World Rights and negotiated royalties to 6% for hard cover and paperback, 12% for digital products, and 5% for audio. They were willing to negotiate on percentages, but not on the advance, which I found interesting. I will receive 20 copies as the author, and my agent will receive some as well.
Some other interesting contract things: we negotiated the non-compete clause to make it more narrow. We negotiated how much say I would have on images and cover (spoiler alert, not much, but more than zero!). And the contract included deadlines for both the publisher and me. It was a pretty straight-forward contract.
SUSANNA: What was the editorial process like for you?
JANET: The editorial process really surprised me. I had an initial chat with my editor, who had almost no changes for me at the time. They wanted a new title, and we discussed adding back matter. I spent a month working on that.
Over the next several months, I got periodic emails with suggested changes—some big, some small. Often, they came because of feedback from another department (like marketing). This continued up until the day it was being sent to print (we literally made the last change that day!).
I considered all the comments thoughtfully, but there were times I still didn’t agree. When that happened, I would share my concerns with my editor, and explain why I disagreed. At that point we could talk it through and come to a solution we both felt good about—sometimes that meant we left it as it was, and sometimes that meant changing it.
I think communication is so important. There is so much give and take in the process—as an author you need to both listen and speak up for yourself. It can be a delicate balance. It helped to remember that we both loved the book and had the same goal of making the best story possible.
SUSANNA: I have to say that the back matter in your book is one of my favorite parts – so entertaining! 🙂 Can you tell us a little about your experience of the illustration process?
JANET: As per my contract, I got to see the sketches and give input. However, in the case we disagreed, the publisher had the final say. Everything was sent digitally, so no F&Gs.
For the most part I loved what I saw. We were all definitely on the same page in terms of vision. However, I did have some concerns.
The publisher made a few changes based on my comments, but also chose not to make others. Some of that came down to cost, which I can respect. But it also meant that I had to change some of the text to work a little better with the images. I definitely hadn’t expected that! Still, I love how the book turned out.
My manuscript had quite a few art notes, and to my surprise, my editor made a point to thank me for having as many as I did. Here is one example of how my art note went from text to image:
This arrangement worked perfectly . . . until her dad got a new job.
[ART: Dad on cell phone; Dad studying a book; Dad tapping at laptop; Dad snoring on couch]
This is probably my favorite spread! I’m so happy with how it turned out.
SUSANNA: Did you get to see advance reviews from Kirkus, SLJ, etc? What was that like?
JANET: The marketing department sends me all the advance reviews shortly before they publish. I’ve had some not-so-nice reviews in the past, so I have mixed feelings about this. I have to let those emails sit while I build up the courage to look.
When the reviewers like your book, it’s fabulous. And since they don’t review everything, it’s a really happy thing when they do. But the not-nice reviews are tough. I remind myself that not everyone will like my book, and that it’s not a critique of me personally.
SUSANNA: How long did it take from offer to having the first copy in your hand?
JANET: From offer to copy in hand (I’m estimating, because I don’t actually have one yet!) was about 20 months. For a picture book, that feels really fast. The publishing date changed a couple of times and ended up being faster than expected.
SUSANNA: What kind of marketing and promotion has your publisher done for this book?
JANET: My publisher offered advanced copies at ALA in 2019, and also put it on NetGalley. That’s made a huge impact on getting the word out about my book. They sent ARCs to bloggers and review groups, as well as to the industry reviewers like Booklist and Publisher’s Weekly. They regularly post about it on their social media accounts, and they also support my tweets. Recently they hosted a free webinar for teachers and librarians, and they book-talked all their upcoming titles, including mine.
One thing I’m really excited about is that they’re making a book trailer! It should be out soon.
SUSANNA: Ooh! I can’t wait to see the book trailer! Describe any marketing/promotion you did for this book.
JANET: Marketing and promotion is something I’m constantly learning. One of the best things I’ve done is join a debut group for picture books: the Debut Crew 2020. We work together to promote each other’s work and to find opportunities to build our platforms. It’s been super helpful!
In addition, I had bookmarks made, and still plan to make some stickers and other swag for future events. I also hope to get some coloring pages made, as well as an activity guidebook.
While I’m not doing an official blog tour, I’ve been fortunate to be invited to interview or write a guest post on several blogs in the weeks surrounding my book’s release.
I’ve also booked several in-person events over the next few months: a book launch, bookstore signings, school visits, book festivals, conference presentations, and NerdCampSoCal. You can see the full list on my events page. I’m excited to have so many opportunities to make connections and promote my book.
A lot of these opportunities have come because of connections I’ve made with people at previous events or through online discussions. Others have come from participating in groups on social media where others have shared calls for proposals or information about upcoming events. Making connections is key.
SUSANNA: How long was it between the time you started writing seriously and the time you sold your first picture book?
JANET: It took about 8 years to get that first picture book deal. Granted, I was focusing on middle grade for a lot of that time, but I’ve had the dream of getting a picture book published from the beginning. It’s still hard to believe I’m a published picture book author!
Thanks so much for having me, Susanna! Your classes made such a difference for me!
Social Media Links:
SUSANNA: Thank you so much for joining us today and sharing your experience, Janet! It was so interesting and enlightening – a real benefit for our readers! I know I speak for all of us when I wish you all the best with this and future books!
Readers, if you have questions for Janet, please post them in the comments below and if she has time I’m sure she’ll respond!
You may purchase Janet’s book at:
(all links below are book-specific)
We can help our debut authors successfully launch their careers by:
– purchasing their books
– recommending their books to friends and family
– recommending their books to our children’s teachers and librarians
– recommending their books to our local libraries and bookstores
– suggesting them as visiting authors at our children’s schools and our local libraries
– sharing their books on social media
Thank you all for stopping by to read today! Have a lovely, inspiration-filled Tuesday! Maybe today is the day you’ll write your debut picture book 🙂
Missed any previous Tuesday Debuts? Check them out!
Karen Kiefer – Drawing God (religious market)
Theresa Kiser – A Little Catholic’s Book Of Liturgical Colors (religious market)
Lindsey Hobson – Blossom’s Wish (self pub)