Hello Everyone, and welcome to Tuesday Debut – one of the ones that’s an actual Book Birthday!
I have such a treat for you today! We usually have debut authors on this series, but it is much less common that we get an author/illustrator. Today I’m thrilled to introduce you to the fabulously talented Abi Cushman and give you the opportunity for a really in-depth look at her process of both writing and illustrating a picture book. You’re in for a treat!
Grab your umbrella, your raincoat and your rain boots and let’s jump in!
by Abi Cushman
Viking Children’s Books
July 14, 2020
Fiction, Ages 3-7
A Hula-Hooping moose, a badger with a bumblebee umbrella, a bunny in a cashmere sweater, and a very wet bear star in this unpredictable and laugh-out-loud picture book in which having fun gets the best of a grumpy bear.
SUSANNA: Welcome, Abi! Thank you so much for joining us today! We’re excited to get a glimpse of how you work your magic! Where did the idea for this book come from?
ABI: I went out for a walk one summer day and ended up getting caught in a torrential rain storm. At the time, I was eight months pregnant and was definitely in the “slow waddling stage” of my pregnancy. But the long, soggy walk home helped me realize that once I was completely soaked, the rain was actually quite pleasant.
I thought it would be interesting in a picture book to play with the idea of someone’s attitude evolving despite the circumstances staying the same, so I wrote that sentiment in my ugly sketchbook. (I call it an ugly sketchbook so that I feel free to capture my story ideas with badly drawn doodles or little phrases- whatever is easiest to get the idea down. I don’t worry about my sketchbook looking really cool or artsy.)
At first, I was picturing this beautiful wordless picture book about the beauty of splashing in puddles. But after months of letting the idea percolate in my head and continuing to add to my ugly sketchbook, I came up with a sorry-looking, very drenched bear character. And then one night, the voice/tone of the narrator came to my head, and I thumbnailed the first draft in one sitting.
SUSANNA: How long did it take you to write this book?
ABI: I had thumbnailed my first draft about 3 months after that rainy walk that sparked the idea. I then made a mini dummy with roughly drawn characters and text to share with my critique groups and agent. For my mini dummies, I just cut some printer paper in half and then fold that in half to make a little booklet of 32 or 40 pages (which would include the endpapers, title page, etc.). My goal with mini dummies is to get the pacing and page turns right and to have something legible enough to share with other people.
After getting a lot of feedback, I revised the story to strengthen the moose’s role and ramp up the narrative arc. I made a larger (letter-sized) dummy that had more polished drawings and the text typed in to show at the New England SCBWI Spring Conference in late April.
So from idea to polished dummy took around 8 months, some of it spent actively working on the story and drawings, and some of just letting it float around in the back of my head.
SUSANNA: Did you go through many revisions?
ABI: I definitely revised the story several times. Interestingly, the beginning of the story didn’t change too much from my initial thumbnailing session. But I did revise the middle and end a bit based on feedback from: my critique groups, then my agent, then finally my editor and art director (before and after they made an offer).
SUSANNA: When did you know your manuscript was ready for submission?
ABI: I always go through the process of making a mini dummy and then getting feedback and then making a more polished dummy before I feel a story is ready for submission. When I go from the smaller format to the larger format, I generally feel like the story is more or less there, and then I really focus on refining it, adding more details to the drawing and punching up the jokes (or adding visual ones in).
I had also done two pieces of finished art. So I was happy with the illustration look/style. It’s important to do some finished art because sometimes you realize there are issues once you add in color or put the background in properly. Also the agent/editor/art director will want to see what you have in mind for the final look.
For Soaked!, I wanted to have the dummy polished up in time for the NESCBWI Conference. So that gave me a deadline to work toward. I definitely felt it was “ready enough” to show when the conference date arrived. I think conferences and contests are great motivators for authors and illustrators to get their work submission-ready.
SUSANNA: When and how did you submit?
ABI: I included my Soaked! dummy with my portfolio for the NESCBWI Portfolio Showcase. To my great amazement, I ended up winning the showcase that year. One of the judges was Jim Hoover, art director at Viking.
About a week or so after the conference, I posted a drawing on Twitter, not related to Soaked! (it was of a parachuting hippo), and Jim commented on the drawing and said I could send him my dummy for another look. So I guessed what his email at Penguin Random House was and sent it over. And he shared it with the editor he thought would like it, Tracy Gates. At that point my agent, Kendra Marcus, got involved, and Tracy and Jim sent over some notes for revision.
SUSANNA: When did you get “the call”? (Best moment ever! ☺)
ABI: After I punched up the dummy based on Tracy and Jim’s notes, I got an email from my agent. She said that they loved my revision and more details would be forthcoming in a couple weeks! I was so excited that I told my whole family and everyone that I came in contact with that I got a book deal. The next day, it occurred to me that I didn’t actually see the word “offer” anywhere in the email.
So for the next two weeks when people congratulated me after hearing the news from my family, I’d say, “YEAH!! I GOT A BOOK DEAL! I mean, PROBABLY I THINK… IT LOOKS LIKE I COULD… MAYBE!!!”
The offer DID come thankfully, and it was for a two-book deal! And yes, at that point, I did have a nice call with my agent. But it’s funny to me when people talk of this one moment- THE CALL- because my experience has always been more of a slow buildup of events (with getting an agent as well). And even after getting the verbal offer, I was still
worried that it somehow might fall through. When I got my first advance check three months later, I felt better. 🙂
SUSANNA: I have to agree with you on that, Abi. I should probably change the wording of that question because nowadays it’s hardly ever a “call” – more likely an email – and as you say we tend to be more in the loop of a possible offer than we were back in the old days 😊 How did you celebrate signing your contract?
ABI: I celebrated by going out for pizza with my family. I had also gotten pizza when I *thought* I had a book deal, when I got the verbal offer, when I got the signed contract back, and when I got the first advance check. Basically, I was just looking for any excuse to eat pizza.
SUSANNA: I don’t think one should need an excuse to eat pizza – Just Do It! 😊 Was the contract what you expected in terms of advance, royalty percentage, publication timeline, author copies etc.?
ABI: My deal was for two books, and I think my advance per book was in line with what most Big 5 debut author/illustrator advances are. (See Hannah Holt’s survey). Kendra negotiated their initial advance number up a few thousand dollars, which was nice. I know a couple debut author/illustrators who got bigger advances, but their books had gone to auction, so it makes sense that the competition raised those advance numbers up a little more.
In addition to the advance, Kendra also negotiated some of the other terms of the contract. I read through the final contract very carefully making sure I understood each part. (It was boring, not going to lie.) But everything made sense so I signed it.
Later, I found out from some other authors that their contracts had really vague wording about their ability to submit future manuscripts to other publishers. So they were stuck waiting with submission-ready manuscripts, unable to send them out. I looked at my contract again and saw Kendra had changed the wording on mine to be VERY specific with a short time span. (Thank you, Kendra!) I would not have known to change that, so having an experienced agent is so important. They absolutely deserve their 15% commission.
SUSANNA: Can you tell us a little about the editorial process?
ABI: As I mentioned before, Tracy and Jim had edits for me before and after they acquired the book. For the second round of notes, Jim had told me, “Don’t worry, it’s not that bad.” and I opened the document and their comments said, “Combine these spreads so you have room for a new ending. We don’t know what it is, but we’re sure you’ll think of something good.” And I thought, “Yes. Sure. Just need a completely different ending. Great. Great.” But it turned out to be fine, and I really appreciated their trust in me.
So yes, the editorial process went smoothly because they really got my vision, and their input improved the book tremendously. I think when you’re all on the same page, editorial notes are easier to accept because you know you’re all working together to make the story the very best it can be.
SUSANNA: What can you tell us about the illustration process?
ABI: Illustrating my first picture book was a breeze. I didn’t have any existential crises at all. I didn’t wonder, “How does one draw?” or “What is drawing?” or “What is a moose?” at any time during the process. Wait, scratch that- I DID have those existential crises.
Yes, the illustration process was a huge learning experience for me. One thing that surprised me was how LOOOONG it took me to finish all the spreads. I’ll give myself a little slack because I was also juggling working as a web designer and being a parent of young children, but it took me from December all the way through the end of August to finish the art. Part of that was the psychological aspect of wanting everything to be perfect, and part of it was basically learning things on the fly.
And because of all that, I am so proud of this book. I feel so much better equipped to take on the next book. (Actually, I’m working on that now and experiencing no existential crises at all… yet.)
And by the way, the answer to most of those existential/illustration questions and insecurities is just, “You’ll be fine. Just use reference photos.”
SUSANNA: Did you get to see advance reviews from Kirkus, SLJ, etc? What was that like?
ABI: Yes, I had reviews from Kirkus, SLJ, and Publishers Weekly. Whenever I came across a trade review, I’d squint my eyes and grimace while scanning the page looking for tidbits that might be horrible. I think the squinting helps. Definitely give that technique a try next time you see a review of your book.
After my eyes had recovered, I made pull quote graphics for each review and shared it on social media to celebrate. Here’s my SLJ review graphic on Twitter:
SUSANNA: How long did it take from offer to having the first copy in your hand?
ABI: It took about two years from offer to author copy. The initial print run for Soaked! is 30,000.
SUSANNA: If your book has been out for at least one statement cycle, has it earned out yet?
ABI: Not yet! But one thing that was really cool is that we sold the foreign rights to a Russian publisher. So SOAKED! will be available in Russian, AND the money from the foreign rights sale goes toward me earning out!
SUSANNA: What kind of marketing and promotion has your publisher done for this book?
ABI: The marketing team and my publicist, Lizzie Goodell, at Penguin have done a fantastic job getting my book out in front of people. They had to adjust their strategy midway through due to the pandemic, and I applaud their agility and creative thinking.
Before the quarantine, they showcased my F&G at the Public Library Association’s conference in Nashville along with five other titles and presented them together as “Great Storytime Read Alouds.”
They made an activity kit + poster to hand out, and it’s also available on the Penguin Classroom website here: https://penguinclassroom.com/books/soaked/
They also sent physical F&Gs to bookstores and influencers.
During the quarantine, they included Soaked! in a Zoom webinar highlighting summer picture books. They also sent out digital review copies and made the digital galley available on Edelweiss for review.
SUSANNA: Describe any marketing/promotion you did for this book.
ABI: Probably the best thing I did was join a debut marketing group called the Soaring 20s. We lend each other support, offer advice, review each other’s books, and boost each other’s posts on social media. I also had a blast teaming up with other Soaring 20s members to present a funny picture book panel at a couple of librarian conferences. It’s been wonderful to be a part of this group, and I’m so happy to share my debut journey with them.
Another really important thing I did was reach out to Mr. Schu and ask about doing a cover reveal on his blog. I had attended his workshop at the New England SCBWI Conference, and I thought he might enjoy Soaked! My gamble paid off, and he not only agreed to do the cover reveal, he also included my book in his 2020 Books I Love Presentation. I was thrilled!
I also worked with my local bookstore, Bank Square Books, on a pre-order campaign where people could purchase personalized, signed books. I printed special stickers to go with those pre-orders.
In addition to that, I created a Soaked!-themed activity guide and craft for parents, teachers, and librarians to enjoy. You can find them here: https://www.abicushman.com/fun-stuff/
And finally, I organized a little blog tour for the couple weeks before and after the book’s release. This blog is in fact the Book Birthday Stop on that blog tour! So thank you, Susanna and Tuesday Debut readers, for celebrating with me!
SUSANNA: Are you kidding? We are THRILLED to be celebrating your book birthday with you! It’s a dream come true for you to have your first book out, and the dream of every writer/reader here to emulate your success!!! Getting to see how you accomplished it makes it seem possible for all of us! How long was it between the time you started writing seriously and the time you sold your first picture book?
ABI: I started writing and illustrating seriously in 2015 after I’d had my first baby. I sold my first picture book three years later. I actually think three years is a pretty short time, even though it would shock people who weren’t familiar with the industry.
SUSANNA: Anything else you’d like to share about your book’s journey from inspiration to publication?
ABI: I’d just like to encourage everyone who is working toward publication to not give up, to keep making art that excites you, and to keep putting your work out there. Soaked!’s publication was made possible by the chance that Jim Hoover and I were at the same conference in 2018. But we were also at the same conference two years previously, and at that time, my art wasn’t ready yet. It took two years of working at my craft and finding my illustration voice to be ready… two years of creating new stories to come up with one that stood out. So if you keep putting in the work and then putting it out there, eventually something will stick for you too.
SUSANNA: Abi, thank you so very much for joining us today to share your journey to publication! It was very illuminating! I know I speak for everyone when I wish you the best of luck with this and future books!
Readers, if you have questions for Abi, please post them in the comments below and if she has time I’m sure she’ll respond!
You may purchase Abi’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)