Friday, February 10, 2006

Postcard Requirements

Yesterday, I selected one of my good friends, Rudy Hall, to create my Onyx Sun postcard. Rudy is an incredible artist. I've known him for a few years and always considered him extremely talented. But after graduating from SCAD (Savannah College of Art & Design), he impressed me by starting his own design firm in Chicago with some friends, thus adding to my already copious amount of respect for him.

I'm probably being too formal about this, but after I selected Rudy, I wrote up my requirements for the return postcard I want to include in my query letters to agents. I think my hour-long Caltrain ride from my house in Menlo Park to my job in San Francisco is becoming the most productive part of my day, as that's when I seem to get stuff like this done!

Anyway, I thought this might be interesting to any other writers interested in finding an artist to do something similar. I took this template from similar product requirements documents I have used in my other, daytime, paying job.

Onyx Sun Postcard Requirements

  • To create a postcard potential agents will use to indicate their interest in reading more of the manuscript The Incredible Origins of the Onyx Sun.
  • To produce a creative piece as a prototype to creating the jacket art and other design collateral.
Now that the Onyx Sun manuscript and major revisions are complete, the next stage in getting the book published is for me to find an agent. This involves a fairly lengthy process whereby I send query letters to agents whose focus is on representing young adult (YA) writers. Query letters are typically 1-2 page solicitations to agents that describe the story, introduce the broad plot and characters, build excitement, and (hopefully) interest the agent enough to request a complete manuscript. An example query letter is attached. The ultimate goal is for the agent to agree to represent the author and his/her work to major publishers. Most major publishers today accept manuscripts only from respected agents they often already know.

The entire query letter process can take 1-3 months per agent. Typically, the best agents get thousands of query letters per year and can only represent a very select few. Most reputable agents request they be the only person reviewing the manuscript at the time. There is unfortunately no way to speed this process up. However, if I am denied by my top picks for agents, I may solicit the rest of the industry simultaneously.

The postcard is an item that will be included with the query letter. It will include postage and be addressed back to me at:

Christopher Mahoney
Street Address
San Francisco, CA 94133

On the front of the postcard will be a graphic representing the characters, story, and – most of all – excitement of the story The Incredible Origins of the Onyx Sun. On the back of the card, will be my return address, an area for postage, and an area where the agent can check a box and indicate that he/she is/is not interested in seeing more.

The text for the back shall be written from the agent’s perspective and state:

Thank you for your recent letter requesting representation for your young adult novel, The Incredible Origins of the Onyx Sun. At this time:

I am very interested in reading more. Please send me the entire manuscript.
 I am interested, but need more information first. Please send me a few chapters
and a more detailed synopsis.
 I am not interested, but thank you for your inquiry.

  • The design should follow these motifs, in order of priority:
  • True to the visuals of the book
  • Exciting
  • Commercial (think: more Harry Potter artwork than comic book)
  • Art-deco
  • Space-age, but accessible and understandable to people who are not necessarily fans of science fiction
I can handle the production of the piece. This project is primarily focused on you delivering the artwork for the cover in both a high-resolution electronic format, like EPS, PSD, etc. and by sending me the actual artwork.

Next steps:
Before you commence Rudy, let’s do the following:
  • Have a phone conversation around:
    • What visuals grabbed you in the book
    • What you think about in existing literature or art that reminds you of the theme of Onyx Sun
    • What you are seeing for design:
  • What is the “theme”?
  • Who are the major characters to be shown?
  • What are the major objects to be shown?
    • Your impression of the Harry Potter book jackets and how we can borrow some of their success.
    • How we fit the book title on the postcard. What is the font & other treatment?
  • Talk about budget, payment terms, and timeframe.



Friday, February 3, 2006

Picking an Illustrator

So now that the first draft of my book is completed, I have begun to search for an illustrator. This is not typically how an author would move forward at this point, since often publishers pick the final illustrator of a chapter novel, but I have two motivations for doing so at this point:
  1. Return Postcard: I want to create a postcard agents and publishers can return to me when I send them my query letters to indicate if they are interested in seeing more of my book. I like this approach because a postcard with an image from my book would be personal and would help introduce the concepts from the Onyx Sun to the agent/publisher I am writing to. Hopefully, the right agent/publisher will see the image, read the sample chapters, and become as excited as I am about the prospects for my book.
  2. Cover Design Preparation: In case my book is not accepted by an agent or publisher - as is often the case for new writers - I plan to self-publish my book and will employ the same illustrator I used for the postcard. That way, the postcard can serve as an introduction to the characters for the illustrator so when we create the cover, he/she is more educated on how to draw the primary characters.
There are a couple of qualifiers I am searching for specifically in this person:
  1. Must accurately represent the imagery in the book
  2. Must have a unique style
  3. Should have a strong work ethic and commitment to deadlines
  4. Must have a portfolio of past work
  5. Should be willing to work on a cash-equity basis
The first two qualifications are interesting because I want to find someone who is capable of balancing the imagery I have described in my book, with their own personal touch. Each artist obviously has a unique style, but I find it is a rare trait to find one that is able to balance that with the unique visuals described in another creative work, like a book.

The last qualification is also slightly different from the way many writers approach self-publishing. Most of the self-published writers I have met have contracted illustrators on a pure cash-basis. Although I could do that, one of the first things I learned in business school was "cash is king". In other words, keeping cash inside your business is on of the most important qualities to keeping your business afloat. It seems like a simple concept, but as we learned at Babson, far too many companies are all to ready to part with their cash in lieu of more creative payment arrangements.

So, I developed a cash-equity payment model where I will give my illustrator 75% of the cash he/she asks for but will negotiate in an "equity" share for the remaining amount. This "equity" will essentially be part of my royalties for each book sold. In order to incentivize the illustrator to be ok with not as much cash up-front, I plan to significantly sweeten the equity share to be far above what the illustrator would have earned from pure cash. For example, if the illustrator I choose to design my book quotes me $1,000 to design my cover, I could counteroffer that I pay $750 up-front, plus a $2 commission per book up to $1,500 in total payments. So that obviously be $500 over what the illustrator cold make on a cash-only basis.

Obviously, I am going to have to find someone who trusts I will deliver on this arrangement. But, in the end, I think this is a significantly better arrangement for both parties: I pay less while I am cash-starved, and the illustrator can stand to make 50% more once the book starts selling. It, in essence, makes us business partners, which I also consider a positive part of this arrangement. It makes us mutually financially interested in the same project instead of just contractor-contractee. In the latter, more common arrangement, the relationship is one more focused on servitude and short-run success. It can also lead to lower quality outcomes, as only one party (the self-published author) is invested in the books success. I took this model from the same process start-up companies use to finance early stages: in lieu of higher wages, give employees equity, which could be worth significantly more in the long-run. Of course, the employee (or illustrator in this case) has to believe in the company founder and the product, but people who know me, know I deliver on my word, and I truly believe my book is a product that can sell...even in the challenging publishing market.

The common expression in the publishing space is "You can't judge a book by its cover, but you can sell it!" If this is truly the case, which it seems to be, why shouldn't a cover illustrator, who holds so much sway on the book's success, be invested and rewarded too?