Thursday, October 11, 2012

My Plea To SCBWI


I hesitated to write this post and questioned if this was the right way to do it. You're reading it so obviously I I decided this was right. I really hope that I don't offend anyone at SCBWI with my comments.

First let me start out by saying how much I love this organization. I attended my first SCBWI meeting back in 1991 in Utah. It was like a whole new world was opened to me. I was surrounded by like minded people outside my school setting. Professionals, novices, and everything in between. I knew I was in the right place. Since that time I have been a member on and off over the years. Currently I get asked to speak at SCBWI events from time to time - I get to participate in one this November in Missouri and in Atlanta early next year. I love the SCBWI.

Ok - deep breath. I was having lunch today with a friend who I shall not be named. This person has been an SCBWI member for many years and is an extremely competent author/illustrator. This person also told me today that since he/she has been in and around the publishing industry and gone to numerous conferences over the years - the biggest reason for continuing to attend is the ability to get past the firewall at publishing houses.

This is probably the part where I should give a brief explanation of that firewall - you can skip a couple paragraphs if you already know this. Basically most publishers do NOT accept unsolicited manuscripts. In other words an un-agented or un-published author/illustrator cannot simply send in their book proposal to a publisher without having a connection to an editor and essentially having permission to do so. If such an a person did send in their manuscript or book dummy it would be discarded or mailed back un-opened if a SASE was provided.

One of the main advantages conference attendance provides is the magical access given to attendees via the editors that are presenting at the conference. In other words conference attendees are granted contact information for the specific editors who are flown in to speak to the audiences. They even go one step further by providing special stickers that say "conference attendee". The idea being that when the intern is going through the mail they will set aside the parcels that bear this marking. These packages are then opened and read and then issued a response from an editor.

The reason that they lift the ban on unsolicited works for conference goers is that they feel that submission quality goes way up. If someone is willing to spend their time, money, and effort attending writing workshops they will more often than not - write a decent story and follow instructions on submission guidelines. This makes the publisher's job much easier.

Now to the point. My aforementioned friend attended an SCBWI conference last year mainly to get the contact information to submit to the three editors who presented. He/she like I mentioned has been through and around the game for a while so I'm not talking about some kind of rube. The manuscript was well written and printed and packages were carefully prepared and submitted with the required stickers and included SASE. My friend waited...and waited...and waited....and never received ANY kind of response - not even a form rejection letter and it's been well over a year.

Now you might be able to make the case that if he/she had submitted to one house or one editor something might have been misplaced or lost but with three submissions I find this highly unlikely. My friend reported today that he/she will probably not attend future SCBWI conferences since one of the major benefits seems to have turned out to be not much of a benefit at all.

This is tragic and I put this out there in hopes that some of the very dedicated staff at SCBWI will find this link in an email forward. Why do it publicly? Because things tend to get done when more people know about it. I don't know if this happens all the time. I do know that there are many caring editors who take time out of their busy schedules to come and speak to conference attendees and who follow through with their promise. I also feel that some of them might not follow through on their commitments.

My hope is that SCBWI staff take extra pains to communicate to editors that attendees are paying for their flights, meals, hotel, and honorariums and that they need to keep up their end of the bargain - or turn down the gig. I would hate to see us lose such a valuable organization over something like this - if it's happening regularly.

35 comments:

  1. Will one of the reasons I've given up on the traditional route is for this. I don't think it's SCBWI's "fault". It's bad enough it takes so long to get a reply or it's so expensive to mail out a submission, let alone with the hard work of realizing a project to that point. Gone are the days when editors saw potential and would polish that Sendak gem till shiny. The Corporate wonks have taken hold and a project must be ready to jump out the gate pretty much. As well as make a bazillion dollars with very little marketing. But it's many places policy to tacitly reject. I dunno if it got too time onerous (I used to work for a service place, where they not only listened to my calls, but also TIMED them, so yah, I bet they know how long it takes to even print off and send a standard rejection), or if it's just such a bummer no one wants to do it. I still cherish my personal rejections, at least I was getting somewhere. I am glad that SCBWI is foraying into the digital, as well, where a few short years ago, it would have been a shameful thing. Thanks for all you do and all you write. I don't think there's anything offensive in this, it's just a tough, tough world we've devolved into.

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    1. I hope I didn't make it seem like it's the SCBWI's fault - what I'm saying is that a promise is being made when special stickers are given out and attendees are made to feel that they are getting special handling. It doesn't feel special when you get the same treatment you would have if you hadn't attended and blindly submitted. I'm drawing attention to a problem that can potentially impact SCBWI. I'm not saying that they have the power to prevent it but perhaps if this is happening all the time they could do better to let the buyer beware or get a firm commitment from editors on how they plan to handle rejections so that it is known to attendees.

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    2. I agree, but often they won't even CONSIDER an unagented script, so often you are receiving special consideration, though not enough in my mind. I agree, this is all impactful, I've noticed terms have changed so no doubt they are already impacted. Good call, I think.

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  2. I think that the industry senses that the times are a changin'. I haven't suscribed to becoming a member of such an organization only because I consider myself a novice. I have talked with a few published Canadian authours that have had great sucsess with meeting up with editors from conferences, landing contracts with Applesauce press for example, once giving me hope for sales ability of my product, before the whole technological shift of things took place. As a novice authour/illustrator, I once got a detailed letter from Peter Carver editor at the time of Red Deer press a professor at George Brown College in T.O. (husband of Canadian authour "Red is Best" as to how my work should be revised. I was flattered that he took the time to write specifics (must have been the teacher in him!)As of late I have stopped submitting my work to publisher's and have turned towards indie endeavours. That is why I have stayed in tune with your blog, you are doing what one day I hope to do...keep on carrying on, your generous spirit beams through the text you write inspiring many, I am sure!

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    1. Thank you Sabrina - I agree - best of luck on your projects.

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  3. Thank you for sharing,Will! ^__________^ It is really good to know about this!

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  4. Hi Will, I have three children's books out -two picture books and one early reader, and I doubt very much indeed whether I'd have got published without SCBWI. My latest picture book came about directly from an SCBWI event (in the UK) where Tessa Strickland from Barefoot came to talk. A question from the audience resulted in her telling us what she'd really like -and although it didn't initially sound like my thing, I went away, thought about it and then wrote a story that I felt worked. And it's now out in the UK and US and elsewhere (The Kite Princess, Barefoot Books). I've also had an option fee from one editor after I showed her a manuscript in a one-to-one, and another conversation with an editor at a conference resulted in a manuscript going to various in-house meetings but not being taken on. Next week I have a meeting with an editor because I met her colleague at a one-to-one last year and she passed on my work and now we're meeting to discuss lots of manuscripts and ideas. SCBWI has been fantastic for me and lots of writers and illustrators that I know. (And everything I write is improved by sending it to my SCBWI critique groups). It is a really hard market, and I've had plenty of disappointments, but I'm convinced that you can massively increase your chances of your books being picked up by being in SCBWI and attending conferences/events. I have an agent now, so my work does get shown to editors, and it's still really worth my while meeting individual editors at these conferences. It's always a shame/upsetting when people don't get back to you after all the hard work you've done on a manuscript and it can feel disrespectful but your manuscripts are still being looked at, even if no one's getting back to you. Good luck with everyone sending out manuscripts after SCBWI (and other writery/illustratory) conferences/events -it can happen. It happened to me! With very best wishes from one happy SCBWI customer! Clare.

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    1. Thank you for your story - I too have met editors and art directors at conferences that have resulted in long term publishing relationships. This is one of the reasons I chose to write this post. I don't want the organization that I love to lose relevancy.

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  5. Did you see the open letter from SCBWI last year?
    Here is a link: http://scbwi.blogspot.com/2011/11/scbwis-open-letter-to-kid-lit-industry.html

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    1. Thank you for the link:

      I hope I didn't make it seem like it's the SCBWI's fault - what I'm saying is that a promise is being made when special stickers are given out and attendees are made to feel that they are getting special handling. It doesn't feel special when you get the same treatment you would have if you hadn't attended and blindly submitted. I'm drawing attention to a problem that can potentially impact SCBWI. I'm not saying that they have the power to prevent it but perhaps if this is happening all the time they could do better to let the buyer beware or get a firm commitment from editors on how they plan to handle rejections so that it is known to attendees at each specific event. It might be nice for attendees to hear it straight from the editors mouth, "I won't send you anything if I don't like your story".

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  6. Hi Will
    I can only talk about SCBWI in the UK, but as a recently agented 5-year member, I can't speak highly enough for the benefits I've had from the Society - from talks and events to one-to-one meetings and chance encounters with agents and editors.
    I've also taken advantage of the door-opening powers of 'I saw you speak at an SCBWI event ...' to get my submissions noticed and it has generally helped, though not all of the time. I wouldn't like to comment on your friend's case specifically, but some of my submissions remain unanswered to this day (one went quiet for twelve months, until I happened to bump into the person again at another event and jog their memory - only then to receive a rejection!) With a shrug, I have put these down to experience.
    This is not a criticism, however. Without SCBWI, I doubt whether any of my manuscripts would have got a look in. It is tough to get noticed, and hopefully three no-shows from a single event was a horrible case of bad luck - being at the bottom of a pile, under a spilled coffee mug, or the last manuscript on a fraught Friday all at the same time.
    The most valuable thing I've received from SCBWI is support when things seemed to be at their darkest - so I'd urge your friend to take heart and keep trying. They are not alone.
    All the best
    Julienne

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    1. Thank you - I appreciate your points in support of the SCBWI - I'm with you. This is why I posted - I just don't want to see more disgruntled attendees.

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  7. I wouldn't put the blame on this necessarily on SCBWI's shoulders. They are aware of the lack of response on the part of editors (see Moira's link) and now agents have begun to follow suit. It's an industry wide practice that's really lame. (I understand they are deluged with submissions-most not solicited, but still. It's part of etiquette to respond.)
    That being said, I would ask those that run the conferences your friend attends what they ask of their speakers. As someone who holds a position in SCBWI, and is part of the conference planning committee, I can tell you we take pains to ensure that our attendees receive some kind of response after they submit to a speaker (editor or agent). It's written into their speaker's agreement, actually. It doesn't have to be anything fancy, for the most part it ends up being a form rejection, and that's fine. It acknowledges that the submission was received, read, and judged. More often than not, many of our members receive a little feedback and even notes on their submissions. We've had a couple of members who have had fulls requested, after revisions, so it is worthwhile to attend the conferences. It is worthwhile to submit-especially to these closed houses. And it is worthwhile to keep plugging away. Ours is an industry bursting at the seams with talent, and so editors and agents get to pick and choose. Mostly at their own pace.

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    1. And I heartily second what Janet proposed! ;)

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    2. This is the smartest way to handle it. Will, your writer can ask the local SCBWI folks to do it if they aren't already.
      I understand your writer friend's dismay at not getting an answer. But it's worse to have the golden ticket submission returned unopened -- that happened to me.
      Mistakes happen.
      Happily for me, I landed an agent a year later and haven't needed the golden tickets since. (But I still go to conferences -- if anyone thinks the biggest value is rubbing elbows with editors and agents, they're not looking at it carefully)
      If someone's writing is good, it should be submitted a few places, and eventually the writer will get a response. Continued silence most likely means the work isn't ready.
      Turning to self-publishing is certainly an option, but that form of publishing isn't easy either. Not only does one's book float in a sea of mediocrity, they won't have a sales force of a publisher helping market and distribute the books.

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  8. I just attended my fourth regional conference and have decided not to renew my membership. I don't know how the line up is at other regional events, but this year's panel had one editor, two agents, and one book designer (?). The rest of the panel included nine local, published authors. I've thought long and hard about it and given the cost of membership and the additional cost of attending the conference, I just don't think I'm getting my monies worth.

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    1. I would only caution you to perhaps think of keeping your ear to the rail on future conferences. I've made quite a few connections by attending and learned information that was crucial to my development as an illustrator. I'm sorry that you don't feel that it's been worth it.

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    2. I got my agent through another writer -- and a book contract 5 months later. It's short-sighted to think the only value to a conferences is access to editors and agents.

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  9. Hi Will,
    I'd suggest your friend contact the RAs who organized the conference and let them know the editors have not responded. I know that in our chapter, our RAs have been very good about following through with editors who have been non-responsive. Sometimes ya just gotta be a squeaky wheel!

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  10. Great idea Janet - I'll pass along this thought. I know you guys are super committed. I know you guys put in way more time than you should and make great sacrifices....and are under appreciated. Thank you for the advice.

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  11. Some great responses here. I absolutely agree that SCBWI is a valuable organization-- sometimes just being pointed in the correct direction, filling your creative well (nothing like coming out of that vacuum we tend to work into bunches of people with a shared interest), or finding much needed information and contacts for moving forward in a very competitive business. I also agree with your concerns, I didn't think it came across nearly as negative as you thought. I'm sorry your friend was so frustrated (Yah, I'm there all along and after being at this so long, some of the doubt if I'm good enough or ever will be good enough has crept back in, and it's debilitating). But that's part of the point. I understand all those variables and I tend to blame myself. I do hope they do a better follow-up. (I don't have years to submit and wait, I'd rather spend the time making the work the best I can now, and if someone "discovers" me then I can move on to the next level. I also think SCBWI is helping it's relevancy because it has begun to acknowledge the digital (love it when the flexibility kicks in, just like when Tomie suggested adding an "I" to the other SCBW). Will you got great heart!

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    1. Thanks Agy, You're right - from what I can tell the SCBWI is forward thinking in allowing people to speak on non-traditional advances and technologies to help authors and illustrators move forward. I love that. I was actually worried that they would be afraid of change but so far so good! So thanks again.

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  12. Hi Will-
    Sorry this is totally off topic, but I saw that you are going to be speaking at the SCBWI conference in AL, GA, and MS in Febr. Any chance that will be in Atlanta? Unfortunately I'll miss the SCBWI conference in MO, so I'm planning ahead.... :-)
    Laura Huliska Beith

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  13. Hi Laura, Yes - I think it's going to be a really fun event! Here is a link: http://www.scbwi.org/Regional-Chapters.aspx?R=42&sec=Events&g=2513

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    1. Will I was going to ask the same thining. Thanks for the link. I am hoping to attend in February. Thank you.

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  14. I met you at the regional SCBWI in Denver - my first one. If I recall, the agents/editors outlined their "response" policy at this conference. A nice touch I thought, however, I haven't tested that yet. I've found value in SCBWI so far through local network events, conferences and retreats. Before the regional conference, I've only attended non-SCBWI writer's conferences. There were never any stickers provided to all participants. You have to pitch your book and hope you get a "send it." So, the SCBWI magical stickers was an added bonus to me.

    It's interesting how human contact at conferences can change the dynamic in the publishing process. For writers and illustrators, I believe it gives a glimmer of hope, which can do wonders for one's writing career (whether you get a contract or not). After conference, one can return to the realities of the business.

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  15. Interesting post and comments. I have been toying with the idea of joining for a long time, in large part because it's expensive. However, I think I am going to do it next year, because I want to go to the conference in Asilomar, CA in the spring.
    I am in the process of publishing my own e-book (standard, with interactive app to follow a few months later) and I'm curious about how much I can do on my own.
    At the same time, I attended the Alternative Press Expo this past weekend, and was saddened by how little I sold (it was pathetic), but heartened at the exposure, and the many new people I met (one very famous artists wife and I hit off, so that made the whole weekend worth it for me). I know we cannot create in a vacuum, and I know alot of people think SCBWI is worth every penny , I'm just not 100% convinced yet.

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  16. I forgot to ask in my previous comment, if this sort of no response means we aren't interested applies to illustrators as well? As someone mainly interested in submitting art, do they provide special stickers for us?

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  17. Hi, Will--I've been a member of and speaker for SCBWI since 1995, as an in-house editor for Harcourt Children's books and then as a freelance editor and author. My most recent SCBWI conference appearance was giving a keynote at the August international conference in LA. I've never heard of a "sticker." Is this a new procedure that you've seen in the last few months? To my knowledge, authors and illustrators simply write "Such-and-such Conference submission" prominently on the outside of your submission envelope and then cite the conference submission invitation in the opening line of the query letter. Perhaps you can clarify so folks know if an actual sticker is necessary? Many thanks.

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    1. Hi Deborah, I'm talking about actual stickers. I've been to SCBWI conferences with and without them but lately I've been seeing them more...I should have included a jpeg above of the stickers I'm talking about. I'm not sure what would happen if someone attended a conference with stickers but submitted without them...editors probably looking for the sticker?

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  18. Ah. Thanks for clarifying, Will. Happy holidays to you!

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  19. I'm wondering if there are benefits to being a SCBWI member for self published children's book authors? Does the site offer help with/tips about marketing?

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  20. A friend of mine who wrote and illustrated 40 children's books before becoming a college professor joined SCBWI two years ago, hoping to get back into the game after retiring from teaching. He/she has had the same experience as Will's friend: Send me a dummy and I will respond. Most do not. In June 2014 he/she sent out five dummies and received one quick rejection; no response from the others. Overall, the response rate has been under 50%.

    At this point, I believe that the organization is largely a scam. The regional events vary considerably, but basically, they seem like cliques, where the few organizers meet with agents and editors and everyone else is excluded. Being a published children's book author seems to be meaningless if you are not one of the gatekeepers -- members of the clique. The same goes for being a published children's book illustrator. Me, I'm a social scientist. I like data: Does the SCBWI follow up with agents and editors who invite submissions? How many respond? More importantly, how many actually find authors and illustrators through the SCBWI process? Does SCBWI disseminate statistics on the number of authors and illustrators who have gotten contracts with agents or book deals with publishers through their SCBWI connections? I would be surprised if the numbers are significantly higher than authors and illustrators who manage to find agents on their own. Honestly, I hope I'm wrong. Maybe SCBWI is valuable for published authors and illustrators to network, but not for emerging authors and illustrators to acquire representation.

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    1. Thank you for your letter...I'm sure that members of the SCBWI would appreciate hearing this. I'm wondering if I could persuade you to go through the trouble of sending it in to them...since you posted anonymously I take it that you won't mind if I post this in my children's publishing fb group for them to read - thank you. Nothing will change for the better if information doesn't get spread to the right channels.

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