Nine Things You Need to Break Into Children's Book Publishing as an Author, Illustrator, or Graphic Novelist

9 Things You Need to Break Into Children's Publishing

A little while ago, I read a new picture book, The Dreamer, by Korean artist Il Sung Na. It tells the story of a wistful, inventive pig who loves to watch birds soaring through the air.

The Dreamer by Il Sung Na, a children's book about following your dreams“If only I could fly, too,” he thinks.

Before long, his dream turns into an actual goal: he’s determined to figure out how to fly.

He starts clumsily. His first ramshackle contraptions do nothing but break. He gets discouraged, but some friends come to his aid and give him new ideas.

He tries again. And again. Each time getting better and better.

Then one day, with a crowd of friends watching, he straps himself into his latest invention, a hang glider-like machine with big red wings. This time, he runs down a hill and then ascends magnificently into the air.

And that first flight is just the beginning. He continues perfecting his vision, devising new vehicles of various sorts, and soon inspires other animals to take to the air.

I was just about to close the book when the author bio on the back flap caught my eye:

“As a kid [Il Sung Na] loved to draw, but it wasn’t until he visited a London bookstore in college that he discovered picture books were his calling. The real-life trial-and-error pursuit of that calling was the inspiration behind this book.”

That’s one of the things I love most about kids books and comics -- they offer all the life lessons you’ll ever need, in just a few illustrated pages!

In its own allegorical way, The Dreamer encapsulates many of the necessary elements you need in order to succeed as a writer or artist. Things like a long-term vision; a willingness to fail; a community of friends to keep you going. Although soft skills and mindset might seem secondary to talent and technical skills, they are actually extremely important. 

I talk to a lot of people who are just getting started in their careers, or trying to “relaunch” themselves. A lot of times, their questions for me are about narrow, methodological details like:

  • “How do you land a literary agent?” 
  • “How do you write a good book proposal?” 
  • “How do you promote yourself on social media effectively?”

I’ll let you in on a secret: although I answer those questions as helpfully as possible, I subtly try to steer them toward different questions -- better questions. These are questions like: 

  • “How can I develop a positive mindset?”
  • “How can I be more giving in my interactions with other people, both in person and online?” 
  • “How can I be more focused and intentional in my work?”

Building your dream career as an author or artist is totally possible. But one problem with creative people is that they have very good imaginations… which can lead them to build elaborate castles in the air before they’ve even built a solid foundation. 

It’s not the elaborate daydreams that will help you succeed; it’s the fundamentals. Those fundamentals are like magic; they enable you to turn dreams into reality. 

Here are the 9 foundational elements every author or artist needs to succeed in their publishing careers:

1. Start with baby steps.

Everyone starts as a beginner, just like Il Sung Na’s visionary pig. In the beginning, our ambitions almost always far outstrip our abilities. You may aspire to write a multi-volume epic, but you’ll need to start with something simple. Maybe a mini-comic, a zine, or a short webcomic.

I remember the first time I saw Raina Telgemeier’s work. It was a 12-page comic in a group show sponsored by Friends of Lulu. It hinted at the elements that eventually helped make Raina a blockbuster success: the emotional sincerity; the down-to-earth, wry sense of humor; the simple and inviting visual style with obvious inspiration from Lynn Johnstone’s For Better or Worse.

And yet, it was just a 12-page comic. Raina didn’t start by writing Smile; she started with little xeroxed mini-comics.

2. Be part of a creative community.

The Dreamer begins with a lone pig staring into the sky, but it doesn’t take long before the pig has enlisted a whole group of animals to help him gain traction with his flying project.

That’s no accident. It’s absolutely essential that you make connections with fellow writers and artists. Trying to figure out everything on your own is a dead end street.

After all, being a creative is already a lonely endeavor -- in order to create, you must spend many hours alone with your thoughts, doing the hard work of translating your imagination onto the page. Spending time with other people who understand what you’re trying to do is critical to keeping yourself motivated and inspired.

Just as important, connecting with your peers is also a way to avoid “reinventing the wheel.” Perhaps you’re struggling with a particular plot twist in your script; or figuring out how to promote yourself with limited time and money. By talking these sorts of problems over with other artists, you’ll get fresh ideas and learn from people who’ve already done what you’re trying to do.

3. Put yourself out there.

The first few times The Dreamer’s pig attempts to build a flying machine, he does it by himself -- and always ends in a heap of twisted mechanical parts. It’s only after he starts showing his work to a few friendly observers that he starts making progress.

When you’re just getting started, sharing your work publicly can be scary. That’s because your brain instinctively tries to protect you from unknown situations, which it interprets as “dangerous.” And it easily comes up with rationalizations that seem totally logical. Things like:

  • “I’m not ready. My work isn’t polished enough to share publicly yet.”
  • “I don’t want someone to steal my ideas. People can take your idea off the internet and sell it as their own.”
  • “If I post my work online, publishers aren’t going to be interested in publishing it as a book.”

All of these reasons for keeping your work under wraps until “the right time” are elaborate justifications to avoid the real reason to avoid sharing it: FEAR.

Putting your work out there, inviting public scrutiny and critiques, is undeniably scary. Your creative work is a reflection of your innermost thoughts, your imagination, your artistic talent. Who wouldn’t feel vulnerable offering that up to the world?

However, your biggest challenge, when you’re getting started, is not your amateurishness, or getting your ideas poached, or ruining your chances for a publishing deal.

Your biggest problem is being invisible.

You’ve got to make yourself part of the conversation, to invite feedback, to share your creative journey.

4. Build your online presence.

OK, I’ll admit we never see the pig in Il Sung Na’s book build a website or open a social media account. But in the case of breaking into kids comics publishing today, you absolutely must have some sort of online presence.

As Austin Kleon says, “It sounds a little extreme, but in this day and age, if your work isn’t online, it doesn’t exist.”

That doesn’t mean you must have a fancy website and thousands of followers on Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, DeviantArt, and Pinterest. A simple website and one social media account is enough to get started.

Here’s what you need, at a minimum:

  • A website.
    It can be simple, but you must have this “homebase” on the Internet. It’s your own little piece of real estate over which you have total and complete control. (Never forget, you have NO control over Instagram or Twitter or any other social media platforms! If they change their algorithms and suddenly you can’t reach 95% of your followers, that's your problem, not theirs.)
  • A “keep in touch” strategy.
    You must have a way that you’re keeping in touch with the people who already know and support you. In the beginning, this might be a simple email to 20 friends and family members. It doesn’t matter; what does matter is that you have a consistent routine of sharing your ideas, your work-in-progress, and your inspiration with people who care.
  • An “outreach” strategy.
    This means you’ve thought about how to find and reach MORE people who might like your work. I’m a big fan of the “slow and steady” approach ("The Tortoise and the Hare" is my favorite Aesop’s fable for a reason!). Maybe you have a table at a local comics festival every year, and slowly add to your mailing list. Maybe you organize a happy hour for artists, and grow your own circle by helping others. Maybe you teach comics in schools, and grow a fan base of teachers and librarians through word of mouth.

Any of these strategies is legitimate and effective. Notice that they all involve one-to-one, personal, genuine connections. These are the connections that make a difference when you’re running a Kickstarter campaign or launching your first book.

5. Understand your audience.

This is a truism in any industry: in order to succeed, you must have a very clear, specific, visceral sense of the audience you’re speaking to.

But in the case of creating work for children -- whether it’s a toy or a book or a comic -- you’re not only creating for a specific audience (ie, kids who like scatalogical humor, or dark fantasy, or monster trucks, or anything with the color pink, etc.), you’re also creating for a specific age level.

This is a huge difference between the adult book market and the kids market. Because, when it comes to children's books, there is no such thing as All Ages.

As adults, our brains are fully developed. Children, on the other hand, have brains that are still developing. This means that their cognition, reading level, vocabulary, experiences, and sensibilities are constantly evolving. A book that is enthralling for a 5 year old will not be enthralling to that same child when she is 14 -- or even when she is 8 or 9!

Most good children’s book and kids comics creators have a deep empathy for the kids they’re writing for. Mo Willems can get on the level of 4 and 5 year olds who are just beginning to grasp the mechanics of reading (and making jokes). Dav Pilkey can still inhabit the world from the perspective of a 7 year old boy. And Raina Telgemeier definitely remembers in vivid detail what it feels like to be a middle school girl.

So when you’re writing books for kids, some part of your brain has to be accessing your story from a specific stage of development, and relating it in a verbal and visual language that is ideal for that age level. For many writers and artists, that comes intuitively.

Regardless of whether it’s intuitive or a skill that you have to work at, the following tip will help you hone that ability even better.

6. Know the market.

Read widely and deeply, as much as you can. Just like the pig who studies blueprints and equations and the latest in aeronautical engineering, you’ve got to become an expert in what’s currently being published in the genres and age levels that you’re most interested in writing for.

Once you’re ready to look for an agent or publisher, having a strong knowledge of recently published books will help you pinpoint the specific agents and specific editors who might be most likely to appreciate your work. You can narrow down a shortlist of books you like, and then google the author and title with the word “editor” or “agent.” You’ll almost always be able to find who edited and agented those books.

That way, when you approach those agents and editors, you won’t be one of the dreaded “spray and pray” creators who send their proposals indiscriminately to every industry email they can scrape up. Instead, you can write an intelligent query letter that explains why you are interested in that particular agent or editor.

As an added bonus, once you have a meeting with an editor or publisher -- or further along in your career, once you’re appearing on panels and podcasts -- having a solid understanding of how your work fits into the wider publishing landscape will help you contribute more meaningfully to the conversation. Which, in turn, makes you a more credible, appealing candidate for publishing, and a more sought-after panelist or podcast guest.

7. Invest in yourself.

Most children's book creators don’t have a degree in “Children's Book Creatorship,” but that doesn’t mean they haven’t invested in learning as much as they can about the field.

If you want to build a long-term career as a kids comics creator, it isn’t any different than any other profession: spending money is often the fastest and most effective way to make progress and increase your opportunities. You’ve got to develop your skills, attend networking events, promote your work, and get professional feedback and advice.

Here are some of the specific ways you should be investing in yourself:

Or, if you really want to, get an advanced degree! Get your MFA at the Center for Cartoon Studies, or an art school like SVA, CalArts, or SCAD, or a creative writing program like the Vermont College of Fine Arts or Simmons University Writing for Children.

8. Learn to Handle Rejection.

The publishing industry is crammed with best-selling authors who experienced years of discouragement and rejection before finally getting their work published. I remember hearing a keynote speech by Caldecott Honor-winning illustrator Bryan Collier at an SCBWI conference a few years ago, where he recounted having spent SEVEN YEARS carting his portfolio to every publishing house in NYC, over and over again, before finally getting his first book deal.

Publishing is competitive and it is highly likely that you’ll face your share of rejection. Rather than hope for the best, I think it’s wise to prepare yourself for it, and develop conscious, deliberate ways to recover from it.

Most importantly, remember that one agent’s or editor’s rejection is not a final reckoning on your talent. It could be that they didn’t have room on their list for another book in your specific genre. Or they don’t have time to offer you the developmental editing that your project requires (sadly, this is the norm nowadays.) Or they simply don’t see your vision.

Facing rejection is another reason why having a community of peers is so important -- you need friends to cheer you up when external forces get you down.

Finally, remind yourself that it takes time to succeed in any craft. You’ve got to put in the hours, get critiqued, confront rejection, and just keep going back to the drawing board again and again.

In fact, you really only need to do one thing….

9. Persist.

When I was young, I thought that the most important factor in success was talent. Many battle-scarred years later, I now understand that the most important factor in success is definitely not talent.

It is PERSISTENCE.

Keep writing, keep drawing, keep imagining, keep sharing, again and again. It’s a simple recipe, but it isn’t easy.

As Dr. Seuss said,

“And will you succeed? Yes! You will indeed! (98 and ¾ percent guaranteed!)”

And he should know….

After all, his first book was rejected 28 times before being published by Random House.


Disclosure: Some of the links above are affiliate links, meaning, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

How to get noticed at a gigantic publishing conference

How to Get Noticed at a Gigantic Publishing Conference

On Wednesday morning I walked into the Javits Center on New York City's West Side -- touted as "one of the largest convention centers in the U.S." -- to attend Book Expo America. BEA is the largest publishing trade show in the U.S.

One of my goals in attending BEA was to get new book marketing ideas. After all, what better place to get ideas than a convention gathering most of the major publishers in the industry? I planned to wander the show floor, checking out publishers' displays and giveaways, to see if I could borrow any particularly creative ideas.

As I stood in line at registration in the cavernous glass-topped lobby, eventually, I looked upwards and started contemplating the enormous banners hanging from the ceiling.

via GIPHY

  • "New from Sarah Dessen!" screamed a banner nearby.
  • "A new series from #1 bestselling author Chris Colfer!" shouted another banner in the distance.
  • "The highly anticipated adult debut by #1 NY Times bestselling author Leigh Bardugo," announced a dramatic black banner to my right.
  • "Bestselling magic," proclaimed a tall, skinny banner right over my head, "Rainbow Rowell with Faith Erin Hicks -- on sale 8/27/2019."

Standing there in line, waiting for my badge, I had plenty of time to gaze at those banners. I hadn't even entered the show and I already had plenty of publisher promotions to look at. I started wondering how much they cost. They certainly cost thousands of dollars; perhaps tens of thousands of dollars.

But they weren't particularly creative. And my biggest question was, do they really help sell books?

My conclusion was... not really. Though I didn't necessarily think the publishers intended them to sell books. They were probably designed to reinforce "brand awareness." To emblazon an already popular author's new book even more firmly in the minds of the booksellers, librarians, rights and literary agents, and journalists attending the show.

What if you don't have the budget for gigantic trade show banners?

So what would a low-budget, under-the-radar, guerrilla publisher like me be able to accomplish at a show dominated by big-budget, publicly traded conglomerates like Penguin Random House and Harper Collins?

Quite a bit, as it turns out.

Although trade shows have traditionally been a place where new products are unveiled and hyped, that raison d'etre is being eroded by the Internet. You don't necessarily need an expensive in-person display to spread the word about a new product anymore.

While one of the primary purposes of a major trade show has been usurped by the Internet, however, the other major purpose has not: convening a large group of people from across the country or the world in one place at one time to discuss a common interest.

That's the major opportunity that conferences still provide. It's easier than ever to connect with people via video or webinars or online conferences, but there's still something different about meeting individual people face to face.

For a guerrilla marketer -- or author or publisher -- a single conversation with one person might be vastly more effective than a gigantic banner that thousands of people see. Because that conversation opens a new door or provides entree to a new community or potential partnership.

Let me tell you another story that illustrates how powerful this can be.

The Artist at the Wednesday Night Party

On Wednesday evening, I attended a comics industry shindig at a hip "drinking establishment" in a converted 19th century warehouse on 11th Avenue. (Are all hipster bars located in converted warehouses?)

As I made the rounds, chatting with little groups of people I knew from various stages of my publishing career, a librarian friend of mine came up to me and said, "You've got to meet my friend! She's the artist I told you about, who works at my school."

I remembered that she had told me about this young woman, an aspiring graphic novelist, who had attended art school and was now working as a para-professional at a junior high school. I looked across the room and saw the artist sitting on a low settee near a couch and a few armchairs overflowing with people.

The artist wasn't looking at anyone. She was holding a sketchbook and sitting there drawing, in the midst of the party. People all around her were guzzling cocktails and gossiping, while she worked on a piece of art.

"Cool!" I told my librarian friend. "I'll come over in a minute to say hello."

It took me more than half an hour to extricate myself from various conversations before I could make my way to the other side of the room. And within that half hour I already overheard someone whispering to a colleague, "Check out that girl over there. She's really talented."

By the time I finally made it over to her and introduced myself, I knew I was at least the third or fourth person to be purposely seeking her out.

"Hi!" I said. "Margie told me I should meet you!"

"Nice to meet you," she responded with a shy smile. "I'm kinda introverted, so I've just been drawing."

I asked her about what she was working on, and she explained the storyline of her current project. It sounded interesting. I was pretty sure there were publishers in that room who would be intrigued.

After speaking with me for a few minutes, she said again, "I'm not that good at schmoozing, so I'll just keep drawing." And with that, she put her head down as if to say, "Thanks for the chat -- I'm done talking now!"

I smiled. She was doing her job. She showed up and put herself in the middle of a bar filled with publishing bigwigs, then proceeded to ignore them and draw in her sketchbook.

In a room of people who love art and storytelling, an artist drawing pictures is like a lightbulb surrounded by moths.

Put Yourself in the Middle of the Action

Conferences bring together movers and shakers. And attending a conference usually has almost no barrier to entry, other than the registration fee. You pay the entrance fee, and then you can literally put yourself in front of those movers and shakers.

Simply by being in the middle of the action, you become part of the action.

The same thing happened for me. Although I had intended to examine publishers' marketing collateral and go to panels to get some good ideas for my clients' projects, it didn't take long for me to realize that the marketing collateral wasn't that important.

It was the chance conversations that mattered.

Over the course of two days at the conference, I had at least seven or eight pivotal encounters.

  • I spoke in person with several different distributors and came away with the desired result: "Let's continue the conversation."
  • I told a journalist from a leading trade journal about what I'm doing, and he asked me to follow up and tell him more.
  • I met a blogger from a key industry website, told her about Bounce Back, and she also asked me to follow up after the show.
  • I reconnected with a Hollywood licensing agent whom I knew years ago.
  • I ran into a highly regarded publicist who has extensive experience on Kickstarter campaigns (just the sort of expertise I need!)
  • I chatted with an organizer of a number of major comics festivals who perked up when he heard about Misako Rocks's manga teaching experience; he's interested in finding out more.

So, How Do You Get Noticed at a Gigantic Publishing Conference?

It doesn't start with banners or ads or a fancy booth. You just need the right person (or handful of people) to hear what you have to say.

A single conversation can move you forward leaps and bounds.

 

 

 

 


Seeking beta readers: how to find beta readers for your children's book manuscript

Seeking Beta Readers for a Middle Grade Graphic Novel

I am working on publishing a graphic novel with my friend-client-crazy collaborator Misako Rocks! (Just so you know, I didn't put an exclamation mark at the end of that sentence -- it's part of Misako's name.)

The process of publishing a graphic novel is loooooooong. First you come up with the idea, then you outline it, then you write the first draft, then you edit the first draft, then you revise and edit many more times, then you draw it (and maybe edit and revise the drawings a few more times), then you ink it, then you color it, then you design it, then you print it, ship it from printer to warehouse and from warehouse to retail -- and all along the way, you've got to be figuring out how to market and sell it and executing said marketing and sales plans.

Right now, we are at the beginning of that loooooong process.

But not the very beginning -- we have an edited first draft! Hip, hip, hooray!

So that means, we're ready to find BETA READERS.

You might be nodding and saying, "Way to go, Misako and Janna! You're on the cutting edge of 21st century publishing best practices!"

Or you might be scratching your head and wondering, "Huh? Beta readers? What's she talking about?"

How to find beta readers step by step

The Hoopla About Beta Readers

This whole hoopla about beta readers comes from the world of software development. All forward-thinking progress comes from Silicon Valley, right?

Right?

OK, never mind. But a few forward-thinking good ideas do come from Silicon Valley.

This concept of beta readers is one of them.

Basically, a beta reader is someone you ask to read an early version of your book and give you honest feedback on what's working and what isn't, and what they like and don't like about it.

It's the same idea in the software industry. You give a "beta user" an early version of your software and instruct them to go to town with it. You ask them to tell you what they like and don't like, and where they found the "bugs."

Obviously, the benefit of having a group of people "test-drive" your writing early in the process is that you'll find out what you need to fix/refine/improve -- and you'll also find out exactly what's resonating with people.

But there's another benefit, as well. The type of people who volunteer as beta users in the software world tend to be the more engaged, passionate, and knowledgeable software users. They are the early adopters who latch onto cool new things and start spreading the word about just how awesome they are.

This is true with beta readers too. There's a whole "beta reader community" out there in all the different literary genres -- romance, fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, etc. -- and you can bet those people are the people who like to talk about books.

When you reach out to find beta readers and a group of people raises their hands and says, "I would love to read your 200 page manuscript for free and tell you everything I think about it!" -- congratulations! You have started to build your tribe. Those same people who give you useful early feedback will also, more than likely, cheer you on when you're further down the road and have a publication date and a book cover and a marketing plan.

Those people are your advance guard. You keep them apprised of how the book is going, and they'll help spread the word.

So remember, your beta readers are EXTREMELY IMPORTANT PEOPLE. Treat them with care. Invite them into your inner circle and give them lots of love. (Never forget to say thank you!!)

How do you find beta readers?

The first and most crucial step to finding beta readers is to identify your target audience.

Your target audience is the type of people who would really enjoy your book. They are the book's ideal readers.

In the world of children's books, it's important to note that you're almost always going to have two target audiences: 1) the type of kids who'd love your book; and 2) the "gatekeepers" who would give your book to those children. The gatekeeper could be a parent, librarian, teacher, or some other grown-up with a close relationship to the child.

So when you're looking for beta readers for a children's book, it's a good idea to get feedback from:

  1. actual kids with your ideal reader profile
  2. parents, librarians, teachers, and other people connected to those kids

Back to where I started!

Misako and I are on the hunt for beta readers for BOUNCE BACK.

Bounce Back is a middle grade graphic novel about a Japanese girl who unexpectedly moves to the U.S. with her family and finds herself torn between two very different groups of friends at her new middle school in Brooklyn.

The target audience for Bounce Back is 5th through 8th grade girls who like reading graphic novels with tons of "middle school drama."

Are YOU interested in being a beta reader?

We're interested in anybody who is:

  1. a 5th through 8th grade girl who likes reading graphic novels with tons of "middle school drama" (DUH!)
  2. a grown up who likes kids graphic novels
  3. a teen who likes graphic novels and remembers being in 5th through 8th grade and what if felt like
  4. a grown up who has ever interacted with 5th through 8th grade girls and has a good sense of what they like

Basically, if you volunteer, we're going to assume you have some affinity for this project. It doesn't matter to us what it is... if you want to join our team, we're thrilled to have you!

Click here to fill out our beta reader application.

We are accepting applications until May 23, 2019.

And if you become one of our beta readers, you get many wonderful perks!! You will receive:

  1. our undying gratitude!
  2. your name listed in the Acknowledgements of the book!
  3. the inside scoop on our publishing journey!
  4. special Q&As with us as we continue on this adventure!
  5. an invitation to the book launch (aka rockin' party!)!

By the way...

If YOU are an author, comics creator, or publisher and you'd like to use our beta reader application as a template for your own venture, you are in luck! I created a beta reader application template in Google Forms which is FREE FOR ALL.

Onward and upward, people! Let's go publish awesome books!

 

 

 


How your mindset can sabotage your marketing

4 Ways Your Mindset Might Be Sabotaging Your Marketing

Do you ever feel like marketing your work is exhausting, overwhelming, confusing, and a giant pain in the butt?

Do you wish you could just do your thing and leave the marketing to someone else?

Do the words “marketing” and “self-promotion” simply make you feel icky?

Well, I’m afraid I gotta give you some tough love.

Almost all the creative people you admire are also good marketers. It might not seem like “marketing” (especially if they’re outside-the-box types), but trust me, every successful creative person has spent a lot of time learning how to sell themselves and their work effectively.

The key is that they’ve learned how to think about marketing in constructive, creative ways.

You could spend hours and hours and thousands of dollars learning how to leverage social media or master SEO, but if your heart isn’t in it and you’re fundamentally not as enthusiastic about social media and SEO as you are about your own creative work, stop right now.

There is no magic social media formula or secret Google code that is going to solve your marketing problems for you.

There are, however, some simple mindset shifts that will make a HUGE difference in the effectiveness of your marketing efforts.

If you are trying to figure out social media or SEO or any other marketing tactics without tackling these mindset shifts first, you will just waste a lot of time and money.

Let’s take a look at four of the biggest mindset problems when it comes to promoting yourself, and how to solve them.

Mindset Problem #1: Marketing takes too much time and if I do it as much as I’m supposed to, I won’t be able to work on my creative stuff.

“I don’t have enough time” is one of the most common mindset blocks that I hear. We all feel like we don’t have enough time. We all suffer from information overload and digital overwhelm.

This mental block arises from fear.

You might wonder, what the heck does fear have to do with my lack of time?

Our brains are clever. The part of our brain that is responsible for emotion and knee-jerk responses to situations, that acts out of habit and not out of rational thought, is your limbic system. Your limbic system’s number one priority is keeping you safe.

Promoting yourself effectively requires a) learning a bunch of new skills; and b) putting yourself and your work into the public realm and inviting attention. Neither of which keeps you safe. On the contrary, they make you exposed and vulnerable.

So your limbic system kicks into high gear and floods your brain with thoughts that will keep you from moving in that dangerous direction. And guess which thought is often the first one to pop up?

“I don’t have enough time.”

Why? Because it’s usually true! You ARE busy! You do have a lot of things on your plate.

It seems like the most rational, inarguable statement in the world. But it’s actually an emotional, habitual type of thought.

You do have control over your time. You do have the ability to decide what is most important to you, and what isn’t.

If building an audience for your creative work and making more money as a creator is important to you, you must take control over your time. You must consciously decide how to allocate it, and you must consciously devote a significant portion of time to things that take you out of your comfort zone.

Mindset Problem #2: I have no idea how to find my audience.

Actually, you probably already have an audience. Who likes your work? To whom do you show your stuff? Who are your favorite customers, if you have any? Who are your strongest connections on social media?

Maybe you’ll retort, “Well, Janna, of everything you just said, that’s about 15 people!”

Great! Your audience is 15 people. That is perfectly OK.

Your existing audience should be your priority. Those 15 people are super important!

They have already raised their hands to say they’re interested. By paying close attention to them and figuring out what they want from you and what they like about your work, you are setting the stage that will allow you to grow your audience much faster in the future.

Be a detective. What do they ask you about? Why are they interested in your work?

Really good marketing starts with really good listening.

The next step is to combine what your audience is interested in, with what you love to talk about. Maybe your audience wants to be inspired by dreamy, evocative stories. You love talking about the technical details of creating your work.

So you create a plan to consistently post your best work online, and tell stories about how you created it.

The next step is old-fashioned hustle. You must go out and actively grow your audience from 15 people to 16, then 18, then 23, and so on… it doesn’t happen automatically.

Maybe you start a meetup. Or host an open studio at home. Or post a weekly tutorial on YouTube.

There are countless ways to reach out and introduce new people to your work. What’s important is that you take the initiative to decide what feels right to you, and then do it — consistently.

Mindset Problem #3: Promoting yourself is annoying and drives people away.

This is the extremely prevalent “used car salesman” fallacy of self-promotion. When people think about promoting themselves, they often envision a pushy, self-important dude yelling, “Hey guys, check out my stuff! It is AWESOME!”

But this is a false stereotype. The most effective marketing is usually invisible.

You know you’ve encountered creative, thoughtful marketing when you find out about a person or a company and something they do makes you exclaim to yourself, “Wow, the stuff they’re doing is really cool!”

They’ve connected with you on an emotional level. Maybe they’re telling an inspiring story about their work; or they’re creating something valuable that makes your life or the world a better place; or they’re just entertaining you in a really engaging way.

You need to adopt the exact same approach to your marketing as you do to your actual creative work. Start by asking yourself:

  • What am I passionate about? How can I share that?
  • What do I know that other people want to learn? How can I teach it?
  • How can I use my work to make a positive difference in people’s lives, even if they never buy anything from me?

If you promote yourself in this way, you will never drive people away. You will steadily attract people toward you.

Mindset Problem #4: I get overwhelmed by social media and can’t figure out the best place to promote myself.

That feeling of “overwhelm” happens because you don’t have a strategy and a plan. When you’re trying things willy-nilly, you feel scattered and unsure about whether your actions are effective.

These days, people tend to equate “marketing” with “social media” — but no, social media does not equal marketing!

Social media is just one marketing tool in a huge arsenal of possibilities.

There is no one-size-fits-all marketing plan. Every person and every business is unique, and the path to effective marketing starts with uncovering exactly what makes you unique.

Once you’ve figured that out, you can then decide which social media platform makes the most sense for you, and how to use it. Or you might decide to forego social media altogether and use other tactics instead.

That’s right — I believe it is possible to design an effective 21st century self-promotion plan without using any social media at all.

This isn’t necessarily what I would recommend for most people, but sometimes it’s the right choice. I mention it here because I want to emphasize that social media is just one piece of the puzzle, and not necessarily the most important piece. It all depends on you and your audience.

Conclusion

The single best way to succeed in promoting yourself is to apply the same passion, genuineness, creativity, drive, and care into your marketing as you do to your creative work.

Doing this requires that you think of marketing not as some sort of tactic that a certain breed of people do well, or that only people with a specific skill set can handle. You have to think of marketing as an integral component of your creative work itself.

Over the next few months, on this blog, I’m going to focus on how to do this, step by step. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, please let me know in the comments, does your mindset ever get in the way of you promoting your work effectively? How?


Dealing with rejection from agents and publishers

Dealing with rejection from agents and publishers

Let’s face it: if you’re a creative person, you’re going to face rejection at some point in your career. In fact, you’ll probably face a lot of rejection.

But there’s one hard fact I want you to internalize...

Rejection doesn’t mean you’ve failed.

There are many reasons why an agent or publisher might reject your manuscript or book proposal. It might be that their taste doesn’t mesh with yours. Or they already have a project that’s similar to yours. Or they think your work isn’t quite “prime-time ready” yet.

Regardless of the reason, it hurts when you get a “No, thanks” response. But I want you to pick yourself up and keep going.

Because rejection isn’t failure. Rejection is opportunity.

What do I mean by that?

Every time you face a challenge in life, or your creative work is rejected, it’s an opportunity for you to grow. Whenever you force yourself to do things or confront things that are unpleasant or uncomfortable, it’s the process of facing them and persisting that helps you mature as a person and artist.

Real Stories of Rejection

In my very first episode of Janna Co. TV, I chat with my good friend and collaborator Misako Rocks! about rejection.

Dealing with rejection from publishers and agents: Janna Co. YouTube show

We’ve been friends for about 15 years. Guess how we met? You’ll find out in the video -- it involves rejection.

I’ll also reveal the story of my very first attempt to break into children’s book publishing. It involves rejection.

We’ll talk about the current project we’re working on together. It involves rejection.

Through all these stories, we’ll discuss how we’ve faced rejection in the past and how we’ve learned to deal with it now. We’ll talk about “saying good-bye to your pride” and embracing the cards you’re dealt.

And finally, we’ll talk about how often you feel excited and scared of rejection at the same time. This is a normal human response, and it’s a good sign. It means you’re pushing yourself outside your comfort zone. You’re pushing yourself toward the things that really matter to you.

After you’ve watched the video, I’d love to hear from you.

How do you handle rejection? Has rejection ever helped you in an unexpected way? Is a fear of rejection keeping you stuck?

Leave a comment below and let me know.

The more we share our stories of rejection, the more we help each other. The world needs us to keep pushing forward, no matter how many roadblocks fall onto our path.


how to find time to be creative

How to Find Time to Be Creative

Just a few days ago, a friend wrote to me,

“How do I get rid of things on my plate that I don’t want to do? How do I prioritize?”

Her questions echoed similar ones that many people have asked me. It seems like we’re living through an epidemic of busy-ness. In the midst of the rush, it’s becoming harder and harder for people to decide what’s most important, and to focus.

I know many of us wish we could wave a magic wand and make our most frustrating and tedious obligations disappear.

But that seems impossible. Weighed down by our To Do lists, we can’t find enough time to do the things we want to do. We feel trapped.

What Happens When You Don’t Deal With This Problem

If you don’t treat the root of the problem, for many people, the result is depression.

This is what happened to me.

For a long, long time, I felt trapped in my work. First when I was working a full-time job, traveling for business, and taking care of our young daughter at home. I yearned to have a greater sense of control over my life and some sort of creative outlet. But whenever I tried to figure it out, I felt stymied by a lack of time and confusion over which direction would be best for me to go.

Then I quit my job to help my husband with his business. Having our own business, I reasoned, would give me that greater sense of control.

But it turned out I had jumped from the frying pan into the fire — instead of having more time, I had even less. To make matters worse, I took on a consulting job to bring in a little more income. And then I had a second child.

Now I was juggling two jobs, two children (one of whom was a baby), and a growing sense that time was racing by and somehow I’d missed the spot where I was supposed to get off the express train and “find my calling.”

What Caused This Mess?

Eventually, I came to realize something important: Depression can be caused by unrealized creative potential.

And the key to realizing your creative potential is not what you think it is. You don’t need more time.

What you need is a subtle but utterly pivotal shift inside yourself.

Although your obligations don’t necessarily need to change (at least, not at first), your mindset toward them does. When this happens, it can open up a veritable floodgate of creativity.

We all have two finite resources in our lives: money and time. However, there is at least the theoretical possibility that we can create more money for ourselves.

Time, on the other hand, is truly finite. While some of us may have a lot of money and others not very much, we all have the same amount of time.

Yet some people seem to spin their wheels for years at a time, while others move forward and make things happen.

We think that in order to “have enough time” we need to relinquish some of our tasks.

The truth is that our own minds are the terrible taskmaster keeping us trapped. And the reason why that taskmaster is so cruel to us is because she is deathly afraid of allowing us to move toward that vast, powerful, brilliant space of our full potential.

Our current To Do list is a known entity. We know what we’re supposed to do at work, to keep the household running, to make our families happy.

But to confront our nagging existential angst… or to push ourselves as far as we can go in our creative pursuits… far enough to go over the edge and see what happens when we try to fly — that is like stepping into a void.

So we instinctively (and unconsciously) protect ourselves by dutifully checking off the boxes on our To Do list.

This is completely understandable. “Finish monthly report” or “reorganize the basement” might not be fun or creatively fulfilling, but at least they’re clear and concrete.

How the heck do you check off the box that says “confront my existential angst” or “realize my full potential in life”?
I’m not a religious person, but I am spiritual, and this line from the Bible resonates for every human being:

“Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and the door will be opened to you.” Matthew 7:7

The shift that needs to happen inside you is simple: you stop resisting. You accept what your heart is telling you.

There is something inside you that you want to do. You may have a very clear vision of it. Or you may have no clear sense at all; only a hazy intuition that something needs to be different.

It doesn’t matter whether you know what you want to do, or you don’t. You simply start by saying “yes.”

Yes, I matter.

Yes, I am open.

Yes, I am moving forward.

Instead of saying “I can’t,” you say, “I am ready.”

I am ready to ask for help, even when it feels uncomfortable.

I am ready to go looking, even when that means taking a path I’ve never traveled before.

I am ready to knock on the door, even when I have no idea what lies on the other side.

When it opens, I am summoning the courage to step across the threshold, and keep going.


how to turn mistakes into gold

How to Turn Mistakes and Failure into Gold

Have you ever heard the tale of Rumpelstiltzkin, how he helped a poor miller’s daughter spin straw into gold and eventually marry and bear the child of the king?

Did you know that all of us have straw heaped around us that we can spin into our own gold?

Let me tell you a story….

The Tale of Janna’s Difficult Week

Once upon a time, there lived a wife and mother who worked very hard at three jobs. She took a vacation at the beginning of July, and when she returned home the following week, she decided to work extra hard to make up for the time she had spent relaxing.

On Monday and Tuesday, she felt like a super-hero. She wrote documents. Sent emails. Reviewed spreadsheets. Had phone calls. Updated websites. Processed images. Posted on social media.

She went to bed on Tuesday night, but at the stroke of midnight, a hobgoblin woke her up, sent her brain into overdrive, and prevented her from falling asleep again.

On Wednesday, the poor woman was very, very tired, but she was an over-achiever, so she pushed herself through the day and completed her “To Do” list. On Thursday she did the same.

On Friday, the woman was exhausted. She felt like she was shaking (but maybe it was the cup of iced tea that she drank). But still, she completed her work and baked cupcakes with her children in the evening.

The next day was Saturday, the day of rest. But this woman couldn’t resist taking a peek at her email, and in the course of scrolling through her messages, she realized that she had made a mistake on Monday, put a document in the wrong place, and accidentally missed a deadline.

Now the poor woman started to shed piteous tears.

“Woe is me!” she thought. “This is the second time I’ve made that mistake! I’m a failure!”

She cried and cried, and then she dried her tears, took a deep sigh, and started folding laundry.

While she was folding laundry, the hobgoblin appeared again, and whispered in her ear, “You should listen to a podcast about failure.”

“Hmmm…” she thought. “Good idea!”

So she listened to a podcast about failure. The host was a fairy godmother named Brooke Castillo. As the magical fairy godmother talked, the woman started to calm down.

In fact, she became very calm… and then happy!

That’s because the fairy godmother gave the woman a magical recipe for spinning mistakes into gold.

As soon as she was done folding laundry, the woman jumped up, used the magical recipe, and turned her mistake into gold.

“It works!” she exclaimed.

The Magical Recipe for Spinning Mistakes Into Gold

Here’s what the woman heard the fairy godmother say:

“When something happens that doesn’t meet our expectations, we get to decide what that means…. We can decide to make it mean something positive.”

When you make a mistake, the fairy godmother explained, say to yourself:

“I’m going to have my own back. I’m going to use that failure as an opportunity to learn and get better.”

And then the fairy godmother mentioned an idea she’d gotten from an impish type named Ramit Sethi.

Ramit, she said, has a Failure Log, where he strives to include at least five failures a month.

Why?

Because there is no faster way to improve than to:

  1. try new things
  2. make mistakes
  3. examine those mistakes
  4. decide how to do things differently
  5. do the whole process over and over again

The problem is that many of us keep making the same mistakes over and over again because we don’t force ourselves to stop, write them down, and reflect on them.

That’s the genius of Ramit Sethi’s Failure Log.

Not only is it a simple way to remind yourself to reflect constructively on your failures; it is also a way to make you excited to fail — because then you meet your quota of 5 failures a month!

Magic.


What to do when you have TOO MANY ideas

What To Do When You Have TOO MANY IDEAS

How do you transform your creative chaos into something manageable? How do you distinguish the diamonds from the pea gravel? How do you know when it’s the right time to nurture an idea, and when it’s better to just leave it fallow?

I struggled with these questions for a long, long time.

When I left corporate publishing, I wanted to do something “different,” but I wasn’t sure what it should be. Here are just a few of the ideas I considered:

  • Should I start a girls’ comics magazine? Or a children’s book company?
  • Should I open a bookstore? Or a tea and rice ball cafe?
  • Should I go back to school and get an MBA? Or maybe an MFA?
  • Should I become a book packager, a literary agent, or an author?
  • Should I switch gears entirely and go into finance?????

I researched all of those questions seriously. In some cases, I wrote business plans or made significant headway on the first phase of the goal.

But I always ended up questioning myself, getting side-tracked by other ideas, and abandoning the original plan.

After a while, the pattern was very apparent to me, and I felt like an abject failure. Why were other people able to take an idea, persist with it, and carry it to fruition? What was wrong with me?

What Was Wrong With Me

In order to figure out why I seemed doomed to Sisyphean idea generation, we have to look at the subtext behind the question, “What should I do when I have too many ideas?”

The phrase “too many” is a negative judgment. The question itself assumes that it is not good to have many ideas, projects, or interests. Without realizing it, I was interpreting my creativity as a liability.

Because I thought there was something wrong with me, I unconsciously struggled against my natural tendencies. Although on the one hand I was creative, on the other hand I was squashing my ability to channel this creativity in productive ways, because I was refusing to see it as an asset.

As the Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön writes,

“When resistance is gone, the demons are gone.”

Once I started changing that habit of asking myself, “What is freakin’ wrong with me?,” and started developing the habit of asking, “What’s going right? What’s making me happy?”….

Everything changed.

Before doing anything else, you’ve got to reframe the question.

Here’s the same question, posed in a compassionate, curious way:

I have lots of ideas. How can I organize them and move forward on them most productively?

Step Number One

The first step is both simple and essential: write your ideas down.

It is critical to get your ideas out of your head. This accomplishes two things: first, it frees your brain from worrying about remembering all your ideas, and gives you a lot more free space in your mental hard drive.

When you have a lot of ideas but you’re keeping them all in your head, without realizing it, your brain is expending a lot of energy trying to keep track of everything. This creates a constant, nebulous feeling of anxiety — definitely not conducive to creative work.

Second, once you have your ideas down on paper, your ideas gain a certain substance. It becomes easier to evaluate which ideas to pursue, and which to discard or hold for later.

I’ll talk more below about how to distinguish between good and not-so-good ideas, but suffice to say for now that the very first step in that process is always to write out each of your ideas as comprehensively as you can, as soon as you can.

Where should you write your ideas?

That’s up to you. It could be Evernote, or Google docs, or a journal, a notebook, or index cards. It doesn’t matter, as long as it’s a system that works for you and you’re consistent about it.

In her book on creativity, the choreographer Twyla Tharp says that she has actual physical boxes for each of her projects. In each box (labeled with the name of a specific project), she puts notes, clippings, artwork, videos, books, or any tangible item related to that project. As Tharp says,

“Before you can think out of the box, you have to start with a box.”

In Tharp’s case, yes, she does have a literal box, but in the metaphorical sense, you need some sort of organizing principles and structure to your idea generation process in order to make it most effective.

Now what? How do you make sense of all those ideas?

Once you have a system for capturing all your ideas, you now need a system for filtering them. In other words, deciding which ideas are keepers, which ideas to explore further, and which ideas to move forward on NOW.

Filter #1 is a stark thought experiment.

Imagine you only had one year left to live. Which ideas or projects would you want to finish in the last year of your life?

This helps put things into perspective. It helps you understand what is absolutely most important to you, what you want to do on behalf of your loved ones, and what you can actually accomplish in the near term. These factors are extremely effective ways to zero in on what to do.

Filter #2 is a prioritization exercise.

I outlined this exercise in my blog post two weeks ago about prioritization. Clearly decide for yourself what your top two to three goals for this year are. Write them down and put them somewhere where you can see them every day — for example, a Post-It on your computer, a note in your wallet, or a page taped above your work table.

Now, when you have an idea and you’re trying to figure out whether to pursue it, ask yourself: “Is this going to get me closer to my two most important goals for this year?”

If not, set it aside for now. This doesn’t mean you have to set it aside forever, of course! But now is not the right time.

Filter #3 involves determining your rationale.

Get to the root cause for each idea. Ask yourself, what’s driving me? Is it something I want to do for myself, or someone I love? If the answer is yes, it’s worth considering.

If it’s something you want to do because you think it’s what “the market” wants, or it’s what you’re “supposed to” do, or because you think it will impress someone… run the other way. It is most definitely not an idea to pursue.

Filter #4 is to create a set of rules for yourself.

This filter helps you counteract “Bright Shiny Object Syndrome.” It’s especially important for big ideas that may cause you to shift gears or lose your focus on your current priorities.

My rules are simple. In fact, there’s only two of them:

  • When I have an idea, I must write it down in my idea notebook.
  • I must let every idea gestate for one week before I take action. If my enthusiasm has waned after one week, that’s a sign. I shouldn’t pursue it, at least not now.

Always be biased to action.

Once you decide which idea is most important for you right now, get started as soon as possible. Make a back-of-the-envelope plan and start working on the very first phase.

Taking action consistently and frequently on your most important ideas and projects is critical, because that momentum will motivate you.

I’ve said this before, but I will keep saying it till the cows come home: being motivated doesn’t cause us to take action. Taking action causes us to get motivated.

If you struggle with feeling consistently motivated, stop worrying about your motivation. Focus on consistently taking action, whether you feel like it or not.

Another reason why you want to take action consistently is because, if you let an important idea lie dormant for too long, it may lose its spark entirely.

Elizabeth Gilbert talks about this in her book Big Magic, where she describes an epic novel she worked on for more than a year. Then there was a family crisis and she had to stop working on it for several years. When she finally got back to the manuscript, she found it was impossible to start writing again.

The fire for the story was completely dead and she couldn’t resurrect it.

Say Thank You to Your Monkey Mind

My final word on “too many ideas” is that you need to be aware of this challenge as a potential sign of resistance.

Our brains deeply resist being pushed outside of our comfort zone. Working on ambitious creative projects always pushes us outside of our comfort zone. One way that the fearful part of our mind can easily sabotage us is by dangling an enticing new idea in front of us.

“Oh!” we think. “THAT’S an interesting idea! That sounds easier and more fun and way more exciting than what I’m currently doing!”

But if you’re prepared, you won’t be derailed. Instead, you’ll thank your brain for its endless inventiveness.

Then you’ll write the idea down in all its glorious detail, look at your calendar, and tell yourself, “OK, I’ll revisit this in a week or so. Now it’s back to the drawing board.”

And get back to the work at hand.


“People Buy Your Joy”

I just finished reading a wonderful little book of career advice for illustrators called “I Just Like to Make Things: Learn the Secrets to Making Money While Staying Passionate About Your Art or Craft” by the agent Lilla Rogers (who is herself an exceptionally successful artist).

The title of Chapter One stopped me in my tracks: “People Buy Your Joy.”

Amen to that.

Have you ever been around someone who is unabashedly in touch with their joy? Someone who lights up with delight when they talk about their work, who seems fully grounded in themselves and their direction, who never worries about “helping the competition” because sharing their knowledge and inspiration brings them such obvious pleasure?

People like that are rare — and magnetic.

What is even more rare, though, is people who got that way without going through struggle and rejection. There is a very, very high likelihood that at a certain point, you’re going to offer your heart to the world and it’ll respond (at first) by saying, “No, thanks.”

J.K. Rowling once tweeted about the painful period when she was submitting the first Harry Potter manuscript to publishers: “I wasn’t going to give up until every single publisher had turned me down, but I often feared that that would happen.”

Moments like these can be a critical turning point.

Do you redouble your commitment to your work?

Or do you start trying to figure out “what the market wants” and rejigger yourself into something “more commercial”? (Or, worse, give up on yourself?)

If rejection is more likely to make you question yourself than become even more determined, you’ve got to employ every tool in the arsenal to keep in touch with your joy.

  • Meditate.
  • Exercise.
  • Practice your craft religiously.
  • Take breaks.
  • Be in nature.
  • Spend time with your favorite people.
  • Laugh.
  • Find mentors.
  • Do things you love, every single day.

As David Lynch says in his book Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity, “Experience the joy of doing…. Your friends will be very, very happy with you. Everyone will want to sit next to you. And people will give you money!”

One of my most important insights has been that persistence and self-confidence are “the killer combination,” when it comes to building a successful creative career.

Persistence is hard. But if you consciously seek out the supports that enable you to persist, your self-confidence grows.

As your self-confidence grows, it becomes easier to persist.

Both self-confidence and trust in yourself that you will persist bring you joy.

People buy your joy.