Posted by: Robin Koontz | April 11, 2017

Judging a Cover by it’s Book?

A few years ago, a friend, who was about to self-publish a nonfiction book, asked for my opinion of the title and cover design since I was a published author. I commented that it was lovely, but I knew nothing about the book by its cover. The title seemed odd to me, the font almost unreadable, and the image was kind of hard to decipher based on the title. The response was, basically, “You have to read the book to understand the title and cover.”

When Marvin and I decided to self-publish a book about building our suspension bridge, we came up with a very long and revealing title: Building a Small Cable Suspension Bridge with the Cable Locking System. It’s a little cumbersome, but had we not also been marketing Marvin’s patented cable locking system, the title would have been shorter, but it would still be pretty obvious that the book was about building a small cable suspension bridge. We used key words that exactly described what the book was about. Sales have been beyond our expectations and even paid for the patent, although nobody has bought it, alas. We’re working on our next DIY book. Stay tuned.

BridgeCoverFINAL-COMPRESSED

So, back to our friend. I thought about my not very helpful critique, and realized that maybe a mysterious title and design might just draw in a reader. And to the author’s credit, he wound up describing the content on the back cover, which would be jacket copy in a hardcover book. I definitely would have bought the book based on the back cover description if the subject interested me.

The problem remains that many readers shop online, i.e. Amazon, and they browse book covers, quickly. Actually they don’t even browse, they scroll, and the book covers are postage stamp size. The book that makes them stop and learn more needs to have both a title and cover design that grabs them and tells them something about the book before they move on to the online description (which by the way, the author of a self published book also determines). Be it mysterious, obvious, or shocking, as Frannie Jackson writes in her Paste article about book covers, “The simple reality is that a striking design can influence whether we’ll pick up a title or leave it untouched on a shelf.”  That includes the cyber shelf.

You can check out Paste magazine’s best book covers of 2016 here and some nicely designed nonfiction book covers on ‘s site here. There are other terrific designers showing their creations out there, but these are a good start.

If you are self-publishing a book, remember that unless you are a big name author or you are publishing a book about a hot or familiar topic, most people will judge your book by its cover, including reviewers. Did you know that Goodreads does not require someone to read a book to give it a review? I have a letter from them that explains that’s fine with them because they trust their members… So. Given the huge onslaught of self-published titles, potential readers may be doing that decisive quick perusal more than ever. Make them want to stop and read more!

Posted by: Robin Koontz | March 4, 2017

Just another day in rural Oregon

liberty

From her beacon-hand glows world-wide welcome.

I needed postcard stamps, and our local post office had sold out. The mail clerk commented that it was unusual to run out of them. Maybe a lot of people are mailing postcards? Maybe on March 15? Anyway, with tears in my eyes, I drove off into the sunset looking for another place to buy postcard stamps.

The Veneta post office is yuge compared to our little P.O. in Noti, but still pretty cozy. I arrived to find a large family waiting to the side while two family members were talking to the clerk. One spoke Spanish and the other translated. I started visiting with one of the women waiting, who also knew English; just stuff about the weather and the usual waitin’ around babble. The two family members joined them with paperwork and it was my turn. Dang, they were also out of postcard stamps! But, the clerk called for the person who controls the stash, and said my stamps would just be a minute or so.

Meanwhile, a woman about my age came in. She glanced at the family, parked next to me at the counter and slammed down her purse. Then she glared at the family and sneered, then rolled her eyes at me as if I should be as disgusted as she obviously was. She muttered something as well, but thanks to my hearing issues, I didn’t hear what. My stamps were taking a while so I stepped back while the Nasty One got a money order and looked back at us with pure malice as she stormed out. I chatted more with the woman and smiled at the kids, wishing I knew how I could help these people, or how to even ask. I don’t even know what one does at the post office that has to do with being from another country. I did notice one family member showing the clerk her passport.

Finally my stamps were found, and as I paid the clerk, an old guy came roaring in and butted in front of me, yelling, “CAN I ASK YOU PEOPLE A QUESTION?” The clerk said of course, what, and the man said, “HOW COME YOU DON’T FLY THE AMERICAN FLAG HERE ANYMORE? WHAT’S UP WITH THAT?” I glanced back at the family and they seemed to have huddled closer together.

The clerk began to explain that they just hadn’t had time yet this morning to hang it, trying to assure the angry man that it was normally up by now (it was about 9:30 a.m., they open at 9). I didn’t stay to hear his response, I’d heard enough for one day. I said goodbye and good luck to the family, and left.

Rural Oregonians traditionally don’t trust anyone who isn’t white. That’s not news. When Marvin and I first arrived (by wagon train) 40 years ago, I felt the culture shock. We joked that we better get a gun and a pickup truck right away or we’d never fit in even though we were the right color. To this day, I don’t get people who feel so threatened by someone who doesn’t look or talk like they do. But I do get why these folks in our communities are loudly expressing their hatred and disgust more today than this country has seen in more than 50 years.

So now I’m stamping my postcards and sharing them with friends. I only asked my friends to be sure and mail them on March 15. I didn’t suggest what to tell our new president.

But I know what I will tell him.

 

 

 

Posted by: Robin Koontz | January 8, 2017

Leap into Literacy! A Printable Poster

Someone asked about buying a printable copy of this painting I did in 1991, called “Leap into Literacy.” It was a winning entry in a poster contest and also my promo piece back when we mailed things like this to editors and art directors. This is what it looks like. Since WordPress reduces file size, I put the original on Flickr.

leap-into-literacy-5x5

I realize there are a few unscrupulous people who will see nothing wrong with taking this printable image, obliterating my tiny little signature, and doing whatever they want with it. And others, in all innocence, will copy and share it minus my little humble credit. That bothers me a lot, and people who know me on Facebook know it’s a personal quest to get people to stop sharing cartoons and other copyrighted art where the owner’s name has been cut off or obliterated. See my blog about that if you like: No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

So here you go, a free poster or other something to print out by the not -very-famous but generous author and illustrator Robin Koontz. Share it with your students and kids. Hang it in your bathroom. Make greeting cards and sell them on Etsy (and later be avenged by Karma). But please leave my little tiny signature on it and tell people who love it to maybe go buy my books. Thank you, and Happy New Year!

Posted by: Robin Koontz | December 17, 2016

A Rotting Paradise

We’re a few days from the 2016 winter solstice, and like many around the country, we’ve had some pretty frigid temperatures lately. So we complain about frozen roads, worry about losing power, and moan about water pipes freezing. In the beautiful Northwet, we also whine about endless days and weeks of dreary clouds and rain. Poor us. Meanwhile, imagine living outside in that mess.

tomatocorpses

Providing a naturescape for wildlife isn’t just for spring and summer when we give them pretty flowers, bird boxes, and water sources. Wildlife is still around the rest of the year, and winters are tough, especially for birds. So I try to provide a winter garden for them along with some supplemental food.

I don’t pull out my tomato plants or flowering annuals at the end of the summer. Instead, I let most everything go to seed and then rot, including all those useless tomatoes that show up too late to ripen. It’s not pretty to most humans, but is appreciated by the ones that matter more to me anyway. The seed eaters enjoy the seeds, and the bug eaters get after whatever little things are chewing away on the rotting remains.

tomatocorpses1

I also plant low-growing perennials that stay lush through the winter. We’re in Zone 8, so we have lots of options such as cat mint, lavender, rhododendrons, hellebore, and rosemary. Ground feeding birds like to hide in plants, especially close to the food.  I plunked down a large platform feeder near some shrubs so that a lot of species can share food without getting overly territorial. I keep the birdbath nearby and ice-free. I also have a heated water dish that I’ll put out if we get a serious prolonged freeze. Just remember the three things they need to survive: food, water, and shelter.

birdfeeder

There are no critters in the above photos because well, I was stomping around taking photos. But here’s a blurry one I took from inside my office, which happens to look out at the scene. That’s a song sparrow. We also see fox sparrows, creepers, robins, flickers, Oregon juncos…

sparrow

…and the rufous-sided towhee, who like to chase away the smaller competition. Luckily these bullies aren’t overly piggy and there’s enough for everyone.

towhee

 

 

Posted by: Robin Koontz | October 9, 2016

The Rejection Wins

My paternal grandmother, Zola Koontz, aka Mrs. Wilbur Koontz, was one of many mid-20th century housewives who took a stab at jingle writing contests. It is a mystery why she sent this one again under her Mrs. Husband’s name rather than her own. But in any case, she won! $25.00 in 1947 had the same buying power as $275 today. She must have been very proud and happy that her writing was recognized. I read it and winced, but hey, it won!

zolaspoem

zolakoontzcontest

However, the real winner in my book was the jingle I found on the back of her winning entry, for Mounds candy.

zolaspoem2

Brilliant! My memory of this woman, who was up in years by the time I appeared on the planet, would never say DATE BAIT or encourage the eating of CHOCOLATE. She was the grumpy old woman in the big chair who barked orders at my sweet grandfather and glared at me like I was nothing but trouble, which I probably was. She was very strict in her Christian ways, hated anyone who wasn’t white, any man who didn’t shave, and any woman who didn’t wear a dress in public. So it’s great fun to read something that my grandmother wrote that was clever, creative, and even a little naughty. It makes me glad to be related to her after all.

Her only daughter was just like her mom at least during my lifetime. She sent this to me before she died. I sort of doubt auntie noticed what was on back of the winning jingle. And I wonder what grandma brilliance she burned in the fireplace?

Posted by: Robin Koontz | September 8, 2016

BUG! Publishing News

It began last October with a semi-desire to learn how to do scratchboard while tinkering with a story idea. As usual, my brain firmly resisted this new task that sounded messy, time consuming and difficult to learn. So, after buying all the materials and watching a few tutorials, I tried creating the scratchboard effect using Photoshop, something I was already familiar with and was not as messy. That’s when a little girl named Bug appeared.
bug-coversketch
But hey! What was Bug’s story? I had no idea. I decided to find out. So much for scratchboard.

Almost one year later, the story has been researched, written, rewritten, trashed, started over, rewritten, revised, tweeked, submitted, and SOLD! I’ve known about the sale for several months, but the publishing wheels tend to turn slowly and I just received the contract today. I can now announce that BUG! will be published by Sterling Publishing, tentatively in Spring 2018. The illustrator has yet to be named but the art director is pouring through portfolios. Based on the date due for the final manuscript, the 20th of this month, I’m just guessing that my work as the writer is done for now.

It is pretty ironic that a story that began with an illustration will not be illustrated by its original illustrator! But here’s the deal: I did not want to illustrate this book; I knew my style was wrong for it. In fact, I’ve written several stories in recent years that are not suitable for my style. And I have found it beneficial as a writer/illustrator to make that clear when I submit a story. Even if I think my style is right, I leave that option open and provide one or two sample illustrations. I’m not recommending that others do the same. It’s just what works for me.

Supportivbug-sketche people who suggest things such as, “Aw, you could at least try!” or “You could *simply* change your style!” (see above) or worse, “I think your style would work great; those editors don’t know what they are talking about!” are too kind and somewhat clueless as to how it all works. But it’s okay. I’ve learned to just let these well meaning folks feel that while they know better than I do, I’m obviously just too darn stubborn to pay them any mind. Everybody happy. Especially me! Woot! First picture book since 1993.

 

Posted by: Robin Koontz | August 14, 2016

Texting While Driving: a Writer’s Tip

We all know that sticking our nose in a device to read and answer messages while we drive is akin to driving while impaired, or worse. But safe texting while driving is something I’ve done for years.

A lot of writers talk of their routine of “Butt in Chair” (BIC) from something o’clock to whatever o’clock, period. They don’t allow themselves any break because this is their designated “writing time.” Then their walk to the park or museum, or a long, pretty drive, is their reward for time spent in that chair. It’s a discipline thing, and I get that. But isn’t that precious time often wasted? Both sitting in a chair and accomplishing nothing and later re-energizing the brain and thinking about what, recipes?

In my car, there is a pad of paper and a pen on the seat next to me. Remember paper? Pens? They are awesome inventions. I get in the car and drive. We are very fortunate to have a winding gravel road that almost nobody uses except for me and one of our neighbors, and we haven’t collided yet! Here’s a map of the six-mile route (it takes me a little longer than 16 minutes): drivehome

And here’s the view: HomeDrive

The idea is to get away from the chair for a while if you’re stuck, but don’t forget about what you’re working on. Instead, leave with an unresolved problem in your head. “Why would she say that?” “What does she do when this happens?” “What will happen next?” Getting out of the work surroundings and into a quiet place inside your head (no checking the device!) with that nagging unanswered question in mind can often lead to some interesting answers.

Some will pull over, which is a good idea if you’re not on a road like ours. Others, like me, will simply jot key words with eyes on the road, only legible to us sometimes (especially true if you’re left handed since the pad is to the right), to remind us of our brainstorms. We can worry about the details later. Plus, there is something about keeping it simple that keeps the ideas fresh. And I can’t wait to get back in that chair and write lots of words!

For instance, when writing BUG!, a picture book I recently sold (more about that later), I got in my dusty old car one day with the question, “What funny thing happens when the crickets get away?” And while I wound through the countryside, an idea popped up. I wrote “teacher” “curly hair” and “aggregate” and then laughed so hard I did have to pull over. That brainstorm even made it to the edited version of the story.

These are the happy moments in writing, and they can often happen when we make them happen, in a sneaky, tricky sorta way. Now it’s time to take a drive!

 

 

 

Posted by: Robin Koontz | July 28, 2016

Don’t over-pluck your picture book

If you write picture books, you know it’s a lot easier to tell your story in more words than probably anyone wants to publish. It used to be that 1,000-1,200 words was the limit. Now, it’s more like 700. Or even shorter! But that does not mean you cut all but the first 700 words of your 2,000 word story. It’s trickier than that.

One of my picture books, Why a Dog? By A. Cat was a 2,000+ word picture book manuscript that I knew had to be seriously trimmed before I could submit it to a publisher. One summer evening, apparently feeling I should be clearing out the junk in our house but wasn’t about to do that, I sat on our porch swing with that manuscript in hand. And in about thirty minutes, I cut it back to exactly 100 words. All I remember is thinking that this 100 word rhyme had all the elements of my story and could stand on its own without the rest. I soon sold it to Scholastic and it did very well. It’s still in print as an ebook.

But that kind of brutal cutting doesn’t always work. I was very lucky with that particular story that it worked so well, and so easily.  Many times when we try to cut a manuscript to the bones, as they say, we cut the entire skeleton away. We leave things that won’t survive without the underlying structure. A wonderful speaker at one of our SCBWI Oregon conferences described the problem this way (I guess she noticed most of us were women): So when you’re plucking your eyebrows, sometimes you just keep pluck pluck plucking. By the time you’re all done plucking, the essence is gone. You can paint in your brow until it grows back, but unfortunately for your over-plucked picture book, your reader can’t benefit from what isn’t there. Somehow you have to trim around the edges and leave the center, the part that shapes your story just as a brow shapes your face.

I thought about that today while I considered mowing our front yard. I refuse to call a yard in the country a *lawn* but I do get caught up in having a pretty green lawn in the spring and early summer. I mow and trim fairly regularly and my spousal unit yells “Fore!” when he walks through the short grass. But we only provide water to our vegetables, potted flowers and landscape plants, so once the rains stop, the grass dries out and turns brown. And, amazing drought-resistant flowering plants (that some call weeds) start popping up! Grass and thistle seeds are plucked by sparrows and finches, dandelion flowers are nibbled up by rabbits and chipmunks and their seedpods are snatched by swallows, and Queen Anne’s lace flowers are visited by the many kinds of bees we have living around us.

Here’s what my summer yard would look like if I kept it all mowed.

grass lawn

Here is my summer meadow when I leave it alone.

Meadow1

Now I better get back to letting some of my manuscript flower and go to seed while I trim carefully at the edges.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by: Robin Koontz | May 15, 2016

Can you handle the truth?

In the world of publishing we (hopefully) agonize over a project until it is perfect and present something we believe in our hearts is an incredibly awesome work of art. So it’s never any fun when our projects are rejected by an agent or publisher. In 30+ years of publishing children’s books, here’s my take on the R word.

When I first started submitting projects and portfolios, the responses were almost always personal, and most of them were rejections. The rejections were not exactly what I wanted to hear, but I relished the feedback and still have some of those helpful and encouraging letters from the 1980s-90s. I was glad that someone important read my story and had something to say that might make it better! I knew their opinion was subjective and that someone else might feel differently, but I was also aware that they knew more about what I was doing than I did. I felt lucky that these people gave me those precious minutes of their time and expertise. I learned a lot from their feedback and have since sold projects to a couple of the editors who rejected earlier projects!

rejectionletter

A very helpful letter about Pussycat Ate the Dumplings, Cat Rhymes from Mother Goose. I eventually sold the revised version to an editor who loved cats.

However, not everyone relishes or at least appreciates the value of rejection letters. They don’t realize that maybe their project came close and this could be an editor or agent who they might eventually work with. Editors I wound up knowing well enough to talk about these things told horror stories of writers who gave them a lot of grief for daring to reject their brilliance. There were nasty responses, hastily written revisions sent without being invited, insistent and frequent phone calls, personal confrontations, and even lawsuits over assumed promises of publication when the editor requested a revision and ultimately rejected a project. I experienced similar problems when I used to critique manuscripts or listened to table talk at conferences. Some folks just couldn’t handle the truth, even if it was sugar coated until it shined.

I did talk about the R word in my SCBWI conference workshops. I wanted people to feel good that someone took the time to read their work and respond, even if it was not what they hoped to hear. But alas, many people missed the point of how valuable that professional criticism could be. And in time, most editors stopped sending out personal rejection letters unless they knew the writer or her work, or it was submitted through an agent. To note, the reasons also had to do with increased workloads and cutbacks.

So these days, a “no response means no” policy or a form rejection with no comments are the standard responses un-agented authors get unless the editor or agent is interested enough to publish the work or sees enough promise that they go out on a limb with a request for a revision. It’s a sad state of affairs, for sure. How can an un-agented writer or illustrator get that valuable feedback their work most likely needs before it’s truly publishable?

Learn to handle the truth. Pay for a professional critique, either through a conference or by finding a qualified freelance editor, and learn to deal with what they have to suggest. While it is true that their opinion is subjective, remember to consider the source. Probably at least something they tell you is worthy of pondering. Don’t get defensive. Don’t ask for your money back or rant on your social media outlets (I’ve seen this done, it amazes me!). And please, don’t self-publish your work in defiance. While some very wonderful books have been given a pass by publishers for a variety of reasons, and we’ve all read those stories, most all of the projects that are rejected can use some rethinking – i.e. research on the appropriate market, consideration of the audience you are hoping to reach, genre, word count, reading level, etc.

We can always use some constructive criticism from other professionals, regardless of how much our loving and mostly clueless friends and family love everything we do. All of our projects require a brave, mature creator who can handle the truth, embrace it, and learn from it.

Addendum: the day after I posted this, Jessica Faust of Bookends posted yet another horror story. You can read “How Not to Impress an Agent” here.

Posted by: Robin Koontz | April 21, 2016

Are You Done Yet?

RobinWorkingWow, it’s been thirty years since my first children’s book contract. So… what have I learned in thirty years?

I’ve learned that people often don’t respect or understand just how long it can take to accomplish a task that might appear, to the one not doing it, to be easy. I think everyone has experienced the boss, friend, or family member who has no clue what it takes to do a job, but feels justified to ask, “Are you done yet?” and scoff if you are still at it after what they conceive to be a reasonable amount of time to be done already. I hear you.

As a children’s book writer and illustrator, the belief that this is easy, fast work has always been an unjustified assumption about our business. I used to tell a friend what I was working on, but I stopped telling her because she would ask, “Are you done yet?” usually the day after I told her about a project. I often felt like a failure because I couldn’t write or illustrate what my friend thought should be easy to accomplish in a day or two, maybe a week. It doesn’t take that long to read what I create, so what’s the big deal?

There was even more guilt when I was working on a spec project that may or may not sell to a publisher. People don’t realize that we might spend weeks, months, even years on an idea that never sells, for whatever reason. It can make us feel ashamed when we are asked, “So, did you ever sell that book you spent all that time on?” and the answer is, “Not yet.” (We never say “No,” because “Not yet” still shows promise). Selling, after all, is how our work is ultimately validated and hopefully helps pay the bills.

What I finally learned after a few decades of guilt is this: take all the time you need and ignore the outsiders who cause you to have any self-doubt. Surround yourself with like-minded people who understand your journey, and just hum a happy tune when you are questioned by anyone else and change the subject. Do your thing. Enjoy the ride. If you get somewhere, cool. If not, whatever, as long as you enjoyed the ride.

That’s one thing I’ve learned in thirty years in this bunny-eat-bunny business. I’ll try to think of something else and share that later. But now, I better get back to work. This project is going to take a while. Hey, don’t ask me if I’m done yet. I’ll let you know. Thanks.

 

 

 

 

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