When Are You Going to Write a Proper Book? A Day for Children’s Writers and Illustrators

On the 4th February, CBI, in collaboration with Sarah Webb, Writer in Residence, Dún Laoghaire Rathdown, and supported by Words Ireland, hosted “When are you Going to Write A Proper Book?”. This was a hugely popular event, and over-subscribed. Friend of CBI Emma Dunne brought together her notes and recollections from the day for us, so everyone can have a taster of the discussion throughout the day!

4th February 2017 - dlrLexicon Library, Dún Laoghaire - Pictured at the launch of A World of Colour: The Art of Beatrice Alemagna and Chris Haughton were, left to right, . © Photo by Peter Cavanagh - Must Credit No Reproduction Fee

© Photo by Peter Cavanagh

Help, I Need Somebody! Where to Find Assistance and Information

­– Aoife Murray (CBI), Valerie Bistany (IWC) and Colleen Jones (SCBWI)

Each contributor discussed the functions of their organisation and the benefits of membership. CBI affirmed their commitment to support opportunities for writers and illustrators for children and described the many ways they do this – through Inis, the Reading Guide, book clinics, presence at festivals, administration of Laureate na nÓg etc. SCBWI explained they are an international organisation with chapters across the world. Members gain visibility and access to promotion – they have an online gallery and administer the SPARK awards for independent publishing, among many other benefits. The IWC emphasised their role in promoting, supporting and informing writers – they offer professional development, mentoring and courses, host writing groups and provide information on bursaries, competitions etc.

In all, membership of these organisations gives you access to information on writing and the industry, as well as bringing you into the writing community and giving you the support you need to grow as a writer and take your writing further.

4th February 2017 - dlrLexicon Library, Dún Laoghaire - Pictured at the launch of A World of Colour: The Art of Beatrice Alemagna and Chris Haughton were, left to right, . © Photo by Peter Cavanagh - Must Credit No Reproduction Fee

© Photo by Peter Cavanagh

Show Me the Money: Royalties, Events and the Financial Side of Writing

– Sinéad Connolly, Maedhbh Rogan McGann, Gráinne Clear and Alan Nolan

 Gráinne explained that the publisher’s real job is to produce the book – their ability to promote it is limited by their size and budget. All agreed that writers, generally, have to be prepared to get involved in promotion – to do events, interviews etc. Contributors discussed the rates they pay authors for events (library – €130–€150 for an hour; DWF – €300 per event; both pay travel on top). All advised writers to attend events/look online and see how experienced authors perform to get an idea of the standard expected and what works well. Sinéad and Maedhbh are both open to being pitched ideas for events. Gráinne said they would never not publish a book they wanted to if the author didn’t want to promote it, but sales would definitely be lower if the author chose not to. She explained how advances and royalties work and that Little Island pay a flat advance of €1,000. When asked for advice on starting a career in writing, Alan advised to have another stream of income; Maedhbh said to plan holidays/time off work at festival times; Sinéad advised to research available supports and take advantage of resources; Gráinne reminded that rights sales, translations, audio rights and merchandise can be additional income streams.

In all, beginning writers should be realistic about advances and maintaining another revenue stream; in order to maximise sales and raise their profile, they should also be prepared to promote their book and take part in events – and the more imaginative, well-thought-out and performed the event, the better.


My Life in Pi: Life as a Children’s Writer

– Sheena Wilkinson

 With reference to her own experience of leaving her permanent job, Sheena described how one might go about making a living as a writer. First, it’s important to be well-established before giving up work. She advised to initially take time off/unpaid leave in order to do events, and also to apply for any grants or bursaries you might be eligible for – be brave! Only about 10% of her income comes from book sales and advances, so she stressed that it’s essential to have other income streams – fellowships, teaching residential courses etc. She described a typical year during which she spent 143 days doing events (schools, libraries, panels, courses etc.), which left 222 days for writing and living life. She broke her working life down as follows: 50% earning a living; 30% writing; 10% admin; 10% research. She emphasised how important it was once you were living the writing life to get out and meet people – join writing organisations and groups, and get support from other writers. She also talked about the vagaries of the business but that it’s largely swings and roundabouts.

In all, the advice was to be realistic about the kind of living you can make as a children’s writer, and be prepared to do ancillary work. It can be a fickle business so be sure to have a plan B (and C and D) if you make the leap, and you will probably have less time to just write than you think. But there are supports there and it can be done!


If I Could Tell You Just One Thing: Children’s Writers, Illustrators and Booksellers Share Their Experience

– Oisín McGann, Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick and David O’Callaghan

 Oisín and Marie-Louise described their very different writing and illustrating processes (planning tightly and writing a fairly clean text vs just getting it down and then editing heavily). Marie-Louise said that, while writing can be done in spare time, picturebook-making has to be a full-time job. They both emphasised the importance of trusted readers who will give honest opinions and of editorial input, but they advised to be selective about accepting edits. David said that a good book won’t necessarily sell, and he emphasised the importance of striking cover design in giving a book its best chance. Competition is huge and sales figures are weighted towards the few big authors that sell massive quantities – for most writers, sales are far more modest. Following trends is pointless, as by the time a book has been written and published something else will be in vogue. He said he will always support something original.

One piece of advice

  • Oisín: Do take time to learn about the market (expectations for different reading levels, how books are produced etc.) but still write what you love.
  • Marie-Louise: Your book is your voice so work on it; you can’t control readers’ reactions to your book but you can put your best work in front of them.
  • David: Be aware of who you’re selling to and how to influence that market – 0–4, you need to reach parents; 5–12, reach children through bookshop/school/library events; YA – reach teens via social media.


Is It Me You’re Looking For? What Agents and Publishers are Looking for in 2017

– Conor Hackett, Penny Holroyde, Nicki Howard and Ivan O’Brien


Conor and Penny discussed the changing market for picturebooks – they are now more European influenced, with a broader appeal and are visually led. They are difficult to write well and need to be meticulously thought-out. They’re expensive to produce, and foreign co-editions help to offset that – thus rhyming text can be a problem.

Nicki talked about non-fiction picturebooks and how they offer expertly curated content, in comparison to the Internet.

Ivan said that co-editions were not something Irish publishers looked for. O’Brien look for picturebooks that will have an appeal beyond the usual picturebook market, as the investment in them is so high.

Early readers

These are usually commissioned by publishers – they generate no rights sales, as they tend to be quite localised and particular to their markets.

8–12 years

All stressed the importance of series potential, at least, and the ability to build up collections. A successful author for this group is a hard-working author – need to do a lot of events and promotion to build up a following. The ideal author is easy to get excited about, has the ability to draw you in and keep you reading.

All agreed that trust is essential in the author/publisher relationship – writers need to realise that everyone is on the same team and the publisher brings years of experience and expertise to the process.


YA has a huge audience, but it’s easy for publishers to get burnt. Ivan felt that just a few huge successes keep the whole market buoyant and that it’s sometimes easier to buy books in than grow them at home – large US and UK publishers can put huge resources behind campaigns that smaller publishers can’t compete with. Penny said that the voice needs absolute verisimilitude, and that US imports tend to be more ambitious than the work produced in the UK.

What they’re looking for

  • O’Brien Press: strong novels for 10+, up to 50,000 words – series potential is a bonus, but make that one book as good as it can be. Accept submissions directly or through agents. Don’t care if authors have self-published, but it can be awkward to republish a self-published book, as it may have already reached its potential.
  • Gill Books: always interested in illustrators; script submissions should show the author has researched Gill and knows the kind of work they publish.
  • Penny Holroyde: standalone novels for 10+ of c. 40,000 words; always looking for illustrators – picturebook submissions should be 12 spreads in a PDF, some finished spreads and examples of finished work.
  • Conor Hackett: writers need to engage with the industry – attend launches, talk to publishing professionals etc.

The event was followed by the launch of A World of Colour: The Art of Beatrice Alemagna and Chris Haughton.