Publishing Picture Books with Sarah Maizes

By Kelly Smith

If you have a lot of great ideas for picture books but don’t know where to start, look no further. Nobody knows more about picture books than Sarah Maizes!
Sarah Maizes is the award winning author of three picture books for children including”On My Way to the Bath” – a Children’s Book of the Month Club Main Selection and Children’s Book Committee “Best Children’s Book of 2012″ and it’s upcoming sequels, On My Way to Bed,” and “On My Way to School, published by Walker Books/Bloomsbury. Sarah is also a former Literary Agent with the William Morris Agency in NYC representing the following children’s book authors: Dav Pilkey, Cynthia Rylant, Paul Zindel, Bill Cosby, amongst others and a former TV development executive for kid’s television.
Since she’s been on both sides of the fence (as a literary agent and successful author), Sarah knows all about how to avoid the rookie mistakes and make your work stand out. If you want to learn how to write and publish a picture books, check out Sarah’s Writing the Marketable Picture Book class this Tuesday, June 25th and Get Your Picture Book Published starting on July 13th!
In the meantime, Sarah graciously answered a few questions about how she got her start in the field and what makes a good picture book.
What inspired you to become a literary agent and how did you transition to children’s book author?I have always loved kids entertainment: books, cartoons, anything that made me laugh. I was a Jim Henson fanatic growing up and it was my dream to create material like “The Muppets.” When I graduated from college I was looking for work when I got a call from a HR agency about an interview as an assistant to the Literary Agent for Maurice Sendak, Steven Kellogg, Rosemary Wells and James Marshall and I thought “H*LL YEAH!”  From there, I moved to William Morris and helped create a children’s entertainment division.

As for how I got into writing for kids: after I had kids, I had a new perspective on life as a kid – and combined with my love of humor – these stories just started popping out.  I couldn’t stop them!

What qualities did you look for in a picture book projects when you were an agent? 

There are three things that are most important to me in a kid’s story:

1. An authentic kids’ voice
That’s the most important thing to me. So many projects came to me and the writing is what a grown-up THINKS a kid would enjoy – as opposed to a subject matter that is interesting to today’s kids and a voice that rings true to a kid.

2. Humor
It’s hard to define humor, but I can say it needs to come naturally from the material and not feel forced. I have a soft side too, but I hate anything that’s too sweet.  If something is soft, it needs to feel very real and relatable to a kid.

3. Focus
What is the author trying to tell in their story and do they do it without flying off on tangents?

What did you learn as a literary agent that informs your writing? 

As a literary agent I learned two things:

1. Nothing is more important than the writing.
So many people come to agents and say “This would make a great series!” or “I can see the dolls!”  If your story isn’t strong, it won’t sell. If it doesn’t sell, you’re not going to see book #4 anytime soon.

2. Criticism is subjective. VERY subjective.  Rejection is a part of the game and you can’t let it get you down. You have to believe in your work and your vision. Just because five editors pass on your manuscript, that doesn’t mean it’s not a good or worthwhile book. That being said, when 20 editors ALL come back to you with the same note then it’s time to evaluate what they’re saying about your work and make some edits.

Give us a little class preview. What’s the most important thing that will keep your picture book out of the slush pile?

If you want to stand out, write something unique. Bring something new to the marketplace. Even if your writing is strong, if you’ve written another story about an unwanted Christmas Tree, you’ve got an uphill battle in front of you. Share a new perspective or a fresh voice if you want to stand apart from. . . (dun, dun, duuuuunnnnnnn). . . the pile.

At what point in the process does the illustrator become involved in your picture book?

You do not need an illustrator attached to your picture book to sell it.  In fact, it’s better to try to sell your manuscript without – unless you are a fabulous illustrator yourself.  In that case, you are the type of author who is in high demand!

Are you children your toughest critics?

Are you kidding me?  They are my biggest supporters! They love being the subject of stories and they laugh harder than anyone. But then again, they’re laughing at themselves. And I really respect that about them.

Thanks, Sarah! That was so helpful and interesting. We can’t wait for your picture book classes in June and July! Keep in touch with Sarah on her facebook page and @SarahMaizes on Twitter.