Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Pathways to Publication: Interview with Bill Thomas

Have a manuscript you think might be worthy of publication and not sure what to do next? Maybe you're wondering if you need an agent and how to go about finding one. Or you're confused about what kind of money is involved--does someone pay YOU or do you have to sink some of your own savings into this venture? What does an editor do? Will you have to market this book yourself?

Last month I wrote about my first feeble attempt at publishing a book. Now I'm interviewing other writers on their SUCCESSFUL pathways to publication--from self-published to traditional, debut writers to a writer who's published 130 books, and everything in between. 


Bill Thomas on finding a niche in the education market

Jody: What steps did you take that led to the publication of your first book?

Bill: I can describe my “path to publication” with a single word: luck. Really. It was sheer luck. But as Seneca noted, some 2,500 years ago, luck is the intersection of preparation and opportunity.

Jody: So, not sheer luck then. Tell me a bit about the preparation part...

Bill: Well, that was varied. I started out to be an artist, but ended up teaching 5th and 6th grade. I sometimes wrote one-page stories for the kids to enhance math, science, or social studies lessons. Once, I wrote an instructional comic book called "Grok and Rok,” on how to count, add, and subtract in base 5 (using numeric systems other than base 10 was one of the “flavor of the month” math-teaching strategies in the early 1970s).

When the school district cut personnel during a budget crisis, that comic book helped me land a job with a company that produced multi-media vocational programs. From there I moved to a technology company where I wrote software documentation, user manuals (great preparation for non-fiction), marketing literature, and advertising copy (great preparation for fiction).

And then came the opportunity. One of my colleagues attended her college class reunion and connected with a former classmate who was now the creative director for an education-market publisher. She brought the guy in for a tour of our company.

When she introduced him to me, he was excited to see a copy of The Baseball Encyclopedia on my cubicle bookshelf. We talked baseball for a while, then writing, and exchanged business cards. A week later, he phoned and asked, “Can you write kids’ books?” I said, “Absolutely. What do you want me to write?” He told me, and after some questions, answers, and a writing sample, I received a contract and a copy of the company’s style manual.

Jody: I like that--the publisher approached you, and you were ready. Your books with them ended up being part of a non-fiction series. How does a book deal in the education market work?

Bill: My contract specified the length of the book, the number and types of illustrations, and, of course, the payment: one-third in advance, one-third upon receipt of the completed manuscript, and the final third when I completed all requested editorial changes.

Jody: How long does it typically take from finished book to publication? And, with your first book, was it all wrinkle free?

Bill: The process was generally pretty smooth. We had a few disagreements over content – the emphasis placed on one topic versus another – but they were resolved without much rancor. The worst issue, for me, was a photograph – one specific picture that I felt absolutely had to be in the book. But the publisher either could not obtain the rights or was unwilling to pay the associated fees. I never did find out which. And I still wish that photo was in the book.

It was roughly a year - three months of writing, nine months of design and production – until I had a copy of the 48-page book in my hands, a biography of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.

Jody: And this book led to others.

Bill: Yes. More contracts followed. The original publishing house was taken over by another. Some of the editors I’d worked with remained; others went to new companies, so my contacts increased. I’ve now written more than 30 non-fiction books for kids and young adults: biographies, career studies, and history.

A four-book series on the American government was nominated for an award by the Association of Educational Publishers. It didn’t win (I was robbed!).

Jody: Hey! Thirty books is pretty impressive. You've obviously found your niche.

Bill: I did, but two years ago, I decided to make the jump into fiction. I’m now working on the third draft of a middle-grade novel. My greatest surprise in making that move was the amount of research required. I figured, “It’s fiction, right? You just make it all up.” Nope. Not even close.

I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and began attending meetings of the local chapter. I also visit a “read and get feedback” group of writers in a nearby town.

My biggest boost in the process (so far) was attending a writer’s retreat at the Highlights Foundation in Pennsylvania. The week-long event provided time to write without worrying about life's normal distractions. Two established writers-in-residence provided individual critiques and guidance, along with evening “mini-lectures.” And the chance to interact with other writers, both aspiring and published, was invaluable.

Jody: What's up next for you?

Bill: I want to keep polishing and refining the manuscript of my novel. I will soon create my own website, to establish an on-line presence and, eventually, I will have to find an agent.

My intention is to seek traditional print publication for my novel. That is a long, hard, and uncertain road, I know. But middle-grade kids – my target audience – aren't a significant demographic in the self-pub or electronic marketplaces. At least, not yet!


Bill Thomas is the author of more than 30 books for children and young adults. And here's Bill in his own words:

"I went to several colleges over the years. I’m not certain I learned much of value, but I do have a nice collection of degrees. More, really, than anyone needs. A long time ago I served in the Peace Corps, living for three years on a little island in the Pacific Ocean. The experience changed my life. That was followed by decades of monetary servitude. Three years ago I began writing full-time. “Full time” means when I’m not mowing the lawn, shoveling the driveway, cooking meals, getting the oil changed, or attending to other distractions. I live with my wife and her useless cat in Rochester, New York.
Favorite authors: Barbara Kingsolver, Robert B. Parker, Rudyard Kipling
Favorite kids’ authors: Mercer Meyer, Richard Peck, Linda Sue Park
Favorite YA author: Jody Casella
Favorite movie: Casablanca
Favorite artist: John Singer Sargent
Favorite singer: Pete Seeger
Favorite places to be: the Adirondack Mountains; Paris
Favorite quotation: “Compared to writing books, betting on horses seems like a sensible way to make a living.” (John Steinbeck)

Most rewarding thing I’ve ever done: raising children
Stupidest thing I’ve ever done: climbing up a volcano during an eruption
Coolest thing I’ve ever done: hiking four days on the Inca Trail to reach Machu Picchu

My greatest weakness: baseball

What I’d rather be doing: sitting by a campfire sipping Scotch whisky"

Oh, Bill, wouldn't we all. Wouldn't we all. 

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