Today's Menu: Sour Grapes or Legitimate Beef
The system doesn't like me. Or maybe I'm just a hack.
Of the five children's books I've written, The Letter Thief (TLT) is the best. (not according to all of my fans, however; a 2nd-grade boy once told me Would You Rather Smell My Socks was hands-down his favorite book.)
Smelly socks notwithstanding, TLT is the one I like to show people first when they ask about my children's books. It was published in April of 2015.
I thought I had a winner when I sent the manuscript out to 15 publishers. The rejection slips didn't faze me too much, knowing that lots of successful writers get rejected dozens of times before picking up a contract. A couple friends encouraged me to stick with it. One publisher's representative named Doris wrote and said that the manuscript had made it to the consideration table, where a bunch of editors meet and look over a stack of manuscripts that made it past the first and second cuts. The odds are slim; everybody and their cousin think they've got the next best children's book idea and the publishers are always swamped with submissions. Doris said there was real interest in my book but it eventually was rejected because the target audience was a bit unclear. I got the wishful impression Doris was on my side and she wanted the book to be accepted. She said, “You really should find an agent.”
So I did some research and tried to find a good match. I did the best I could, sifting through all the agencies, agent bios and photos. I wanted someone sympathetic to my style of humor. Maybe it's just me, but all the agents (all women) looked like they graduated from Vassar or Bryn Mawr and might slit your throat if you weren't a huge fan of CRT, BLM, LGBQT and all the rest. This was the era when I-Have-Three-Mommies type books were becoming all the rage, and what kind of self-respecting, Soho-dwelling Karen would dare to promote a book by a regular-old, he/his/him white guy?
This reminds me of a time at a book conference for teachers of San Diego public schools back in the early nineties. I stood up to ask a question at the Picture books K thru 4th grade workshop. “Uhm. I'm all for positive portrayals of the disabled, but does every Caldecott Medal and Newbery Award book have to be about a girl in a wheelchair?”
That was before the days when woke took over everything and I actually got some nods and voices of support for that, until a veteran school marm who looked a bit like Nurse Ratched stood up and shut me down with a stern defense of the wheelchair genre. “If anything, we need more of these books!” she bellowed, chastising the soccer-mom teachers who had given me props with their nods, now all looking down at their sneakers.
After ten tries, I got no bites from the Vassar, literary-agent bunch, but despite that I was still hopeful. I'd seen plenty of children’s books in my elementary teaching career and as a father who read aloud to his four kids, and I still thought I had a good one. The initial reaction from my kids, colleagues, friends, and my friends' kids made me keep going. I took a leap and hired a pro to do the illustrations, the fantastic Mark C. Collins. He was real jazzed about the project and put a lot of effort into it: the result was a home run, in my opinion. I thought, “Now I've got a book they can't reject. This will not only get past the 2nd cut, but all the way to publishing! Naively I thought, “I'd better get a lawyer to drive a hard bargain with the publisher!”
But the more I looked into it, the more I learned that publishers prefer to do the illustrations in-house. The book was finished but they really didn't want the whole book, just the words. “We’ll handle illustrations and formatting, thank you very much.”
Anyway, self-publishing had taken off and lots of self-published authors were doing quite well. Why give up control of your book, not to mention the lion's share of the profit? They could give you a contract, but there's no guarantee they'll promote the book. They might even learn that my anti-wokeness dated all the way back to San Diego, circa '92, and do everything they can do undermine the book. Yes, I would self publish!
I published on Amazon and sold a few copies, but sales have been disappointing. I admit I haven't been great at self-promotion, and I should have made better use of social media to get more attention. The reviews have been good, but too few to make a difference. It's been years now since I've given up expecting to have any significant sales.
But one thing is bugging me now. My competition seems to be doing better. I'm talking about other writers, two in particular, who have written books along the same lines. Maybe I'm just a sour grapes, talentless hack looking for excuses as a cope, pretending there's some woke gaggle of Manhattan gatekeepers blocking me. The answer could be simple. It's a free market and your book doesn't sell as well because it's not as good. ‘nuff said.
Well, let's test that a bit and have a look at the other two books. Here's the first:
The Alphabet Thief (TAT). Publication, May 28, 2015.
Comparing this book to mine is a bit apples and oranges. It’s not a story but just a series of pages where the reader says “My B!..My H!…My T” etc. and you see a stylized illustration of the word without the stolen letter.
And here is the ‘protagonist’ of The Alphabet Thief:
I don’t know what the author means in that description by “only two prepositions in the entire English language!” In any case, she has the right idea, commercially speaking- the New York agents and publishers certainly gushed with the inclusion of a “beautiful lesson of self esteem”. My Letter Thief fails in this regard. However my protagonist is a bit more interesting, I think.
I don’t have official figures on sales for The Alphabet Thief, but the book has 56 ratings to my 17, so this book must be outselling TLT. Oh well.
Now onto the 2nd challenger. This one was published on March 1st, 2017, two years after TAT1 and TLT. It’s also called The Alphabet Thief. They could have called it The Letter Thief, like mine. But I think you’ll see why they didn’t. It would have been too obvious. When you come up with a concept for a book, you think of a title and naturally check to see if the title already exists. The author of TAT2 must have seen TAT1 and my TLT, and decided on The Alphabet Thief, because…well, I’ll let you consider why.
First, for comparison sake, take a look at my book:
The Letter Thief. Publication: April 10, 2015.
and now, The Alphabet Thief (2), publication date: March 1, 2017.
This book has a bonafide, proper publisher. They even have it at the local library out here in rural Montana, so it's probably everywhere. This book jumped right out at me because of the similarities with The Letter Thief.
Hmm. Do you notice any similarities?
black hat with band- check
black coat- check
black boots- check
big sack full of letters about the height of a bowling ball’s diameter- check
letters in hand- check
One difference is the author of TAT2 opted for a female thief, judging correctly that the Manhattan, Karen juggernaut would like that better. “A woman can be a dastardly, conniving thief too!”
And now let's look inside the book. Again, keep in mind that TLT came two years before TAT2. Of course both books are about a thief stealing letters from words, creating new words in the process. In TLT I add the action of adding letters, and switching letters. The Letter Thief giveth, and the Letter Thief taketh away.
The first instance of letter theft in my book is where the Letter Thief turns a chair into hair. In the case of the Alphabet Thief, she turns a chair into…you guessed it: hair!
Both the The Letter Thief and The Alphabet Thief begin with a nighttime raid on letters.
In The Letter Thief, bats become rats. In the Alphabet Thief brats become rats, and later baths become bats.
In Letter, pears become bears. In Alphabet, beards become bears. (They don’t worry too much about consistent rhyming in TAT2.) Then Alphabet Thief has the bears transforming again, this time into bars.
Letter Thief features an intermediary page, where we take a pause from the main pattern, like a refrain in a song, where we break from the established rhythm. The Alphabet Thief does the same.
In Letter, foil turned to oil. In Alphabet, soil turned to oil.
In Letter, seeds became weeds. In Alphabet, caps made of tweed became weeds.
In Letter, trees became threes. In Alphabet, seven became seen, and five became fie. Can I have a LOL?
In Letter, switches became witches. In Alphabet, witches became itches. You know, itches!
Anyway, like I say, this could be all coincidence and I'm just a sore loser. I wish you had both books in your hands to compare. You can probably borrow TAT2 at the library, though. And if aren't in the market for a children's book, you can listen to me read mine below.
Here are a couple sample pages from TAT2, and I'll try to read it with as much flourish as the book deserves.
sound file. examples 1 and 2 (43 seconds)
I hope that made sense. Here are the pages, in case my rendering didn’t do them justice.
And here is The Letter Thief:
You be the judge. Click the vid and listen to some of the fun rhymes. And don't worry, I can handle the criticism. Like TAT1, TAT2 has many more reviews than mine does, and it’s published and in the library so it must be doing OK. Do you think my book is worse? And does it seem from the examples above that the author of The Alphabet Thief got a little, eh…inspiration, let’s say, from The Letter Thief?
When I write substack articles, I have a hard time rating my own writing, but with the children's books, I just go by one criteria. Did I make myself laugh after I wrote it? I busted myself up writing TLT, so I figured it was pretty good. I think the book deserves more readers than it's gotten.
One last thing…Amazon isn’t exactly helping me with promotion. For one, they don’t even offer the regular, new, Amazon version of the paperback edition. You have to buy it via the link where they sell used books. And the price is $4.41- which means my percentage comes out to chump change. At Amazon, the author sets the price of his self-published books. I’m asking ten bucks for the paperback, but Amazon is ignoring me.
The second thing I have to grouse about is their ratings algorithm. Their calculator must be busted because of the 17 reviews for TLT, 16 of them are five stars. There is only one non-5-star rating, and it’s a 3. From this Amazon calculates that the average star rating is 4.4 (I get 4.9) and the percentage of 3 star ratings is 28% (I get 6%). Go figure.
To add insult to injury, I just took a short break. When I came back to the computer, I accessed Amazon, where I had gotten the information for these books, including my own. Check this out:
Ha. “Pick up where you left off,” indeed. No Letter Thief, but here are two books I didn’t look at. “We’d prefer you not go back to DW Shumway’s stuff and try these fine books instead.”
Anyway, I give up on writing children's books that are only clever and fun to read, without the latest woke messaging. Reading for reading sake is old hat. It's time for some financial success. My next book will be called, This Bathroom's for Everyone!
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Here’s the link to my books on Amazon.