Anatomy of a children's book

Author, illustrator to meet for first time at Children's Book Festival

THE SAVANNAH CHILDREN'S BOOK FESTIVAL, happening this Saturday in Forsyth Park, has become one of the area’s most successful community events, bringing kids, parents, authors and illustrators together in a celebration of learning and literacy.

This year it will also bring together an author and an illustrator who’ve worked together for years, but never actually met.

Lisa Yaldezian is the California-based author of the children’s book 500 Presents for Penelope Potts. As you might gather from the title, it involves what happens when little Penelope gets what she asks for on Christmas morning, and how she deals with it (Hint: She decides it’s good to share).

As luck would have it, Penelope illustrator Jerry Seltzer lives and works in Savannah. He and Yaldezian worked together on the book, but only over the phone and the internet. They will meet for the first time at this weekend’s book festival.

Indeed, technology is rapidly changing the publishing business. To get a better idea of the huge transformation going on, we talked at length with both Yaldezian and Seltzer about how they worked together on one book from 2,000 miles away.

Lisa, how much do you know about this festival you’re coming to?

Lisa Yaldezian: Jerry and I have been in contact with each other since we finished working on the book, because he maintains my website. So when the book was being printed he was telling me, too bad we didn’t get it done in time to sell at this big children’s festival in Savannah. So I thought, well next year when it comes about, maybe I’ll come out there.

Well, my calendar was free and I had miles with Northwest (laughs), and I just decided to come meet him. We did somuch together without meeting, because we did the whole thing by e-mail.

You say the book was prompted by a conversation with a certain somebody. Can you give us the genesis of the book idea?

Lisa Yaldezian: It happened Christmas Day, 1997, when my daughters were ages 7 and 3. Santa Claus had brought them too many gifts that year, and so we talked about what was too many. What if Santa Claus brought you ten, would that be too many? And we started to laugh — you know, 25 would be too many, 100 would be too many. And then we got silly and said, well, 500 would be absolutely ridiculous. And there you go, 500 presents.

I knew I wanted it go to one girl in particular, and because I’m a musician I needed the title to work systematically. The 500 presents has five syllables in it, so I need the child’s name to have five syllables in it. And I wanted the “P” to be repeated. I wanted Potts as the last name, so the first name had to have four syllables. And there’s only one name I could think of that starts with a “P” with four syllables.

So I wrote it in my head that night and I let it sit for a couple of weeks and then I sat down at the computer and just typed it all out.

Jerry, your local company, Dragonpencil, is in the business of working with self-published authors like Lisa Yaldezian.

Jerry Seltzer: Yeah, specifically children’s books, picture books. We have a few local authors too. It’s a very modern company, so we work with authors, illustrators and designers all over the world. I’m an owner and illustrator, but it’s pretty rare that I get to meet somebody that I’ve illustrated a book for. It’s strange, but that’s the dynamic of the new publishing world.

Technology is forcing this kind of change in so many industries. More and more you don’t have face-to-face contact with people you’re working with.

Jerry Seltzer: The internet is huge. We never could have done this years ago. It takes a whole team of people to put together a good book.

How so? Who’s on the team?

Jerry Seltzer: First the story has to go into editing. We assign a project manager first off, someone who’s going to see the project through from start to finish and sort of be a liasion. They’re going to send the story off to editing, a professional editor with industry experience and library experience.

We’re interested in what a teacher would think, what would a librarian think, what would a mom think? Curriculum, reading level. Are you using vocabulary words that are too low or too high? A lot of things your typical author can’t take into consideration because you need a degree in curriculum in order to know it.

We work with the author and ultimately we end up with a finished story and a target reading level. We ask the author a whole litany of questions that they probably didn’t think about. Are they going to have a dedication, are they going to have a logo?

The story’s done now, send it out and start getting quotes for that back cover. The back cover is very important. The front cover is very eye-catching, but the back cover is what sells people. They turn to that back cover to get confidence. They want to know that this book is a good fit for the child I have in mind.

Lisa, you describe how you sort of workshopped the early book to a second grade class, and when you asked if they had any questions, all the kids wanted to know is why Penelope didn’t get any breakfast on Christmas morning.

Lisa Yaldezian: Yeah, when those hands went up I thought to myself, attorneys are not supposed to ask questions they don’t already know the answer to, and neither should authors (laughs). But it was great. I called on the first one and said, “What didn’t you like about it?” and she said, “Well, she didn’t get to eat breakfast!” And all the other hands went down. So I said, let me go back to the story, because I did say that she got a breakfast tray. But they didn’t know what a breakfast tray was! So that’s why I had to make sure the illustrator showed food being brought to Penelope as she was starting to open her gifts.

That was reading to them without pictures. But since I’ve been reading with the book, teachers will ask how long it takes to read. Out loud, it takes me about 20 minutes. So when I’m in front of kindergarteners, the teachers will say, “Can you compress it, because they won’t sit that long.”

And I say, well if I see them getting squirmy, I’ll start flipping through faster. And you know what? Never have I had to change it. Once you tell kids that somebody’s going to get 500 presents, that there’s a child out there that could get 500 presents, they just sit there glued.

It’s funny -- kindergarten, first and second grade, are so relieved at the end that she doesn’t keep the 500 presents because they can’t have 500. And then third through fifth grade are relieved because Penelope did the right thing in the end.

So is that just human nature or them getting socialized in school?

Lisa Yaldezian: Nah, that’s just kids. That’s just the age group.

Jerry, do you consider yourself an equal partner with the author?

Jerry Seltzer: We work with the authors and give them advice, but ultimately it’s their baby. They’re the ones that are going to be out there selling the book, signing them all. In self-publishing, they’ll sell fewer books, but they’ll make so much more off of those books that it greatly outshines what they might make through a traditional publishing house.

Those that are willing to take the risk and probably invest about $15,000 on average. That’s pretty easy to make up, if you’re selling a hardcover book for $15 apiece. And you get 100 percent of that in most cases.

There are so many people that love books. They spend their whole life working on children’s books but they know the industry. And it breaks your heart to see this great book come out, a great story, beautifully rhyming, beautifully illustrated, everyone’s poured a bunch of time and money into it. And the wholesalers only give you 90 days to move $20,000 worth of product. And if it doesn’t move, they drop the book. And once it’s dropped, it’s dropped forever.

I guess you can buy your rights back.

Jerry Seltzer: And a lot of people do. So we’ll revamp it and re-release it as a self-published book. And they can go for years with that book. There’s no rational reason a book should live for only 90 days. If it’s new to somebody, it’s new to somebody.

Not long ago a self-published book was the sure sign of an amateur. But as in the music biz, more writers are doing it themselves. How has the self-publishing route been for you?

Lisa Yaldezian: Well, it’s been difficult. But I will say it’s a lot more freeing. My understanding of how it would have been had I gotten in with a major publishing house, I would have turned my manuscript over and they would have matched it up to an illustrator and I wouldn’t have had any say-so. I wrote it in 1997 and didn’t start working with Jerry until April 2006, so I had all those years to picture how I wanted it done. And we were able to go back and forth.

I wouldn’t have had any of that freedom or luxury to be able to do that had I gone the traditional route. And there’s no guarantee that the publishing house would have marketed it the way I wanted it marketed. You kind of give up your baby.

Jerry Seltzer: About two years ago is when I had illustrated so many books for self-published authors that I realized I needed to provide them with other services, because I’d spend months on a book only to have them go off and find a book designer that did a terrible job putting the book together. I take pride in my work, I don’t want to just get paid and move on. I want to see that book out there as much as anyone.

The amazing thing is that some of the best people in the industry want to work for us now, because everyone works from their own home, doing everything through the internet. So we have people retire from these top publishing houses and they call us up and want to work for us. No one really wants to retire, right? You’ve got all this expertise but you just don’t want to schlep into work every day. That’s just the way it is, because the book industry is essentially broken. So the self-publishers are the ones that now make good money. Of course you’ve got to have a good product.

Why is the publishing industry broken?

Jerry Seltzer: At a big chain bookstore, they don’t buy a bunch of product and put it on the shelves. It’s a consignment shop. They’re only ordering from a wholesaler, who’s getting their books from a distributor, who gets their books from the publisher. And the author works for the publisher.

So if someone purchases a book from that store, everyone back along the line takes a piece. And the author gets whatever small royalty they get — if and only if they’ve already sold enough to pay back the advance they got, which usually amounts to around $3000. And it’s actually pretty rare for the publisher to pay it out. And what a lot of times happens is books will actually get returned. The wholesalers take 90-120 days to pay for the books they’re ordering. A lot of times they’ll return books just before they have to pay for them. There’s tricks, and everyone’s trying to work the system.

But everyone knows the system is broken. The only way to really make it work is to sell a whole lot of books, and in order to do that you need some kind of forum, you have to be famous, get on talk shows.

Lisa, is this your route to bigger things or was it always just its own thing?

Lisa Yaldezian: Ultimately I kept going with it because I wanted my girls to see that a stay-at-home mom can still put something out there. I wanted them to see that maybe it was a good thing I got all those rejection letters. I’m saying that now (laughs).

Lisa Yaldezian will sign copies of 500 Presents for Penelope Potts by Puffy Cloud Press at the 4th Annual Savannah Children’s Book Festival Sat., Nov. 17, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. in Forsyth Park. Jerry Selzter of DragonPencil ( will be on hand.