Starting a Picture Book Book Club for Grown-ups

I’d dabbled with writing children’s books for more than fifteen years when I finally decided to get serious about writing picture books. My daughter had recently moved out and I chose to fill my empty nest by digging into the world of children’s publishing. Naturally, I turned to the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).

I attended Writer’s Days, Agent’s Days, and Editor’s Days. I found a “best” writing friend and a critique group. I attended the summer conference where knowledge, inspiration, and advice were dished out like candy on Halloween. I entered writing contests and I even won a couple!

Winners of the 2014 SCBWI-LA Writers Day Contest. I’m on the bottom right. Fun fact: the woman next to me is Kate Korsh. She later became my friend and critique partner, but it wasn’t until years after this picture was taken that we realized we were both winners that day and had sat right next to each other for the photo!

But the best thing I did for myself and my career, was to listen to some excellent advice:  “Get to know the industry.”

I decided the best way to do that, would be to start a book club.

It began with a post to the SCBWI-Los Angeles Yahoo group: “Would anyone be interested in joining a monthly picture book club?” I wasn’t sure if I’d get much of a response, but I know myself well enough to know that the secret to reaching a goal is to make sure someone else is relying on me to get there. Even one or two members would mean I’d be more likely to fulfill my objective of learning what makes each publisher unique.

Plenty of people were interested, though. And the Picture Book Publisher Book Club was born.

Here’s how it worked: Every month, I’d ask my librarian to print a list of picture books published within the last five years by one particular publishing house. (Each month, I requested books from a different publishing house.) I would put the available book on hold and then, in the beginning, I tried to find out who edited each one. (This became too time consuming, so I stopped.) When the books arrived at my local library branch I would bring a couple heavy canvas bags to the library with me and cart my treasure home.

Then, on the second Saturday of each month, writers and illustrators would come to my house and we’d read as many books as we could, trying to discern a common thread among them.

Armed with the knowledge we gained, those of us without agents were better equipped to submit directly to editors, and all of us, agented and unagented alike, got an excellent education in the children’s publishing market of today.

As an added bonus, thanks to the book club, my community has grown by leaps and bounds – and many of us are published now!

Starting a picture book book club is one of the best steps you can take to further your writing career and community. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Reach out to friends, family, your local SCBWI chapter, and possibly even your librarian to find fellow picture book people who are interested in joining your book club, then set a regular monthly meeting date.
  2. About two weeks before your meeting, ask your local librarian to give you a print out of books carried by the library and published within the past three to five years by whichever publisher you are reading that month. (In the early days of our meetings we chose publishers who accepted unagented manuscripts because most of us were unagented at the time.)
  3. Once I have the list, use a combination of the library website, Amazon, and the publishing house’s website to determine which books fit your criteria for the month. (For example, we only wanted picture books and we didn’t want any books that we couldn’t ead at the meeting.)
  4. Put the books you’ve chosen on hold via the library website. Have them delivered to your local library branch, if possible. (I usually requested 25-30 books, though we rarely got through all of them.)
  5. Once they’ve arrived, check the books out and, if you have the time and inclination, try to find out who edited them. I used to use a combination of Google searches, SCBWI resources, and author notes or dedications in the books themselves. (This job is best split up between several people.)
  6. At the meeting, take turns reading the books aloud. (Story time for grown-ups!) Look for common themes, subjects, or writing and illustration styles, so you come away with a sense of what makes this publisher’s books unique.
  7. Decide on a publisher for the following month. Repeat!

That’s it! Let me know if you start one and how it goes.

Happy reading!