Confessions of a Picture Book Princess

A funny thing happened last year. But then, I am the Princess of Funny Things, so this shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Last summer, I had a new picture book come out. You might remember it: AlphaOops: H is for Halloween. It’s the sequel to AlphaOops!: The Day Z Went First. I was shocked to my toes when I sold it to Candlewick–I sent them the manuscript, and within twenty-four hours, I had a very enthusiastic response to buy it. The circumstances surrounding the original AlphaOops purchase were so incredibly out of the blue–this was a real coup for me. I’d sold a sequel. Here it was: proof that I wasn’t just a fluke.

The publisher was so sure of H is for Halloween‘s success, that they wouldn’t let my agent include a clause in the contract allowing me a bonus if the book hit the New York Times bestseller list. Since it was a seasonal title, they knew it had a very good chance of hitting the list and somehow still not making enough profit for them to warrant giving me a bonus. After all, they’d have to pay my royalties as well as Bob Kolar’s, and Halloween books don’t just sell through Halloween…they STOP selling on Halloween. The book would be released in July, but it really had only a month to sell: October. Thank goodness Halloween comes at the end.

It took forever for the reviews to start coming in, but they finally did. And they floored me. I had never received a “starred review” before and suddenly I had two: from both Publisher’s Weekly and School Library Journal. This was huge because I know a lot of schools and libraries don’t even bother ordering anything that doesn’t get a starred review–some of the larger libraries just keep all the starred review books on standing order. And though you don’t have to read to the first book to enjoy the second, most of the reviews mentioned the first AlphaOops…which meant great potential for backlist sales.

I gave away my personal review copy of H is for Halloween before the release date, in an auction to benefit the Nashville Flood victims. The auction went off with such a bang that the auction-holders cut off the auction when the bids reached $80. I wonder what number it would have reached if they hadn’t.

All the signs were there. Finally. Finally I would be able to live as a full-time author. I could still get a part-time job at Starbucks, but only if I wanted to. The gigantic bills I’d piled up trying to survive after escaping from Tennessee would be paid off, and I’d be able to live comfortably.

July came–the book’s release date–and I went store-hopping to see if I could find it. Of course not–it’s a Halloween book. Why would bookstores jump the gun? I was a little worried when September came around and I wasn’t scheduled for any in-store events. I introduced myself at the local B&N (I used to do B&N events all the time at the Cool Springs store back in TN), but no one ever called me. Then October arrived. Not only could I not find H is for Halloween on any display table, it was not in any stores–and I looked in three different states. The original AlphaOops was nowhere to be found, either.

I tried not to panic. I hosted a contest that essentially recruited a street team of folks to search all over the US, trying to find AlphaOops in bookstores. They were spotted in Michigan, Nebraska, and Louisiana. But 90% of the other folks came up empty-handed (and many were treated less than kindly). I had notes and messages from friends telling me that they wanted to buy my book in stores, but they couldn’t find it.

I went back to my local B&N. They treated me like a self-published author.

And then the New York Times reviewed my book. The bloody New York Times. It is a well-known fact that the New York Times does not review genre authors. But there I was, in the Sunday edition, in color. I cried and hugged the paper to my chest for an hour. I told myself I was silly, that my fears were unfounded. Surely, if a book was reviewed in the New York Times, it would sell tons, and Candlewick would be chomping at the bit to pick up an AlphaOops: Christmas book. I tidied up a new version of the AlphaOops: Christmas manuscript and sent it off to my agent.

But Halloween books stop selling on Halloween. The review came too late. I wouldn’t be hitting any bestseller list–never mind the New York Times. Bookstores wouldn’t have time to order & receive stock before their computers would tell them to return it. Did they order the original, non-seasonal title instead? Nope. Why would they?

Finally, my agent got an answer to her “What the hell happened?” email to the publisher. Apparently, thanks to the terrible economy, a certain chain bookstore (that is not currently going out of business) decided to put a price cap on their Halloween books. Most original hardcover picture books cost around $14-17. Their cap was around ten bucks. Anything else, they just didn’t order.

So, pretty much, the Big Fat Bookstore didn’t just screw me–they screwed every picture book author and illustrator who had a new release last fall. And god help the ones with original Halloween books. I feel like I should find out who they are and send them condolence cards.

So here’s what the publisher is doing: Candlewick is re-releasing the AlphaOops: H is for Halloween: Midi Edition this August. It will be a much smaller format, and priced at $7.99.  It will still be hardcover…but I don’t know any details beyond that. As far as I know, they will not be re-releasing the original AlphaOops in midi format. And I hope (for the libraries, anyway) that they will not be putting the original edition of H is for Halloween out of print–despite the fact that Amazon now has it on sale like it’s a bargain table book.

What does this mean? I don’t know. I hope that this new midi edition sells like hotcakes, of course…but I don’t quite know how to promote it. I feel like I’m not allowed to get my hopes up at this point. I feel like I’m getting a second chance, but I’m not quite sure what to do with it.

Not that I have much time to dwell on it–most of my time these days is taken up with hunting for a dayjob. Candlewick still hasn’t called back about the AlphaOops: Christmas book. And Starbucks hasn’t called me back either. Yesterday I snapped at someone I loved for absolutely no reason at all. I think I’m officially losing my mind.

But then, all the best authors do.

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Spoiler Reviews

I love reviewers. Love them. Especially when they  1.) are nice to me and 2.) spell my name correctly.

Like this review in particular, from the Pittsburgh Tribune (warning: spoilers!). “A raucous Halloween production,” they say — which I appreciate simply for the use of the word “raucous.” They praise my clever idea and Bob’s exuberant art, and list it among four other books “ideally suited for Halloween.” I couldn’t be more pleased.

But — and if you’ve read AlphaOops: H is for Halloween you’ll know it immediately — they put a spoiler in the review (thus the warning). Come on, guys. I know you’re going to have to read it to your kids 200 times and the magic’s just not going to be there sometime after the 186th…but do you have any idea how DIFFICULT it is to build suspense in a 40-page book with only slightly more words than are in your review?

Let me just tell you: it’s difficult.

I know it probably seems silly to you, since you’re all grown up and stuff, but I don’t want to know (for example) who or what The Monster at the End of this Book is. The first time I read it, I want to have that little thrill of surprise. My gift, after that, is watching that same thrill in all the children I read it to. Don’t ruin that.

Or, at least, please put a spoiler warning in your header like the rest of us.

Happy Halloween!

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Pre-SENT Squee!

Kirkus reviews AlphaOops: H is for Halloween. And it kind of rocks.
Got yours yet? AlphaOops: H is for Halloween


Author: Kontis, Alethea
Illustrator: Kolar, Bob

Pages: 40
Price ( Hardback ): $15.99
Publication Date: July 13, 2010
ISBN ( Hardback ): 978-0-7636-3966-2
Category: Picture Books
Classification: Holiday
Series: AlphaOops
Volume: 2

Those wacky theatrical letters are back, this time for a mixed-up Halloween pageant (AlphaOops: The Day Z Went First, 2006). Smiling broadly and wearing a pointy hat, “H as for Halloween.” Then, “Z is for zombie. / N is for nightmare. / K is for kraken. / P is for pirate. / B is for—” Well, B had wanted to be a buccaneer, but now it will have to find another costume. Eventually, each letter, appropriately garbed and often accompanied by a picture of what it represents, takes the stage, but not without a lot of good-natured bickering. Running below each page opening is a strip along which a pumpkin for each letter of the alphabet arranges itself, finally, in alphabetical order as each character appears in the story. Kolar’s digital illustrations give readers plenty to focus on. Sophisticated abecedarian fun. (Picture book. 4-8)

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Books on the Bed: The Man Who Took the Indoors Out

Title: The Man Who Took the Indoors Out

Author: Arnold Lobel

Pub Date: 1974

Status: Out of Print

Number nine on the list of My 21 Most Influential Books, The Man Who Took the Indoors Out is incredibly difficult to find, and is not even listed on Caldecott Medal winner Arnold Lobel’s Wikipedia page. This obscure little picture book was something we must have checked out on a long-ago library card, because I did not own a copy until a few years ago, when my mother hunted it down for my bookshelf.

The man mentioned in the title has a lovely house full of lovely furniture and lovely things…but those lovely things are bored from sitting around the house all day. So the furniture asks the man if he might let them out to play for the day. The man does. The furniture is happy and dancing and having a great time. When it starts to get dark, the man tells everything that it’s time to go back inside, but the furniture has other ideas. Having now tasted freedom, the chairs and vases and paintings and sofa and piano take to the hills, leaving their poor owner in the dust.

The man is very sad, alone in his empty house. It is a very dark and stormy night, and the man is worried. Then there is a small knock. The man opens his door to find his furniture — somewhat worse for the wear — has returned home. It is dirty and worn and wet and more than slightly embarrassed, but the man couldn’t be happier to have his good friends back. He welcomes them all back in and they live happily ever after.

I’m sad that this little tale has disappeared into the bowels of the literary machine, because it had some great messages. It was all about love and acceptance, setting things free and valuing happiness over material goods. It was about loneliness and shame and fear and going to far. It was about doing what’s in your heart and having it all work out in the end.

I always carry pictures of dancing furniture in my heart and know that, no matter how far away my loveseat runs from me — or I run from it — we will be reunited one day if we’re meant to.

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