Karl Newson is the award-winning children's book author of titles such as The Same But Different Too, The Hat Full of Secrets, I Am a Tiger and Little Owl's Bedtime, and has worked with numerous publishers – from Macmillan Children's Books and Walker Books to Nosy Crow and Little Tiger Press. We are so excited to welcome Karl to the site – thanks for sparing the time for us, Karl, and for talking about how you became a published author.
Karl, there are so many ways someone can become a published author. Can you tell us about your journey?
It begins in the dusty old days… I don’t remember too many books from my own childhood, but when my own children were small in the early 2000s I found magic in reading picture books for them at bedtime. So – cliché – I thought I’d try to write a story of my own! I’d always enjoyed writing poems and lyrics (always dreamt I’d be Marc Bolan one day! Looking back now I see it was all practice for where I was headed. Phewf!), so I came up with a couple of ideas. One of them was called Moon Monkey, and I plucked up the courage to type it up and print it out and send it off with a covering letter in a brown envelope (that’s how long ago it was) to ten different publishers. Then I waited six months for a reply… but after a few weeks I sent off another idea and I figured I’d just keep sending them, and waiting, endlessly. When the rejections came back it was disappointing, although I had expected it because I had terrible GCSEs and zero experience in the book world.
But one rejection had a handwritten note saying the reader had liked the idea, but it wasn’t ‘right’ for the publisher's list. And that was just the thing I needed to keep me going: a nice rejection!
I wrote another story and tried to do some drawings but I couldn’t get them on paper as I imagined… so… I decided I should teach myself how to illustrate, and I spent the next five or six years doing that. And then, one day, I was asked by someone to illustrate a children’s book they’d written for their daughter. They self-published the book and it was shortlisted for the East Anglian Book Awards! I joined Twitter around the same time, and it’s there that I found a whole new bubble of children’s book stuff – bookmakers, publishers, agents and people just like me who were new and chasing a dream.
A couple of years passed and I worked on my illustrations. Going digital was a big breakthrough for me – being colour blind, it made colour choices much easier! And then, eventually, I tried my luck with an agent. I wrote some new stories to accompany my illustrations and sent it all off by email (times had changed by 2015!) and all my lucky days came at once because I signed with the agent I’d set my hopes on – Jodie Hodges. And ever since then I’ve been living in a dream come true.
Did you have any preconceptions before you got your first publishing deal and, if so, is being an author what you hoped it would be?
I didn’t have any preconceptions. For me, it was just a joy to hold a book with my name on it! However, I had no idea just how much promotion would be involved or how hard it would be to constantly shout about it, trying to share it far and wide. It was a big lesson for me. It still is. I’m still learning every day, nineteen books in.
I'm really glad you mentioned that, because a lot of authors and illustrators have said the same. Whether it's through events, or creating marketing material, or promotion through an author or illustrator's own social media, that side of things can be quite draining at times I'm told - and it's not exactly what anyone signed up for in the first place!
So, what does a regular writing day look like for you?
I write everything in my notebook, so usually it involves me sitting at my desk (trying not to be too distracted by Twitter), trying to find a new story in my pen. I tend to write without thinking too much. I like the story to write itself – too much control from me gives it too many rules and dead ends – and then I see what it is saying and go from there. Often it’ll be a title or an opening line. I read lots of book things, too. New books. Online reviews. I like to watch videos of authors talking about their processes. I listen to music too… but mostly it’s just me and my notebook. Some days I’ll write a good line, some days I’ll write a whole story. It’s all good practice. I like to take a walk in the afternoon or evening, and I sometimes find a new idea there if I’m lucky.
What are some of the hidden challenges of being an author?
A big one is that you’re often expected to be some sort of children’s entertainer! Toot toot! A lot of authors and illustrators dress up and play instruments. They’re constantly jolly in the name of promotion and events. I sometimes wear a tiger onesie. It’s not something I expected when I first sat down to write a story. Not that you have to wear a onesie...
There’s always a unicycle…
Another one is the pressure of coming up with more ideas and more book deals and more, more, more, because (and this is probably the biggest hidden challenge of all) a lot of books come and go and do nothing at all. It’s the sad truth. Even the biggest names in publishing have books that never made it. Some people plough out books year after year that disappear to the back of a bookshelf and are forgotten about. It took me a long time to realise that a lot of big names in the book world have had over thirty, fifty, a hundred books published, but I could name only a handful of them. Only a few stuck around in shops or as favourites, the rest came and went and were soon replaced by the next "new" book. The trick is to keep writing and keep getting books out there. Every book published is a treasure regardless, but sales and popularity obviously pay the bills in the long run.
Yes, that's absolutely true. I've spoken to authors before about balancing the projects they work on so that they create "passion projects" as well as ideas that might be considered more commercial, to allow for both creative freedom and financial assurance (as much as either is possible in such a business).
What would you say is the best thing about your job?
Being able to make things up!
You’re represented by Jodie Hodges at United Agents. How important do you feel it is to have an agent?
I think it depends entirely on the author or illustrator, but for me it’s been my making. I knew nothing about contracts, or what makes for a good offer, or publishing etiquette, or publishing lingo – not much about anything. So if you’re like me then I’d very much recommend an agent!
That's a good answer! I do agree that it seems to very much come down to the person in question, and plenty of creatives flourish without agents. Has having an agent helped your career?
Oooh Yes! Having Jodie represent me means I can focus on the writing side of things. Jodie deals with my story submissions, negotiates any offers, checks contracts, statements, publisher queries, and deals with anything that doesn’t go to plan! Phewf. Not only that, but Jodie also provides feedback on every story I send her, so I know every story is made the best it can be between the two of us before we pitch it to publishers.
Given what you've already said, I think I know what your answer will be to the next question, but, in your opinion, is it important for authors to have some sort of online presence – whether that’s a website, Instagram account or similar – to showcase themselves and their work?
I’d say yes. At the very least, a website so others can find you, and find out about you. I think it depends a little on your level of fame when it comes to social media though… a lot of the biggest names in the book world don’t have "real" social media accounts, and it doesn’t do them any harm; but somebody new to it all could find a great advantage in Twitter or Instagram, etc… not only in sharing their own work for others to find (Ding Ding! Publisher), but also in making contacts inside the book "bubble" – gaining insights, learning terminology, understanding the inner workings of bookmaking from concept to bookshelf. I’ve learnt so much from being online. When it comes to publicity, so much is online nowadays – now more than ever – and I guess I feel I must have an online presence to do my job.