A Working Writer’s Life, Part 2

[con­tin­ued from Part 1]

Candice Ransom's office
Can­dice Ran­som’s office

After sev­er­al months, I real­ized New York didn’t rec­og­nize I was the Next Big Thing. I’d actu­al­ly have to write my sec­ond book and sell it. Tim­ing was on my side. It was the ear­ly 80s, when paper­backs filled mall book­store racks. Series books with new titles each month, priced for kids, were the Next Big Thing. My sec­ond and third and many more books were orig­i­nal paper­backs. Mul­ti­ple pub­lish­ers (though still not Lothrop, Lee, and Shep­ard) kept me busy.

I branched out to non­fic­tion, hard­cov­er fic­tion, biog­ra­phy, and pic­ture books. For years I worked on con­tract projects dur­ing the week and spent week­ends cre­at­ing new books to sub­mit myself. At one point, I had six pub­lish­ers. I thought it would last for­ev­er: the work, the mon­ey, the opportunities.

Then things began to change. Con­glom­er­ates like Time-Warn­er and Gan­nett took over small­er pub­lish­ing hous­es, herd­ing them togeth­er like sheep. My beloved Lothrop, Lee, and Shep­ard fold­ed. Schools, the back­bone of children’s book pub­lish­ing, stag­gered from the Whole Lan­guage Move­ment to Back to Basics to Com­mon Core. Cat­sup was con­sid­ered a veg­etable in school lunch­es. Bud­gets were cut.

Then came Har­ry Pot­ter with its hordes of fans and sub­se­quent movies and mer­chan­dis­ing, a tsuna­mi that flat­tened mid-list writ­ers like me who’d been writ­ing sto­ries for aver­age read­ers. Before I could stand up, Twi­light and The Hunger Games sucked the mar­ket into YA. The dig­i­tal age near­ly drowned us all and the Big Five pub­lish­ing hous­es required agent­ed sub­mis­sions. Children’s writ­ers were def­i­nite­ly not in Kansas anymore.

Last month, I turned 65. I’ve been writ­ing children’s books for 35 years. I’m still afloat, but my career isn’t what I envi­sioned back in the 80s and 90s when I wrote between four and six con­tract­ed books a year, as well as projects I cre­at­ed on my own. Back then I looked for­ward to being in my six­ties, leisure­ly pen­ning one nov­el a year, and liv­ing off roy­al­ties from my pre­vi­ous books. Pfffft!

How have I stayed alive? By being flex­i­ble. I moved from mid­dle-grade fic­tion to pic­ture books to non­fic­tion to easy read­ers to biogra­phies … I’ve pub­lished every­thing from board books to YA. Skip­ping around made me dif­fi­cult to cat­e­go­rize, which has been a detri­ment at times. But I rel­ished doing dif­fer­ent books, learn­ing new things. I believe flex­i­bil­i­ty has kept me fresh in an ever-chang­ing field. (Also, as my hus­band says, I don’t take “no” for an answer.)

Big Green Pocketbook2017 brought anoth­er mile­stone. The Big Green Pock­et­book has been in print con­tin­u­ous­ly for 25 years, attain­ing clas­sic sta­tus. This sim­ple lit­tle pic­ture book did not blow out of the water when it first came out in 1993, yet has sold steadi­ly, with­out fan­fare. No one had any notion it would do so well.

Despite pub­lish­ers’ efforts today to tout the Next Big Thing, no one can pre­dict what book will catch on. They can give a book a huge push with tours and oth­er pro­mo­tion, but there’s no guar­an­tee extra pub­lic­i­ty will pay off. In my mind, I don’t pic­ture mobs of kids jostling in line for a hot book. I see one child sit­ting on a sofa with a book on her lap, qui­et­ly enter­ing the space between writer and reader.

It’s that image, rather than the illu­sion of big bucks and fame, that draws me to my desk day after day, year after year. I sim­ply do the work I’m meant to do. And copy machines every­where are grateful.

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