Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Getting a Nonfiction Picture Book Published - by Patricia Keeler

The fire alarm in the Macmillan building is really loud! I know, because I set if off. I was so excited about having sold my nonfiction picture book, I couldn't wait for the down elevator. I ran into the stairwell, not noticing the Emergency Exit Only sign, setting off lights and sirens. Later, my editor said, "I knew that was you." 

So things got better on my second visit to New York.

With Marsha Marshall, Senior Editor at Atheneum Publishers/Macmillan

Making A Sale

Even though I'd rather chew ice on a bad tooth then market a picture book after my initial 'not-going-to-happen' rejections, I started mailing dummies to editors. I did get some pen and ink illustration work for textbooks, but it wasn't until I saw David Macaulay's The Way Things Work that I got the big idea to make an illustrated book showing where everything comes from. The biggest concept I could think of would sell, right? I called it Sources.

Sample dummy page from Sources
Sample dummy page from Sources
Amazingly, Marcia Marshall, Senior Editor at Atheneum Publishers/Macmillan, got back to me. Sources didn't work for her, but she was good with a picture book about where clothing fibers come from. Unraveling Fibers was to be published in 1995.

Marcia came to my Virginia home on her way to visit her daughter in Florida and collected the finished work for Unraveling Fibers. (So cool to direct my editor past the Virginia Museum and Dogwell Dell ampitheater and up my street. And there she was, munching cheese crackers in my kitchen.)

Marcia was surprised when I gave her a photo book layout and I'd done with my husband, Francis McCall. Switching from illustrations to photographs wasn't really something I thought I needed to talk to my editor about. We had to take the pictures anyway, and it seemed like a lot of extra work to copy them in watercolor.

There are some challenging editors, but Marcia Marshall has got to be the kindest, most understanding of them all.

Unraveling Fibers Photos

Francis and I grew silkworms. You can see silkworms still spinning themselves into the cocoon.
Jenny Wagner holding a llama. Alpacas on the right.

Unraveling Fibers Cover Designs

I did submit an illustrated cover design.

Original cover painting I placed on a bed of wool fibers.

They rushed out a cover with black and white photos. I think that might be my fault. 

My final cover design on left. Cover created by Atheneum on right.

Unraveling Fibers made the New York Times book review!

Facebook:  PatriciaKeelerBooks
Twitter: @patriciakeeler
Instagram: @patriciakeeler

represented by Liza Royce Agency


  1. Awesome work, Patricia! And what a pleasure to know you, too. You are such an inspiration!!

    1. Thanks! Wish you lived closer so we could have morning coffee!

  2. Great strategy: analyze a book's that doing really well and see how it can work for you. Love that you & Frances actually raised silkworms and photographed them. Now that's research!

    1. Thanks, Di! I think following the lead of the book works. It may be a strain on editors . . .

  3. Loved reading this and seeing pictures of you and your work. Your painting of the silk worms is fantastic.

    1. Well, um, the silk worms are a photo by Francis. I made the box, though!

  4. I like it. Is that the only one you did like this? It's an old style, but can be revived.

  5. Your SOURCES book sounds cool and the illustrations are lovely! I wonder if it would find a place in the market today with so much emphasis on core curriculum?

    1. I've never looked at clothes the same! There would have to be changes as some of the man made fibers we wrote about have improved so much in the last 20 years. But I think this is especially fun because kids can just look at the labels of their clothes and then check the book for the plant, animal or process!