Tara Cattie Luebbe ran her own picture book store before becoming an author. She’s read thousands of pictures books and has a solid grasp of what it takes to write for a picture book crowd. I’ve had the pleasure of reading her manuscripts in our critique group and can safely say you’ll be seeing a lot of her name soon. In gratitude to her own mentor, Tara will host a mentorship contest early next year where authors and illustrators can apply to be mentored by an established author or illustrator. The details are below. Thank you, Tara, for the candid interview from a retailer’s perspective.
Tara, you had a baptism by fire in searching out good children’s lit with your oldest son who’d finished all the Harry Potter books by first grade. It sounds like keeping up with his book appetite is what prompted you to open your toy and bookstore.
I think I got into picture books like a lot of writers, I had kids. My first born was a voracious reader and so I spent a lot of time looking for new books to keep him satisfied. He did not like to read one book over and over, he always wanted a new one. He went on to read all the Harry Potters by the end of first grade. I was blessed to have two more sons after that, and they are all equally avid readers, which makes me so happy.
Because my background was in retail buying, I followed a dream and opened a toy and book store. My store catered to children 0-6, so the only books I sold were picture books. My selection was very different than the chain store down the way. I spent hours at market buying new books and searching out the best picture books from smaller pubs, foreign pubs and the wonderful backlist. As an indie, I had no requirements to carry anything from a corporate office. If I didn’t like the book, I didn’t carry it, even if it was a huge seller elsewhere. It was a highly curated collection reflective of my taste.
Where did you go to find your books? Tell me about the backlist (backlist books are older book still available from a publisher).
I would purchase books from tradeshows, sales reps and publishers’ catalogs. I would look at the front list first and then go through the backlists. I did a lot of research online. I filled my store with the best books possible, not just from the frontlist.
The backlist was something I put a lot of time into because it was the best way to meet customers’ specific needs. The mom in search of every tutu book out there maybe does not know the books that were a few years old simply because she was not in the market for them at that time. If a customer said her girls loved Pinkalicious, I would find things from the backlist for them like Pink Me Up. Nine times out of ten they had never heard of the books simply because they never saw them anywhere. I had a customer come in who had a son with autism who only loved dinosaur books. She basically challenged me saying, “We have every dinosaur book out there. I know them all.” “Great,” I said. “How’d you like When Dinosaurs Came with Everything and Trouble at the Dinosaur Cafe?” Mic (book) drop. Of course, she did not have those two backlist gems. After that, I would call her whenever I discovered a new one and she became a loyal customer. This is the perfect example of the backlist being so advantageous to a retailer.
You carried Usborne books, which I love too, why did they appeal to you so much as a bookseller? How about as a consumer? What techniques can current authors learn from Usborne’s selections?
Usbourne was great to sell for two reasons. One, they were not sold in the large chains or Amazon, so they were unique to smaller stores and boutiques. And they are the hands down best “simple concept” books around and are very sturdy. They are ideal for two-year olds who are just starting to care about the book’s content and subject matter. I knew that an Usbourne book about pirates would be simple enough for them to understand, but at the same time, interesting enough to keep their attention.
If you were buying books today, name the top five on your must have list.
I could never pick only five! Some of my recent faves are Best Frints by Antoinette Portis, Wolf Camp By Andrea Zuill, Lion vs. Rabbit by Alex Latimer, Steve, Raised by Wolves by Jared Chapman, Little Bird’s Bad Word by Jacob Grant, What a Naughty Bird by Sean Taylor, Mustache Baby by Bridget Heos, Dragon Was Terrible by Kelli DiPuccio, Excellent Ed by Stacy McAnulty, Leaping Lemmings by John Briggs, Woodpecker Wants a Waffle by Steve Breen, Land Shark by Beth Ferry.
From the backlist: Pickle Chiffon Pie by Roger Bradford, Ugly Fish by Kara LaReau, Pink Me Up by Charise Mericle Harper, Ol’ Mama Squirrel by David Ezra Stein, The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson, The Terrible Plop by Ursula Dubosarsky, The Incredible Book Eating Boy by Oliver Jeffers, I’d Really Like to Eat a Child by Sylvaine Donnio, Badger’s Fancy Meal by Keiko Kasza. I could go on and on. I do keep an updated Goodreads list of my absolute favorites. My tastes lean towards the humorous and subversive: https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/7417473-tara?shelf=best-unique-picture-books
You talked about getting visits from self-published authors who wanted you to carry their books. Talk about that if you will. Why did so many of them fail to gain your interest? Did some work? If so, why?
When I opened the store, the local self-published authors came out of the woodwork. Most of the time, the format was not going to work for me. I had only hardback picture books in the store, no paperbacks. All the self-published books were smaller paperback squares. The other problem was that 99% of them could not stand up to the traditionally published books. There is always one exception to the rule however, and I did sell Princess Bubble, which was hardback, had good illustrations and was written by two local writers. I could put Princess Bubble on the shelves next to the traditional published items, and it could hold its own in. It was hard to turn people away, and I know they thought I was a horrible person, but space was precious and I needed every inch.
You and your sister recently signed on as a writing team with Tracy Marchini at Bookends Literary, and you have your own good news with the PW announcement of your picture book Shark-Nate-O which is slated to release spring of 2018. How has selling books helped you write them?
Just having the in-depth understanding of kidlit retail in general is an asset for me. I naturally “think” like a retailer, so I can see it on the shelf and exactly where it fits. Because I read so many of them, I just have a good sense of what works. I am always amazed when other writers do not take this part seriously. It is a free education! I don’t think you can write picture books unless you read them, a TON of them. If you truly are dedicated to this craft, this will not be a chore but something you love and want to do. Staying current with the market is also helpful for identifying mentor texts and knowing if my ideas are already out there.
Now let’s talk about your upcoming contest. You won a mentorship with Stacy McAnulty. As part of the deal with her, you promised to pay it forward, and you’ve decided to pay it forward in a big way. Tell me about the Writing With the Stars mentorship opportunity.
I recruited an amazing line up of published authors and illustrators who are all generously donating their time to some lucky picture book writers and illustrators for a free, three-month mentorship. Writers and illustrators will pick three mentors from the group that best suit their style and genre to apply to. The mentors will go through their applicants and each pick one mentee. From personal experience, a mentor can make a huge difference in your career. After working with Stacy, I landed an agent and have three books under contract. I found the experience invaluable. All the details can be found here: http://beckytarabooks.com/contest-2/
Thank you, Tara for the interview and good luck with the contest.