Karl Beckstrand is the award-winning and bestselling author of 18 multicultural titles and more than 50 e-books (reviews by Kirkus, The Horn Book blog, School Library Journal, ForeWord Reviews). Beckstrand earned a B.A. in journalism from BYU, an M.A. in international relations from APU, and a certificate from Film A. Academy. He used to be a technical recruiter in Silicon Valley. Two publishers produced his early picture books (the first died the day they were to print his book!). Since 2004 he has guided Premio Publishing & Gozo Books. An engaging speaker and workshop facilitator, Beckstrand has experience in high tech, public policy, film, and broadcasting. He teaches media at a state college—including TV/radio scripts and Web content—and contrasts traditional publishing with digital book publishing. His Y.A. fiction, short stories, e-book mysteries, nonfiction/biographies, Spanish & bilingual books (with ESL/ELL pronunciation guides), and wordless books feature characters of color and usually end with a twist. He has lived abroad, been a Spanish/English interpreter, and he enjoys volleyball and kayaking (usually not at the same time). Beckstrand has presented for SUECON (education conference), Taiwan’s Global Leadership for Youth, California's Capital Book Festival, Utah Educational Library Media Association, Called to Learn conference, Salt Lake City Book Festival, PCI Webinars, Utah Humanities Council, Profnet, Murray City Writer’s Workshop, Utah Housing Coalition, LUW, Midvale City Reading Program, Utah Office of Education, professional groups, and schools. His racially diverse work has appeared in: Amazon, Baker & Taylor, Barnes & Noble, Border’s Books, Brodart, Costco, Deseret Book, The Children’s Miracle Network, The Congressional Record of the U.S. House of Representatives, Papercrafts Magazine, LDS Film Festival, EBSCO, Follett, iBooks, Kobo, SCRIBD, various broadcasts, and PremioBooks.com.
Thanks for joining us today on Authors' Curtilage Book Dialogue, and welcome.
Happy to be here.
The audience would like to know which part of the world you’re joining us from.
Midvale, Utah, USA.
How long have you been writing?
Since 1991—I began writing by accident. I didn’t used to like to write; but story ideas kept coming to me (when I should have been doing my homework).
Can you please tell us about your background?
I was raised in paradise (San Jose/Silicon Valley) —the perfect climate, much like Valparaiso (Chile, where I lived for two years [LDS mission]). I have a bachelor’s in journalism (never planned to be a reporter) and a master’s in International relations. I teach media at a state college in Utah and speak on traditional vs. digital/self-publishing. I’m an arts/media junkie (music, art, films, books, theater—oh, and history!)
How did you begin your writing career and have you primarily focused on children’s stories since then?
This was a complete accident because I hated writing (and reading) as a kid. While I should have been doing homework in college, I would get ambushed by ideas for kid’s books and write them—thinking I’d get published when I retired from a “real” job. I joined a writer’s group and met a gentleman who wanted to publish one of my manuscripts. Unfortunately, he died the day we were to print. I got a crash course in publishing/marketing. One other publisher asked me to write a true story about an immigrant child. I knew about a girl in my family history who arrived here alone, not knowing English. I found the account—and then got hooked on family history. So, now I’m writing other true immigration stories. I have ideas for novels—but only one is published so far.
What’s the first thing a writer with an idea for a children’s story should do (besides write it)?
Hire a professional editor (even for kid’s books). They are affordable and will save you grief! Join a writer’s group to network and get feedback.
Where do you get your ideas and where can other writers find inspiration?
This is a hot button (for someone who works in perhaps THE most competitive genre). If you’re not constantly hit with ideas, then “I’d like to write a children’s book” is probably not justification for entering the field. My desk is covered with folders and papers filled with ideas that come at me all the time; things people say, scenarios that explode in my mind, phrases that have a fun meter ... I may never get them all published.
Once you have your book written, how do you find a publisher?
You must be unafraid to communicate (phone, mail, email, social media, in person) and you must be unrelenting (but get an editor before you drive agents/publishers crazy—which you will. The idea is that when they finally look at your stuff, it’s wonderful).
How is the process different with books for children and families compared to books for adults?
I try to write to entertain adults--regardless of the target age range. They are the ones who are going to buy the book, and I don’t want them to cringe when a kid asks them to read a Karl Beckstrand book. I want them to get the humor that the child may not get. I want the parent/teacher/librarian to stay awake and read my books even when they are alone.
Do you prefer having your books published by a publishing house or do you prefer self-publishing? What are the pros and cons of each?
After learning so much from publishers (learning isn’t always a good experience) I realized that I would rather control content, MARKETING, and revenues. Publishers make lots of promises, but the author is—really--always the engine for sales, even if a large publisher promises the moon. I don’t like to spend 50% of my time marketing, but I would have to do it even with Penguin-Random House. Publishers used to have ideal distribution; now anyone can.
Once you have your book published, how do you market it, and does it make a difference whether it’s self-published or not?
No big difference: you post it on social media; do giveaways on goodreads, bookbub, Authorsden, Librarything (give it in exchange for a sincere online review—these are important); send press releases—call the media afterward about being a guest/article subject; if you self-publish, Amazon’s Createspace.com can get you in with major distributors (but you must still contact distributors to truly get your work to booksellers. I don’t usually pursue book signings for two reasons: Bookstores are not the best place to stand out; and, unless you have a large following in a particular city (which you might) you won’t sell a lot of books. Presentations to groups/schools are great.
What are the biggest challenges in the publishing process?
Getting reviews/getting your book noticed.
Your work is racially diverse with many of your characters being of color and/or bilingual.
Yes, they’re not really aimed at a certain audience—they’re not even about racial diversity. They are exciting/fun stories that just happen to reflect the diversity of the world in a natural way.
You speak Spanish?
Yes, my mother spoke broken Spanish to us as kids; then, living in South America made it my second language. I’m learning German.
How many books have you written, and how many of those have been published?
I have written about 30 books; sixteen have been published (with translations I have about 45 titles out).
Can you tell us about your latest novel?
It’s Young Adult suspense set in the Nevada silver rush: To Swallow the Earth. It won a 2016 International Book Award (also a Laramie finalist). I inherited the manuscript from someone who grew up exploring the Sierra Nevada Mountains on horseback nearly a hundred years ago. My challenge was to develop the characters while preserving the action and authentic language. It’s about a man and a woman who clash in a land scheme that leaves both unsure who to trust—and scrambling to stay alive. In addition to a tough outcast (half-Mexican, raised by Indians), there’s a gutsy female who’s unintimidated in the worst kinds of opposition.
Can you summarize the plot?
What if you came home after a journey and your family was no longer there? What if someone else was living in your house, running what you used to manage—and trying to kill you? Could a beautiful woman be behind it? Wade Forester has to stay in the shadows. His father has disappeared, and his sister won’t speak to anyone. Patricia Laughlin is searching for her family as well. Few people gain her trust or approval. Wade must decide if risking his life to help Patricia means aiding the enemy. And Patricia must choose a killer to trust with her life.
Is there a book trailer for your book?
Yes: Book Trailer
What “Made It” moments have you experienced?
To Swallow the Earth won a 2016 International Book Award (also a Laramie Award finalist), She Doesn't Want the Worms - Ella no quiere los gusanos named in top 10 "Best Books" of 2011 – ForeWord Reviews Magazine and featured in School Library Journal. Bright Star, Night Star: An Astronomy Story hit #2 on Amazon's Hot New Children's Books list (opened at #5) and won a 2014 UP Author’s design award. Butterfly Blink won Promoting Picture Books’ cover contest. Crumbs on the Stairs - Migas en las escaleras: A Mystery consistently ranks in Amazon's top 10 bestselling books for ESL, large print, and Spanish children’s titles. Bad Bananas: A Story Cookbook for Kids was praised in Horn Book's blog. Bilingual app/book Sounds in the House was given a nod by Kirkus Reviews.
How can a writer find and work with illustrators? Should a children’s book be illustrated when you submit a manuscript?
Only get an illustrator if you self-publish (which I recommend). Otherwise, find a good children’s lit agent and let the publisher match your work to an artist. I find illustrators through networking (LinkedIn writer/illustrator’s groups, alumni groups, people whose work I’ve seen and fallen for—I just persuaded a genius artist I’ve been stalking for years to do one of my books!). I illustrated Crumbs on the Stairs, Butterfly Blink, and It Ain’t Flat. Bad Bananas was illustrated by Jeff Faerber, Sounds in the House by Channing Jones, Anna’s Prayer by Shari Griffiths, and She Doesn’t Want the Worms by David Hollenbach, Why Juan Can’t Sleep and Bright Star, Night Star were done by Luis F. Sanz, Polar Bear Bowler and The Dancing Flamingos were done by Ashley Sanborn, Ma MacDonald was illustrated by Alycia Mark.
What were the biggest challenges when you set up Premio Publishing, and how did you overcome them?
Having enough titles to get a major distributor--and financing hard cover printing. I wrote a lot, found artists that were willing to accept a percentage of profits over an advance, then cranked out several books. (Today, with POD this is more doable.)
What is one thing that no-one would usually know about you?
No matter how many achievements I have, I struggle with self-doubt, fears, and (at the same time) pride.
What did the best review you ever had say about you and your work?
Museum-quality art, top 10 best book of 2011 (She Doesn’t Want the Worms – Ella no quiere los gusanos)
What did the worst review you ever had say about you and your work?
It has no story (ignoring the image narrative)
What has been the best experience you have ever had in your life?
Living abroad for two years as a missionary
Are you jealous of other writers?
What is the strangest thing you have ever had to do to promote a book?
Make a smoothie on television
What are some of the books you have on your nightstand—or name favorite authors?
I love history, so anything by David McCoullugh is ideal. Other authors I love: Tolkien, Harper Lee, C.S. Lewis, Clancy, Grisham
Who were your early writing influences? Who or what has inspired you during your career and ignited your imagination?
I didn’t like to read as a kid. When I got the measles in the third grade, my grandmother bought me a chapter book: Bicycles North: A Mystery on Wheels by Rita Ritchie. I learned that books can transport and excite (textbooks still seem dull). I love Shel Silverstein. Some of his contemporaries captured the same whimsical feeling in The Golden Book of Fun and Nonsense by Louis Untermeyer, illustrated by A. and M. Provensen (Western Publishing, now Random House?). Untermeyer collected some of the silliest verse from brilliant writers of the previous hundred years. He added his own wacky lines and the Provensens crafted images to match the mirth.
What is your favorite genre to write?
I enjoy putting together biographies (mostly family stories that have inspired me) and mysteries are always fun.
What is your favorite genre to read?
I love suspense.
Can small publishers make a mark on literature and the book market? How?
Technology has revolutionized book sales. My revenues were low until I started POD and ebooks. Fortunately, these technologies are available to even small publishers (and are growing in global reach).
What are some of your other books?
The Dancing Flamingos of Lake Chimichanga – ISBN 978-1512161786 A Sky So Big (Romance, suspense) 978-0692426777, To Swallow the Earth (Western thriller) 978-0692407974, Polar Bear Bowler: A Story Without Words 978-0692220962, Ma MacDonald Flees the Farm – It’s not a pretty picture … book 978-0692220979, Bright Star, Night Star: An Astronomy Story 978-0615856155, No Offense: Communication Guaranteed Not to Offend (Humor) 978-0615856162, Arriba Up, Abajo Down at the Boardwalk (opposites) 978-0615688237, Crumbs on the Stairs – Migas en las escaleras: A Mystery ISBN 978-0977606597, Sounds in the House! Sonidos en la casa 978-0615442303, Bad Bananas: A Story Cookbook for Kids 978-0977606511, She Doesn’t Want the Worms! Ella no quiere los gusanos 978-0977606528, Why Juan Can’t Sleep 978-0615692296, Anna’s Prayer 978-1599921136, It Ain’t Flat: A Memorizable Book of Countries (free ebook).
What projects are you working on now, or plan for the future?
I’m working on a graphic novel, an audiobook, biographies, and more multicultural/multilingual children’s books: The Bridge of the Golden Wood teaches children how to earn and save money. The Christmas House is a non-fiction picture book of my Christmas memories. Agnes’s Rescue is a non-fiction story of a girl who walked a thousand miles across the plains into the Rocky Mountains—in blizzard conditions (much of the way without shoes). Muffy & Valor is a true story of doggie courage and friendship as I witnessed it as a child. I’m also working on an audio of To Swallow the Earth.
Where can people find you/your work?
Titles available via Amazon/Kindle, Baker & Taylor, Barnes & Noble.com/Nook, Brodart, EBSCO, Flipkart, Follett, Gardners, iBooks, Ingram, Inktera, Kobo, Library Direct, Mackin, OverDrive, Quality, SCRIBD, and txtr.
Do you have a favorite comment or question from a reader?
I love it when someone says a book I wrote held them captive—or that the twists were totally unexpected.
How different is your approach? Is there one style that you most enjoy writing?
I think the easiest writing involves those stories that just come (where the writer simply writes what comes to him/her). For non-fiction I have to research and get the facts right, as well as create a good beginning, middle, and end. These books are rewarding to me because they preserve true acts of courage/faith for new generations to witness. Then there are rewrites—lots of polishing. In my genre I have to grab the attention of both children and adults (who buy and read kid’s books).
What kind of advice/tips do you have for someone who wants to write and get published?
Write every day. Write from your heart—from what you know first-hand. Don’t try to write about something that you think is popular (unless that’s what you know). You don’t have to have an agent or publisher. Have several people critique your work—people who won’t gloss over glitches. These people can help you be your best.
How much of your personality and life experiences are in your writing?
My books are my life laid out in color (my food obsession has found its way into most of my works).
What is your writing schedule?
I write or research every day—usually in the morning—though half of my work is marketing and business correspondence.
What do you do when you are not writing?
Marketing, studying, volleyball, socializing, and making music
How do you publicize your books?
Press releases, TV/radio appearances, social media, web sites, blog, personal appearances/presentations, and any way I can!
Do your books have a teaching objective?
Yes. I write mostly to save families from “I’m bored” disease. But yes, my stories teach language, counting, courage, friendship, sharing, faith, cooking, astronomy, geography, zoology, and entomology.
How did you develop the characters in each of your books (If you have more than one)?
I write mostly from my own experiences and often use people/characteristics I’ve known.
Are there any problems in getting children’s’ books published?
Lots of competition—that is why I add unique things like bilingual mysteries, characters of color, and online secrets.
Do you create other materials with the books?
I have a bilingual app of Sounds in the House, and I’m working on having an audio book and a graphic novel of To Swallow the Earth.
What kinds of publishers should authors avoid?
Be wary of any entity that wants an investment of $300 or more up front (outside of actual printing costs) and any entity that is not using the latest technology and platforms.
Does an author have to have an agent? How does a writer find an agent?
I landed a dud of an agent, and haven’t looked for another. An author should always market—and sometimes that is sufficient. Ask for referrals (look in the acknowledgements of a book like yours).
How should an author query?
I recommend getting a referral—unless you have some great titles/reviews/sales already. I no longer advocate query letters for publishing houses (but perhaps for an agent). An agent looks for great titles/reviews/sales. Write a letter that hooks!
Is there always an editor assigned to the author?
Publishers should have in-house editors (don’t rely on these alone). Have as many as 20 people review, critique, edit your work.
Is there a marketing budget for new authors?
It is never enough (most publishers don’t do very well in this department). There are lots of free ways to market too.
What should an author know about her/his publisher’s distributors?
LOTS. Sometimes, getting your book in certain venues is up to you (be careful not to jar publisher egos/rules in the process—though increased distribution should please them).
Can books usually be purchased from the publisher?
Some publishers give advanced copies. All should offer wholesale rates to the author and others.
Do all publishers assist the author in exploiting their subsidiary rights?
What considerations should be given to a book’s cover art?
Some publishers want total control. If you know what is right and will work, be assertive. The cover is key. Don’t skimp.
What should an author know about royalties?
They are low (5 – 12%. This is why I recommend self-publishing)
Should sample books be distributed to various reviewers, newspapers, bookstore owners, retailers, and radio stations?
Absolutely. Be choosey about who gets a review copy—this can get expensive. Try sending an ebook.
Can you tell writers the purpose of a publicist? How does a writer get one?
A publicist helps when you’re wildly popular (or helps you get there if your work is good enough to make you popular). Many people will accept pay to do this (but if you’re going to hire one, try to get one with a great reputation in your genre).
Do most publishers provide posters? Shelf talkers? Bookmarks?
They do if they think the book will do very well. Bookstores are not where most book sales take place. Most sales take place in unusual venues, associated venues (e.g.: Crate & Barrel for cookbooks) and online.
How long does it take a publishing house to make a name in the industry?
I think establishing one’s reputation is an ongoing process. It’s nice to have enough titles to get distributors’ attention. It’s awesome to have more than one bestseller.
Is there a story you haven’t told because it would be too controversial?
Perhaps my own story. But whose life isn’t loaded with drama?
If you could go anywhere in the world to research an upcoming book, where would you want to go?
Greece—I’ve been near, but have yet to enter that island paradise.
Are the names of your characters important to you?
How did you choose a title for your book?
Sometimes the title is the first thing to come to mind, other times I have to stew about it (I keep a file of potential titles too)
Have you ever wished that you could be or do anything else instead of writing, and if so what?
A rock star (really)
Do you think there is any elitism attached to the different genres of books, both in the fiction and non-fiction worlds?
Absolutely. I have an unfinished scholarly manuscript that I finally shelved thinking it wouldn’t stand up to what’s out there already.
Have you ever written naked?
Maybe a story idea just before hopping into the shower.
Who would you like to play you in a film of your life? Pierce Brosnan (since Gary Cooper has passed on)
What was the most important thing you learned at school?
How to research and learn
Have you had to learn new skills or attempted impossible feats in order to get a book finished?
I had to learn Nevada geography
What is the book that you wished you had written?
My grandfather’s biography
I love to share stories in person (and with groups). I write scripts and speeches, and I do free 20-minute Skype sessions anywhere.
Thank you once again for joining us on Authors Curtilage Book Dialogue. We wish you the publishing best and hope that all good things come your way with your book.
The Bridge of the Golden Wood: A Parable on How to Earn Money is on sale here: Amazon GozoBooks Goodreads hurry and get your copy.
Karl Beckstrand joined Authors’ Curtilage Book Dailogue via email from Midvale, Utah, USA.