How self-publishing his first book kick-started a children’s author’s career

The following text was written in December 2009 as an assignment for the Creative Writing Master’s degree course at Loughborough University.  It documents a discussion I had with children’s author Tom Palmer on how his first book – ‘Shaking Hands with Michael Rooney,’ produced and self-published with an illustrator friend, helped him win an agent and begin a prolific career as a children’s author.

Shaking Hands with Michael Rooney

A discussion of the creation and publication of ‘Shaking hands with Michael Rooney’ by Tom Palmer.

For this assignment I carried out research into ‘Shaking Hands with Michael Rooney’, a football story for the 7 to 9 age group by Leeds author Tom Palmer.  In this essay I discuss the back story which resulted in the book’s creation, its publication and subsequent promotion, and the significance the title had in helping Palmer obtain first an agent and then a publisher for later works.  I will discuss the role that knowledge of his target market played in Palmer’s achievements, as well as the luck which helped him succeed where other authors have failed.  I conclude with Palmer’s comments on the state of the children’s publishing industry at the present time and his suggestions for obtaining feedback to help an author craft a piece of work into something a publisher might consider.

‘Shaking Hands with Michael Rooney’ is the story of a boy who plays football for a local junior team.  The boy is set to be the highest goal scorer in the league and receive a trophy from his football hero, Michael Rooney but, overcome with nerves at the prospect of making a fool of himself receiving the prize, deliberately misses the chance to score several goals in the final match of the season.  At the last minute, however, the boy is made player of the season and still has to collect a trophy from Michael Rooney.  His fears of embarrassing nerves prove unfounded and he ends the story proud of his achievements.

On his website, Tom Palmer describes himself as a ‘football fan and an author’ who ‘did badly at school and hated reading’ until he was seventeen.  Reading about football made him decide he wanted to be a writer so he could be ‘paid for watching football’.  His ambition achieved, Tom travels the world, watching football in diverse and unusual locations and ‘sometimes writing about it’.  He has published thirteen books in total, fiction and non-fiction, with nine children’s football titles for Puffin and three others to appear in the near future[1].

I emailed Tom via the contact link on his website and he suggested I phone him rather than correspond in writing.  We talked for about half an hour and Tom was open and informative about his experiences in the publishing world.

‘Shaking Hands with Michael Rooney’ was Tom’s first published fiction book and was born out of his reading development work in libraries in the North of England.  An Arts Council-funded job came up at Leeds Library which, though also in reading development, required the post holder to produce some writing.  Tom’s first bit of ‘luck’ was getting the job despite not being an established author; his skills in reader development, he said, helping him to ‘walk into the job’.  It was also the Year of the Artist, something he termed as ‘a brilliant opportunity … designed to open doors and it opened doors for me.  Changed my life really.’

As well as running author events and story-telling sessions in libraries, Tom began ‘doing the rounds’ of schools, promoting a non-fiction football diary for adults which he had written.  There was a lot of interest in it and he visited a ‘vast amount of schools’.  Tom joined the National Association of Writers in Education and attended one of their courses on making a living as an author in schools, which proved to be very useful.  His interaction with children was also crucial to him understanding what they liked to read and in honing his performance skills.

Leeds Library commissioned Tom to write three stories that could be read in ten minute slots to groups of 800 or so children.  These, too, he read in libraries, schools and even at a reading event at Elland Road, the Leeds United football ground.  People liked the stories and suggested Tom try to get them published.

Tom didn’t even try to approach publishers but went straight for self publishing, putting the three stories in one collection and adding a section of football tips at the end.  ‘Shaking Hands with Michael Rooney’ was born.  Tom and an illustrator friend paid to have the book published, using an imprint he knew of in Leeds called Grass Roots and paying about £2000 for 4000 copies.  They then publicised the book themselves.

None of the chain booksellers would stock it, Waterstones refusing because they felt ‘the profit margins were too small’.  Tom only succeeded in selling the book to about a dozen bookshops, but because he had become well known in libraries, libraries bought it.  He estimates that half of the 4000 libraries in the country bought a copy.  The book then stopped selling for a while but picked up again once his Puffin titles came out, with another 2000 sold since then.  I told Tom that ‘Shaking Hands with Michael Rooney’ no longer appears automatically when searching on Amazon for his books and it’s now necessary to search for it specifically by title.   His newer, better promoted books sell in greater volume, he said, and therefore appear first, adding with a laugh that ‘Shaking Hands with Michael Rooney’ had been ‘relegated’.

So, did publishing the book lead to Tom getting a book deal?
‘Yes and no’, he said, ‘not specifically’.  Tom sent new stories out to publishers and felt that the fact he had a book ‘out there’ contributed to him getting his deal with Puffin.  It confirmed to the industry that he was ‘embedded in the market’, an important thing for mid-list authors to be.

Tom didn’t approach publishers directly, however.  He tried to find an agent but was rejected fifteen times and had nearly given up when he had a second piece of luck.  He discovered there was a literary agent in London who supports Leeds United; ‘there’s this Mafia-type thing amongst football supporters,’ he explained, inferring that they look out for their own. Tom approached the agent, adding as a post script to his letter that he’s a Leeds fan.  Tom succeeded in grabbing his attention, though he feels certain that being ‘a nice man,’ the agent would have given him ‘a respectable look anyway.’  The agent took Tom on and six weeks later won him a book deal with Puffin.  Tom knows lots of authors who’ve tried and tried and tried to get a break and it was usually some little story like that which eventually made the difference.  They did something that made them stand out from the crowd.

Tom admitted he wasn’t optimistic about the situation for new children’s authors in today’s market, as it’s so competitive and the recession has made it harder to break into than it was even two and a half years ago.  He feels that networking takes priority over talent, with who you know being more important than what you can do. Celebrities seem to be the only authors having any success in bringing out new children’s titles and as they are given such massive advances, this reduces the money available for everyone else. Also, series of children’s stories written by teams of authors have the lion’s share of the market.  Publishers aren’t willing to take risks on new writers unless they’re bowled over by something they’ve written, and they’re not going to be bowled over as they don’t actually get to see new work.  Tom thinks this situation must change ‘organically’.  ‘Keep plugging away,’ was his advice.

Tom felt that being a member of a writer’s group tipped the balance for him in creating something a publisher might consider, enabling him to see his work differently.  He and a poet friend started their own monthly writer’s group, reading aloud and commenting on each other’s work.  A later member, a then-unknown novelist called Sophie Hannah, was particularly helpful in Tom’s development of characterisation and plot.  Tom suggested that it’s better to start a group of two or three people ‘coming from the same place’ than join an established writer’s group.

Tom continues to visit schools and is a busy and popular author on the circuit.  He has an unusual ‘hook’ to make him attractive to schools: his performance includes a football quiz and penalty shootouts which, he says, ‘motivates children to talk about reading’.

A number of times, Tom mentioned the luck he’d had throughout his journey to publication.  I believe much of his luck was self generated, however, from fieldwork in his target market, to determination to publish and publicise his first book, through to the research which enabled him to specifically target potential agents, ultimately with success.  Nothing in Tom’s working experience was wasted, with much of positive benefit to him as an author, and in discussing this with him, I have come to understand how, rather than seeing my need to earn a living as a negative, with an eye open to opportunities and the determination to keep on trying, this could also apply to anyone.

Alison Mott, December 2009

[1] Since this essay was written, Tom’s publication list has increased dramatically and at this point (March 2019) he now has almost 50 titles to his name.  You can find out more about his children’s books here.

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