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February 2005

        Enhancing the historic aura of SMA's 90th anniversary year, Richard Norton Smith will be principal speaker at the annual banquet on May 10.
        The director of the new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill., is also a distinguished historian and author of several books, including biographies of George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, Herbert Hoover, Thomas E. Dewey and Chicago's own Col. Robert R. McCormick.
        Smith previously headed the Gerald R. Ford presidential library in Michigan, the Ronald Reagan library in California, the Herbert Hoover library in Iowa, the Dwight D. Eisenhower library in Kansas and the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas.
        The dinner will be held in the Chicago Athletic Asociation. Awards will be given in adult and children's fiction and nonfiction, biography and poetry for books published during 2004. For details, see


By R. Craig Sautter
SMA President

        When Charlotte Herman used to tell people that she wrote children's books, they often responded, "How cute!" she told an audience of SMA members and guests attending the Society's February monthly meeting at the Chicago Athletic Association. "Nowadays, they take it much more seriously," the award-winning author of 21 books smiled.
        That seriousness was confirmed by the panel of experts who joined Herman in a discussion of "Children's Literature in Chicago," part of SMA's two-year "Chicago in Literature Series." Some of this seriousness ironically comes from the success of fantasy, as in the Harry Potter books, and their impact on readers young and old, and on their publisher's profits and stock record. For the past few years, children's publishers have been swamped with other fantasy manuscripts and the market has absorbed about all it can take.
        The fantasy phase is probably coming to an end, speculated Ilene Cooper, children's book editor at the American Library Association's prestigious publication Booklist. Books for young adults could become the next hot topic.
        Cooper, a Rogers Park native and winner of SMA's 2004 "Best Children's Non-Fiction Book of the Year," for Jack: The Early Years of John F. Kennedy, published by Dutton Children's Books, noted that over 5,000 children's books a year come over her desk at Booklist in search of a review.
        "Most of those about Chicago are historical, set at the World's Fair or involving the Great Fire or the Underground Railroad," she said. As an example, Cooper read an excerpt from Fair Weather by Richard Peck. Cooper also cited the recent hit, Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett, set in Hyde Park, "coming soon to your local theater," she joked.
        "Chicago itself, and its streets and neighborhoods, are a character in this book," she said. She also noted that the American Girl company publishes a book for each of its dolls, as indicated in the recent controversy over how a respected Latino author of one of those books depicted Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood. She noted that you can see hundreds of girls carrying red American Girl bags down Michigan Ave.
        Abby Levin, veteran editor at Albert Whitman & Company, a Morton Grove house that publishes children's books exclusively, agreed the scene for Chicago children writers is "vibrant." She cited the numerous writers' groups, authors in the schools, book fairs and children's book lists as evidence of important creative activity. She estimates there are over 800 children's writers and illustrators in Illinois alone.
        But of the 130 publishers that she counted in Chicagoland, only three specialize in children's books. That makes competition tough. "We get about 2,000 manuscripts a year at Whitman," Levin confided. "But we publish only 30 books a year."
        Whitman has been putting out books for kids since 1919 and currently has 400 titles in print. Its "Boxcar Children" series, begun in 1942, has sold over 50 million copies. Whitman often spends $30,000 before a book even reaches a book store. Levin, who has edited scores and scores of these books and is author of 10 picture books, seems especially proud of her company's "concept books" which tackle tough topics for children, such as the death of a parent, divorce, inter-racial issues, open adoption, bullying and guns.
        Chicago's great West Side, particularly the environs of 13th Street and Independence Blvd., is the girlhood home of Charlotte Herman, a former elementary school teacher. It's also where Herman returned after the death of her mother to mine childhood memories for her fiction, like her 1978 SMA "Best Children's Book of the Year Award" winner Our Snowman Had Olive Eyes, and her Carl Sandburg Award winner The House on Walenska Street.
         "Chicago, that's where I like to be as a writer," she sighed. Herman also spends lots of time reading with school children.
        SMA Board Member Marlene Targ Brill, rounded out the four-person panel. Brill felt somewhat destined to her profession. She grew up on Chicago's North Side and for several years lived in the same building as famed children's writer Daniel Pinkwater. Her Uncle Willie owned a Chicago bookstore before moving on to become a vice president of a New York publisher.
        Brill, who just signed her 60th book contract, especially likes writing on historical topics, in part because Chicago is so rich with research resources. Her Diary of A Drummer Boy drew on the real life of a North Shore youngster who won the Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery in the Civil War. Brill even found a local expert on the "tooth fairy" for her Tooth Tales From Around the World.
        With 5,000 books a year, what does the children's book field really need? "Good readable books on science and math," Levin suggested. All four panelists expressed a concern about the tightening of the industry with conglomerate takeovers. And more celebrity authors with questionable quality books are squeezing out less-known children's authors. It's also more global and publishers want books that reflect that reality.
        Also, book store chains are more powerful in dictating market trends. "Two people at the chains make major decisions in nanoseconds," Cooper complained. "Border's doesn't need picture books right now, so publishers cut their picture books," Levin added.
        The evening's discussion was set up by looking back by SMA's president at Chicago's most successful children's book author, L. Frank Baum. His Magical Monarch of Mo didn't make much impact in the late 1890s, but he had caught the rhythm of a good title. Then Baum's manuscript for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was rejected by every publisher he contacted, so he paid to publish it himself in 1900. It hasn't been out of print for the past 105 years.
        And children's literature in Chicago has been thriving ever since as well.

        By Tom Ciesielka
TC Public Relations

        If there is one "battle ground" between authors and their publishers, it's how much media relations work a publisher will invest in a particular title. Many publishers release hundreds of books a year and might have only two in-house public relations professionals. Meaning, it's almost impossible to give each title the attention it deserves. Therefore, many authors may decide they want to supplement the efforts of their publisher. (For journalistic ethics and disclaimer purposes, I work as an outside publicist.)
        Ultimately it is the author who must decide what she or he expects as "return on the investment" when it comes to spending one's own money on media relations.
        Here are a few guidelines:
* Determine what the publisher will do: Your book publisher's media relations work can range from sending out a standard template press release to the "usual suspects" to hiring a top notch public relations agency with an excellent track record in promoting books. Once you have this information, you can then decide if you want to press them to do more or agree that their plan for your book makes sense.The better your track record with previous books, the more you can ask for.
* Decide how better media coverage will help you and your book. Considering that your royalty could be just a couple dollars per book, often added publicity may or may not be able make enough back to justify the expense. You could be more interested in getting publicity to help get a second book deal (with a better advance). Also, it could be that you sell books at speaking engagements, and you want your audience to have heard about your book in advance. Or, you may be a professional speaker, and publicity on your book will help you get better speaking fees.
* How to determine what to pay for media relations services. Most public relations agencies work on either a project or monthly fee arrangement, plus expenses. In the case of a project fee, a public relations firm could charge $5,000 and higher for a campaign that runs a few months before the book is released to about a month after the release date. In the case of a monthly fee, a firm might charge $2,500 a month for a three-month campaign and possibly lower the monthly fee once the ball gets rolling because the amount of work to sustain the campaign is reduced.
        I have also seen public relations services promoted on the Internet that say they only get paid when there is coverage. Like any other major expense, it's a good idea to speak to a couple companies before making a decision.
        Next month's tip: The Book Press Release: What are the media looking for?
Other Member News

Black Experience Celebration

        Sterling Plumpp was one of the panelists on Feb. 16 at a reunuion of the Organization of Black American Culture in the Carter Woodson Regional Library, Chicago.
        OBAC met weekly from 1967 to 1992 for promising young writers to critique each other's poems, novels, plays and essays.
        "It was a celebration of the Black experience and of one's Blackness," Plumpp told the Chicago Sun-Times.
        Many of the writers involved, including Plumpp, rose to prominence.
        "OBAC writers produced (Chicago's) greatest flowering of Black literature since the Chicago Renaissance of the 1930s," the Sun-Times said.
"Another Page Turner"
        Jacquelyn Mitchard's new novel, The Breakdown Lane, says Publishers Weekly, is a "rousing melodrama.
        "Fluid, often funny dialog and the convincing portrayal of children involved in the collapse of a marriage add up to another page turner."

Political Biography
        James L. Merriner has signed a contract to write a biography of former Illinois Governor George Ryan.
        The tentative title is The Man Who Emptied Death Row: Gov. George Ryan and the Politics of Crime.        
        A former Chicago Sun-Times reporter, Merriner is also the author of Grafters and Goo-Goos: Corruption and Reform in Chicago, 1833-2003 and Mr. Chairman, a biography of Dan Rostenkowski, the former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.        

Already, a Sequel
        SMA members Neal Samors and Michael Williams, along with Richard Cahan, have begun work on Real Sports Chicago, a sequel to their successful Real Chicago: Photographs from the Files of the Chicago Sun-Times.
         The new book is scheduled to be in bookstores late this year.
"Best Mystery"
        Kathleen Ernst's Betrayal at Cross Creek has been nominated for an Agatha Award for Best Children's/Young Adult Mystery.
        Awards will be presented at the Malice Domestic mystery convention, April 29 - May 1, in Arlington, Va.
         Betrayal at Cross Creek is also a nominee for Disney Adventures magazine's Best Historical Fiction Novel of 2004.
        Three of the other nominees are Newbery Honor or Newbery winners, and she says she is "thrilled to be in such company."
        Betrayal at Cross Creek is about a young Scottish immigrant who faces danger during the American Revolution when both Patriots and Loyalists try to coerce her family to join their cause. Kirkus Reviews called the novel "a grand read."
        Her next book, Danger at the Zoo, a Kit Mystery from American Girl, will be published this spring.
        She will also be teaching a week-long class for aspiring writers, "The Building Blocks of Children's Fiction," at the University of Wisconsin's "Write By The Lake" retreat.

Back in Print
        Alzina Stone Dale writes: " I just received word that the last two of my books are now available through the Authors Guild program at"
        That includes all five mystery guides to England, London, New York, Chicago and Washington, DC, plus biographies of Dorothy L. Sayers, T.S. Eliot, and G.K. Chesterton, and a collection of essays about Sayers by a dozen mystery writers: Dorothy L. Sayers the Centennial Celebration.

By Barbara Schaaf

Third Time Charm
        Melvin Holli may be professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago but he is not resting on his laurels, including The American Mayor: The Best and Worst Big City Leaders and Franklin Roosevelt and the Birth of Public Opinion Polling.
        Southern Illinois Press has just brought out his third edition of The Mayors: The Chicago Political Tradition. Since it was first published 17 years ago, according to Holli, Chicago politics have become "more genteel, more docile, and more predictable," which may come as a surprise to some observers of the Chicago political scene.
        The study begins in more rough and ready times. with essays about that other father/son mayoral team, the Carter Harrisons, through "the radical Edward F. Dunne...the politically reticent Fred Bussee and the loudmouth Big Bill Thompson. Contributors include Laura Washington and the late Steve Neal.
        In May, Holli takes his show on the road and over the pond to Vajxo, Sweden, where he will address the Nordic Association of American Studies Conference on American urban politics.

Making Tracks

        Running for Our Lives, Glennette Tilley Turner's popular work about an attempt to flee slavery, is now out in paperback from Newman Educational Publishing, which also published The Underground Railroad in Illinois.
        Somehow during their flight, young Carrie and Luther are separated from their parents, and are forced to continue their frightening, dangerous journey alone except for each other.

Recent New Members

By Tom Frisbie
Vice President/Membership

        Charles Blackstone, a creative writing teacher of the University of Chicago's Graham School, has a B.A. in English from the University of Illinois at Chicago and an M.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Colorado at Boulder.
        His fiction has appeared in Rio, Wazee Journal, M.A.G., Whet Magazine and Opium Magazine. He is author of The Week You Weren't Here (Flame Books, 2004).

David Novak is the author of several books of poetry, including The Requiem (1999), Sonnets (2000), Embodiment and Release (2001), Against Holy War (2002) and The Soul's Refinement (2003), all published by Non Fit Press.

Anne-Marie Oomen is director of the creative writing department at Interlochen Arts Academy, a member of Beach Bards, and was founder and editor of The Dunes. She is author of Pulling Down the Barn: Memories of a Rural Childhood.

         Whitney Scott has helped writers of all levels for 15 years develop their writing skills. Her clients have written short fiction, novels, case studies, nonfiction articles, business correspondence and screenplays.
        Some have gone on to be published in Kaleidoscope Ink, Mediphors, Moon Journal, Edda and the national best-seller, Chicken Soup for the Woman's Soul, among others. She is author of Dancing to the End of the Shining Bar (novel, Outrider Press, 1994) and Listen to the Moon (poetry, Outrider Press, 1988) as well as editor of numerous books.

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