Christine Taylor-Butler knows what it takes to succeed. As the award-winning author of more than 75 children’s books, she’s created a meaningful body of work through her consistent efforts and determination. Her passion for writing and for mentoring and encouraging children shines through her books as well as her presentations. Learn some of her secrets here!
What makes your books and writing unique?
I write stories and research subjects that interest me. If a client asks me to write something I find boring, I look for those kernels of facts and information that will breathe life into a book. I’m an MIT engineer and a bit of a nerd so that has added to my credibility when I write. I tend to pack a lot of information into a small space when writing. Now that my science fiction series is out, teachers have started to comment on how much real STEAM topics are hidden inside the narratives.
How did you find your writing niche?
A series of editors I met in my travels directed me towards work I’d not thought of. One asked me to write early readers and I was resistant. But that became a niche. That niche lead me to my second editor, and then a third who liked that I was good a researching nonfiction, but also fast at writing fiction for younger children. It wasn’t my intent to do that. I was focused on writing a middle grade adventure series. But writing for younger children quickly became my “brand” which is how I went from zero books to close to eighty over thirteen years.
How do you balance writing, speaking, online platform, other work, church or community service, and family? How do you organize your time?
Ha! I don’t do it well. But I do have a devoted office in the space and try hard to let my friends know that being self-employed is not the same as “available” at the drop of a hat to go play. I speak at a lot of out-of-town events so finding the balance to play is hard. But that’s the nature of being self-employed. Most business owners work long hours. So do I. The key is to have a calendar of “events” and stick to it. That includes carving out time for work, and for time with family.
If truth be told I love what I do so my work often feels like my play time. I travel a lot so it’s a series of mini “working” vacations when I go. And my husband and I retreat together once a year with other professional writers.
Why do you think readers buy your books?
I hope it’s because the subjects interest them. I really like kids so writing for them has become a passion. My primary market has been School and Library. Recently I was speaking at a local school during a parent event. A local librarian curated a large cart of my titles for the school children to read. The school also bought duplicate copies to give to students. The students could select their own book and it was obvious that each had a unique preference. The titles ranged from biographies to planetary science to human anatomy. There were several fiction titles as well. Every child seemed pleased with their choice. I tell students that I try to make the subjects interesting to me in order for them to be interesting to a child. I remember nonfiction being dry when I was a child. I wanted to bring my subjects alive for the reader.
The same holds true for my science fiction/adventure series. I wanted the reader to be surprised when reading the book. A librarian told me she liked it even better the second time when she realized how much was hiding in plain site. Other readers have said the same thing. I wanted to write something that was fun to read a second time. Something that would make readers say, “How did I miss that the first time?”
What helps your business succeed despite competition?
I’m tenacious. But I also developed a network of colleagues and peers. The largest problem I see with many writers who try to break into the market, or have had a single success they’re trying to build on is that the focus is in the wrong place. They don’t see this as a business. Many outside of the field believe what we do is intuitive and easy and assume they can replicate the success without doing the hard work. There is a mystique associated with getting your name on a book. But what separates successful authors from those who struggle is not incorporating the following into their methodology:
- Emphasis on craft and constantly refining technique. We all continue to learn the craft through classes, conferences, and hundreds of hours of practice each week or month.
- Knowing your worth. As more people flood the market prices are going down. It was once easier to make a living as a writing. I’ve been offered fees and advances for my work that are shockingly low. I’ve turned them down but have colleagues that have offered to do the work for the price offered. This is a business complete with 1099’s and schedule C’s at tax time. I’ve seen writers treat it like a hobby and they tend to have short-lived careers.
- Understanding deadlines, specifications. Publishing is expensive. Deadlines occur because there are other professionals involved: illustrators, book designers, copyeditors, printers, distributors, etc. Missing deadlines means everyone’s schedule must change. It could result in a project getting cancelled and the author being required to return any funds paid to them in advance. Carve out a work week schedule and stick to it. I write or research 40-60 hours a week.
- Understanding the market. I write primarily in the children’s market. Writing for young children holds different rules than writing for older ones. Someone once told me they couldn’t sell their manuscript for an early reader. I asked how many words they’d submitted. The answer was 5,000. Bingo. An early reader is anywhere from 100 to 600 words depending on the target age. I find a lot of people “want” to write for children but spend no time learning the terminology, the specifications, or the business.
How do you find new readers?
That’s not easily answered. While most of my publishers have marketing and sales departments, some do not. I serve on panels at writing and library conferences. I reach out to schools and libraries when I have new work. I update my website and social media pages. I find a lot of book buyers find me that way. It leads to more invitations to speak which leads to new readers. I also established a good relationship with a manager at Barnes and Noble who told schools about me. Part of the outreach also included a contest in 2015 which involved five puzzles over five days and attracted more than 1,200 views.
What have been some keys to your success? What have been your biggest barriers.
One of the keys to success is that I treat my writing like a business. Being a working writer is no different than being an entrepreneur. I’m constantly networking with other professionals, belong to professional writing organizations. I’ve worked hard to build a reputation for strong writing that requires little editing. For speculative work I make it clear to friends and family that I can’t always schedule recreational activities during working hours. I have a fully equipped office at home that is not used for anything other than my business.
Some of the barriers authors face are rejections and finding the right editor for particular work, increasingly low pay for contract work, and writers block. Those tend to be the most common. Managing expectations is another. Some of the aspiring writers I worked with in the past assumed that publishing would result in fame and recognition. If you are writing with that in mind, stop now. Writers write because they can’t NOT write. We do it for the love of the craft and the sense of satisfaction.
Christine Taylor-Butler is the award winning author of more than 75 books for children. Her photo essay on Mount Everest received favorable reviews from the Smithsonian, and named to best book lists by Bank Street College, Society of Midland Authors, Barnes and Noble, and Reading is Fundamental (RIF), her books on planets were named to best book lists by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and her recent biography for young readers was named to the Amelia Bloomer list of the American Library Association. A recent review of her new science fiction/adventure series said “ …the solid character development, strong writing, and action will appeal to sci-fi and adventure-story readers alike…”
A graduate of MIT, she holds degrees in both Civil Engineering and Art & Design. Before becoming a writer, she worked in a number of industries including a start-up software company in the early days of computer development, in the Development Office at Harvard University, and as an Engineering and Process Control Manager at Hallmark Cards. During that time she also served on the MIT Educational Council where she noticed a trend of students losing their love of reading for pleasure. She switched careers in 2000 to focus full time on crafting compelling fiction and nonfiction content for young readers that would boost critical thinking and foster life long learners.