Writer of kids’ books gives insight to Baumholder students
Stars and Stripes March 7, 2006
BAUMHOLDER, Germany — For aspiring writers, a conversation with Michael Sampson provides an insider’s guide to the publishing business. And it is, Sampson emphasizes, a business.
Even with 29 children’s books to his name, including “Chicka, Chicka 1 ... 2 ... 3,” a counting book that was Parenting Magazine’s 2004 book of the year, he typically grosses about $5,000 annually on book sales.
For each hardback book he sells, he gets 5 percent of the cover price, or about 40 cents, and 20 cents for softcover, he said.
During a presentation and book signing Friday at Neubrucke Elementary School on his way to other DODDS schools in Germany and Belgium, Sampson broke down the business, making clear it doesn’t produce overnight-success sorts of careers. Sampson wrote his first children’s book, “The Ball That Won ...,” in 1980. But he didn’t get it published until 1996.
“I gave up on it,” Sampson said. “It sat for 10 years.”
Yet, he never gave up on becoming a children’s author, and his timing was better for his second shot. In the years since he’d written “The Ball,” there had been a generational change among the editors of children’s books, Sampson said in an interview.
“At the publishers in New York, the (children’s books) editors had been, for a lack of a better term, ‘little old ladies’ who only wanted certain types of book.”
When he went back in 1996, those editors had given way to a new generation of 30-somethings who were far more receptive to new concepts, he said. Even then, there were issues where artistry had to give way to legal reality.
Sampson’s original title was, “The Ball That Won the Super Bowl,” inspired by the 1979 Pittsburgh Steelers/Dallas Cowboys Super Bowl. But the National Football League weighed in, making the publisher delete “Super Bowl” from the title, as well as team logos on the helmets in the illustrations.
He was allowed to use “Super Bowl” in the text, the author said.
Now a successful author and consultant, Sampson still says competition is brutal in the fiction-writing sector. Of the 50,000 or so submissions that big publishers such as Simon and Schuster Inc. get each year, only about 100 get published, he said.
Sampson’s military connection is his late writing partner, Bill Martin Jr., who was an Air Force staff sergeant when his first book was published. Together, Sampson and Martin wrote a number of books, including “Chicka Chicka …” and “The Pledge of Allegiance,” each of which sold about 250,000 copies.
Knowing your audience is crucial, he said. Sampson, who calls himself a liberal, knew that “Pledge of Allegiance” would sell better to conservative families, and that’s how it was marketed.
Whatever the topic, he said, children are more receptive to stories told in rhyme — that rhyme and the rhythm of the words, as well as great illustrations, are crucial to success.
Sampson’s tips overlap closely with the “6 Traits + One” model for teaching young people and teachers improved writing skills, said Peggy Hoffman-Schmidt, Sampson’s friend and the Neubrucke principal.
Sampson’s traits for great writers — good concept, accurate research, story structure, style/voice, word choice, story fluency and an attractive presentation — distilled from interviews with 40 successful authors are nearly the same, Hoffman-Schmidt said.
Moreover, she said Sampson confirmed what she tells students: “The writing’s not done just because there’s a grade on the paper.”
Samson told his Neubrucke audiences he might do 40 or 50 revisions on a story.
“They said, ‘Oh, my gosh!’ They were in awe of it … and the teachers were frantically taking notes.”