Author Interview: Evelyn Dunbar Webb, The Word Collector

Who says high school writing homework isn't useful? It definitely was for this author, who took an assignment and ran with it. Years later, it became her first book. Read below about Evelyn Dunbar Webb's path to publishing. Her biggest piece of advice to writers? "Don't fear editing."

Evelyn Dunbar Webb's books:

The Word Collector

Bumblemeyer Publications, 2017 (June)

Priscilla’s Puzzles: A Word Collector Workbook

Bumblemeyer Publications, 2017 (July)

Priscilla’s Journey: A Word Collector Coloring & Activity Book

Bumblemeyer Publications, 2017 (August)

The Invisible Realm (A-maze-ing Mystery Adventures #1)

Bumblemeyer Publications, 2018 (October)

Foothills of the Gods (Arest: Planet of the Red God Volume I)

Bumblemeyer Publications, 2019 (November)

Hattie and Dacey’s Treasure Hunt Coloring & Activity Book

Bumblemeyer Publications, 2020 (September)

The Prodigal Angel

Bumblemeyer Publications, 2020 (November)

When did you start writing your first book? Where did the idea come from?

The Word Collector grew from a high school writing exercise which, years later, I resurrected and expanded while I was studying with the Institute for Children’s Writers from 1997 through 1999.

Priscilla is a word collector. She collects all sorts of words. The problem is, although Priscilla collects lots of words, all she does is write them in large notebooks. She never, ever shares her words.

And because of this, she never, ever makes friends. She wants to make friends, but she doesn’t know how. She needs help. But who can help her?

Read Priscilla’s adventure with word collecting to find out how she solves her problem, and, in the process, discovers how to use the words she has collected.

First in a grammar and composition series for 6- to 11-year-olds, The Word Collector features Priscilla, a word collector too shy to share her words, making it difficult for her to make friends. Written and illustrated in a style that captures and keeps students’ interest, the story encourages a love of language—and a willingness to help others—as it reviews the four main parts of speech: noun, verb, adverb, and adjective.

What was the hardest part about writing your first book? What hurdles did you have to overcome?

The hardest part was reducing the word count. Originally, the story topped 2,200 words. Also, the protagonist was an adult character, which made it iffy in terms of my plans to publish it as a picture book.

Once your manuscript was finished, what did you do?

I completed the short story in 1999 and submitted it to a contest during undergraduate studies at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, which earned me an award in 2000. From that point, I kept reworking the concept until I had whittled it down to under 800 words and recrafted the tale with a younger protagonist, then contracted with an illustrator to bring the story to life in 2013.

What did you expect from the editing process? How was the experience?

Strangely (at least to some), the editing process isn’t difficult for me; the problem I have is knowing when to stop editing! I delight in tightening scenes, crafting snippets to breathe more depth into characters. And while at some subconscious level I’m aware I might be going a tad overboard, the storyteller in me finds it difficult to tear away and let go. Still, the sheer joy of craft exhilarates me, which—while it can interfere with sleep—is why I have a slew of phrases and notes populating my journals.

Describe what re-writing involves and how it makes you feel. How is it different than the initial writing?

Re-writing requires you to know your characters and your story. With a first draft, you’re getting to know the players and the situation that brings them together. In the re-write, you work within the framework of the first draft to expand, remove, even reinvent what’s there; you become more involved with the who, what, where, when, why, and how. In some instances, you might need to interview your characters, even argue with them, to discover underlying issues, unresolved conflicts, hidden motivations.

Did you have non-editors read your book for feedback (Alpha/Beta Readers)? What did you get out of that?

Most definitely! Depending on the genre and age level, I work with fellow writers and age-appropriate readers to have them read the story and provide comments. The writers may or may not be children’s writers, and while their focus may be different, their understanding of craft provides invaluable insight, especially given my intense involvement with my characters and their story. But craft aside, I find the younger readers to be better at offering an honest take on the story, how it makes them feel, what does or doesn’t work, and how they relate to the characters.

Who designed your cover? How much input did you have? How important is the cover design?

I contracted with an artist, Matt Tyree, to design my cover. While I provided a general overview of my own ideas, I allowed Matt to determine what he felt would work. And it was, in a word, WOW. He tapped into every subtle part of Priscilla’s character and brought her to life in living color.

How did you go forward with publishing? Why? How was that experience?

Given my memberships in SCBWI and Children’s Book Insider and my long-time association with the Institute for Children’s Writers, I tapped into their resources and explored the avenues open to me for publishing my story. I attended conferences, had my manuscript critiqued by editors and agents, poured through the lessons offered within CBI’s Writing Blueprints programs, and researched both traditional and self-publishing options. In the end, I chose self-publishing, as I wanted to experience every part of the process from pre- through post-publication.

How have you marketed your first book?

I created a trailer, which I posted on my website, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, followed by tweets and posts of the book cover and some of the illustrations with a short caption—all to generate initial interest. Post-publication, I’ve boosted communication on Priscilla’s Facebook page to reach a larger market base, secured professional reviews, and I’ve donated copies to local reading programs and organizations as well as libraries in Burundi, Kenya, and Zambia.

How was the initial feedback from readers?

By the time The Word Collector was available, I already had followers on Priscilla’s FB and Twitter pages. Reviews have all been positive, including those I’ve gotten from the younger set.

How have sales been on your first book? Did they go as expected? What helps you the most to sell books?

Initial sales were strong, and the book was well received. While sales have slowed, they are steady. In all, I’ve learned a lot by the process, and am still learning, information I’ll use as I continue to publish. Enthusiasm and reaching out to potential readers, I believe, are key in helping sell books. Exposure, as in public readings in a local venue and an online presence, help maintain visibility. What’s important is that my simple concept book, which blends a love of language with character traits of friendship and compassion, is being read (and enjoyed) by children. This past year, I joined the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) and OnlineBookClub to access more in terms of professional reviews and marketing opportunities.

Talk about print vs eBook. Do you get more sales with one than the other?

Today, I believe it’s critical to offer several different versions of a book to reach a wider audience; minimally, a book should be available both as an eBook and in print. I decided to widen the choices to include print in paperback as well as hardcover, and am in the process of developing an audio version of The Word Collector, hopefully in time for holiday shoppers.

Did you set the prices of your print and eBooks? How do you decide how to price them?

After extensive research, I set the prices for both print and eBooks, building on the cost of production plus the average price of similar books.

What made you decide to write more books? How were those experiences (writing/editing) compared with your first book? Did you do anything differently?

Given the nature of my first book, I widened my potential audience with providing a workbook for parents and teachers to use in conjunction with the words Priscilla collects in her first adventure. The workbook includes puzzles, writing, and drawing activities to help children develop their own love of language and to think about such character traits as friendship and compassion. Following the workbook, I developed an activity and coloring book for younger children, which features several of the scenes from the story. As I have not spent a significant amount of money and time marketing either the workbook or the activity book, fewer books have sold by comparison to the original publication. However, I’ve had great feedback from those who’ve bought and used them.

Anything different in the publishing process for your other books?

While I have contracted with Matt Tyree and Jodie Walton to illustrate my book covers for The Invisible Realm and Foothills of the Gods, the interior illustrations are my own drawings. With The Prodigal Angel, all illustrations, including covers, are mine.

When did you consider yourself a “writer”?

I’ve been a writer since I first picked up a pencil at about age four and tried to rewrite the fairy tales and children’s stories I read using the brown paper bags and fish wrap my parents saved for our masterpieces. Between my mother's love of storytelling and my father's interests in mythology and science (especially all things cosmic), I grew up regaled with tales fanciful and grounded in astrophysics. It was the handwriting on the wall of my life.

When do you write? What motivates you to write?

As I am a retired teacher, my time is my own. I write and draw every day as the urges strike me. Motivation is usually from within, as my characters are alive inside me, and often impatient about my listening to them.

What do aspiring authors ask you?

I’m most often asked about where I get my ideas. My ideas come from everything I’ve seen, everything I’ve read, everywhere I’ve been, and the worlds awhirl in my dreams.

What advice can you offer for aspiring authors about writing, editing, publishing, and marketing?

To write, you need to read, read, read—and read some more, especially books in the genres and age levels that interest you. Don’t fear editing; it’s a necessary part of the process, and if you’re not confident in your editing skills, seek the assistance of teachers and other writers.

Publishing and marketing decisions are best made when you have all the information in front of you. Join professional writing organizations (SCBWI, CBI, IBPA, and ICL are the best for me), and read professional publications such as Writer’s Digest and Publishers’ Weekly to find resources on each phase of the writing process, from concept to publication and marketing.

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