Student Success Stories: Todd Sturgell

Todd Sturgell was one of the first friends I made at Storyteller Academy. He and I took Arree's first class together back in January of 2017, so I'm delighted to introduce him as today's success story and give away a copy of the picture book he worked so hard on in our class. 

I'm also grateful that he was willing to record a video explaining how he used QueryTracker to organize his (very successful) agent search and querying process. I'll include that video in this interview, so let's get started.

 

Myrna: What is your profession?

 

Todd: I call myself an author/illustrator as I feel that’s the most important thing I do now, and it’s the job I love the most. But I’m also a freelance advertising art director and copywriter.

 

Myrna: What made you want to start writing children’s books?

 

Todd: I’ve always loved picture books and have been drawing since I was five. As I child I felt that I’d either be a paleontologist or an artist. It just took a while to get serious about publishing. I started reading to my kids when they were just days old and that continued on one level or another until they were well into their teen years. When they were young, I’d make up stories and they remember those old stories better than I do!

 

Myrna: Thank you for making the following QueryTracker video for us! Would you be willing to expand on how you ended up with your agent? Do you have any advice to share? 

Todd: Be patient but be consistent. Make a plan and stick to it. I used QueryTracker to make a master list of all the agents I was interested in. Then I prioritized them into groups of five. I didn’t query any agents who wanted exclusivity (who’s got time for that?), and I made sure they were looking for author/illustrators. Then I sent out five queries every two weeks. If I received a rejection, I would immediately send out the next query on the list. 

This may seem counterintuitive, but my first two queries were not for my top two agents. I used my first two on agents that I had categorized as #9 and #10 on my wish list in case I made any mistakes while learning the process (I did).

For picture book queries, I’d say be brief and try to match the tone of your query to your story. If you’re book’s funny, be funny, etc. My agent said she reads the PB queries quickly since the manuscripts should be short and/or the dummies should be easy to read through.

If you believe in your story don’t give up. I almost did! My critique group (the amazing Picture Bookies) was so supportive and encouraging when I felt like throwing in the towel. Not long after that, my now agent reached out to me.

 

Myrna: Fantastic advice! Sourcebooks is publishing your debut picture book, Except Antarctica, in just a couple of weeks.  What can you tell us about your book?

 

Todd: Anyone who’s ever gone a bit too far to prove a point will sympathize with my MC. When the narrator explains that turtles are found on every continent except Antarctica, this particular turtle takes it as a challenge and sets off on an adventure. It was inspired by hearing and seeing the phrase “except Antarctica” over and over when my kids read non-fiction books and watched nature documentaries. There are so many kinds of animals found on every continent—except Antarctica!

One of my favorite compliments for the book’s concept came from author Annette Whipple, who tweeted, “I'm jealous that you found a way to write a book focusing on those two words so many of us have written in our informational books and articles. :)” 

 

Myrna: Sourcebooks has a reputation for marketing their books well. Can you share their marketing strategy for your book?

 

 

Todd: I couldn’t be happier with my publisher’s marketing push. They’ve worked really hard to get the word out to tastemakers, influencers and reviewers, specifically those that gravitate to humor and/or educational fiction. They’re also putting together a really fun trailer!

 

Myrna: That's great! What are your plans to promote your book? I know you did this fun video with Book Talk recently.

 

 

Todd: I think the hardest thing to do is weighing the benefits vs. time investment for each promotional opportunity. I’ve passed on a few things that I felt wouldn’t reach actual book buyers. And for other items, like the Book Talk video or my ARC unboxing, I tried to come up with ways to help them stand out. If you’re going to take the time to do an unboxing video, why do the same thing everyone else does?

 

Myrna: Good point! Has Storyteller Academy helped you at all? If so, how?

 

 

Todd: I would not be a published author without Storyteller Academy. I like to say that before SA, I didn’t know how much I didn’t know. Arree’s Making Picture Books class set me on the path that has led to my book launch in just a few weeks!

 

Myrna: Could you tell us a bit about your critique group?

 

 

Todd: The Picture Bookies were established through Storyteller Academy in 2017. We’ve been meeting ever since. They really are a special group of writers, and I owe an unpayable debt of gratitude to each of them. Leah Schanke, Deborah Bernick, and Joan Raymond are not just talented writers, they are also talented editors and reviewers— much better than I am! If you can find a group of smart writers that have a passion for the craft and for lifting each other up, you should consider yourself lucky! I do.

 

Myrna: Do you have any advice for our readers?

Todd: Always let critique and criticism simmer before responding—your first instinct might be defensive, but the advice could be right if you give yourself time to think about it.

 

 

Myrna: That's great advice, Todd. Thank you! What’s next for you?

 

 

Todd: The next book will be published by Sourcebooks as well, and the buzz for Except Antarctica has been strong enough that they’d love to see some elements from this book in the next one.

 

Myrna: I think that's exciting. Where can we find you on the Internet?

 

Todd: My perpetually-in-need-of-an-update website is http://www.toddsturgell.com

You can follow me on Instagram @sturgellillustration or twitter @sturgelldraws 

 

Myrna: Where can we buy your book?

 

Todd: If you’d like a signed copy of Except Antarctica, you can pre-order it from City Lights Books in Sylva, North Carolina!

You can also pre-order from your favorite local Indie bookstore, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon.

If you aren’t lucky enough to win a copy from Storyteller Academy, you can also participate in my GoodReads giveaway which kicks off on June 21!

Of course, the book debuts on July 6th and should be available in-stock or for order wherever you buy books. 

 

Myrna: Thanks so much for sharing your experience, Todd!

Book Giveaway!

Share something you’ve learned from Todd in a comment, and I’ll enter you to win a copy of Todd’s picture book, Except Antartica. This giveaway will close on June 30 at midnight, PDT. You can share this post on social media for extra entries. Just post a link (or let me know) in a comment below. 

If you’d like to read more querying advice from our students with agents (including Todd), check out this blog post.

Thanks for reading!

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Myrna Foster
Myrna Foster

Myrna Foster writes and edits content for Storyteller Academy and the WriteRiders Newsletter for SCBWI Nevada. She has spent a lot of time teaching and coaching children, including five years as a preschool teacher. She's also worked as a journalist, and Highlights High Five has published six of her poems.

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45 thoughts on “Student Success Stories: Todd Sturgell”

  1. Catherine J Lee

    I like what Todd said about being systematic in querying. I learned from him that sending to your last of the top ten agents first would help iron out the kinks in your process. I imagine that makes you feel less tense about the whole situation!

    I look forward to reading Except Antarctica to my kiddos and can't wait to get my hands on a copy!

    1. Thanks! What I didn't say in the interview was that I STARTED to query my #1 agent first, but was so stressed out about it that I kept postponing. That's when it hit me to go with one a tad lower on the list (still a great agent!) because I had built up so much pressure on #1. It worked for me, and I hope it's helpful for you.

  2. I liked hearing that the tone in a query letter should match the book. And good advice to query someone lower on your list so you have time to learn! Hoping my time with SA and my CG leads to success also. So inspiring to hear stories like yours! Looking forward to watching the other videos linked here and reading your book!!

  3. Stephanie Owen

    Thank you so much, Todd, for showing the inner workings of Query Tracker. I've never really considered using it before, but now I totally will!

  4. That was a great interview with Todd! I loved hearing his publication story. His Book Talk was very clever and his Query Tracker video
    very informative and useful. I also appreciated his advice on letting criticism set for a little bit before you react to it. I think he is definitely an author-illustrator to watch! I would love to win his book and can't wait to read it!. Thank you both!

  5. Hi Todd! I love the cover of your book! I know my 7 year old would love this book (and so would I!) I liked how you said not to instantly react to criticism. You’re right that the first instinct to react to criticism is to be defensive. However, if we take time to actually think about it, we might learn something from it.

    Thank you!

  6. Wowza Todd! Thank you for the insights on Query Tracker. It is so much more than its name. I’m so glad I heard from Myrna about this program & look forward to using it in the not too distant future. Your system of numbering & insights on agent consideration are new to me and soooo helpful. Congratulations on your book!

  7. I'm am SUPER EXCITED to see this book on the bookstore shelves and in MY hands! I remember when Todd first shared this story in one of, Arree's workshops and I loved it then. Can't wait to get my copy! 👏👏👏👏👏👏👏😁

    “Always let critique and criticism simmer before responding—your first instinct might be defensive, but the advice could be right if you give yourself time to think about it.”
    Well said, Todd. We have got to be open to criticism! It is essential to helping us grow!

  8. This was very helpful, as I am in search of a new agent! The video on Query Tracker convinced me to join at the premium level. I'm ready to continue my search on there, where it will all be much better organized than in my current notebook. 🙂

    Best,
    Shannon Anderson

  9. Comedy Gumball Machine (AKA Adrienne)

    TIP LEARNED:
    Inquire agents #9 & #10 FIRST in order to learn from any mistakes in the process before contacting Agents #1 & #2 on your wishlist.

    Great advice indeed as I'm just starting out searching for agents. With high hopes, I entered the TwitterPitch contest on June 17th, 2021 with two of my strongest stories, and although it was encouraging to receive a positive comment from another writer, I didn't receive anything from any of the agents so far, which has taken the wind out of my sails just a bit. But just as Todd was encouraged by his colleagues to continue trying, I am, too by reading this article, so thank you for posting it along with the opportunity to win a copy of Todd's book! I'd really love to win it since comedy is right up my genre! 😁😉

  10. Thank you Myrna and Todd! I find Storyteller Academy useful for just this sort of thing! The extras are insightful for newcomers and veteran illustrators from outside the children's picture book industry, like myself.

  11. Cody Hoskisson

    Some of the most important things I learned from this article were things that were not said directly. Namely that you have multiple give-aways, a specific website for pre-orders, multiple locations (online and physical) from which people can buy the book, and several places that are advertising. Most of those, you suggested, were actions taken by your publisher. So, the end advice from that onfo is to find a good publisher!

    Also, I really loved the comment about letting criticism simmer before reacting.

    1. Yes! My publisher (Sourcebooks) isn't one of the biggest but they work really hard to tailor their marketing for each book's strengths.
      Making the book available for pre-order everywhere was definitely taken care of by the publisher. However, setting up a local shop to sell signed copies (with free shipping) for pre-order was my doing.

      The publisher sent me a stack of Advance Reader Copies (ARCs, softcover versions for promotional use) and I visited all of the local book stores and asked to talk to their children's book buyer. I gave each of them an ARC and talked up the book and made sure to inquire about their author events. I also took ARCs on a couple of short trips I recently made and stopped in at bookshops along the way to give them out.

      Note, it's important to say up-front that you are traditionally published. Most independent book stores have a very specific process for self-published books.

    1. Thank you, Abi! It was fun to make. I had the idea in winter – WAAAY before the box arrived so I made a fake dust jacket and had it ready in case we got some snow. Luckily we did! I shot the last scene first and the first scene last when the box arrived. The other clips were free stock videos.

  12. I learned the value of stepping back from critique feedback and coming back to it later. This would also give you time to process the feedback in the back of your mind before reviewing it. Thank you!

  13. Great interview 👍 When I’m ready for this step of querying agents I’ll definitely refer back to this. I like the approach of not querying top agent picks first. Thanks for sharing.

  14. First of all, I absolutely love the premise of this picture book! Second, I like how Todd didn't query his top picks for agents first, but instead decided to try querying different ones first in case he made mistakes in the process. We're always told first impressions matter, and that's an important thing to keep in mind before rushing to query without making sure you're showing your best self and best work in the query.

  15. Elizabeth Moore

    Wish you the best on this delightful book. I love humor in any picture books for children. You really drove a point home for me when you pointed out that you should let critiques and criticisms simmer before taking them to heart. Also just take your time. Thank you and best wishes.

  16. Thanks, Todd and Myrna! Having real people talk about real writing stuff is perfect for those of us moving in that direction and may be a bit hesitant.

    As to Todd, my main takeaway was “persistence and patience.” When I saw all of the checks from his accumulated list, my first thought was: “Wow, Todd is wonderfully persistent and patient!” I suspect the overall process is a challenging thing, waiting for potential agents to respond, knowing that most of them will probably say, “Thanks but no thanks.”

    Again, thank you! I appreciate these videos to spur me on….

    Darrel

  17. I learned the value of using Query Tracker when querying agents. And it's always helpful to be reminded not to give up when trying to find an agent! I also loved Todd's unconventional and funny unboxing video!

  18. I love the advice about letting criticism simmer so you can get past that instinct to be defensive and really think critically about whether that feedback might actual improve your book!

  19. Deborah Vander Eyk

    The information Todd shared about looking for an agent was helpful. Also some of his tips like being patient with the process of writing but consistant with making the process happen, helped me recognize my process and what I need to work on. I love Todd's video. I thought it was well thought out and unique. It sold me on his book “Except Antartica” and made me want to read it, to a group of kids of course
    Thanks for sharing Todd's story.

  20. Thank you for the great information, Todd. You instructions were easy to follow. I wish you the best with your book and hope to see more soon.
    Susan Oyler

  21. Debbi Robertson

    Congratulations Todd! Thanks for all of the useful information and I hope you have fun with the promo phase too. Maybe that will be your next video??? Thanks again.

  22. Kathleen Miller

    I found this information insightful and also overwhelming. As a newbie to SA and picture book writing , I am learning that there is much more to becoming a published author then I first realized. Todd’s video will be very helpful to me in the future when I am ready to query.
    I can’t wait to get up to Barnes n Noble next month to buy Todd’s book! ( unless, of course, I win the free copy!)

  23. Finding a great critique group helps a lot on the way to the top. Kudos to those critique partners. Another winner from SA. We are happy for you and wish you more books to come. I loved the title, by the way. Give way to the turtles.

  24. Your book is on my list of “must-reads”. This was very helpful, and I too, would like to be agented as opposed to reaching out to the publisher myself. A solid agent will be your advocate. Especially being more of a newbie, having someone who believes in your work representing you is awesome. Thank you, Todd, for your teaching video and insights! I will look at this again when I'm ready to query.

  25. Pamela Bickford

    Todd made Query Tracker look like a too that I could use to navigate the daunting task of finding an agent and being able to keep track of who had been contacted and what their response time was, and to see what kind of responses they tended to send out. That helps in not taking the “not interested” too personally. I just need to harden my shell a little bit more, and keep trying! Thank you!

  26. Congratulations on your book Todd and thank you for the great tutorial of QueryTracker. It is easy to keep track of all the submissions and responses. The Book Talk video was so funny too. It matched the tone of your story. Looking forward to reading it.

  27. Carolina Uribe

    Definitely a inspiring story. I love the consistency and persistance Todd use in order to finds an agent. Also I think he was really open to learn in the whole process thatbhe was able to catch and correct his mistakes. I can't wait to have and read his picture book.

  28. Megan McNamara

    I thought I knew all the features of Query Tracker, but I did not! I learned a lot from this video. Thank you, Todd!

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