How to pitch a knitting or crochet book: tips for designers

Thanks to the internet, and particularly thanks to Ravelry, what was once an exclusive world of knitting and crochet design has now become a republic filled with fresh, new talent.

The possibilities for publishing and publicizing individual patterns have expanded online — not only through Ravelry, but also on Etsy, Craftsy, and a multitude of excellent online knitting magazines like Twist Collective. However, at the same time, the opportunities for print publishing appear to be shrinking. Print publishing is going through very hard times these days, as anyone knows who has followed the fate of newspapers, university presses, and trade publishers.

In other words, as the number of craft designers who want to publish books is expanding, the opportunities for them are in some ways contracting.

I don’t mean to be discouraging, and certainly there are still publishers (like the one that I work for) seeking out innovative ways to navigate the brave new book market. But if you want a chance to get heard when pitching your pattern book idea to a publisher, now more than ever you’re going to have bring your A game.

Having been in the shoes of both author and editor of knitting pattern books, let me offer some advice on how best to pitch a book idea:

  1. Follow instructions. It’s sad but true that many prospective authors don’t do this. Just like when you’re answering a call for designs from a magazine, you should read whatever guidelines the press offers for proposals and follow them to the letter. If you can’t pay attention to detail when writing a proposal, you’re not going to inspire confidence that you can produce a polished book project.
  2. Be as specific and concrete as possible. Editors want to know your big vision, but we also want to see that you have already swatched and sketched, and thought through the nitty-gritty details of what your collection will look like, even how it might be styled and photographed.
  3. Show that you know what the hell you’re doing. Before you pitch a book idea, you should have substantial experience with publishing individual patterns, even if all those patterns are self-published. However, the publisher will be even likelier to think you would be good to work with if you can show that you have already worked with other editors, such as at a knitting magazine. Either way, you should already have a solid, working knowledge of how the design process works from conception to swatching, pattern writing, grading, tech editing, test knitting, and styling and photography.
  4. Provide a snapshot of your audience and how to reach them. Your job as author does not end when your book is published. No matter how big your publisher is, you will likely be the main engine behind the publicity and marketing for your book. (Get those images of the fully paid book tour junket out of your head. Hardly anybody gets those anymore.) Even at the proposal stage, you should be able to provide a detailed picture of who the audience is for your book. Are there similar, successful books that you can point to that reach a similar audience? Are there related designs on Ravelry that have garnered huge popularity? Do you have a blog — or are there similar blogs — that have loyal followings? Are there clear channels for reaching this audience when publicizing the book? You should have answers to all of these questions ready to hand when pitching your book idea. Be able to demonstrate that there are people out there hungry for what you have to offer.
  5. Think of creative ways to engage the online world with your book. Publishers are desperate to figure out how to take better advantage of online technology, but most are ridiculously uncreative about how to do it. When thinking about what you can do with your book, be imaginative — as wildly imaginative as possible — about how you could connect your book to online technologies. Could your book be made available digitally, perhaps in app form? Could you use a Kickstarter campaign or similar online tool to help cover some of the upfront costs on your book? (Remember, publishers are strapped for cash these days — you might need to help raise funds to carry out your vision.) Could you create technique videos to go along with your book and post them to YouTube? Could you create a promotional video like this gorgeous one to lure readers into the world of your designs? What else could you dream up that would take your idea beyond the traditional limits of published knitting and crochet designs?

Any other tips to share? Do you have questions?

TNNA: Travel tips for the new designer

Last month I attended the big summer TNNA convention for the first time. TNNA stands for The National Needlearts Association, which runs quarterly trade shows for the yarn industry. It’s where producers of knitting, crochet, and needlepoint goods go to ply their wares to yarn and craft store owners.

More and more these days, independent designers attend the meeting as well. While I went primarily as an exhibitor (as part of the Cooperative Press crew, I was helping to run that booth), I also got to spend some time wandering the floor as a knitwear designer.

Rather than tell you about all the great people I met and the great goodies I brought home, I thought I might share some lessons that I learned about how best to approach this convention when you’re a designer.

  1. Above all, learn the etiquette. To paraphrase a bad self-help book, the yarn companies are just not that into you. They love working with independent designers, but they did not spend thousands of dollars to come to Columbus, Ohio, primarily to give you free bags of yarn and talk about your latest design line. They came to sell yarn to store owners. It’s best to visit a booth when it’s not overrun with paying clients, which generally means it’s best to stay through Sunday and Monday of the show if you can; those are much less busy days. Do not interrupt any conversations and do not act like you are entitled to anything. It’s ridiculous in some ways to even have to say these things, but you would be amazed how sometimes designers act like they’re the gravitational center of the universe.
  2. Bring samples of your work. If you have received yarn support in the last year from any companies that are exhibiting at the show, contact them in advance and ask if they would like you to bring your knitted/crocheted sample for them to display in their booth. Ask, too, if you should bring some means of displaying the garment (e.g., a head form for a hat, or a hanger for a sweater). Label the garment clearly with your and the pattern’s name and your web site. And remember to go pick up your materials at the end of the show! (Ask me why I say this. No, no, I don’t have a hat sample hurtling its way to Uruguay with the folks from Malabrigo. No, silly, I would never be so forgetful.)
  3. Bring lots of well-designed business cards. I have never traded more business cards in my life than I did at this show. Have at least a couple hundred cards with you. And if you’re a designer, for pete’s sake have well-designed cards. The look of your cards say a lot about your aesthetic eye and your attention to detail. I ordered my cards from Moo; I put my logo and photos of my designs on one side of the card (Moo lets you get a mixed pack, so each card can have a different photo on the front) and on the back of the card, a photo of me and my contact information.
  4. Go with some planned designs in mind. Many yarn companies will gladly give you yarn to swatch and even design a complete project with, but they will generally do so only if you have a specific project in mind for it. Come prepared with some sketches of planned designs, as well as photographs or samples of past designs.
  5. Cultivate the underdog. Shibui and Malabrigo have no shortage of designers who want to work with them and they are lovely people to work with. But I found that I had the warmest, longest, most receptive conversations with companies that are more niche-oriented (Buffalo Wool Co.), newer (Juniper Moon Farms), or not as in vogue (Brown Sheep).
  6. Back off the hard sell and LISTEN. People who work in the yarn industry love to talk about yarn and design, but they also like having human conversations. Show some interest in what’s new with the company and what they want to promote. I got some great inspiration just by asking yarn company reps what they wanted to see designed in their yarns. The Buffalo Wool Company rep that I spoke to, for example, said that while she loved the shawls designed in their yarns, they also needed some utilitarian garments designed for people who work outdoors in the bitter cold (hunters, loggers, etc.). As a designer of men’s garments, my ears pricked right up. I couldn’t wait to get home to sketch.

If you have never visited TNNA or a similar trade show before, I would love to hear any questions that you have — or if you have attended, any further advice you might give.

Knit design and photography

My friend Ellen having a good laugh during a class we took with Mary Jane Mucklestone on styling and photographing knits at Fiber College.

The webiverse has been having a number of informative discussions about how to take better photographs of your knitwear (whether you’re selling the finished goods or the pattern). Here’s a reading list for you:

There are lots of other people who have written on this issue, but let’s just call this a recent, representative list. Another time, I’ll collect some materials for you on the entirely separate challenge of photographing kids in knits.

Fun with interchangeable needles

I could say to you that I love interchangeable needle sets because they are more cost-effective than buying each size needle individually. But that would be a big, fat, Fritos-eating lie. They are more cost-effective, but that is not why I love them.

No, I love interchangeable needle sets because I also love Legos. Pieces! That fit together! And then can be taken apart! And put back together again in new ways! I never get tired of it! Nor, apparently, do I tire of exclamation marks!

But perhaps you do!

So much does the interchangeability of the pieces intrigue me that I’ve stumbled upon a few tricks that you can do with these sets. Some of these I picked up from others, and some of these you have perhaps figured out on your own.

  1. We may as well start with the obvious, just in case it isn’t obvious: Let’s say you need to change needle sizes mid-project, like when you’re switching from ribbing to stockinette. With fixed needles, you would need to knit the stitches onto a new needle. With interchangeables, you can simply change the tips on the very cord that’s holding your project.
  2. But you can also change cord length. Let’s say you start knitting a hat on a 20″ needle and now you want to switch to a 16″ length. You could simply knit the next round on the new length, as above, but why? You’re switching because the stitches are already too tight around the needle, yes? Why muddle through one more round, cursing your fumbly fingers? Instead, pop the needle tip off the right end of the needle you’re using, and pop it onto the new cord length. So you’ll have one of your size 6 tips (say) on the old cord, and the other size 6 tip on the new cord. The other end of each cord is left bare. Work the next round onto the new cord length. Just watch to make sure the stitches don’t go flying off the exposed ends. When you have gotten all the stitches onto the new cord length, switch over the other needle tip. Hey presto.
  3. Do you have the common problem where your purl stitches are looser than your knit stitches? If you’re knitting stockinette back and forth on an interchangeable circular, try putting a needle size smaller onto the end of the cord that you use to purl your stitches.
  4. This trick is specific to the KnitPicks interchangeable sets, but works with any of them (metal, wood, or plastic). In fact, I picked up this tip from the business’ owner, Kelley Petkun, on her podcast. There’s a tiny little hole near the join on KnitPicks interchangeables. Next time you’re knitting lace on one of these needles, use that hole to create a lifeline. Simply thread some dental floss or embroidery thread through that little hole before you begin your next row. Then work across the row as usual, and the floss will pull right through that row as you knit. Instant lifeline.

Got any good tips of your own?

What designers can learn from working in a yarn store, part 2

Yesterday’s post was a huge hit. In fact, I have never had so many visits to my site in one day. So you have inspired me to follow up sooner than I had planned with more tips for knitting and crochet designers that I have learned from working in a yarn store.

  1. Ravelry is about to blow LYS pattern sales wide open. Get your house in order: Ravelry is currently beta-testing a program that will allow LYSes to sell patterns to their customers directly from Ravelry. If you are a designer (or shop owner), you need to go read this post and the linked documents, and then go get your shop set up for when the program is opened up to all yarn stores. Not everyone is going to want to participate, but soon you need to make a deliberate decision one way or the other.
  2. Get thee to a niche: When a yarn store customer asks me about lace patterns, my reptile brain moves my hand toward the Anne Hanson binder. When I’m asked for a sock pattern, my thoughts reflexively go to Cookie A, Cat Bordhi, and Wendy Johnson. You want cute knitted monsters? Why, Rebecca Danger, of course. There are a lot of knitting and crochet designers out there right now. You can design a little of everything and risk not being known for anything in particular. Consider specializing and maybe one day it will be your name the LYS clerk thinks of when her customer wants to knit his teenage son a cardigan.
  3. Keep your design samples: You need to be the meticulous curator of your own little museum. Those samples that you knit up of your own designs are precious artwork. Someday you may be asked to do a trunk show at your LYS or even TNNA, and you need to have samples to show. You might even loan out your samples to your LYS in order to help pattern sales. This may all sound preposterous now that you have two designs to your name, but we are all starting somewhere.
  4. Don’t over-design: There is most definitely a market for complex designs. Witness the craze over Jared Flood’s Rock Island shawl, for example. But then, on any given day, go and look each of the patterns listed in the “most active recently published designs” list on Ravelry. Go on, I’ll wait…. Notice anything? They are all (or almost all) rather basic designs, aren’t they? I mean no disrespect to these designers by saying this, either. Quite the contrary: it takes great talent to create a design that is simple to knit but looks fantastic. As Michael Kors is so fond of pointing out on Project Runway, the best clothing design is well edited. It’s glamor that looks effortless. That’s what people want to knit and crochet. It’s also what they want to wear.

[Click here for part 1 in this series.]

What designers can learn from working in a yarn store

Over the past couple of years, I have been working out how to support myself financially as a knitter. Knitwear design — my main love — is not very difficult to break to, but very tough to earn a living at. Interestingly enough, teaching knitting can be more lucrative, but also more sporadic.

So I decided to try my hand at working in one of our local yarn stores, Hill Country Weavers. It’s an amazing shop: the owner, Suzanne, opened it 30 years ago, and it’s now an emporium of yarn treasures, both workhorse and precious. While I won’t be working there full time for the foreseeable future (the timing just didn’t work out for either me or the store) I did learn some important lessons from working in this lovely shop — lessons that have been valuable to me as a knitting designer and teacher.

  1. Knitters and crocheters are impulse buyers: We are magpies. We see the shiny and we wants it. Over and over again, I saw customers pick up well-finished, well-displayed samples and ask for the pattern and yarn it was made with. If you want that same response to your designs, make your photography so luscious the viewer will want to eat it and your materials list easy to find and read.
  2. Did I mention we like the shiny? If you wholesale your patterns, send them out in an attractive binder. HCW has dozens of pattern binders, but a few that stand out and are frequently grabbed — the ones with the nice three-ring binders. I’m looking at you, Churchmouse Yarns.
  3. Yarn substitution is happening everywhere — aid and abet it: While many knitters and crocheters want to use the exact yarn — even the same color — used in the pattern, there are many others who want to substitute another yarn. Often this happens because the store, as big as it is, doesn’t carry the specific yarn called for in the pattern. If you can, in your pattern recommend a couple of substitute yarns that you think would work well. At least one of these yarns should be a yarn that is widely available and relatively inexpensive. Do this, and you will sell more patterns and have more successful projects posted online.
  4. Make it easier for teachers to teach your projects: In my limited experience, technique-based classes fill up more than project-based classes. But teachers of technique-based classes often still want a project for their students. On Ravelry, make sure to include any techniques used in your pattern, both in the tags and in the description. That way, a teacher can find your pattern more easily and use it as a project for her class. To make your pattern even more attractive, you might also offer a discount to classes and knitting groups over a certain size.
  5. Booklets seem to sell well: HCW carries a huge stock of books and individual patterns, but those often get passed over in favor of the booklet — that is, the 8-20 page, soft-cover collection of a dozen or so patterns. Think Ysolda, Stephen West, and all those wonderful Berroco and Classic Elite collections. In a bad economy, particularly, these seem to strike knitters and crocheters as the most attractive option. You get the economy of scale that comes with purchasing several patterns at once, while not having to commit to $25-30 worth of book.

I will post more lessons learned soon. [Click here for part 2 in this series.]

New camera!

Look what Santa brought me…

Well, Santa brought it to me in the sense that he had several members of my family conspire to give me enough money to go out and buy it myself. Santa would not have procrastinated on the actual buying part for more than a month after Christmas like I did. Santa is much more “together.” Then again, he has “help.”

The camera (a Panasonic Lumix LX5) I read about in the New York Times — it’s one of a new generation of cameras that are more souped up than regular point-and-shoots, but not as high-grade as SLR cameras. Basically, you can control more variables with this camera than you can with a regular point-and-shoot, and it takes much better photos in low light.

I was going to buy the camera online, but I noticed that there’s not much range between the highest and lowest prices online, which made me think buying local was a better idea. Sure enough, it’s true. I went to Precision Camera & Video here in Austin and got a great deal. For the same price I would have paid for just the camera at most places online, I got the camera, a case, a memory card, Photoshop Elements, and a free two-hour lesson on how to work my camera. I even had a sales clerk who didn’t treat me like a stupid girl.

Here’s a snapshot I took of my kiddo at the playground. I love how crisp everything is. I want to bite my photos like so many apples.

By the way, see all those kids who have climbed up into the inside of the roof on that slide structure? They had found a spot where some kid had written the F-word several times in marker on the wood. This created much intrigue among the elementary school crowd.

If you live anywhere outside of Texas, you might be using similar language to curse my name right now, because instead of digging ourselves out of 10′ of snow, we are wearing flip flops on the playground. Don’t worry, you’ll get your chance to mock me about six months from now when we have our 45th straight day of 100+ temperatures.

Color palette generators

Oh boy, has the beginning of the school year kicked my butt with a vengeance. My first-year seminar began last Monday; regular classes began today; and I just taught my first knitting class at the Knitting Nest. Then I have at least five patterns to write between now and mid-October. Not to mention my two classes at Fiber College in a couple of weeks….

All of those knitting classes are new classes, by the way. Classes that I have never taught before and that therefore need planning.

Ha ha. Ha hahahahahahaha.

Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa…. KABLOOEY! (Splat.)

That was the sound of my brain exploding approximately two minutes from now. Could somebody please grab a mop?

But enough about my organ failure. Let’s get back to design tips and tools!

The tool that I’m going to discuss today, I found a couple of years ago. And then promptly forgot about it until just recently. I’m talking about color palette generators. These are free programs online that will take one of your favorite photographs (which you either upload or link to its web address) and generate a palette of colors from it. In other words, it pulls colors out of the photograph, spreads them out in distinct color swatches, and sometimes even gives you the Pantone number for it.

As an example, here is a photo that I took in March of some crocuses peeking out of the North Carolina woods, along with the palette the site generated:

There are many uses for this device, but among them is designing color work for knitting. Many people complain that they have trouble putting together different colored yarns for color work such as fair isle. This helps you out of the jam. You know you like this photograph. Now you can distill some of what works about this photograph to a palette that you can then use in a sweater or other garment.

Now go play!