My first published book (The Felix Activity Book) came out in 1996 (8/27/96, to be precise; anniversary greetings still being accepted). It was a trade book, meaning it was sold in bookstores. (Perhaps it’s more accurate to say it was put in bookstores.)
My second published book (and first “sequel”—Felix Explores Our World) came out in 1999, and it was also for the trade.
In 2000, I wrote two more books for the retail market, both for Dutton. (When one of them went out of print by 2005, I resold it to another publisher.)
Then over the next five years, I wrote about 35 more books…for the school and library market, also called the institutional market.
Institutional books are commonly published as a series and different titles in that series are commonly written by different people; each book in any given series must adhere to guidelines the publisher established specifically for it. Series I wrote for include We the People (American history), Endangered! (threatened animals), Atomic! (high interest topics from gladiators to vampires), and Countries of the World (countries of the world).
In between, I also continued to write trade books including What’s the Difference?, How to Do a Belly Flop!, and Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman. (Hey, at least one of those three titles does not end with a punctuation mark.)
I would’ve preferred to focus only on trade books from the onset, but for most of us, it takes time and luck to get to that stage. In the meantime, I considered writing school and library books my day job (without the insurance or Secret Santa parties). Even when it’s been a struggle, I always preferred sticking it out (after all, it was still writing) rather than going back to a salaried 9-5 office job.
When writing for the institutional market, some authors use a pseudonym. One explanation I’ve read: they reserve their real name for when they write a “real” book.
Put another way, writing for an institutional series usually precludes creative experimentation. To cover the basics for a wide audience, these books take a straightforward approach. An author of an institutional book most likely didn’t choose the subject from the ether; a publisher probably asked him if he would write on that particular topic. Sometimes editors say they want an institutional book to be written stylishly; while great in principle, it’s frequently difficult in practice because such books have inflexible parameters (i.e. fixed word count and limited vocabulary, and despite that, a relatively vast amount of information to be conveyed).
Some authors withhold their name from a work-for-hire book because the book doesn’t reflect the author’s voice. I understand this. But I didn’t do it. My name is on nearly all of my books. Just because a book can’t be written with personal flair doesn’t mean anybody can write it.
9/12/13 addendum: Message from an educator whose school hired me to speak:
I had no idea how many of your “bread and butter” books we had—gladiators, Green Berets, endangered tigers, Pledge of Allegiance—the list goes on and on! It lead to a great discussion with some of the older kids about things you do for passion vs. things you do to eat!
In part 2: why I used my real name on all but one of my books