Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Writing Nonfiction for CRP: Lisa Amstutz Dishes the Inside Scoop ~ Christy Mihaly

Author Lisa Amstutz is an accomplished nonfiction writer who has written several picture books and more than 150 educational books. She recently put her science background to work to write Amazing Amphibians: 30 Activities and Observations for Exploring Frogs, Toads, Salamanders, and More, published this January with Chicago Review Press (CRP). It's full of kid-friendly facts and activities, along with amazing photos and educator resources.

Many GROG readers are familiar with the traditional picture book process: Submit manuscript, wait, weather a storm of rejections, and if you're lucky and persistent, eventually find an editor who loves your story, then wait for an illustrator, and perhaps celebrate publication a few years later.

With longer nonfiction, the process usually begins with a proposal. Publishers vary, but I was interested in Lisa's experience with CRP, so I asked Lisa some questions. Okay, perhaps it's fair to say that I peppered her with questions. Which she graciously answered.

Lisa on a visit to Vermont: Looking for frogs?
Christy Mihaly: At 128 pages and 30,000 words, Amazing Amphibians is longer than many of your previous works, and it's your first with Chicago Review Press (CRP).
What do you want readers to know about this book?

Lisa Amstutz: First of all, amphibians really are amazing! Amazing Amphibians gives an overview of amphibian biology, behavior, and conservation. There are tons of color photos in the book, and each chapter has three hands-on activities related that will be useful for parents and educators.

CM: Amphibians may not be everyone's favorite creatures on Earth, but your enthusiasm for them shines through. How did you get the idea to write this book?

LA: I had seen some of the other books in the CRP "Young Naturalists" series. They seemed like they would be fun to work on and right up my alley as a science writer. After studying CRP’s catalog, I brainstormed ideas for topics that they hadn’t yet covered.

CM: I've heard other authors recommend looking for a gap in a series or pitching to fill a hole in a publisher's catalog. It's great to hear you say that it worked for you.
Why and how did you pitch amphibians to CRP? Was there any back and forth with the publisher to finalize the book outline and treatment?

LA: I actually pitched several ideas to CRP, and the editor at the time was most interested in seeing a proposal for this one. I then wrote up a full proposal and sample chapter and she took it to acquisitions. The final book more or less followed that original outline, but of course went through several rounds of editing before publication.

CM: So you pitched before drafting a complete proposal, which saved time, and then you knew they were interested in your topic before you put in the work. Great! 
Did you enjoy the process of writing this book? How long did it take? How did you stick to your schedule and get it all done?

LA: CRP has been wonderful to work with! The process took about two years from pitch to publication. Writing a book this long can be overwhelming, so I had to assign myself a daily word count, allowing plenty of time for self-editing and peer editing before submission.

CM: I'm sure that discipline was an indispensable part of your process. And yes, I know how important critiques can be! 
Amazing Amphibians includes intriguing activities for kids. How did you come up with them? Were there series guidelines? Did you try all the activities?
One of the 30 activities in Amazing Amphibians

LA: I brainstormed activities based on the topics at hand, and used Google and Pinterest to look for ideas I could adapt as well. I hired my kids to test out the activities for me, which was really helpful! 

CM: Ah, nepotism! I particularly noticed the many gorgeous photos in this book--I think there are about 60 of them. How did you conduct photo research and select photos? Did you contact photographers yourself? And is this the first book you've done where this was required?
Lisa and friend photograph a newt

LA: Yes, this was the first time I’ve had to acquire photos. I found them all online. Some were free on Flickr, Pixabay, or Wikimedia Commons. Others I purchased through stock photography sites like Shutterstock and iStock. For a few of them, I worked out a purchase from individual photographers. The publisher required very detailed documentation of each photo source and permissions, which was a little daunting until I figured out the system!

CM: Whew. This might be intimidating to writers who haven't done it, but I understand it's part of the process for many nonfiction books. 
How were the book's artwork and design developed?

LA: CRP handled all the graphic design. I did supply rough sketches for the activities to show what I had in mind.
Fun Facts and Graphics in Amazing Amphibians
CM: Did you hire an expert to review the text and/or illustrations? What kind of expert background does CRP require its authors to have?

LA: I had an amphibian expert review the manuscript. I’m not aware of specific requirements at CRP, but I think having relevant education or experience is a good selling point for nonfiction topics in general. My science background definitely made me feel more confident in having the background knowledge to tackle this topic. 

CM: Compared with working on an illustrated picture book, were there additional challenges and/or costs involved in putting Amazing Amphibians together? 

LA: I spent a good chunk of my advance on photo permissions. Some of the photos were a challenge to track down—it turns out there aren’t a lot of photos of endangered species available. Probably should have seen that one coming! I could have gotten by with spending a bit less, but wanted the photos to really pop. So I consider that an investment in the book’s success.

CM: Ah. Note to self: Write about commonly photographed species. 
So Lisa, what else should writers know before submitting to CRP? Any additional words of advice?

LA: As with any publisher, study their catalog and look for holes you could fill. Check out some of their recent books to get a sense of their style, especially if you’re targeting an existing series. Their submission guidelines are on the website, so read and follow those carefully. 
Best of luck!

CM: Thanks, Lisa, for your words of wisdom. 
And best wishes and health to all our readers.

Lisa Amstutz is the author of more than 150 children's books, including Applesauce Day, Finding a Dove for Gramps, and Amazing Amphibians. PLANTS FIGHT BACK (Dawn Publications) will be released in October 2020, and MAMMAL MANIA (Chicago Review Press) in 2021. Lisa specializes in topics related to science and agriculture. Her background includes a B.A. in Biology and an M.S. in Environmental Science. She lives on a small-scale farm in Ohio with her family. 

For more information about Lisa’s books as well as her critique and mentorship services, see
And find Lisa here:
Twitter: @LJAmstutz


  1. Thanks so much — I learned so much from this post! The timeline, the pitch before proposal, and the challenges of photos... Can't wait to read it!

    1. Thanks, Susan! These were things I'd been wondering about myself. Thanks again to Lisa for sharing the answers!

  2. Photo research would kill me, I believe! Excited to read this book, though :>) Thanks for the backstory.

    1. Hi Laura! I know, it sounds tough! But wait till you see how beautiful this book is -- the photos are wonderful!

  3. My upcoming book with CRP is the first I had to supply photographs and permissions for as well! :) I love that Amazing Amphibians is so bold and bright with its illustrations! Thanks for sharing some behind the scenes for this one!

    1. Thanks, Annette -- and congrats on your new book!

  4. I always felt like I had 3 jobs with my CRP books— research and writing, photo research and permissions, and then the activities. Beautiful book, Lisa!

    1. I enjoyed finding out more about the CRP process ... it does result in a gorgeous book!

  5. I can't wait to read it. Thanks Christy and Lisa for some great information here.

    1. Thanks for this, Leslie. I think you'll enjoy reading "Amazing Amphibians."

  6. This book looks great! Congrats! And thanks for sharing your process. The whole photo acquisition process sounds daunting!

  7. great post - thanks Christy and Lisa!

    1. Thanks, Sue! And big thanks to Lisa for the insights and advice.

  8. Wonderful interview! Thank you for sharing your experience with us!

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Alisha. And in the event that you're interested in CRP, good luck with it!

  9. I really enjoyed this post and can't wait to get my hands on this book! Thanks to both of you.

  10. This looks wonderful! Fascinating, informative, engaging. Congratulations!

  11. Thanks to all for your kind comments!