Have a question about
writing or illustrating for kids? Ask Laura Backes,
Publisher of Children's Book Insider. Just e-mail us a question using the
link below, and, if it's selected, you'll find
Laura's answer posted right here in a few days.
Remember, this will be
viewable by everyone accessing the page, so don't
include any information in your question you'd rather
not have the world at large know! :)
been told that a male author is likely to have his
manuscript read by a female editor if he conceals his
gender, using only his initials and surname on his
letterhead and in the byline on the manuscript. (The
advice came from a few female authors.) The ONLY
place where the author's full legal name should
appear is in the upper-left corner of the first page
of the manuscript, I was told.
I hate to sound like a whiney guy but whatever
happened to equal opportunity, especially in
children's book publishing?
I've never heard of prejudice against male authors,
especially from editors. In the children's book
field, the majority of editors will be women, but
that's just the way the business has always been.
Every editor I know judges each manuscript on its
merits, regardless of who wrote it. And, by the way,
many well-known children's book authors are men.
Think of Dr. Seuss, C.S. Lewis, Maurice Sendak,
Walter Dean Myers, Chris Crutcher, Gary Paulsen and
Louis Sachar, to name a few.
The only time authors may use their initials instead
of their first name is on the book jacket itself.
This is because in the case of certain genres, some
readers might be reluctant to pick up a book by an
author of the opposite sex. If a man writes a romance
novel aimed at teenage girls, for example, he may use
his initials. The same sometimes holds true for
middle grade and young adult science fiction written
by women, but whose main audience is boys. This is
more a marketing strategy than anything else.
So feel free to use your full name on your
manuscript, and let your work be judged by the
quality of your writing.
noticed at times several editors from the same
publishing company have calls out for manuscripts. I
have some stories that match more than one editor.
Each editor says to send it directly to them (the
editor). Do I send a copy to each appropriate editor
(multiple submission), send it to only one and if
they reject send it to the next one (if the call has
not been closed) or send it general and let them
worry about which editor might be more interested. I
am very confused on the appropriate protocol.
I know it can be confusing trying to decide which
editor at a publishing house should get your work.
You should send your manuscript to only one editor,
and if that editor rejects it, then it's considered
rejected by the entire company. So don't send the
same manuscript to a different editor at the same
house. Often when editors put out a call for
manuscripts they specify what kind of things they're
looking for (picture books, middle grade nonfiction,
etc.) If you don't have this information, then you
can call the children's editorial department at the
publisher and ask which editor specializes in the
kind of manuscript you've written. Don't give the
person on the phone the whole plot of your book, but
simply state the age group and genre (contemporary
fiction, mystery, nonfiction/science, etc.)
1) What would be the average time from a publisher
saying "yes we want to publish your book"
to actually being seen in stores or libraries?
2) What would be the realistic earning of a 1st time
published children's author writing for 4 - 8 yr olds.
3) Any differences in a Canadian author using a
Canadian publisher to using one from the US or UK?
If you're talking about a picture book that needs
illustrations on every page, it takes anywhere from
18 months to three years between the time the
contract is signed and the book is in the stores. A
lot depends on whether the illustrator is available
and able to start working on the book right away.
The amount an author earns on a first picture book
varies greatly by publisher, but the average royalty
paid to the author of a hardcover picture book is 5%
of the retail price. In most cases you'll receive an
advance payment against future royalties (a portion
of which is paid upon signing the contract, and the
rest paid when the revised manuscript is delivered to
the publisher). This advance can range from nothing (for
very small presses), to about $3000. Once your book
has earned the advance back in royalties, you'll
start receiving additional royalty checks from the
publisher. The total amount each book earns depends
on how long the book stays in print, and how well it
sells. There's really no way of putting an "average"
number on sales, as each book is different.
It seems that Canadian publishers are more open to
works by Canadian authors than those by US authors,
though most US publishers don't care where the author
lives. As for overall sales, again, it depends on the
publisher. It would stand to reason that a large
Canadian publisher might be able to sell more of your
books than a small US publisher. However, publishing
has become so global that I believe an author can
realize success from Canadian and US publishers alike.
If your book has any kind of Canadian flavor to it, I
suggest you start with Canadian publishers and submit
to US publishers only after you've exhausted the
possibilities in Canada.
I was reading one of
the excellent articles from Children's Book Insider
on characters. Mind if I ask a question? You speak of
point of view. You mention omniscient point of view,
and caution towards it. The book I am writing does
not have one main character, rather the main "character"
is a group/club of five boys and girls. Individual
chapters focus on one character at a time, [at most
two characters] but the entire novel doesn't really
have the "voice" of only one character.
Rather it's about how the group of individuals work
together to solve their problem. Am I in trouble
here? Will my novel lack a main character that the
reader can identify with?
There are several middle grade and young adult novels
that alternate viewpoint by chapter. And that's fine,
as long as each chapter has a distinct point of view
and it's clear to the reader which character is the
central focus of that chapter. In my opinion, this
technique is too difficult for a child younger than
the middle grade reader (age 8-12) to follow, so I
wouldn't alternate viewpoints for easy readers or
chapter books for ages 7-10.
If done well, books that alternate viewpoint by
chapter can be very effective because the reader gets
close to several characters. But they need to be
plotted carefully--you still need one primary plot
line that all the characters are involved in.
How do can I know
the correct word vocabulary to use for an Early
Chapter Book at about a 2.5 reading level versus a
chapter book at a 3.0 reading level?
Every publisher has its own guidelines for the format
of their easy reader and chapter book series. I
suggest you start by looking at books of both reading
levels and comparing the texts. You'll notice that
chapter books have longer sentences and paragraphs,
and slightly more complex plots. They may also have a
sub-plot, while easy readers usually do not. You need
to narrow down several publishers to whom you'll be
submitting your manuscript, and send a self-addressed,
stamped envelope for writer's guidelines to get more
However, I wouldn't worry too much about vocabulary
and sentence structure. The publisher will put the
final age designation on your book. The words you use
should be clear and straightforward, and
understandable within the context of the sentence.
Very few publishers rely on actual vocabulary lists
I am interested in submitting my manuscipt to a
publisher. I write stories for very young children (approx.
ages--1-3 yrs). I was wondering what my relatively
spare writing should look like in manuscript form as
it will only take up no more than two pages! That
would seem laughable to me. I am also a fine artist
and would like to illustrate them. Should I just send
a few sample drawings to the publishers instead of
illustrating the entire thing? If they don't like my
drawing, should I stand up for it (as I know what my
characters look like) or bow and hope for better next
If you'd like to illustrate your manuscript, submit a
black and white dummy with each illustration sketched
in, and then also include one or two copies of color,
finished illustrations. You can place the text on the
dummy pages, but also include the typewritten text
separately (and yes, it will only be one or two
manuscript pages long). You need to decide if you're
willing to let someone else illustrate your words,
and if so, mention that in the cover letter. A
publisher might like the story but not the art, or
may like your art and give you another manuscript to
illustrate. If you let the editor know up front that
you're willing to do one or the other, but don't have
to do both, you'll increase your chances of making a
I've visited your site many times, but have
never had a question to post until now. As stated, I
am having difficulties with my manuscript format. I
have written a picture book for children. I have read
a couple of texts in regards to my question, but have
not been able to find a satisfactory answer. I now
post it to you.
My story is written in verse. Do I still need to use
double-spacing? The entire text containes 522 words
and it looks rather silly, stretched out over eight
pages. Please advise me on the correct way to format
my work. I do not want to look like an idiot!
Yes, even stories written in verse need to be double-spaced,
so editors can make notes between the lines if
necessary. You can add an extra blank line between
verses so they're separated from each other.
Don't worry, editors are used to seeing short stories
I am just in the conceptual stage of several books (and
have never written a book before), and I have a very,
very basic question. In light of the fact that there
are hundreds of thousands of children's books on the
market already, with tons more in the pipeline, how
am I supposed to know whether or not my books have
already been "done" by another author?
That's a really good question, and the real answer is
"you can't." But you can try. If your book
is nonfiction, you can look up other books by the
same age group and subject matter through online
bookstores, or in the electronic databases at public
libraries (type in your topic under "key words").
You can do the same thing for fiction, which broad
key words like "moving to a new neighborhood"
or "grandparents." You can also look in the
subject guide of Children's Books in Print, available
at the library.
But remember, no one can copyright an idea. Chances
are that whatever idea you have has been addressed by
someone before, but not in the way you're going to do
it. So unless you're deliberately basing your book on
one that's already been published, your story will be
I have a background in children's poems and picture
books, but I'm in the midst of writing my first
middle grade chapter book and I have a few questions:
1. What is the average amount of chapters in a middle
grade chapter book, and how many pages are there per
chapter, generally speaking?
2. Is there a distinct age range for middle grade
chapter books, or is the range somewhat flexible? And
what differentiates a middle grade chapter book from
a young adult novel?
3. Are light subplots ever included in middle grade
4. When contacting publishers about a middle grade
reader, is a query letter as well as a sample chapter
submitted, or just a query letter alone?
I realize this is a lot -- but I'd appreciate it if
you could address at least some of my questions.
Here are the
answers, point by point:
1. Middle grade novels contain about 12-15 chapters,
with about six to eight book pages per chapter. This
translates to up to 10 manuscript pages. This is just
a general guideline; your story might require more
chapters, but will probably fall within this range.
2. The traditional middle grade audience is ages 8-12.
There is also now an upper middle grade age bracket
of 10-14. The main thing that differentiates a middle
grade novel from a young adult book is that the
protagonist is 10-14 years old (most are around 12)
and so are dealing with problems and concerns of a
preteen, as opposed to a high school student. Middle
grade characters are wrapped up in themselves, their
friends and family. Young adult characters also think
about these things, but in the context of how they
fit into the larger world. Young adult characters are
stepping across the threshold to adulthood, whereas
middle grade characters are learning how to be
3. Subplots are a hallmark of middle grade novels,
and are what set them apart from simpler chapter
books for ages 7-10.
4. Most publishers accept a query letter along with
one or two chapters. Send for publishers' guidelines
to be sure.
Is it possible or
advisable to have a lead character who is an adult,
rather than a child, in a novel for kids ages 8-12?
It seems to me that many successful books involve a
lead character who is approximately the same age as
the audience, unless the book involves animals as
characters. Is it a generally accepted convention or
a rule that the character who experiences the main
conflict and changes in a children's book should be a
child? Or is it possible to have an adult as the lead
character if the supporting characters are children
and if the problems faced by the adult involve issues
which are relevant to children? Do you know of any
examples of any successful books for ages 8-12 in
which the lead character is not a child?
Your questions are very
perceptive. You've noticed that most books have
children as main characters, and that the conflict
needs to me something relevant to a child. As a
result, it's hard to have the main character be an
adult, though not impossible. Everything that comes
to mind as examples feature a prominent adult
character, but the story's still told through the
viewpoint of a child. For example, "The Pigman"
by Paul Zindel is about an eccentric loner, but the
story's told by two kids who befriend him. Even in
these books the adult is facing problems that are
relevant to the middle grade readers. So to give you
a firm answer to your question, no, I don't believe
an adult can be the main, viewpoint character, though
he/she can be a very strong secondary character or
even the focus of the book as long as a child is the
one telling the story.
submitted a manuscript for a picture book a year ago
(I did state this in my cover letter). This past
September a publisher wrote me a letter expressing
interest in my story and inquiring about it's
availibility. Since all the other publishers had
rejected it, I told them that it was indeed available
and I quit circulating it. This past February, I
inquired about my book's status, to which they
responded that they were focusing on their nonfiction
line and would get back with me once they had the
time to review their fiction line (no indication when
that might be). My question is can I continue
submitting my manuscript to other publishers until I
hear something definate, or since I told them that it
is still available should I withdraw my manuscript
first? If I submit elsewhere, should I notify this
publisher that I am doing so?
I suggest you send the publisher a note saying
they're free to keep the manuscript for review, but
you're also going to submit it elsewhere. Since
they've had it for six months exclusively, that's
fair. When you submit to other publishers, be sure to
state in your cover letter that it's a simultaneous
Several articles I have read recently advise that
italics should never be used in a manuscript prepared
for submission even though those words or phrases
would be italicized in the finished printed work.
Rather, the advice is to underline all these words or
phrases. Does this still hold true even though it is
so easy to italicize with a word processor?
I've never heard of underlining instead of
italicizing, especially if the words would be
italicized in the finished work. Go ahead and use
italics -- I think they look better on the printed
My ultimate goal is to publish children's books, but
I would like to publish in magazines as well. I know
publishing in magazines would establish credit for my
work and earn me a little income as well. My question
is, how does prose for magazines differ from that for
books? I know that each magazine is different just as
each book publisher is unique, but I'm looking for
general advice on writing stories for magazine
publication. All of my story ideas seem to belong in
picture books. Also, how do I determine which
manuscripts should be saved for picture book
publishers to consider and which should be sent out
to magazines such as LADYBUG which serve the same age
group as picture books?
I hope you can illuminate this murky area for me.
Generally, picture book stories rely on
illustrations to tell part of the story. They are
told through a series of actions, each action
requiring a different illustration. Magazine stories
don't rely on pictures; there can be more dialogue,
the setting can stay the same throughout the whole
story, and they take place over a shorter period of
time. Many magazines for young children do include
several illustrations per story, so the difference
between these stories and picture books can be hard
to discern. However, the visual aspect is always
there with picture books.
The best way is to simply read a lot of magazine and
book stories. Very rarely can a story work in both
markets. Magazine stories tend to me more internal,
whereas picture books tell a story that is shown
outside of the character's head (through actions,
events, some dialogue, etc.)
One of the writing for children books I read when I
first started writing said to put THE END at the end
of a story so that the
reader/editor will not go looking for more pages.
Lately I've heard that writing THE END is the mark of
an amateur and that the reader should know that the
story is complete. (I agree that the ending should be
What is the current preference of editors? THE END or
nothing? Maybe three or four asterisks centered
underneath the last line of text to indicate the
I don't think editors have much of an
opinion on this. If you'd like to indicate the ending
of your story in some way, I'm sure that's fine.
Whether or not you write "The End," on your
manuscript, the content of the last line of text
should conclusively end the story. That, and the fact
that there's no more type on the page!
I have been reading through your Questions and Answer
e-mails from your subscribers. It seems that everyone
is really concerned about all the rejection letters
they receive. I was wondering have you had much
experience with self-publishers. You see, I have some
really great ideas and my books are coming along
really well. I have shown them to parents as well as
children and everyone seems to love them. I am
currently looking into the idea of publishing them
myself. Could you share your opinion on this matter.
Thank you and I love your website,
I know several authors who have successfully self-published
their books. It takes a lot of money, time and
determination. The ones who have done well have
devoted at least a year -- full time -- to promoting
their book once it's published. If you have this kind
of time, as well as a chunk of money to invest,
you'll have a chance.
Of course, you also have to have a good book. The
self-published books with the best shot at success
are niche books; generally nonfiction (or fiction
that deals with a specific issue), they can be
marketed to a select group of people through mailing
lists, by attending conferences and conventions
directed toward this group, or being reviewed in
market-specific publications. For example, if you
wrote a book on adoption, you could purchase mailing
lists of parents who have adopted, attend conventions
for social workers and others who work with such
families, and advertise your book in newsletters and
journals that cater to adoption agencies.
You also have to be willing to really research
printers, book designers, book distributors, and
learn all the phases of the publishing process. Many
authors find this very rewarding. If this sounds like
something you'd like to try (and again, I caution
that self-publishing a quality book that can compete
with other books produced by large publishers is a
big financial investment), then I suggest you start
by reading two books: "The Self-Publishing
Manual" by Dan Poynter (Para Publishing), and
"The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing" by
Tom and Marilyn Ross (Writer's Digest Books).
I am interested in breaking into ghostwriting
children's book. I tried for the Animorph series and
got rejected. How can a writer break into the field
and what does it pay? Do ghostwriting credits count
with book publisher when you submit your own work?
Most ghostwriting jobs are with book packagers, who
create series such as Animorphs for large publishers.
These series are published under a fictitious
author's name, and written by several people. The
best way to break in is to send for writer's
guidelines from every book packager you can find. The
1999 edition of Children's Writer's &
Illustrator's Market even has a special symbol next
to the names of book packagers, so they're easy to
spot. Some packagers just want writing samples in the
same genre as the series you're interested in (middle
grade fantasy for a fantasy series, etc.) Others want
you to actually come up with a few chapters of a book
for the series. Most packagers will provide very
specific guidelines for existing series, including
character sketches, plot outlines, number of
chapters, number of pages in the manuscript. So your
best bet is to collect a lot of guidelines and then
see which packagers are looking for material that is
similiar to what you like to write. Then give them
exactly what they're asking for. If they like your
work, you may not be picked for that series, but
they'll call on you for future projects.
And yes, ghostwriting does count as writing credits
on your resume. The pay varies, but it's usually a
flat fee per book. A middle grade novel with a mid-sized
packager might pay anywhere from $3000-$5000 per book
on average. And don't forget nonfiction series. Many
of those are packaged as well. Or, write for
guidelines from nonfiction publishers who are looking
to fill out existing series. Often the author will
get his name on the book with nonfiction, which is
always a plus.
Yesterday a published writer told me that indicating
a copyright on a submission is the sign of a novice.
Do you agree? (I am, in fact, a novice at this, but
I'm assuming I don't want to broadcast that!!)
I don't think it's the sign of a novice -- in fact,
it's one of those standard lines that editors
probably don't even notice (like your name at the top
of each manuscript page; it's nice to have when
needed, but the reader's eye just bounces over it
otherwise). If it makes you feel more secure, go
ahead and place the copyright notice either on the
cover page of your manuscript, or on the first page
under your name and address in the upper left hand
Here's my question:
Now that California has voted down bilingual
education programs, how will that affect publishing
of bilingual books? When I was in Orlando last month
at the IRA conference, I heard a lot of "wait
and see" talk from publishers. California school
markets are so big, and other states often follow
their lead, it's bound to make a difference Could you
interview someone about this, perhaps an editor at
Santillana, Laredo, or Scholastic? Most of the major
school publishers have some bilingual publishing.
Those Spanish-speaking kids will still be there, no
matter what the politicians do.
The interview is a great idea! We're working on it. I
think California's ruling will affect bilingual
publishing, as sales to schools are such a big part
of these publishers' markets. Libraries are still an
outlet for bilingual books, but I don't see much
space devoted to these books in stores, and unless
that changes the publishing programs are sure to be
I am an aspiring children's book writer and I
currently have a manuscript being held by a publisher.
My question concerns submitting other manuscripts to
other publishing houses. Many publishers pay authors
by purchasing their work outright. I personally do
not understand the benefits of having my work
purchased outright from a publisher. Doesn't it
always make more sense to receive royalties instead
of having your work purchased outright?
In most cases, it does make more financial sense to
be paid in royalties. If your book becomes a hit,
then you stand to make much more money with a royalty
arrangement. Also, often when a work is purchased
outright, the publisher retains the copyright, and so
in essense owns the work forever.
It can make sense to be paid outright (also called
work-for-hire) if you're just starting out, and wish
to accumulate some writing credits. If the flat fee
you receive is equal to what you'd predict the
royalties to be in the first three or four years, and
if it's going to be a midlist book, then sometimes
the flat fee is not a bad deal (all of these factors
are things you learn as you study publishing and keep
track of the kinds of books that are selling in huge
numbers, and those that sell steadily but quietly --
called midlist books -- over several years). Also, if
you're working for a packager on an existing series (such
as The Hardy Boys or Sweet Valley High), then you'll
probably be paid in a flat fee. However, this kind of
writing can teach you a lot about plotting and
meeting deadlines, and many writers consider it
I have written and illustrated a children's
concept picture book. I have mailed it out to
numerous publishers after getting their guidelines
and recieved a few good comments but no one wanting
to publish it. However, one of the publishers I first
mailed it to has not responded yet and it has almost
been 4 months. I have sent two postcards where all
they would have to do is check one of the boxes as to
the status of my manuscript and they have not
responded. Finally I broke down and called them once
and left a message and still didn't hear from them.
What should I do next? I'm not even positive that
they got my manuscript since they didn't reply to the
postcards. I'm a little hopeful and also very unsure
as to what to do.
While four months is not that long to wait for a
reply from a publisher, in this situation it's a bit
strange as they haven't returned your postcards. I
suggest you call again and leave another message
saying you are withdrawing your submission and would
like it returned in the self-addressed, stamped
envelope you provided. Make sure you leave your name,
address and phone number on the message, as well as
the title of your manuscript and the date you mailed
it to the publisher. Then go about submitting the
manuscript to other publishers. It's possible that
you may never hear back from Ozark; your manuscript
could have gotten lost in the mail and the publisher
is too swamped to return phone calls, or maybe
they're not taking any more submissions and haven't
gotten around to returning manuscripts. But in any
case, I'd just write this one off and carry on.
In the future, if you have a similar situation with a
small press, you can check with the Society of
Children's Book Writers & Illustrators (email@example.com) or Children's Writer's &
Illustrator's Market (firstname.lastname@example.org) to see if they've heard if the
press is still in business.
I sent an article about a farrier to a magazine on
spec, acccompanied by all the pictures (copies) I
have of him.
If I use a different approach, etc. on the same
subject and send it to another horse magazine, can I
offer the same pictures? Or should I just say "pictures
are available" and wait to see what (if) the
first magazines uses?
I want to send it out a couple more times, rewritten,
etc., but hesitate offering the same photos. If
necessary it would be possible for me visit him again
and take a whole new set. What would you suggest?
As I see it, there are really two issues here. First,
you're trying to sell similar articles (which deal
with the same subject, though rewritten for each
publication) to competing magazines. I don't suggest
you do this, especially if you'd like to write for
the magazines again. You could either make identical
submissions to all the magazines (including identical
photographs) and say in your cover letter that it's a
simultaneous submission (then each magazine knows
another publication is looking at the same article),
or you can sell the original article to one
publication and see what rights they want. If they
buy first rights only, then you can go ahead and sell
the piece to another publication that buys reprints,
or rework the piece for another publication (a much
more likely way to sell it). If the magazine that
originally printed your article buys all rights, you
can still create a new article out of your research,
but it would have to be very different from the first
article (a different approach to the subject, geared
to a different age group, etc.). And just to be safe
I'd wait until the first article appears in print
before submitting any kind of new article on the same
subject. The point is, you don't want very similar
articles appearing close together in two different
As for the photos, I think if it's easy for you to
get different photographs, you should do that (if
you're creating a new article). That way the articles
are different in content and illustration.
I am unpublished in the field of children's books,
but have 14 years experience as a writer of technical
documents, particularly engineering documentation for
the EPA. While this experience may not appear
directly applicable to children's literature, it
represents my background in writing concise, accurate
research material under the constant pressure of
deadlines. I realize I cannot give a lengthy
explanation with every cover letter I send, but I'd
like your opinion as to whether I should make
reference to this experience when submitting
manuscripts. From what I've learned about the art of
writing for children, it seems that a technical
writing background--laced with a healthy imagination--should
be a good foundation for the often strict,
streamlined writing required in story books.
I look forward to your reply. And I love your website.
It never hurts to mention writing experience
in a cover letter. I think your experience applies
more to nonfiction than fiction, especially when
writing for magazines. Your description of "my
background in writing concise, accurate research
material under the constant pressure of deadlines"
would be music to a magazine editor's ears. However,
I agree that writing in a streamlined fashion is also
important for picture books, and so I think you
should mention your background briefly and
professionally (as you've done here).
How long do I have to decide if I want to sign a
contract? I recieved one, but am wanting to wait to
see if my first choice of publisher comes through. I
don't want to lose the contract offfered, but could
like to wait a few weeks. There was no deadline given
You don't want to wait too long, because you don't
want the publisher to know that you're waiting for a
better offer. I suggest you call the publisher who's
your first choice, and explain that you've received
an offer on your manuscript, but would like this
publisher to have an opportunity to read it before
you accept any offers. Ask the editor if she can get
back to you (at least with a preliminary "no"
or "maybe") quickly. Either the editor will
say she can't read it that quickly, or she'll agree
to get back to you within a few days. I don't suggest
hanging on to a contract for more than three weeks
without giving the editor some explanation.
This all assumes that everyone involved knows you
made simultaneous submissions with your manuscript.
If not, then you're in a position of possibly
annoying both editors. However, if you've been above
board all along, then if your first choice of
publisher comes back with an offer, you can politely
decline the original contract. It's better to go
through this juggling act before an actual contract
is drawn up (after you get the verbal offer from the
first editor), but sometimes things don't work out
that cleanly. And ultimately, you have to think about
your career. But be sure to be polite to the editor
you turn down, and thank her for her interest in your
work, in case you ever want to submit to her in the
1. I've had a number of picture books published, but
I'm in search of a new publisher. I'm confused by a
number of publishers who want query letters only. Any
tips on writing query letters for picture books?
2. I have completed a middle-grade novel, but again,
most publishers want proposals first. How long should
a proposal for a middle-grade novel be?
Thanks so much... love the website.
We're actually in the process of putting together a
new book on writing query letters and book proposals,
since we've received many questions like yours. We'll
announce its publication in CBI (February or March
1998 is the proposed pub date).
It is difficult to write a query letter for a picture
book, since the manuscript itself is so short. Your
picture book query should cover some basics: the
book's title, the intended age group, and word length.
These are often (though don't have to be) addressed
in the first paragraph. Your query should also
include a plot synopsis that is no longer than a
paragraph. This synopsis not only needs to tell the
editor what happens in the story, but also should
give a sense of the main character and your style of
writing. In other words, you want the query letter to
be written in the same style as the book. Think of
the synopsis as the jacket copy that is designed to
tease a prospective buyer into reading your book. For
example, a synopsis of a humorous picture book about
a day where everything went wrong might start out
like this: "Molly had no idea how bad her day
would be until she stubbed her toe while getting out
of bed. That was her first clue. Then she reached
under her pillow and discovered that the Tooth Fairy
had forgotten to visit her last night. Clue Number
Two. When she went down to breakfast and saw that her
brother had gotten the Secret Decoder Ring out of the
cereal box, Molly realized that this was going to be
the worst day of her life."
A proposal for a middle grade novel generally
includes a cover letter containing a plot synopsis (this
synopsis can be two or three paragraphs long,
depending upon the length of the manuscript), a
description of the main characters (which can be
woven into the synopsis or included separately) and
sample chapters. Generally, the first two chapters
are sufficient unless the publisher's guidelines asks
for something different. No matter what kind of query
or proposal you're sending, be sure to include any
past writing credits or memberships in professional
organizations in your letter, and be sure the
synopsis tells the editor how the story ends. They
hate to have to guess.
Several months ago I received a personal rejection
letter that welcomed other material as well as
guidelines in submitting more work. The publisher
also suggesting self-publishing the original work I
had sent him. In suggesting this, he offered his
publishing companies services. In reading this, I
thought it might have been a gimmick to solicit
personal funds. So I packed it away with several
other personal rejection letters- as I keep them on
file. Should I submit further work to the publisher
who suggested I do so?
In addition, I have recently been contacted by NAEYC
with positive feedback from one of their editors on a
piece I submitted to them. I am waiting for the green
light to publish my first professional article.
Several years ago I wrote for Newspaper in Education,
Gannett Newspapers- it was a dream job, but my
husband was transferred and I was out of work. I
ended up getting my Masters in Early Childhood
Education and presently teach kindergarten. However,
my heart lies in writing. Sometimes I feel like it is
the only thing I am meant to do. How/when do you
decide to take the leap into fulltime writing and
leave the day job? My husband and I depend upon a two
person income, but I feel a drive pushing me toward
my dream. I plan to pursue my writing in my free
time, but I have 4 children, so my time is limited.
This summer will give me two months to determine
whether I sign another contract with the school
system. Any advice?
It sounds like the publisher who sent you the
encouraging personal rejection was a co-op publisher,
which means the author pays a chunk of the expenses
toward getting the book published. However, since the
publisher called it self-publishing, it might be more
like a vanity press, where the author not only pays
the expenses, but also handles all the marketing and
distribution of the book. In either case, I suggest
you don't follow that route, or submit any more
material to that publisher. Though these are
generally legitimate businesses, they require a
considerable amount of money and time from the
author, things which most of us are not in the
position to give. I suggest you continue submitting
your manuscripts to other publishers.
As far as taking that leap into full time writing,
it's something that takes a long time for most
children's writers. It takes a few years of having
several books in print to generate any kind of
reliable income. I know it's frustrating when your
free time is limited, but I suggest you keep pursuing
the writing in evenings and weekends. Using your
summers to attend writer's conferences can be a great
way to keep you motivated, and your job in the school
system really offers you insight into what kids like
to read, what's important to them, and how to tell a
story from a child's point of view. If you look at
your job as research for your writing, you may see it
in a new light.
I suggest you also work on some magazine articles and
short stories. Getting published in a children's
magazine will not only give you good writing credits,
but it can allow you to see your work in print much
faster than through a book publisher. And since
magazines have very high standards for the quality of
the writing, it's a great training ground. Look at
the magazines in your school library, study the kinds
of stories and articles they want, send for writer's
guidelines from each publication, and then get some
writing in the mail. Patience and determination are
the two qualities that separate the would-be writers
from those who actually get published.
I sent a query with sample chapters and a synopsis to
a publishing house I've wanted into for a long time.
I think the book fits what the house does and now
they want to see the whole manuscript.
My theory with cover letters is be brief and to the
point. I usually write a short bit about the book,
then give my publishing history and a brief closing
line. In the cover letter I'll send with the
requested manuscript, should I re-list my credits,
tell them how much I admire the authors in
their publishing house and say more about the book or
just say thanks for requesting it, here it is...?
I know the book will sell if it's good and not if the
cover letter is perfect. Still, I want it to look
good and make me look good also.
I suggest you do re-state your credits in your cover
letter, since the editor may have forgotten or not
kept your original query on file. I don't think you
have to reiterate how much you like the publishing
house; it's assumed you wouldn't be submitting there
if you didn't. Do be sure to thank the editor for
requesting your manuscript. Good luck!
I have just started researching children's magazines
as an outlet for some of my stories. The guidelines I
received from one magazine state "We buy all
rights, including copyright..." Does this mean
that if they bought one of my stories, I would lose
all rights to that story forever? It sounds like they
would own my story and I would no longer have any
rights to it at all. Of course I don't want to lose
the rights to my creations. Could you please explain.
Also, I would appreciate anything else you could tell
me about submitting to magazines. Thank you.
The key to submitting to magazines is to study some
recent back issues to make sure your work fits in
with the magazine's overall focus, and then give the
editor exactly what she wants (which should be
spelled out in the writer's guidelines, especially
with regards to tone, style and word length). If a
magazine buys "all rights, including copyright",
it means that you are essentially selling your story
to them forever. However, in many cases this is
negotiable. If such a magazine does want to publish
one of your stories, call the editor and ask if you
can sell first rights only, or one-time rights.
Often, once the story has appeared in print, the
magazine will revert other rights back to the author.
But get a confirmation on this before you sign a
In some cases, the magazine won't budge, so you have
to consider how important retaining copyright is to
you. Though writers are taught never to relinquish
copyright, sometimes they don't intend to ever do
anything else with the story or article, and getting
a good publishing credit is more important than
retaining rights. So weigh the pros and cons before
saying no to a magazine who wants to publish your
story but insists on buying all rights.
I have just finished writing my first children's
picture book with the main characters as dogs. They
dogs talk to each other. Soon after writing I just
found this great internet site and saw that no one
wants to publish talking animals stories anymore in
the What's Hot and What's Not. I believe it is a good
story and teaches valuable lessons but Im not sure if
I should change the dogs to humans. What do you
thank you, Jennifer
Talking animals aren't completely taboo, it's just
that most writers don't do them very well. What's
important is that your animals have completely
developed, unique personalities and characteristics.
You need to develop these characters just as
carefully as if you were creating human characters.
Too many writers use their animal characters as
stereotypes, thinking kids will be immediately drawn
to them just because they're animals.
Everything your animals say and do should be a
logical extension of their individual personalities.
And give your readers some surprises. For example, a
rabbit might not be cute and cuddly; he may be
absentminded, selfish, or cunning. I suggest you read
some previously published "talking animal"
books to get a sense of what I'm talking about.
William Steig and Kevin Henkes are two good picture
book writers. Also, "Charlotte's Web" by E.B.
White (a middle grade novel) is an excellent course
on how to create unique animals characters.
Laura, I have heard
it said that rhymes are often appealing to children
and can even help aid in the learning process. If
this is true, then why do the majority of publishers
shy away from rhymed-narratives. At present, I have
completed four picture books in all; two of these are
stories written in rhyme. I am confident in the merit
of my work, but am concerned about this particular
sort of bias in the market-place. My question is this:
Are the majority of publishers so against rhymed-narratives
that my manuscript and others like it will be duly
rejected, never receiving a fair consideration? Or am
I over-reacting to the "general" submission-guidelines
offered by publishers? Also, when Publishers post
that they do not publish "poetry", does
"poetry" usually include rhymed-narratives,
or merely poetry in the classic sense?
Rhyming stories are appealing to kids, especially
those children making the transition from board books
to picture books. However, like using talking animals
(see the previous question) many authors don't do
rhyming stories very well, so many publishers have
made it a policy to say they're not looking for
rhyming stories from new writers. If a publisher's
guidelines explicitly say "no rhyming stories"
then you need to honor that. However, if it's not
mentioned in the guidelines, then you can submit a
rhyming story to that publisher.
Because every word must count in a picture book, it's
important that there be no wasted words in the
rhyming format. Many authors make the rhyme more
important than the story, adding a lot of extra words
and lines (generally long descriptions) simply to
make the rhyme work. They also rely on made-up words
(that might not make sense within the context of the
story) or cliches to keep the rhyme going. Action and
character development are key to any picture book
story, and this holds true for rhyming stories as
well. Take a look at "The Cat in the Hat"
by Dr. Seuss. The reader is pulled into the story
immediately, the problem the children face is
introduced by page 2, and every bit of the Cat's
dialogue shows us who he is as a character. This is
how you need to write rhyming stories. Another good
example is "Eric Van Noodle" by Arlen Cohn,
just published by Gibbs Smith.
I think a good rhyming story will get fair
consideration from any publisher who is open to the
genre. And "poetry" means poems in the
classic sense, such as anthologies or a volume of
poetry by one author.
I have completed a middle grade suspense thriller
that has been read with delight by everyone EXCEPT
agents and publishers. After attending a number of
workshops, panels, and conferences, I have learned
that the manuscript breaks some of "The Rules"
of children's publishing. First, although the target
audience ranges from 8 - 13, the book's main
characters are a cat and a dog who have a wide range
of human characteristics unbeknownst to their human
family - Rule 1: Stories with anthropomorphized
animals are for younger readers. Second, although the
book features anthropomorphized animals, a real
murder takes place . . . not gorey, but the character
does die - Rule 2: Stories that include an actual
death are for older readers. Third, my thirteen year-old
daughter is the book's illustrator - Rule 3:
Publishers don't like author-illustrator teams,
ESPECIALLY when they are family members.
I don't intend to be idiotically stubborn, but all of
the broken rules are there for a damn good reason.
Question: Will anyone publish a book with these rules
broken, or must I turn to self-publishing?
I appreciate any advice you can offer. Thanks, Ellen
You can break the "rules" but your writing
must be very good to do it. There are several middle
grade books with anthropomorphized animal characters
("Charlotte's Web" by E.B. White being one
well-known example), so I don't think that's a
serious problem. However, look at how you've
developed these characters (see my answer on talking
animals above). Another great example is "Bunnicula"
by James and Deborah Howe. If the animal characters
are completely unique and believable, and you don't
cross the line between fantasy and reality (can your
cat and dog understand human speech, for example?)
then that shouldn't be holding your book back.
Rule 2, the murder, could be a problem. Murders
rarely happen in middle grade books, unless a
character stumbles upon the murder after the fact.
Also, because of the talking-animal nature of your
book, it could be that the murder just doesn't fit
with the tone of the rest of your story. It is a
fantasy after all, even if it takes place in the
"real" world, and by its very nature your
story will appeal to the younger end of your intended
audience. Would it be possible to change the murder
to the disappearance of a character, such as a
Rule 3 is there for a good reason. Publishers have
very high standards when it comes to the art in their
books, and very often authors choose illustrators
whose work doesn't hold up to the art on the rest of
the publisher's list. While your daughter may be a
very good artist, insisting on her illustrations
could mean an editor will reject the entire project
if she doesn't like the art. It's not unheard of for
two family members to collaborate on a book, but I
suggest that if you want to submit your daughter's
art with your manuscript, you make it clear in the
cover letter that you are open to someone else doing
the illustrations. If you and your daughter are set
on working together, I suggest you try submitting a
few more times, and if you don't have any luck, then
By the way, we sell a book called "The Market
Guide for Young Writers" (see info on our Web
site) which lists many markets where your daughter
could get her art published. I suggest you encourage
her to submit to magazines and publishers who are
actively seeking work from young people.
I'm currently submitting
a picturebook manuscript that is of a metaphysical
nature--not religious, per se, more mainstream than
that. Here's my concern: Christian publishers seem to
want traditional, Bible-supporting stories and most
mainstream publishers reject it based on its
spiritual content. How can I best find open-minded
publishers that will consider a spiritually based
book for very young children?
Thank you very much-
First of all, it's important that you present your
topic to a picture book audience in a very concrete,
visual way, even if you're dealing with abstract
ideas. That aside, I suggest you take a look in some
smaller, independently-owned bookstores for other
children's books that deal with topics similar to
yours. The independent bookstores are more likely to
carry books from small presses, who specialize in
books outside of the mainstream. You can also look in
magazines that deal in New Age, supernatural topics
or Eastern religions, and look at the ads book
publishers place in these magazines. Even if the
publisher appears to only do adult books, you can
query them to see if they're interested in a
children's title. I don't like to categorize
metaphysical as "New Age" or "supernatural,"
but publishers of metaphysical books realize that
people interested in these areas might also be
interested in related topics, which is why they'd
advertise in New Age magazines, or magazines that
focus on Eastern religions ("Tricycle" and
"Shambhala Sun" are two Buddhist magazines
found in most large newsstands).
It also depends on how your story is presented. For
example, Dawn Publications (14618 Tyler Foote, Nevada
City, CA 95959) publishes nature-related picture
books, but their titles are very inspirational and
strive to enhance awareness of the connection human
beings have with the entire universe. I've also seen
titles along these lines published by mainstream
houses such as Harcourt Brace. Browsing through a
book store is really the best way to get some
direction for your submissions.
Laura, I am new to this chidren's book writing thing.
I have developed two manuscripts geared for age 4-8,
specifically focused upon two real life scenarios.
They are adoption and AIDS. I am planning to self
publish. A renowned private grade school has agreed
to have students in grades 1-5 compete to have their
illustrations published in this book. All proceeds
will go to two specific charities. Is this something
I should even consider shopping around to publishers?
or stick with my self-publishing idea?? Do you have
any further suggeations? I have already established
local bookstore contacts and media contacts
nationwide. I also planned on selling them during
back-of room sales or direct mail after my
presentations which occur 2-3 times per week
throughout North America.
Since you have some basic marketing ideas already
underway, and since your books deal with very
specific topics, your chances of success through self-publishing
are greater than someone who is publishing general
fiction. However, it's wise to do as much research as
possible before you take the plunge. Get realistic
figures from printers as to how much it will cost to
produce your books, and then add another third of
that price to cover your marketing costs. I suggest
you check out a book called "The Complete Guide
to Self-Publishing" by Tom and Marilyn Ross to
get an idea of all the bases you need to cover before
you make the final decision. Also, realize that
you'll need to devote a good year of your life to
marketing you books before you can even hope to break
even (assuming you're printing with color
illustrations, which are costly).
It never hurts to send the manuscript and
illustrations to a few publishers before you decide
to self-publish. I suggest you focus on smaller
presses who specialize in adoption and AIDS issues.
In "Children's Writer's & Illustrator's
Market" there are several small presses
interested in books on adoption. As for the AIDS
book, it depends on the story. Is it a story of a
family member who dies of AIDS? Does a child have the
illness? You might look under the subject index of
"Children's Book in Print" for books on
similar topics, and see who publishes them. If you do
end up going with a small press, your marketing
efforts will come in handy, as most small presses
like authors who can help promote and sell their
I'm a new subscriber and new to writing children's
stories, although I've been a writer for some years.
I'm wondering what you can say about character names?
Would a name that is too unusual, too ordinary, or
just a name that doesn't "sound right" to
an editor be cause for rejection of a story? Do
editors ever suggest a name change? Personally, I'd
be open to name changes, but don't know if it's worth
conveying this to an editor in a
I'd welcome any comments.
I don't think the name of a character is cause
for rejecting a manuscript, provided everything else
(the plot, the character development, the dialogue)
is well-written. An editor might suggest a name
change, but I wouldn't ask for this advice. Put some
thought into the names you give your characters.
Their names should be consistent with who they are;
their racial backgrounds, the time periods in which
they were born, the kinds of families they come from.
If you are writing a funny story, the names can be
funny, but in a subtle way. Something too outlandish
sounds forced, and draws attention to the name
instead of the character. A name can also be part of
the story. If your character was named after her
aunt, she may feel some sort of connection with this
relative, or some pressure to live up to her name.
One thing editors generally don't like is
alliterative animal names: Tommy Turtle, Charlie
Chipmunk, Sammy Snake. The name should be one small
part of your character development, not define the
I have read several different guidelines on how long
you should expect to wait before receiving a response
from a publisher. Do these time lines remain the same
for children's books whose lengths are much shorter?
(8-12 weeks?) Does a story seriously being considered
for publication take longer to respond to? What
should an author do if 10 or more weeks have passed
without contact? And finally, when a publisher
chooses a piece to publish how is the author usually
contacted by mail or telephone?
It takes anywhere from two to six months to get a
response from most publishers these days, and that
time frame is the same for a picture book and a young
adult novel. Submissions are generally read in the
order in which they are received, so sending a short
manuscript won't move you to the head of the line (however,
sending a query letter instead of the entire
manuscript might speed up the process). I suggest you
wait at least 12 weeks before contacting a publisher
(16 weeks is probably more realistic). You can give a
quick call to the children's editorial department (ask
to speak with an assistant) and simply say you are
inquiring on the status of your submission. Be sure
you know the date you mailed the manuscript. The
assistant will at least be able to tell you the
manuscript has been received, and if it's been read
or still sitting on the pile. However, if you enclose
a self-addressed, stamped postcard with your
submission, on which the editor can fill in a place
that tells you the date the manuscript was received,
and about how long she thinks it will take to read,
then you'll save the phone call (many houses are now
stating in their writer's guidelines that authors
should NOT call to check on submissions). The best
course of action is to put the manuscript in the mail
and forget about it. If you're working on a new
story, you won't be counting the weeks until you get
a reply from an editor.
Yes, it does take longer to hear if your manuscript
is being seriously considered, because it has to go
through several rounds of editorial meetings,
financial statements need to be drawn up estimating
the cost of producing the book, and the publisher's
sales force needs to determine if the book has
marketing potential and can be sold to the
publisher's bookstore accounts. So, sometimes no news
really is good news. If an editor is planning on
making an offer on your book, you'll generally get
that happy news in a phone call.
I am just beginning to write for children. I am
currently working on a series of children's books
that feed off of each other. I have been working
really hard developing several characters but I have
a problem. You see my books will depend heavily on
illustration. And I am not sure if I should search
for an illustrator or not. I have been told that
publishers look down on the idea of a writer bringing
in their own illustrators. Also could
you give me some helpful tips on how to find an
illustrator, if I am not successful at finding one.
Unless a publisher specifically states in its
writer's guidelines that author/illustrator teams are
welcome (where the author does not also illustrate
the book), or asks that the author suggest an
illustrator, it's not a good idea to find an
illustrator yourself. Publishers have very specific
"looks" to their books, and prefer certain
types of illustrations. Also, the quality of
illustration in children's books is so high that
unless you can find a truly accomplished illustrator,
it will make your whole project look unprofessional.
The text itself should draw enough "word
pictures," or imply enough illustrations (without
overtly describing every scene) that an editor will
be able to imagine the illustrations without your
providing them. If your text has so few words that
the illustrations are left completely up in the air,
that's fine too. As long as you're telling a good
story, then a talented illustrator should be able to
interpret your words and come up with illustrations
that complement and expand upon the text. However, if
you're determined to find an illustrator to work with
(or if you're submitting to a small press that asks
for the author to find an illustrator) you can call
the Society of Children's Book Writers &
Illustrators (818/888-8760). They should be able to
help you locate an illustrator in your area.
I seem to have clawed my way to the near the top of
the slush pile; I am now receiving signed,
personalized rejection letters rather than xeroxed
forms. Several of the letters have included favorable
comments, but so far I have received no suggestions
for revisions of the manuscripts, or requests that I
do so. My question is, if I revise the manuscript
substantially, can I send it back to the same editors
again? Or does 'no' mean 'no, no, never, never'?
Thanks. I am a new subscriber, and am enjoying the
site very much.
Congratulations on getting those personal
rejections. In publishing (unlike the rest of the
world) being rejected "personally" is much
better than being rejected anonymously. It's
frustrating, though, if the editor doesn't tell you
why your manuscript was rejected (that's up to you
and your writers' group to figure out). If the editor
doesn't specifically say she wants to see the
manuscript again, then "no" means "no".
However, she may say she'd like to see other
manuscripts from you. If that's the case, be sure to
send her something else, and remind her in your cover
letter that she requested another story. Even if she
didn't mention seeing more work, I'd still send her
another manuscript (provided it's the kind of thing
that publisher is looking for) and in your cover
letter thank her for taking the time to respond
personally to your previous submission, and say
"Here's something else I thought you might like."
It's never too early to start forming relationships
with editors -- this is often how the first sale is
Hi. I'm both a writer and
an illustrator, and I'd like to get into children's
publishing. I've seen a lot of advice on how to break
into one or the other career, but almost nothing on
how to do both. Any advice?
To be both a writer and
illustrator, you need to work twice as hard because
you have to be very good at both crafts. The same
advice advice applies to each skill: study books on
the market that are similar to yours as far as age
group, genre and style; read books on writing and
illustrating for children; and work to polish your
own writing and artwork. As a writer, you'll dissect
published books to see how the authors introduced
characters, established conflict, paced the plot and
resolved the story. You'll even look at things like
how many words are on a page and where in the story
the climax occurs. As an illustrator, study how other
artists expanded upon the words to flesh out the
characters and setting (and how they made each
picture in the book different even though they
illustrated the same character many times over),
which parts of the text they chose to illustrate, and
how they added details to the pictures that weren't
even mentioned in the storyline. When submitting a
story and artwork to an editor (which is who you
would submit the package to, versus an art director
if you were sending only samples of artwork), you'll
need to send a typed manuscript and a dummy of the
book. The dummy involves a detailed black and white
sketch of each page of art with the text placed on
the page, and two or three color copies of finished
You want to target
publishers who would be receptive to your story and
artwork. In other words, your whole book needs to fit
into a publisher's existing list. Sending a self-addressed,
stamped envelope for a publisher's catalog is helpful
(include $1.01 postage to cover most catalogs). I
also suggest in your cover letter that you mention
you're open to someone else illustrating your story,
as well as illustrating someone else's text. This
gives you more options for publication if the editor
loves your story but not your artwork, or vice versa.
How do you use/register a
pseudonym? I want to use a form of my great
Your choice of pseudonym is
not relevant when first submitting your manuscript to
a publisher, so I suggest you submit using your real
name. When an editor offers you a contract, you can
mention at that time that you'd like to use a
pseudonym. There will be a place on the contract that
says, "List your name as you would like it to
appear on the book", which is where you would
write in your pseudonym. If there isn't such a clause
in your contract, ask your editor to insert it. The
contract (and your royalty/advance payments) will be
issued to you in your actual name. Also, the
copyright in the book should be under your real name.
The publisher will take care of copyright
registration for you.