At a recent session of the Children’s Authors’ Bootcamp workshop that I co-teach with author Linda Arms White, one of the attendees asked me how an author knows when her story is ready to submit to children’s book publishers. My facetious, off-the-cuff answer had something to do with a beam of light shining down from above, illuminating the manuscript. I then went on to try to answer the question in earnest, ending with, “The first time you think your manuscript is finished, it never is.”
There isn’t a writer alive who hasn’t wished for some sort of literary oven in which to place their manuscript, knowing when the timer goes off it’s done. Unfortunately, there is no such objective measurement for good writing. Therefore, the best advice I can give is to get as much input on your completed manuscript as possible before putting it in the mail.
Writing is a solitary endeavor, with authors carefully guarding their ideas and feeling tremendous ownership of the finished project. As they should. But in order for a manuscript to become a book, it has to pass muster with many people, from editors to sales reps to accountants to art directors. Once in book form, those ideas must then appeal to reviewers, bookstore owners, librarians and consumers, not to mention kids. No matter how stellar you think your writing is, if others don’t share your opinion, your manuscript will never make it farther than your file cabinet.
The first “second reader” of your writing is you. You need to remove your author’s hat and adopt the reader’s viewpoint. You can’t do this as soon as you’ve written the last word of the manuscript. Put some distance between yourself and the project. Take time off, start working on something else. Then read the work and try to measure it against what you consider to be high standards. Does the pacing compare to a published work in the same genre by an author you admire? Are the characters as fully developed as those by acclaimed authors writing for this age group? Does the dialogue actually sound like words real, live people you know might say? If you wrote an outline for your book, compare the finished plot to what you intended to write from the outline. Did you leave out any important elements? Did you add anything that’s unnecessary? If you’re writing nonfiction, did you do enough research, or did you have to pad areas with “filler”?
Then, take your book out into the world. The first stop should be your writer’s group. Ideally, this is comprised of people who are all writing and/or studying children’s books. Listen to their comments and take them seriously. You don’t have to make any suggested changes, but you should consider the reasons for changes offered by the readers. If more than one reader doesn’t understand a plot twist, doesn’t believe a character would act a certain way, can’t accurately visualize a setting, it’s your problem, not theirs. It doesn’t matter how inspired the idea is inside your head; if you can’t accurately communicate this idea on paper, no one will ever pick up your book. This process of frank editing and honest critique can take several rounds before the book is “done.” Ending the process too soon will only lead to frustration and rejection letters. Declaring “I just have to find an editor who understands my book” can be just as bad. Yes, a good author/editor fit is important to the success of any book, but once you decide you want to get your work published, it ceases to be a solitary exercise. You have to know that your story makes sense to other people, and the only way to do this is to get input from outside yourself and consider it carefully.
In the end, no book is ever really finished. I’ve spoken with many published authors who wish they could take back their books for one more run though the editing mill. Every time we write we improve our skills a little more. One final aspect then, of knowing when a book is done, is learning to walk that fine line between making it better and letting it go. Learn to recognize when a manuscript is as strong as you can make it, and then send it out and begin your next masterpiece
I often talk about the “rules” of writing for children and sending manuscripts to children’s book publishers, citing appropriate page lengths and story types for different age groups. A better term would probably be “guidelines”; these rules exist only to tell you what, in general, editors like to see in the manuscripts sent to them. And, of course, for every rule there are numerous exceptions. But while we’d all like to think our book is strong enough to override the guidelines, this is usually not the case. Here are some rules that shouldn’t be ignored until you really know what you’re doing:
Don’t Write Rhyming Picture Books
Yes, you’ve seen them in the stores and kids like them. But children also like non-rhyming picture books. It takes a great deal of skill and hard work to craft an original story, complete with unique characters, in about 1000 words. It takes a different skill entirely to tell that story in rhyme. If you’ve got it, great. But don’t assume that because your story is aimed at young children it has to rhyme. Always try to write it in prose first. After you’ve got the story on paper, decide if the rhyming format will add to the text. If the answer is yes, make sure it’s strong rhyme: it has a consistent meter, uses no clichés or extra words, and has a rhythm that is easy to read aloud.
Don’t Overlook Designated Word Lengths
No editor is going to turn down a great book just because the text length falls outside the average guidelines. If your young adult novel is as good as it can be at 100 pages, there’s no sense padding the manuscript simply because most YAs are longer. But length guidelines are there for a reason – -publishers have determined about how much text kids of different ages can read, and so it behooves you to try to stay as close to those guidelines as possible. And if you’ve ever tried to get a group of 4-year-olds to sit still for a 2000-word picture book, you’ll understand why editors are leaning toward shorter texts in the youngest age brackets. When submitting to magazines, it’s vital that you stick to the requested word limits because articles must fit within a finite amount of space on the page. Too long, or too short, can mean instant rejection.
Don’t Provide Testimonials in Queries
It’s nice to have lots of neighborhood kids read your manuscript and give you a thumbs up, but your potential editor doesn’t need to hear about it. Frankly, editors don’t pay much attention to testimonials from readers who may be family or friends of the author. Also, don’t clutter up the query letter with ideas for why children need your book or what they’ll learn from it. This is up to the editor to decide. (One exception: You’re querying a nonfiction book and can show that there aren’t any other books in print that cover the same subject). Keep your query letter tight, brief, and to the point. Provide an intriguing plot synopsis or nonfiction outline, relevant information about yourself, and include a self-addressed, stamped envelope. Sell your book, not your reasons for writing it.
Don’t Write a Series Before Selling the First Book
I’ve critiqued many stories from authors who say, “I’ve got six more books written with these characters. Should I mention that to the editor when I submit my manuscript?” My answer? No.. Unless an editor is specifically looking for new series proposals, and the books were written from the start to form a series, this is a bad idea. Realize that series are created as a group of books that are bound together by some sort of hook; in fiction, it might be a club the main characters form, a neighborhood they all live in, or a cause they champion. In nonfiction, it’s a topic (natural sciences, biographies) and an age group. Rarely do you see picture book fiction series. What does happen is a character may find popularity with readers and the author is asked to write another book featuring the same cast. These fiction “series” actually grow over time, one book at a time.
So, unless you’ve designed your books as a traditional series and are able to creaft a thought-out series proposal to the editor, stick to selling one book. When an editor sees you have many manuscripts featuring the same characters and similar plots, she may feel that you’ve invested too much time writing new material and not enough time revising what you’ve already got. And keep in mind that each book – series or not – must stand on its own. It needs a strong beginning, well-developed middle, and satisfying end. No fair leaving the ending incomplete with the intention of continuing the story in the next book.
Looking to send a manuscript to children’s book publishers? Here’s an easy three-step approach to help you find just the right publisher for your story!
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Before submitting your work, it’s essential that you study children’s book publishers‘ lists to find the best fit for your manuscript. Your first stop is Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market published by Writer’s Digest Books. Note which publishers do the type of book you’ve written, and are also accepting submissions from new writers. Then send for a current catalog.
Let’s look at the picture books from two hypothetical publishers:
Total picture books: 26.
Picture books by type: 8 talking animal stories; 4 concept books; 2 realistic stories; 2 humorous stories; 2 fantasy; 1 holiday book (Easter); 3 nonfiction (2 animal/nature, 1 religion); 4 poetry collections.
Age range of books: 6 for ages 2-5, 12 for ages 4-7, 6 for ages 6-10.
Types of authors: Established authors (two or more books published)–5; famous authors (significant name recognition/ awards)–11; reissues of classic books–5 (3 poetry collections); new authors–5.
Percent of list from new authors: just over 19%.
Total picture books:14
By type: 4 talking animals; 1 concept book; 2 realistic stories; 3 humorous stories; 4 nonfiction (history, biography).
Age range of books: 3 for ages 3-6; 11 for ages 4-8 or 4-9.
Types of authors: Established authors– 7; famous authors–3; new authors– 4.
Percent of list from new authors: 28.5%
Suppose you have a picture book featuring talking animal characters. Even though Publisher A has fewer new authors, it publishes a greater percentage of talking animal stories. And you really want Publisher A to do your book. Should you submit? First, look at the authors in Publisher A’s stable. Over half are famous or authors of classic books (which means instant sales for the reissued editions). Plus, after studying the bios of the authors in the catalog, you discover that 3 out of the 5 new authors are either celebrities or well-known illustrators writing their first books. Clearly, this publisher prefers authors with some name-recognition. Does this mean you shouldn’t submit here?
Not necessarily, but move it down your list. Publisher B has a higher percentage of new authors (no celebrities and only one known illustrator), a good number of animal stories, and a greater number of humorous books. Since your talking animal story has ironic humor that will appeal to older picture book readers (who make up the majority of this publisher’s audience), Publisher B seems a good fit.
Other things we’ve learned: Publisher B favors books about history and real people, as seen by the nonfiction titles and the fact that the realistic fiction books are both based on public figures (you’ll learn this by reading the plot descriptions). So your picture book fiction incorporating real events set at the turn of the century might appeal to these editors.
On the other hand, Publisher A has done a holiday book and a religious book, whereas Publisher B has neither. So a religious picture book might fit best with Publisher A, unless the book is a biography of a religious leader.
Clearly, analyzing publishers’ catalogs isn’t an exact science, but it can help increase your chances of finding a good match with an editor down the road.
Sure, it’s aggravating. You work tirelessly on your manuscript, revise, re-write and revise again. You send it off to publishers and get a mailbox full of rejections. Meanwhile, some pop star or ballplayer gets a big money deal to write a children’s book without lifting a finger.
Well, that’s the way the world works. No need to get down about it. Just get to work. Non-celebrities get book deals every day. Here’s how you can do the same.
Step 1: Master the Rules.
If you’re not famous, your manuscript or query letter takes the same route as the rest of the non-celebrities. It gets dropped, as part of a huge pile, on the desk of an overorked, underpaid, editorial assistant (or a freelance reader). Her job is to dig through the pile of dross and find a few nuggets of gold, and then pass them on to an equally overworked and underpaid editor. The editor then reads through the smaller pile, pulls out the submissions that catch her eye, and brings them to an editorial meeting. If the general consensus is “yes, this is a book we want to publish”, you’re on your way to partying it up with Madonna in the special “Children’s Writers’ VIP Lounge” at the Viper Room.
Buried in that timeline is a bit of bad news and a bit of good news. First the bad news: The editorial assistant weeds out up to 95% of the submissions that arrive. In other words, the vast majority of submissions to a publishing house never even make it in front of a person in a position to publish it. Why not? They may, of course, simply be awful submissions, laden with poor grammar, misspellings and hackneyed writing. They may be the obvious work of amateurs, handwritten on lined paper with childish drawings. Or, and this is where there’s some hope, they may simply get turned down because they’re the less obvious work of amateurs.
More subtle things, such as using single spacing rather that double spacing, or a manuscript whose word count is out of whack with the “norm” is sometimes all it takes for an EA to say “Beginner”. Rejection.”
So here’s the good news: simply by picking up the specific, but not wildly arcane, rules of children’s publishing, you can leapfrog over the madding crowd. When an EA or reader reads a manuscript that comes from someone who clearly knows how it’s done, they’re far more likely to give it a fair reading, and far less squeamish about passing it on to the boss.
So how do you learn the rules? Visit http://cbiclubhouse.com and have a look at the resources available there.
Step 2: Write to the Publisher’s Needs.
The problem with most aspiring children’s book writers is that they have a specific idea from which they won’t budge. To be honest, it’s usually a pretty dumb idea and, even if it’s halfway decent, chances are it’s been done many times already. Look, I know your dream is to write that book about the talking dish sponge and his sinkside pals, but put the dream on hold for a bit. The absolute best way to get published is to figure out what publishers want – and give it to them.
Here’s an example: Schools desperately need fiction and nonfiction books that integrate into curricula. Publishers, thus, are desperate to provide said books, as schools are big and dependable customers who are likely to buy directly from the publisher, giving even a better profit margin.
And you’re response to this is..? Hopefully, it’s “Hey, I’m gonna write some books that tie in with school curricula!”
This is just one example – publishers have all sorts of often unglamorous niches they need filled. How to find out? Send for their guidelines and catalog. Often, they’re quite explicit about their needs, other times you need to read between the lines of the catalog to figure it out. But the answer is usually there.
And, seriously, let’s see Brad Pitt try to write an exciting thriller about the passage of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act.
Step 3: Learn to Write a Great Query Letter.
Your query letter (used if you’re sending a few sample chapters of a longer manuscript) or cover letter (used to accompany and introduce a complete manuscript) is your chance to really earn the sale. Almost always, it’s a wasted opportunity filled with irrelevance (I’m the mother of four and I’ve always dreamed of writing a children’s book!), pleading (It would mean so much to me to see this book in print!) and ludicrous assertions (Everyone tells me I’m the next J.K. Rowling!).
A good query letter is basically this: a powerful sales letter meant to convince a publisher that it is in its best interests to publish your book. Essentially, you need to tell them that your manuscript fits their needs and will sell to their current market and will expand into new markets. Tell them, specifically, how you will be able to deliver readers (e.g. I have a weekly blog read by more than 20,000 parents and my website attracts 60,000 visitors a month) and how there is a defined need for your book and how you will reach the target customers (e.g. There are over a half million foster children in America. These children, their foster parents and foster siblings need books like mine to help make sense of their situations. I will promote my book directly to them through organizations, conferences, newsletters and websites.)
To succeed in publishing, you must strip away the romantic nonsense you’ve been brought up with and see things as they are. Children’s books aren’t published by magical elves. They’re published by business people (albeit, business people who, thankfully, often genuinely love the books they publish). Display to an editor that your book will be an artistic and financial success and you’re taking a big step in the right direction. For much more on writing a great query letter, go to http://www.write4kids.com/query.html To learn about a collection of actual query letters from children’s authors that you can use for models, go to http://www.write4kids.com/a2e.html.
Step 4: Write to an Underserved Existing Market.
Sometimes the concept of writing to a publisher’s needs can be turned on its head. Perhaps there’s a sizeable, wonderful market that no one is serving and you can convince a publisher that its just the one to serve it. It could be anything – children of interracial marriage, girls who like jazz, boys who play piano, American kids who dig the game of cricket – if there are enough of them out there and are too few books for them to read, you may very well be introducing a publisher to a potentially lucrative market.
Do your research. Talk to trade associations, government experts, owners of websites that serve specific markets or anyone else who can give you some supporting backup on the size of your target group. Search Books in Print for already existing titles that target the group. Speak with librarians and booksellers to get their viewpoint on needs. And include it all in a great query letter.
Step 5: Listen to the Pros.
There’s no need to go it alone. Take the time (and spend a few bucks) to listen to others who have made the journey. Writing conferences, workshops (visit http://wemakewriters.com for an excellent one), books and newsletters (such as Children’s Book Insider — write4kids.com/aboutcbi.html) can dramatically increase your chances of getting published by helping you avoid typical mistakes and pitfalls. An eBook such as I Wish Someone Had Told Me That: 64 Successful Children’s Authors Give You the Advice They Wish Someone Had Given Them (http://write4kids.com/wishbook.html) is a great example of this sort of instruction. Pay heed to the voices of experience!
Laura Backes is the publisher of Children’s Book Insider, the Newsletter for Children’s Writers. For more information about how to write children’s books, including free articles, market tips, insider secrets and much more, visit Children’s Book Insider’s home on the web at http://write4kids.com and the CBI Clubhouse at http://cbiclubhouse.com
Suppose you’ve just experienced a divorce and lost custody of your kids. Or a loved one has recently died of cancer. Or you struggled in school as a child because you have dyslexia.
Many writers transform tough periods in their lives into books for children, hoping to help young readers through similar painful experiences. Here are some tips to think about when creating and selling books based on real-life events:
Remember that you’re crafting a children’s book, not a personal essay intended to relieve your soul from a painful memory. Kids want to read about how they feel. Many writers create a young character and tell the story through that character’s eyes. Don’t write in first person if the “I” is you, the adult author. Instead of describing how bad you feel that your kids no longer live with you, show how a five-year-old character feels about only getting to see Daddy every other weekend.
Books for younger children (up to age eight) centering around a personal crisis are generally most effective if the author uses a fictional vehicle for imparting the information. If you want to stick closer to nonfiction, write a book that focuses on the child in the center of the event, and is told in a narrative format with a beginning, middle and end. Older children can deal with more traditional self-help books, with each chapter concentrating on a specific aspect of the problem. However, interspersing the advice with personal anecdotes from other children who have gone through the same thing will make the information more appealing and relevant to the readers.
Targeting appropriate children’s book publishers with these manuscripts is important. Look in subject index of Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market under “Self Help” and “Special Needs” for publishers. Peruse the children’s nonfiction section of a large bookstore, and read reviews in Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal and Horn Book (trade magazines found online and in most libraries) to see which publishers do similar types of books. Check out websites for editorial guidelines (if you can’t find them, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to the children’s editorial department requesting guidelines before you write and submit your manuscript). You can also look at books written for parents to help their children cope with an illness, loss or divorce, and query the publisher asking if they’d like to publish a children’s book on the same topic.
Though many mainstream publishers are interested in books that deal with special issues, some topics have too narrow an audience for a large house to market the book successfully. In this case, many authors have elected to self-publish. If you get several personal rejection letters from editors who praise the book but say the audience isn’t wide enough, you may consider publishing it yourself. But self-publishing should be approached cautiously; color illustrations are essential for picture books, making them very expensive to produce. And you must be prepared to devote at least a year of your life to selling and distributing your book. Most self-published books are sold primarily online or through direct mail. Can you purchase mailing lists of parents with children who could benefit from your book? Stories on adoption, specific childhood illnesses, or those that might fit in a pediatrician’s waiting room or hospital gift shop are examples of books with a very clearly defined audience.
Laura Backes is the Publisher of Children’s Book Insider, the Newsletter for Children’s Book Writers. Want to learn how to become a successful children’s book author? Come hang with the Fightin’ Bookworms at http://cbiclubhouse.com Whether is writing picture books, chapter books, young adult novels, finding children’s book publishers — or anything else — you’ll find all the answers at the CBI Clubhouse!
Had an interesting question the other day: Is there an online listing of Canadian children’s book publishers? I did a little research and found it.
First, for U.S Publishers, you can go to http://www.cbcbooks.org/about/ourmembers.aspx .
Now, here’s the Canadian equivalent:
Just select “Children’s Pubs”, search and you’ll have it!
Here’s a a simple, great technique to understand what today’s kids and teens want to read about. A must view for anyone who desires to write children’s books.
In this video: five ways to make your manuscript shine before you send it to a children’s book publisher.