I’ve been a book editor for 20 years and a published writer for 10. I’ve been pitched book ideas in the strangest places—at funerals, by taxi drivers, at family reunions. (For the best success, I don’t suggest any of these approaches, by the way.) I’ve read literally thousands of query letters and manuscripts over the course of my career.
I’m constantly asked for advice about publishing. This article includes a lot of useful information for people are just getting started, including answers to common questions as well as questions you should ask yourself. If you’re serious about wanting to get published, here is some serious information that will help you on that path.
If you’re looking for someone to tell you that publishing is easy, that everyone is publishable, or that your manuscript is great exactly how it is, you can stop reading now.
Publishing a children’s book is hard, but it can certainly be done. However, many people have misconceptions about what it means to publish a children’s book. Here are some important things to know from the outset:
Becoming a published writer takes training and work, just like becoming a dentist or a teacher. The publishing industry is a complicated, competitive business. Learning to navigate it takes effort and time. Becoming a good writer takes effort and time, too. It also takes training and a certain amount of talent.
Don’t think of your book as a way to get rich. I know many successful published writers, and most of them have to supplement their income in one way or another. Sure, people become rich from writing sometimes. People win the lottery sometimes, too.
Getting a book published means you’re in for the long haul. Publishers typically acquire books two years out. That means it will be two years after you sell your manuscript before it becomes a real object you can hold in your hands. And it takes months—sometimes years—to sell a manuscript.
Getting a book published is very competitive. Almost everyone wants to publish a book someday; polls show that more than 80 percent of people think they will.
Authors of traditionally published books must be ready to hand over a lot of creative control to their publisher. When you sell your manuscript, many other people will make important decisions regarding how your book ends up. For example, authors typically do not get to choose who illustrates their book. They do not get to design the cover and sometimes don’t even get to say what the title of the book is. An entire team of people is involved in the creation of a book—editors, designers, illustrators, and marketers. That collaborative effort results in beautiful, creative finished work.
Traditional publishing has many advantages. Publishers and the editors, designers, marketers, and publicists who work for them have years of combined experience and knowledge of the publishing industry that it will be impossible for you to duplicate on your own. Publishers pay for printing your book, and have both sales channels and distribution. Your book will be in a catalog, which will be presented to book buyers at bookstores and gift shops around the country, giving you the best chance for placement in stores. Publishers handle foreign rights sales for your book, and any subsidiary and licensing rights.
Maybe you are thinking: I don’t want to navigate the publishing world and I’m not really a children’s writer. I just have one book or one story that I feel compelled to tell. That’s fine, too! Perhaps what you really want is to publish that one book, not to be a children’s book writer.
In this case, a viable option to consider is self-publishing. Although it carried a stigma in the past, things have shifted drastically in publishing over the last five years. With print-on-demand publishing services, you can publish your own book without the expense of warehousing your stock.
Self-published books typically do not have as high of production values nor sell as well as traditionally published books. But ask yourself what is the purpose of the story you want to tell? Who is it intended for? How many copies do you want it to sell? Maybe your book is a family story that you want available for your children and grandchildren. Maybe it is for a very specific target audience.
Depending on your goals for your book, self-publishing may make the most sense for you. Some people prefer self-publishing because the percentage of sales that they get to keep is much higher than in traditional publishing (in traditional publishing, your royalty is typically 10 percent of the price of the book).
Other people like it because you can put your book out there almost immediately and do not have to wait for the long schedules in the publishing world. Sometimes, though not frequently, self-published books are later picked up by traditional publishers. So in those cases, you would get the best of both worlds. CreateSpace, Lulu, and iUniverse are some self-publishing avenues you can explore.
Still, if you do decide you want to publish with a traditional book publisher, here is some additional advice that will make you a better writer and increase your chances of success:
Anyone who is serious about getting a children’s book published needs to know the market. This starts with reading—a lot. Go to the library or your local bookstore and really get a handle on what’s there. It’s great to have classics and old favorites (long live Frog and Toad Together!) but you have to know what’s being published currently, too.
Books that are coming out right now are what you’re competing with and make up the world you’re trying to publish into. Find which books are your favorites and check the copyright pages. Write down the publishers of those books. Look them up online. Become familiar with their lists. Become familiar with their publication guidelines. Do they accept unsolicited manuscripts? Do they accept manuscripts directly from the author or do you need an agent? Learn about the people you are going to pitch to. You want to find a publisher who publishes the type of book you’ve written.
Just like learning to play the piano, writing is an art that takes a great deal of practice. No one would expect to sit down at the piano for the first time and be able to play well enough that people would pay to hear them perform in a concert hall. That’s no different with writing. It’s likely the first thing you write (or the second or the twenty-second) is not going to be good enough someone will pay money to read it. Writing is a craft. You get better with practice.
If you want to be a writer—write. You should write all the time. My mentor for picture book writing, Rick Walton, said the best thing to do if you want to get published is write a lot of different manuscripts. Not only will your writing improve, you will also increase your chances of finding a home for something you write just by sheer numbers.
It’s also good for your sanity. If you have just one manuscript and try to sell it, that leaves you nothing to do but fret while you’re waiting to hear back from publishers and agents. After pitching your manuscript, rather than anxiously waiting every day for a response, you can use that time to create new work.
Be Open to Editing
A good writer knows that even the best writer needs an editor. Be humble enough to realize your writing can be improved and be willing to work to improve it. Take this to heart: If you think every word you write is perfect and nothing needs to change, the publishing industry is not for you. Take a writing class. Go to a writing conference. Hone your craft.
On the other hand, learn to discern between helpful criticism and people’s opinions. A good editor knows that you don’t change something unless there is a good reason to do so. But not everyone who gives input on your writing will be a good editor. Don’t confuse people’s opinions (and they will have many!) with helpful feedback. Learn to develop your own voice.
Hang Out with Other Writers
Many writers find it helpful to join a writing group. It gives you deadlines, people to read and critique your work, and a support system. If you think you are someone who would benefit from a writing group, find one and try it out. Whether or not you are in a writing group, it’s a good idea to attend writing and publishing conferences. You will meet agents, editors, and other writers (published and working-to-be-published). It’s a good way to network and stay connected to the industry in a job that is for the most part solitary. Consider joining the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Find ways to connect with other writers online.
Follow Submission Guidelines
Get a copy of Children’s Writers and Illustrators Market. In it you will learn all about publishers and what they are looking for, as well as what their submission guidelines are. This is very simple advice but very important: follow the submission guidelines for the publisher you are pitching. If they don’t accept email submissions, don’t email them. If they don’t accept picture books, don’t send them a picture book manuscript. If you need an agent to submit to them, find an agent before submitting to them. Following the guidelines (which are different for each publisher) shows you are professional and serious about your writing. It also saves you (and the editor) a great deal of time and frustration by not sending something to a publishing house that they would never acquire in the first place. If you decide to get an agent, QueryTracker is a great resource.
Accept the Inevitability of Rejection
This is easy enough to say, and almost impossible to do all the time. Rejection is not fun and it’s especially difficult when people are criticizing something as personal as your writing.
I think that selling a manuscript is like selling a home. You have to find an editor or publishing house or agent that is a good fit. Just because someone doesn’t buy your house when it’s on the market does not mean it’s a bad house or there is anything wrong with it. It just means it’s not a good fit for them.
I have heard of some mean-spirited rejection letters, but typically the many editors I know are kind people and rejection letters are just standard and part of the every day business of publishing.
On the other hand, I have heard different authors over the years tell their own stories about rejection letters that devastated them, but often when they told me what the letters said I didn’t think they sounded too harsh. In this business, you have to expect and be able to take rejection. The bottom line is, if you’re going to put your work out there not everyone will like it, and a lot of people will reject it, and some days that really hurts.
Remember why you are doing this. If you’re not having fun, then it’s not worth it. And if you aren’t liking what you write, you’re probably not writing the right thing. I’ve been told that if you like what you’re writing, chances are somebody else out there is going to like it too. I think that’s great advice.
Of course, not every day is fun. Some days are lonely, some days you feel like a fraud, and some days you miss the kind of job where you know exactly how to do good work and you just do it. Being a writer means you have to be really, really patient—with yourself and with the process and with the publishing world in general, which can be a very crazy place.
Getting a book published is not easy, but it happens. It happens all the time, and it happens to regular people like you and like me. I love the thrill I see in people when they sell their first manuscript, or the day their printed book arrives and they get to hold it in their hands for the first time. Making a book is magical. It’s something to be celebrated. Remember if you’re writing a children’s book it’s a wonderful thing. You’re choosing a creative life. Enjoy adding something good to the world!
Thank you SO MUCH for stopping by, Jennifer! To celebrate having her grace Pub(lishing) Crawl with her incredible advice, we’re hosting a giveaway! Two people can win copies of Edgar Gets Ready for Bed (check out that awesome cover above). Just let us know in the comments what great classic YOU wish you’d had as a picture/board book growing up. 🙂
JENNIFER ADAMS is the author of the board books in the BabyLit series, which introduce small children to the world of classic literature. Her picture book Edgar Gets Ready for Bed is inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven.” A second picture book, Edgar and the Tattle-Tale Heart, will be published this Halloween. Jennifer loves old stone walls, letterpress printing, lightning storms, beautifully wrapped packages, and people who read. She works some evenings at The King’s English Bookshop to feed her book habit. Jennifer lives in Salt Lake City with her husband, Bill Dunford, who is also a writer. Visit her website at jennifer-adams.com.