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So You'd Like To Get Published...
Frequently asked questions from budding authors

"I have an idea for a picture book, how do I get it published?"

The flip answer is: Well, first you have to write the book! Or maybe you have a finished manuscript and wonder what to do next. Congratulations! You are half way there. You have completed the second most difficult task facing an aspiring children's book author: sitting down and writing a manuscript. Of course you still face the most difficult: actually getting it published. While it is possible to sell an idea before it's written, that might be an unrealistic expectation for a first time author. So lets assume you have a manuscript and don't know where to start. I was in the same boat about a quarter of a century ago. Since there were people who helped me by patiently answering my questions, I feel duty-bound to assist "wanna-be" authors whenever I can. While I cannot respond personally to all requests for assistance, here is list frequently asked questions, my answers, and some suggestions. If you still have a question after reading this material, give me a call on my studio phone which is listed on the "School Visit" page. Weekday mornings are best, 8 - 10 am EST.

"Where should I send my manuscript to have the best chance of being published?"

If you send an unsolicitied manuscript to a major publisher it goes into the "slush bucket." At any given time, the slush bucket may contain hundreds of manuscripts addressed to "Children's Book Editor." Ninty-nine percent of those will be returned with a preprinted rejection slip, providing, of course, that the would be author has included a self-addressed envelope with their submission. NOTE: ALWAYS INCLUDE A SELF ADDRESSED ENVELOPE WITH ANYTHING YOU WOULD LIKE BACK! [Back in the '70's I wallpapered a bathroom wall with rejection slips.] Please know, those that don't have a self-addressed envelope will be unceremoniously thrown away. Even if you have a great manuscript, it can sit in the slush-bucket for weeks before anyone looks at it. In the publishing world, slush-bucket authors are the bottom of the food chain. "Gosh, as an unpublished author, what chance do I have to break into the glamorous world of children's literature?" Well, there are thousands of new titles published every year. Some of those folks are first-time authors. However, the competition is keen. This is a business, and business people are in it for the money. If you have an idea that will sell books, someone will buy it.

"Who does my idea have to appeal to?"

In publishers of every size, it used to be that the editor had the most say about what got published. Now, with all the mergers and acquisitions within this field, most major publishers are owned by larger corporations. Across the entire organizational chart of the company, from the CEO in her posh corner office to the lowly editorial assistant in his windowless cubical, there is a whole hierarchy of people who can get fired if the books don't sell. As a result, publishers have become much more cautious about what they buy. What's more, they are bottom-line oriented throughout the buying process. Publishers may be less likely to take a chance on a new author, and even turn their backs on established authors who haven't had a best seller in a while.

"Is there no hope?"

Sure there is. If your manuscript is well written, it will impress an editor. Suitably impressed, an editor will present your book to a marketing committee. If the marketing people think they can sell it, it will get published.


"But my collection of Latvian folk tales is an important work..." ..and somewhere there is probably a market for it. That's why you need to research publishers before you submit.


"OK then, how do I know which publisher to send my idea to?"

To begin with, there are hundreds of publishers of kids books. They range in size from small publishers that publish a handful of books each year to the giants of the industry which churn out hundreds of new titles. There are publishers who concentrate on specialty or niche type books [like Latvian folk tales] while others are more eclectic. Some major houses are actually a collection of several different imprints. Each of these smaller units publishes dozens of new books. Catalogs come out in the fall and then again in the spring. Each imprint features a different range of books that reflects the philosophy or outlook of the managing editor. In the universe of companies that specialize in nonfiction, there are other subdivisions. These subgroups of publishers include those who concentrate on science, crafts, and biographies to name only three. Your task is to figure out where your idea falls within the various categories of publishers, and then determine in whose catalog your book might logically fit.


"Were do I begin?"

I can think of three ways to proceed, but no matter which approach you take, you are looking for the same thing. You need to determine who is publishing books that are similar to yours. 1. You could ask an expert. In any community there is likely to be someone extremely knowledgeable about children's literature. They could be a librarian, a college professor, or the owner of a children's book store. Try to stay focused on what's been published recently. Trends change and so do editors. 2. The internet is another way to find such publishers. You can sit at your computer and try key word searches. Many publishers have websites that will yield all kinds of useful information. Some even have e-mail links enabling you to ask questions about their offerings. There are also chat groups, list serves, and online newsletters that offer you the opportunity to network within the children's literature community. Check out my lists of favorite sites. There are many links there that will help you in your quest. 3. I think the best approach is to spend an afternoon in the children's section of a book store. The bigger the children's section, the better. Take the time to read enough books so that you get a sense of where your idea falls in the scope of things. If there is an educational component to your book, a trip to a trade show or convention might be in order. Vendors at these events include the publishers of educational books. The people who stand behind the counter will most likely know who in their organization you should send your idea to. In any case, your goal is to identify those publishers who are doing something that is similar to what you are proposing. Your aim is to make a list of publishers to send a query letter.


"Whoa! What's a query letter?"

In essence, a query letter is a very brief book proposal you hope to get into the hands of an obliging editor. Your query letter should describe your idea and ask [hopefully in a clever way] if the editor would be interested in reviewing your manuscript. Since editors are very busy people, it should be concise, no more than one or two pages. It should identify the length* of your book and age or reading level of children it is intended for. If there are other books on the same subject, you need to explain how yours is different, superior and the greatest thing since sliced bread. You should be able to tell in a sentence or two what makes your idea a potential best seller or a compelling addition to any library. A short excerpt or sample of your writing might be useful.

*Picture books come in several standard lengths. The number of pages is determined by the printing process. Generally, total pages are in multiples of 16. Typically the shortest books are 32 pages. These are printed on one large sheet, front and back. This large sheet is then cut, folded and gathered prior to binding. Longer books may have 48 or 64 pages [which is about as long as most picture books get]. Chapter books can run even longer. They also run in certain lengths; 96, 128, etc. Since the first few pages of any book are taken with copyright, dedication and publisher information, most picture books start on page 3 or 5 [always a right hand page]. That means at a minimum, you will need enough printed material for 29 or 27 pages. Keep this in mind as you prepare your manuscript. When indicating page numbers, start numbering the pages with your text at 3 or 5, make sure your last page is one of the standard page numbers.


"But I have a finished manuscript, can't I just make copies and send one to each publisher?"

Sure, but multiple submissions are frowned on by most editors. I've never been given an overriding moral, ethical, or legal reason for this disapproval. However, since editors are your gateway to publication, it's probably best to humor them. The editors I have worked with prefer to be queried first. They say this saves everybody time and energy. Nevertheless, editors have been known to hold on to a manuscript for months before making a decision. One advantage of querying first is at least you know you've sent your manuscript to an editor who wants to take a look.

"OK, so I send out twenty query letters and I get back three positive responses. Who do I send it to first?"

Personally, I'd pick the biggest publisher as they're likely to give you the biggest advance. This shouldn't be surprising. As a rule, the largest publishers have the best distribution and marketing. However, if you value having some control as opposed to having more money, you might want to investigate your opportunities with each publisher a little further. This can be done through phone calls or online. You might want to know who else has published with them. Don't be afraid of contacting these authors. Many authors I know would talk to a budding author about their experiences or at least answer a brief e-mail.


"Does my picture book manuscript need to be illustrated?"

No. Unless you are a talented author/illustrator, submit any picture book manuscript on plain white paper. It is best to double or triple space the text. Allow additional space between each page. If the subject matter requires special visual interpretation, a brief note in parentheses should suffice. Editors look at hundreds, maybe thousands of such submissions. Trust me, they can visualize what kind of illustrations your book needs.


"But my cousin's next door neighbor is an excellent artist..."

Unless your cousin lives next door to Steven Kellog, you'll be better off without illustrations. Part of the job of the publishing company is putting together the words of the author with the artwork of the illustrator. This is what editors and art directors get paid to do. By suggesting specific illustrations, your cousin's neighbor, may prejudice the editor against your manuscript.


"But what if I don't like the way the illustrations come out?"

Tough. If this is your first book, quit whining, swallow your pride, and be happy to get published. Seriously though, you should have an opportunity to review the sketches when the illustrator completes the "dummy." The dummy is a full sized mock up of the book with black and white drawings. While the contracts of most first-time authors preclude much input from final art work decisions, most editors will listen politely to your concerns, then do whatever they think is best.


"Is there nothing I can do to have more influence over my own book?"


Cross your fingers and hope for good sales. If your first book becomes a best seller, you will have more leverage the second time out. If your first book bombs, it will likely be your last. If sales are OK, you have a "foot-in -the-door" and selling your second book should be easier. Here are some links that may help.

Good luck,

Dave Ross

The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators
The Author's Guild
The Children's Book Council
The Author Link

 

 

 

 

 

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