I Want to Write a Children’s Book and Get it Published!

If you’ve been writing or illustrating children’s books (picture books or novels) for long, you’ll hear this comment and question: I’ve got a great idea for a children’s book. How can I get it published? Here’s some answers to get you started.

Write a Great Book

The first thing to do is write a great book. OK, you say. That’s easy.

Is it?

When you fail at the rest of the stuff below and decide to circle back around to this one, here are some resources.

Another big hint: Spend a couple hours in a bookstore studying current children’s books. Read 100 children’s books this month, making sure the copyright is within the last year or so. After that immersion in the current children’s publishing market, do you still think your story stacks up? Great. Move on.

Picture book author Mem Fox comments on the difficulty of writing a chidlren's picture book. | DarcyPattison.com

Get the Great Book Published

Now that you have your Great Book, let’s talk about how to get it published.

Ah, this is where most people want me to wave a magic wand. Unfortunately, I can’t. Children’s publishing is an industry like any other, with its own best practices, fads that come and go, and a network of professionals who look askance at outsiders.

To break into the publishing world, you need to send your Great Book to someone for evaluation. This could be a publishing house or an agent.

The manuscript must be in standard manuscript format, and you’ll usually want a killer of a query letter.

Then comes the big question: WHERE do you send Great Book?
The annual Children’s Writers and Illustrator’s Market (CWIM) is like a big telephone directory of children’s publishers. It lists contact information, what types of books this company publishes and specific information on how to contact them. The CWIM also lists agents who represent children’s books, so you’ll want to study those listings, too. For members, the SCBWI also has listings of publishers and agents that are helpful.

Unfortunately, I can’t tell you where to send YOUR mss. You’ll have to study the market and find the best fit for you and your story. There are five mega-publishing houses, but each has multiple imprints that often operate as a separate company in many ways. For editorial purposes, you can usually submit to each imprint. So, would you be happier with one of the mega-publishers or a small, local or independent publisher? Does your book have widespread appeal for the bookstore (or trade) market? Or do you anticipate a niche market audience, such as 2nd grade teachers? Are you only writing for a religious market or an education market? Who is your audience and where would you expect them to buy this book?

In other words, there’s no free ride on this question. You must research your options and the best I can do is to say get started. Use the market guies as a starting point, but then move online. For example, today, it’s easy to find an editor or agent on Twitter and follow them for a while to see if they’ll be a good fit. Are they encouraging or contemptuous of authors? Do you like their approach to problems? And so on. Follow a local publisher’s Facebook page or sign up for their newsletter. Research on the market is key to getting published.

Whether you decide to submit to an agent or a publisher, there are some common tips:

  • No, you don’t have to have an illustrator lined up. In fact, this could hurt your chances for a sale.
  • The waiting game. Major publishers can receive up to 10,000 manuscripts a year. Of those, they might publish 200. Of those 200, maybe three or four are from new authors. Why should they pick up your story and read it? As for agents, they are also bombarded with manuscripts and are taking on few new clients. To wade through the tsunami of manuscripts, each company (publisher or agent) has developed certain strategies. Be sure to follow their instructions. But even then, it can easily be 3-6 months before they respond. Often, they won’t respond unless they are interested.
  • The personal touch. If that sounded depressing and like you’re fighting an uphill battle, you’re right. In business they say that people do business with people they know. It’s a cliche that holds true in children’s publishing! In other words, you can shortcut some of the waiting by meeting an editor or agent at a conference. The SCBWI national summer conference is now open for registration. But also check out the SCBWI chapters for local or regional conferences.

People do break into children’s publishing every day. The industry needs newcomers with fresh ideas and amazing stories told in amazing ways. They need illustrations that capture a child’s imagination. But this is an industry with a rich history, career professionals and dedicated creative writers and artists. If your interest is casual and by-the-way, you won’t have much of a chance. If you’re ready to dig in and devote a career to children’s literature, welcome! Take that next step and submit your story!

The online video course expands on the idea of finding the best ideas to develop into a picture book. Check it out!
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