I have written a children's book—how can I get it published?
Getting your book published requires hard work on your manuscript and lots of research into the field. Luckily for you, many people don’t revise their manuscripts or do enough research, so with a little extra work, you can help your manuscript rise to the top of the pile. The great news is that you’ve come to the right place! The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators was founded to help people navigate a career in children’s books.
Step 1: Make your manuscript great
Before you start sending your story to publishers, you will need to make sure it is as good as it can possibly be. Revise, edit, rewrite, and then revise some more. Read it to other writers and listen to their feedback. It is not always easy to hear criticism of your work but it is essential to making your work ready for publication. Your regional chapter of the SCBWI can help you join or form a critique group. Attend local SCBWI events to meet other authors and illustrators. Read the SCBWI Bulletin and contemporary children's books to get to know the field.
Step 2: Find the right match
To find the right home for your manuscript you will need to research publishing houses and their imprints. Spend time looking over the publishers listed in The Book. When you find a children’s book you like, make a note of the publishing house. You will find that not all publishing houses will accept unsolicited manuscripts; this means that editors will only look at your work if they solicit it. In that case, you will typically write a query letter according to the publisher’s guidelines. You might also get the okay to send your work to editors you meet at SCBWI conferences. This can be a great way to submit to otherwise "closed" houses.
When you are ready to submit, make sure you send your manuscript in the correct format. See "From Keyboard to Printed Page" for proper formatting information.
Beware of scams!
Unfortunately there are a lot of companies out there that prey on people who have a dream of being published. They will promise you great things for your book but in the end just take your money. Posting your writing on an online message board in hopes an editor might wander by and discover you is not recommended. Though your work is protected by copyright, it is much easier to pirate a story that is displayed free on the Internet. Editors don't have time to search for stories, and these boards are known to attract unscrupulous vanity publishers. Only reputable, honest companies are listed in The Book. Two other great resources for uncovering scams and dishonest agencies are Writer Beware and Preditors and Editors.
How do I get started as a children’s book illustrator?
Like breaking into writing, becoming a children's book illustrator will take both work on your craft and research into the field. No matter how polished your art is, you will need to build a portfolio of work that is specifically suited for the children’s book market.
Know the children's market
Spend time looking at children's books that catch your eye. Notice what makes the characters appealing. Read over the Illustrators’ Guide and Putting Together a Prize Winning Portfolio in The Book. Look through back issues of The Bulletin for the regular columns: Illustrator's Perspective, Art Spot, and Art Tips. Read the interview in each issue with the cover artist to find out how they got started. Get feedback on your portfolio from a critique group and an SCBWI portfolio review events.
Get your artwork seen
You should set up a blog as well as a website where you can frequently and easily put up new pieces. If you are an SCBWI member, submit art to the SCBWI Bulletin, set up your free portfolio in the Illustrator Gallery, and enter your work in the illustration awards.
Submit your work to publishing houses
Research publishing houses and imprints to find the right home for your work. Notice the publishing houses of your favorite books and use the market surveys and directories in The Book to figure out where you want to send your work. Look at the specific guidelines for the publishing houses you are interested in. You will typically send postcards to the publishing houses you are interested in and then they will contact you if they want to see more work.
Should I copyright my work?
It is not necessary to copyright your work if you are planning on submitting it to a traditional publishing house. The publishing house will file copyright for you if your work is accepted. If you are nervous about your work being stolen during the submission process, know that the law is on your side: you own the work the moment you create it and legitimate editors do not steal manuscripts. On the other hand, if you are planning on self-publishing you should absolutely copyright your work. The process takes minutes at www.copyright.gov and only costs $35. Copyrighting your work is the best way to protect your published book against someone claiming you stole their idea.
If your work is created in a country outside the US, check the copyright laws of that country. Most countries honor each other’s copyrights because of the Berne Convention.
Should I include a cover letter or a query letter with my manuscript?
A query letter is what you send to find out if there is interest in your project. Most publishers require a query for a non-fiction project or novel. Your query should present your project succinctly, much like the preview you read on the inside of a book jacket, along with brief information about your publishing experience, if any. If they ask for a synopsis, try to outline the story with the crucial points and main characters only. Show them how the story is unique. See the section on query letters in The Book.
A cover letter is what you include with your manuscript and should not be more than one page. If you have already queried the editor, you can simply remind them that they requested to read your manuscript and tell them you look forward to their response (and let them know if it is exclusive or multiple). If you did not query first, then your cover letter should have brief information about the project and yourself. For a cover or a query, you may include a resume if it reflects your expertise in the subject you are writing about and your publishing experience.
As for email submissions, send those only if you are invited to do so or if the publisher's guidelines allow them.
How do I find an illustrator? Should I get someone to illustrate my picture book before I submit it?
Almost always: no. The editor who purchases your picture book manuscript or the art director at that publishing house will ultimately choose the illustrator. Except in rare circumstances, it is seldom a good idea for authors and illustrators to collaborate together before publication. Illustrators are better off researching the market and submitting their work directly to publishing houses. If you are a writer, you don't want to illustrate your manuscript yourself unless you are a professional. There is also no need to describe the illustrations in your submission. If your manuscript doesn't come to life visually without being explained, then it probably needs work. If the story needs to be told by the illustrations, then mention that briefly in your cover letter. Perhaps include a separate page with annotations for the illustrations (so titled), but do not clutter the main manuscript with explanations.
What happens to my manuscript submission? Why does it take so long to hear anything? How long should I wait before contacting the publisher?
If unsolicited, most manuscripts are first reviewed by a reader, usually a member of the staff. If he/she doesn't see potential in your manuscript for their publishing needs, she/he will return it with a form rejection letter. This process usually takes two to three months. If your project makes it past the "first read" then you will wait longer for an answer. The editor reads it and perhaps shares it with colleagues. The publisher might want the editor to provide a P&L (profit and loss) statement projecting how well the book will sell and what it will cost to produce. They have to study the other books already scheduled or under consideration as well as the backlist. Usually if a manuscript gets this close to a contract, the editor will notify the author by telephone or email. But not always!
The publisher's guidelines will spell out the average waiting time but it is usually longer. If it is an exclusive submission, then you should contact them if you haven't heard within a few weeks past the estimated time. Or, just send it elsewhere if you designated how long it would remain exclusive. If it is a solicited submission, you have more clout to follow up on the status. An email (keep it short!) or a phone call is perfectly acceptable. Enclosing a stamped postcard that asks the publisher to let you know the manuscript was received doesn't work in most cases. Make sure your phone number and email address are on your cover letter and hang in there! Some publishers now tell us to wait X number of months, then move on. They no longer return rejected material. Keep up with current guidelines.
An editor wrote that she saw promise in my manuscript but wants me to revise it. What should I do?
"Revision is like wrestling with a demon, for almost anyone can write; but only writers know how to rewrite. It is this ability alone that turns the amateur into a professional." — William Knott.
Keep in mind that a request for a revision is not a promise of a contract. You might revise an entire novel and have it be ultimately rejected. It's your call. Do you think the comments will make a better story? Then consider taking the suggestions to heart and revising. When you've received approval from your critique group, send it back to the editor who requested the revision and remind her that she asked to see a revision. If she still turns it down, you might have a better chance with it elsewhere.
My manuscript has been making the rounds for a year, and still no sale. What now?
It is frustrating when you see books like yours being published and receiving critical acclaim while your 9×12 envelopes keep coming back. There are multitudes of possible factors that are in play. Maybe the idea has been done too often too recently, or it's too trendy or outdated, or the current market is "soft." Perhaps you haven't clicked with the right editor, yet.
However you don't want to make the mistake of spending more energy trying to get published than trying to become a better writer. Perhaps it is time to look at your manuscript again and consider revision, especially if the rejections are all form letters. Maybe it's been a long time since you've even read it and meanwhile, you've read lots of contemporary books of the same type and you've been writing lots of new stories and shared them with your critique group. Look at this returned manuscript with fresh eyes. If you don't know what to do with it, put it away for now and move on. Chances are your newer projects are better than the first. That is what usually happens with time and dedication. You might find that your tenth book will be the first to sell, then you can go back and revise the previous nine and sell them as well.
Would it help if I got an agent?
Though you don't need an agent to submit to many publishers, some publishers only accept agented material. As an illustrator, you can submit promo pieces and dummies to most publishing houses without an agent, but an agent can be very helpful with developing your style and finding new work, not to mention negotiating book deals. However, finding a good agent can be as difficult as finding a publisher. Many will not be interested in you until you have a contract offer, but others are actively seeking unpublished clients. Agencies accepting new clients and their submission guidelines can be found in the Agents Directory.
What about self-publishing, print-on-demand books, and eBooks?
For some writers, self-publishing is a good way to go. But you don't want to spend your life savings on a book that isn't ready to be published. You have to be ready to compete both in terms of content and design with books from traditional publishing houses. Don't fall into the trap of thinking self-publishing will be easier. You will need to properly educate yourself on all the options if you hope to be successful.
Protect yourself! Many companies prey on people who want to self-publish. Some publishers offer to publish your book but want you to either pay some or all of the expenses or find a sponsor to pay for many of the costs. They might offer to publish your book "for free" but their basic package is usually not the best representation of your work so you wind up paying for "extras." These publishers are called subsidy or vanity publishers.
Print-On-Demand (POD) books and eBooks are a much better option IF they are non-subsidy publishers that pay a royalty. Companies like Create Space and LuLu allow you to print copies as you need them, saving you huge up-front costs.
Whatever method of publishing you choose, remember, when you put your work out there for the world to see, it is your name that is on the line.
For more information on self-publishing, read the SCBWI Publication Self Publishing: Best Practices. It covers many of the ins and outs of self-publishing, and can help you determine if it's the right course for you.
How much money will I make on my first book?
Writing for the children's book market is seldom lucrative, especially with a first book. Though there are always exceptions, for a 32 page picture book, you might expect to split an $8,000-$12,000 advance with the illustrator (the illustrator usually receives a larger advance than the author), then each of you will get 3.5%-6% royalties against your advance (your advance must be earned back before you receive any royalties). Most picture books sell from 5,000-10,000 copies in hardcover and go out of print within two years. Few picture books go into paperback. Easy readers are about the same. The royalties are not split on a novel, so you could receive approximately a $5,000-$8,000 advance against 7-10% royalties.
Royalties are usually based on the retail price of the book, however some publishers use a percentage of "net price" which is the price of the book after their discounts and/or expenses are figured in. Read your contract very carefully and get advice on the things you don't understand. Compensation for magazine articles varies widely depending on the publication, its circulation, and the type of piece being submitted, but payment usually ranges between $25 – $500. Though not as lucrative, magazines are a great way to build your writing/illustrating credentials and gain publishing experience. Authors and illustrators also supplement their income by doing workshops and school visits.