Frequently Asked Questions
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10 FAQs About Children's Book Publishing
By Robin Michal Koontz
with contributions by Phyllis Cahill, Collyn Justus, Patricia
Pfitsch, Sue Bradford Edwards, Esther Hershenhorn, Cheryl Zach, and Shirley
Here are some common questions and hopefully helpful answers to people
who are new to children's book publishing:
1. I have written a children's story (or several children's stories)
and want to know how to get published.
Research by studying contemporary children's books and magazines and
learning how your story fits into today's market. Is your story age
Does it have a compelling plot and characters? Read
FROM KEYBOARD TO PRINTED PAGE
and gauge where your story belongs.
Study publishers' catalogs and review publications such as Booklist
and Hornbook (send off for them or see if the library will share). Network
by joining a local chapter of SCBWI and attending meetings and conferences.
Obtain publishers' guidelines before submitting (SCBWI publishes an updated
market guide each August for their members). Make sure your work is
presented. Revise, edit, rewrite, revise some more. Join and stay in a
critique group. Polish your work before submitting, and never tell an editor,
"This is just a rough draft." Always include a self addressed,
stamped envelope with enough postage for your work to be returned to you,
and never send more than one story to a publisher unless they request
Solicited vs. Unsolicited Manuscript: Solicited means that the editor requested
to see the manuscript. Your manuscript can have solicited status either
through an agent, an editor you may have met at a conference, or you queried
the editor according to their guidelines and got the okay to submit your
manuscript. Otherwise, do not submit your work to a publisher who does
not accept unsolicited submissions. It will not be read.
Exclusive vs. Multiple Submission: Exclusive submission means that you will
not present your project to any other publisher while this publisher has
it. These days, most publishers who still accept unsolicited manuscripts
also allow multiple submissions. They just want to be told. Make your
status very clear in your cover letter.
2. What should my query letter say? What should my cover letter say?
A query letter is what you send to see if there is interest in your
project. Most publishers require a query for a non-fiction project or novel.
Your query should adhere to the publisher's guidelines; never include more
than they request. It 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 the publisher
requests sample chapters with your query, send the first pages, not your
favorite parts. If they ask for chapter outlines, keep them simple.
A cover letter is what you include with your manuscript and should not
be more than one page, if that long. If you have already queried the publisher,
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 be like a query -- with brief information about the project
and yourself. Do not include a resume unless it is a non-fiction project
and your resume reflects your expertise in the subject you are writing
about. In any case, your writing will speak for itself. Most editors will
tell you that they can tell if a project interests them by reading the
first three sentences. They do not need to be told that your kids, grandkids,
students, or dog loved your story, so don't even go there.
3. Should I get someone to illustrate my picture book before I submit
Almost always: no. The editor who purchases your picture book manuscript
will ultimately choose the illustrator. Except in rare circumstances, it
is seldom a good idea to collaborate with an illustrator. Illustrators
are better off researching the market and submitting their portfolios for
assignments. Don't illustrate it 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 your explaining
it, then the writing probably needs work. If the story is intended to be
told by the illustrations, then mention that briefly in your cover letter;
don't clutter the manuscript with explanations.
4. Okay, I researched and networked and sent out my manuscript. All
I'm getting back, if anything, are form rejections. What's wrong?
Most manuscripts are first reviewed by a reader, who is usually an
associate editor. If he/she doesn't see any promise in your manuscript
for their publishing needs, she will return it with a form rejection letter
which usually says something along the lines of, "Not right for our
list." Don't be discouraged if you've done your homework. Keep sending
it. If you get several rejections, see question #8. Also, don't worry about
copyrighting your unpublished work. The law is on your side, and legitimate
editors do not steal manuscripts. Besides, you cannot copyright an idea,
only your version of that idea. There are no original stories, only original
ways to present them.
5. A publisher wants to publish my book, but they want me to pay for
some of the expenses.
These are called vanity publishers and they are to be avoided. Though
they might tell you they will put up 50% of the costs, their "costs"
are grossly over-inflated. You are better off publishing the book yourself.
You can find excellent resources about how to begin this process, how much
it will cost, etc. at the library or bookstore. Two helpful books are THE
COMPLETE GUIDE TO SELF-PUBLISHING by Tom and Marilyn Ross (Writer's Digest
Books) and THE SELF PUBLISHING MANUAL by Dan Poynter (Para Publishing). Also
check out websites on self-publishing such as
Self Publishing Resource
6. An editor wrote that she saw promise in my manuscript but wanted
it revised. I think it's perfect the way it is. 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
Unless her comments are so far from your vision you can't see how you could
possibly rework the manuscript the way she suggests, then take her comments
to heart and get to work. Then, send it back to her and remind her that
she has read it before.
7. I sent my manuscript to a publisher and haven't heard a word. Should
I call or write? Or will that make them mad and they'll send my work back
without reading it?
If you did your homework and only submitted your manuscript to editors
who are actively acquiring books such as yours, you should have an idea
of how much time the publisher asks to review a manuscript. If they say
three months, then by all means after three months have passed, send them
a note. Wait another month, and if you don't hear anything, then call.
Most editors will contact you if your manuscript is being seriously considered,
but not all. The large publishing companies have a lot of hoops an editor
must jump through in order to sell your book. These things take time.
8. My manuscript has been making the rounds for a year, and still no
sale. What now?
Do not make the common mistake of spending more energy trying to get
published than trying to become a good writer. Perhaps it is time to revise
again. Hopefully you have been working on new projects and have them out
there as well, once they are polished and ready for submission. You have
a much better chance of getting published if you prove yourself to be a
career writer, not just a flash in the pan. Publishers are more likely
to invest in an author who promises to be fresh and prolific. Chances are
your newer projects are better than the first! That is what usually happens
with time and dedication. You might find that you will first sell your
tenth book, then you will go back and revise the previous nine and sell
them as well.
9. Would it help if I got an agent?
Though you don't need an agent to submit to many publishers, many others
only accept agented material. However, finding a good agent can be as difficult
as finding a publisher. Most will not be interested in you until you have
a contract. This is a good time to get an agent, to help you through that
process. The best way to find a good, reputable agent is to network with
other agented authors and see if one will read your manuscript, and if
they like it, they might be willing to recommend it to their agent. The
best way to do this is to attend conferences and writers' workshops.
10. And finally: How much money will I make on my first book?
Let's put it this way: Don't quit your day job. Writing for the children's
book market is seldom as lucrative as writing for the adult market. For
a 32 page picture book, you can expect to split a $3,000-$8,000 advance 50/50
with the illustrator. The publisher will then pay each of you 3.5%-5% royalties
the advance Note that your book must sell enough copies to earn back your
advance before you receive any
royalties. Most picture books sell from 5,000-10,000 copies in hardcover and go
out of print within fourteen months. Few 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 advance against 7-10% royalties. Royalties are usually
based on the retail price of the book, however some publishers go by "net
price" which is the price of the book after their discounts are figured
in, which means, less money. Read your contract very carefully.
Compensation for magazine articles varies widely depending on the
publication, its circulation and the type of piece being submitted,
but payment can often range between $25 - $200.
In the end, writers write because they love creating stories and making
words sing, and they love to see children enjoy the stories and books and
poems and articles they have created. These are the true riches that a
writer for children will garner. You don't have to be published to achieve
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