The Insiders' Tips and Tricks on How to Publish Children's Books

There's no secret rulebook but you have to follow the recipe.
Posted June 10, 2011

Early in June, I sat down with Seattle author Richard Farr to talk about how to get a children’s book published. He was highly amused by the idea that he would be considered any kind of expert, but I thought there was no better person to ask than someone who, after years of trying, recently landed his very first book with Farrar, Straus & Giroux, one of the most respected children’s book publishers in the United States. His book, for “ages 12 to 112,” is called Emperors of the Ice: A True Story of Disaster and Survival in the Antarctic, 1910-13 and is available this month. (Feel free to congratulate him when you see him at his neighborhood café, Victrola on 15th Avenue East.)

 

Many nervous beginners panic when they learn from assorted books, Web sites, and other writers that they must read industry magazines, join local writers’ clubs, attend conferences, do market research, read 415 children’s books, and then find an agent. Worse yet, these “expert” sources disagree on almost everything. “Don’t do market research; it will taint your work,” one might say. “Show the publishers you know your competition!” another will advise with equal fervor.

 

Farr sympathizes: “It’s easy to feel there must be a secret rulebook, and you would know what to do if only you could get your hands on one. But the secret is that there is no rulebook. Getting published is like getting married. There’s not only one way to get it right. The process is something you have to invent for yourself.”

 

Even so, like a student who wants to know what’s on the test, you need advice. And Richard’s boils down to this: Put at least 90 percent of your energy into making your work wonderful, and then use the rest to get it into the right hands. More specifically:

 

  1. Don’t walk around for the rest of your life saying you have a great idea for a children’s book. Write it down today. For better or for worse, you might be surprised to see what it looks like on paper.

  2. Revise, revise, revise. Let it sit, and revise some more. Don’t send it out if it’s not ready, or you will kick yourself. You need to be so proud of it that a small part of you will feel bad for the editor for not recognizing your talent.

  3. If you have written a picture book, don’t find your own illustrator. Publishers find their own illustrators.

  4. Research the publishers. Go to a bookstore and see who designed and published the books you like best. Check out the 2009 Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market (Writers Digest Books) to see if they publish lichen guides or dragon fantasies, if they accept unsolicited submissions and what their format specifications are.

  5. When you’re ready to ship your work off, keep your query letter short and your manuscript format simple. Don’t use colored paper or that drop-shadow font you find snazzy. Don’t tell the editor or agent that your children love your book or that the neighbors’ children do. No attention-getting confetti. As Richard says, “The editor or agent wants to be snagged by unbelievably good writing. Everything else is a distraction.”

  6. You don’t absolutely need an agent. “It’s easier to build a career with the help of someone who is knowledgeable about the industry,” Richard says. “But what you need most is a passionate advocate of your work. Consider the possibility that in the beginning the best advocate may be you.” One useful book on how to find the right agent is Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents 2009 (Three Dog Press, released September 30). Richard suggests selecting 20 agents who sound like possibilities, then writing to five of them at a time. “Some agents won’t like this,” he says, because they think there’s supposed to be a rule against ‘simultaneous submissions.’ The thing is, if your work is good enough, someone will suddenly forget that rule.”

  7. On the other hand, it’s probably a riskier strategy to send your manuscript to more than one publisher at a time. You might well be kept waiting for several months at each house, which is asking quite a lot of an eager author. The answer is to choose one publisher, decide how many months you will wait, and stick to it. Be prepared to move on.

  8. If you want to learn more about the local children’s book community and the children’s book industry, western Washington has its own lively chapter of the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI; scbwi-washington.org/). In its words, “The SCBWI acts as a network for the exchange of knowledge between writers, illustrators, editors, publishers, agents, librarians, educators, booksellers, and others involved with literature for young people.”

  9. Publishing is a tough industry. Your work can be truly great and still be rejected. (It can also be truly great, get published and not sell.) Grow a thick skin—and keep writing. Madeleine L’Engle’s novel A Wrinkle in Time was rejected by most of the major publishers, and even when it was accepted, her publisher told her it wouldn’t sell. Ha! It won the Newbery Medal in 1963 and has sold more than 8 million copies.