Q: How long is a picture book?
A: The number of words is not the crucial issue. Books range from several words to several thousand (compare Goodnight Moon to The Polar Express). More important is whether or not your book READS like a picture book–succinct, musical, pictorial. A key issue is the fact that picture books are 32 pages (storybooks, which are often fairy or folk tales, are sometimes 48 pages). Leaving space for titles, copyright, etc., your manuscript should break naturally into 28 to 30 pages, or 14-15 “spreads.” Some publishers appreciate authors “dummying” their manuscript–breaking the text into these spreads. Each page should be a “scene.” This is a useful exercise because it shows you whether or not the text has drama and is illustratable.
Q: How long is a middle-grade or young adult novel?
A: As long as it needs to be–mostly. Granted, it might be a bit tougher to sell a story that is especially long or short, but it is even tougher, if not impossible, to sell a book that has been padded or chopped for the sake of hitting a preselected length. A book can be shorter than Sarah, Plain and Tall, or longer than Hitty, Her First Hundred Years. The typical range is 35-65 pages for a chapter book, 45-90 for a low-middle-grade, 90-120 for a middle-grade, 150-250 for a young, young adult, but these are just averages. If you have questions about specific series of books, do some research–read the books, check the catalogues, contact the publisher, etc.
Q: Should I send illustrations with my manuscript?
A: Not unless you are a professional artist. In general, the industry believes that only a rank amateur submits someone else’s art with a picture-book manuscript. A few rare folks have done this and succeeded, but most have not. If a publisher accepts your manuscript, your editor will choose the illustrator. There is NEVER a need for you to hire one.
Q: Is there a good vocabulary list for beginning readers?
A: Some writers and editors think the concept of restricted vocabulary is abominable and most trade publishers do not require a fixed vocabulary. One of the best ways for children to learn new words is by reading them. As long as the difficult words can be understood in context or through other clues, there is no reason not to challenge the reader a bit.
Q: Should I write my picture book in rhyme?
A: It often seems to writers that children love rhyme–and publishers don’t. The truth is that good rhyme is extremely hard to write. Publishers are flooded with bad rhyme. If you can write brilliant verse, you’ve got a chance. If you can’t, chances are you don’t.
Q: What if my story needs a scene about sex, death, etc.?
A: Don’t throw anything in just to flout standards or to shock the reader. But if a scene is true to your story and necessary, put it in. Older YA novels are generally more appropriate for sophisticated scenes. Bear in mind that the response is not always something you can expect. A scene that worries you might be met without comment, while something you perceive as totally innocent can draw an adverse reaction.
Q: What do I put in a cover letter?
A: Keep it simple. Introduce yourself, mention other things you’ve published or a few appropriate credentials (NOT a resume), include the title of the manuscript you’re submitting and, if you wish, a very brief description (“a middle-grade novel about a boy with a problematic nose”) and any special information (“an interactive non-fiction work that could include gatefolds and scratch-and-sniff panels”). Publishers do not want a shopping list of your other manuscripts–just choose one (two at most) and send it.
Q: What do I put in a query letter?
A: Some publishers want advance queries about novels or non-fiction, but rarely about picture books. Other publishers are not interested in advance queries at all. They want you to send the novel or non-fiction book (or proposal), period. Agents usually do want query letters to see if they’re interested in reading the entire manuscript. Think of a query letter as a sales pitch. Be succinct, but intriguing. Include the title and type of manuscript, the number of pages and a short, compelling description. You should also include your credentials. Many publishers and agents prefer a chapter or two with a query letter as well. The publishers and agents will then decide if they want to read the rest of your book.
Q: What goes into a proposal?
A: A proposal is a way of trying to get a contract without writing the whole book. It is generally for a non-fiction book. It consists of a few chapters or spreads and an outline of the rest of the book. Some publishers will consider a non-fiction proposal instead of the whole book. A proposal for a novel may include anywhere from three to six chapters and a synopsis of the remainder of the book. Fewer publishers will consider a proposal for a novel unless you’ve already published with them. For a series proposal, you may usually send one complete book and synopses for others in the series.
Q: How about a fancy presentation?
A: Forget it. A leopard skin cover is more likely to turn off the editor than turn him/her on. Likewise, how you mail the manuscript will not impress the publisher–although, if it’s by FedEx or UPS it may get the work there faster.
Q: How do I know where to send my manuscript?
A: Go to libraries and bookstores and send for publishers’ catalogues. Check out their web sites. Visit the Children’s Book Council web site (www.cbcbooks.org/) and look at the Members list. If you join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (www.scbwi.org), you can get a PDF or hard copy of “The Book,” which includes a complete list of publishers that tells you what they’re looking for and if they’re accepting unsolicited submissions. Attend conferences. Join listservs on the Net. Buy or take out of the library Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market and/or Literary Marketplace. Gather as much information as you can to learn where your book would make the best fit. Each publisher has a different submissions process, so you will need to research that, as well as their list. A publisher that produces mainly picture books about animals is probably not interested in a young-adult romance. Your book may be unique, but the publisher still has to be able to envision a marketing plan for it.
Q: Will my unsolicited manuscript be read?
A: Probably, if the publisher is accepting unsolicited manuscripts. Research this before you send out your work. Publishers sometimes employ readers and they definitely employ editorial assistants, so don’t expect that your work will necessarily be read by an editor, especially if you send it generically–to the “Children’s Book Dep’t”–or to the editor-in-chief, who rarely has time to read. If you meet an editor at a conference, it’s wise to send your work directly to her/him.
Q: I sent my book in (unsolicited) two months ago and I haven’t heard a word. What should I do?
A: Only two months? Seriously, although a few publishers claim to have a turn-around time of thirty days, and more say two to three months, a growing number list four-six months in their guidelines. Believe or not, established authors often wait six months or more to hear from their editors. Publishers are not deliberately trying to hang on to your manuscripts. The increased turn-around time is due to swelling submissions, decreased staff and general overwork. Research the publisher to find out the projected turn-around time. If that time has passed and you still haven’t heard from the house, you can try the following: send e-mail, a self-addressed stamped postcard or envelope with a note asking whether or not the manuscript is still under consideration. Some writers send a check list on the postcard or return letter: Did my manuscript arrive? Is it still under consideration? Has it been returned? You can also try phoning to ask for a status report. Some publishers don’t mind a phone call; others would prefer a letter. In general, these days you will hear from a publisher only if the publisher is interested in your manuscript. You’re not likely to get said manuscript back. If you receive no reply or if you are told something vague, you are free to send the manuscript elsewhere–if you haven’t already done so.
Q: What about simultaneous submissions?
A: Some editors won’t look at simultaneous submissions. However, with the increased waiting time and the cutting of many lists, most will. You may want to check beforehand, if possible. If you do submit to more than one publisher, the current ethical standard is that you inform each one that this is a simultaneous submission. If you sell the book, it’s polite to let the other publishers know.
Q: Do I need an agent?
A: The juvenile area is one of the few places left where some publishers will look at material that doesn’t come from an agent. However, these days, many publishers will look only at agented submissions (or submissions from published authors). You can find out which will look at unagented or unsolicited material by regularly consulting the membership list at the Children’s Book Council web site or SCBWI’s The Book. Editors will often read manuscripts submitted by attendees of conferences, particularly those held by the Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators. Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America is a useful resource for finding an agent: http://www.sfwa.org/real/ So does the Authors Guild, though you must be a member to access some of their articles: https://www.authorsguild.org/member-services/writers-resource-library/all-about-literary-agents/.
Q: An agent has offered to read my book for a fee. Is this a good idea?
A: No, no, a thousand times no. Agents make their living selling books.
Q: An agent loved my book, and offered to make it even better for a
fee. Is this a good idea?
A: It’s a great idea for the agent. It’s a bad idea for the author.
Q: What about self-publishing my book?
A: Self-publishing is a tricky business. Even if you have the money to produce a book that reads and looks good enough to compete in today’s market, do you have the time to promote it? It is true that nowadays authors do have to put in some time in self-promotion, but the publishers still have reps that go to bookstores; they put ads in magazines, journals and newspapers; they produce a catalogue that is available nationwide; they have booths at ALA, NCTE, and countless other conventions. Ask yourself if you can do as good or better a marketing job before you consider self-publishing or you may face a basement full of boxes of unsold books. Bear in mind, too, that most self-published books do not get reviewed or receive awards. There are, however, a few success stories–books that sold well or led to other book sales. The choice, ultimately, is yours.
Q: I haven’t read any kids’ books recently, but they must be simple to write. Wouldn’t it be pretty easy to knock off a few while I’m learning to write real adult stuff?
Q: Can I make a lot of money doing this?
A: Who knows? If you become a writer to get rich, you’re probably doomed to grave disappointment. However, the possibility to live off your writing always exists. Just remember that if you sell a manuscript today, that book will most likely not be on the shelves for at least a year. Royalty statements arrive every six months after publication. You get to keep your advance no matter what (make sure that’s in your contract), but you will receive no royalties if the advance doesn’t earn out. And once it is out, depending on its sales, it may not stay in print for long, meaning it may never earn out.
Q: Is there any easy way to break in?
A: Are you the boss’s son or daughter? Are you married to the boss’s son or daughter? Then maybe. Otherwise, the answer is a resounding no. Perseverance, timing, luck are all factors in what is currently a difficult market. We all like to think that good writing will always get published. Sadly, this is not always the case. But things run in cycles and the publishing business is no exception. Be persistent. Be smart. And write the best damn book you can!
Q: What about magazine markets?
A: Magazines are a great place to break in. Learn the basics of marketing. Some magazines buy all rights. That means you can never sell the story again unless you get the rights back. Some magazines pay on publication. That means you won’t be paid until your story appears in print. This could take a year or more.
Q: What about classes and critique groups?
A: A good idea. Harold Underdown has a list of them on his site.
Many colleges offer classes as well.
Q: I’m thinking about taking a correspondence course from the Institute for Children’s Literature. Does anyone know anything about them?
A: The organization is legitimate. Opinions on the value of the lessons varies.
Q: What is the SCBWI?
A: The Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators is a national organization for writers and artists. Anyone can join. The society publishes a newsletter and other resources, which members may obtain online. It is especially well-known for hosting conferences all around the country.
Q: Is there a good book on writing for children?
A: There are many, including:
How to Write a Children’s Book and Get It Published – Barbara Seuling
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books – Harold Underdown and Lynne Rominger
It’s a Bunny-Eat-Bunny World– Olga Litowinsky
The ABC’s of Writing for Children – Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff
Writing for Young Adults – Sherry Garland
The Business of Writing for Children – Aaron Shepard
The Art of Writing for Children – Connie Epstein
A Sense of Wonder – Katherine Paterson
Writing for Children – Catherine Woolley
Writing for Children and Teenagers – Lee Wyndham
Writing Books for Young People – James Cross Giblin
Guide to Writing for Children – Jane Yolen
Writing Young Adult Novels – Hadley Irwin & Jeanette Eyerly
The Children’s Picture Book (How to write it and sell it) -Ellen M. Roberts
How to Write and Illustrate Children’s Books and Get them
Published – Bickwell and Trotman
Career Starter – Laura Backes and Jon Bard
(they also publish Children’s Book Insider; for subscription rates go to: https://writeforkids.org/about/)
Don’t restrict yourself to books on writing for children. A good writing book covering any area is worth reading. Some of the best are:
The Art of Fiction – John Gardner
On Becoming a Novelist – John Gardner
The Art of Dramatic Writing – Lajos Egri
Creating Unforgettable Characters – Linda Seger
A Writer’s Time – Kenneth Achity
The Writer’s Journey – Christopher Vogler
Writing for Story – Jon Franklin
The Elements of Style – Strunk & White
Writing Down the Bones – Natalie Goldberg
Plot Workshop and Character Workshop – Katherine Ploeger
Q: What are some useful web sites for children’s writers?
Children’s Literature Web Guide: www.ucalgary.ca/~dkbrown/
The Former Children’s Writers Chat Gang:
Children’s Writers Chat no longer exists, but we remember it with fondness.
This FAQ was written by Anne LeMieux (Swan522), David Lubar (DLubar) and Marilyn Singer (WriterBabe) for the AOL Children’s Writers Chat. Permission to reprint it is granted for non-profit use only, as long as credit is given.