Frequently Asked Questions About Children's Writing

by Jon Bard, Children's Book Insider

  • I HAVE A STORY I'VE WRITTEN FOR CHILDREN. DO I NEED TO FIND SOMEONE TO ILLUSTRATE IT BEFORE I CAN SEND IT TO A PUBLISHER?
  • No.

    In fact, in cases where the author of a picture book is not also an artist, the publisher prefers to find its own illustrator for the book. The reason for this: often a publisher will match up a new author with a more experienced illustrator who has some name-recognition among book stores and teachers. Also, publishers have a stable of illustrators they have cultivated, and are always looking for new manuscripts for these illustrators to work on.

    Finally, publishers have a certain "look" they have developed for their individual lists, and the illustrator you choose for your manuscript may not have a style that fits with other books already published by that house.

    If you do know an artist that you want to work with, you can submit illustrations with your manuscript, but be prepared that the editor may like only the writing or only the illustrations and won't want to buy the entire package.


    • WHERE SHOULD I SEND MY MANUSCRIPT WHEN IT'S DONE?

    Finding the right publisher for your work involves a bit of detective work. A story that's wrong for one house may be perfect for another. To conduct your search for publishers, follow these steps:

    1. Purchase Children's Writers & Illustrators Market (Writer's Digest Books). You'll find it any large bookstore. It's a thorough listing of every important children's publisher, listing needs, personnel and more.
    2. Subscribe to a publication that will keep you informed of changes, new imprints and changing publisher needs. At Children's Book Insider, we devote the first two pages of each issue to such market news.
    3. Spend lots of time in your local bookstore, reading newer books. Look, in particular, for books that have a similar tone or theme as your manuscript. Note the name and address of the publishing company, and send for their catalog and writer's guidelines.
    4. Join a writers' group. You'll be amazed at the dossier of information most experienced children's writers have compiled about publishing houses.
    5. Scan the Web for publishers online. We've provided a link to many of the publishers on our home page.

    • THERE'S SO MUCH ABOUT WRITING AND SUBMITTING STORIES THAT I DON'T KNOW AND I'M QUITE INTIMIDATED. WHAT'S THE BEST WAY FOR A BEGINNER TO LEARN?
    1. Buy Career Starter -- it will answer all your questions without costing a fortune!
    2. Join your local chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators (call 323-782-1010 for more info.) In Canada, join CANSCAIP (416-654-0903).
    3. Get online and ask questions! Our message board is filled with very knowledgeable folks ready to help.

    • HOW DO I GET A COPYRIGHT?
      These links make it easy!

      * Great all-purpose copyright site: http://www.copyrightwebsite.com/

      * Copyright forms direct from the government: http://www.loc.gov/copyright/forms/

      * US Government's Frequently Asked Questions About Copyright:
      http://www.loc.gov/copyright/faq.html

      * Service that takes care of copyright registration for you:
      clickandcopyright.com

      * Copyright info for the United Kingdom:
      http://www.intellectual-property.gov.uk/


    • WHAT ABOUT MULTIPLE SUBMISSIONS? SHOULD I SEND MY MANUSCRIPT TO ONLY ONE PUBLISHER AT A TIME?

    Multiple submissions (also called "simultaneous submissions"), once taboo in children's publishing, have become commonplace. Editors understand that since it often takes them several months to respond to an unsolicited submission, it's only fair that writers be able to send their manuscripts to several publishers at once. There are still a few publishers, however, who only take exclusive submissions.

    The best thing to do is send a SASE (self-addressed, stamped envelope) to the Children's Editorial Department of each publisher to whom you plan to submit, and ask for writer's guidelines. They'll mail back their current guidelines, explaining what format submissions should take (query letter, entire manuscript, etc.) and whether or not they accept multiple submissions.

    When we've spoken to editors about this practice, they've all said it makes absolutely no difference in their final decision as to whether or not they're going to buy a manuscript, as long as the author states in the cover letter that it's a multiple submission. The editor simply likes to know that someone else might have your manuscript as well. We suggest, though, that you limit your submission of the same manuscript to five publishers at once, because it's easier to keep track of who has responded and where the manuscript is at any given time.


    • DO I NEED AN AGENT?

    It's not a question easily answered, but one which must be addressed as your writing career progresses.

    Before we begin, one important point: if your work is not salable, no agent-even the world's best agent-can sell it. The time to start thinking about agents is when you feel you've invested enough time and effort in your work to truly call it professional.

    First let's look at what the three main activities of an agent:

    • Guiding the client through the publishing maze.
    • Putting manuscripts on the desks of key editors.
    • Negotiating the best possible deal for his or her client.

    Agents are not paid directly by the client, rather, they earn a commission (usually 15%) from any money received from a sale. The client is responsible, however, for any expenses-postage, photocopying, long distance phone calls-generated on his or her behalf. Agents bill their clients periodically or subtract the expenses from an author's advance and royalty payments. A good agent is combination sales person and business manager, with a knowledge of the children's publishing market and of particular editors' preferences. Unless you're using a critique service, an agent is the first reader of your manuscript.

    Only after an agent agrees to represent you will he or she help correct flaws and improve your work. The next step: your manuscript is sent to appropriate editors until it sells, or you decide to terminate the submission process. If a sale is made, the agent negotiates the contract (including amount of advance and royalties), offering certain rights to the publisher and sometimes reserving other rights for future sales (such as book club or paperback rights).

    Your agent will also represent you in any dealings with the publisher when problems arise. Besides being able to decipher royalty statements, for example, an agent can challenge inaccurate payments without damaging your relationship with your publisher. Agents handle all the little things that occur during the publishing process that you don't understand or don't have patience for.

    Once the book is published, an agent tracks royalty payments, makes additional sales on any rights the author has retained, and sometimes assists the publisher in marketing the book. Agents are also useful in opening up new avenues for the writer's second book. Many agents actually generate projects for their clients, by perceiving that an editor is looking for a particular type of book, and matching that editor up with his or her client.

    MYTH: An agent can make you a better writer or illustrator.

    REALITY: If your story has been turned down by 25 publishing houses, representation will not make the story more salable, or appear to be better than it is. Only your own hard work will improve your skills-and your chances of success.

    MYTH: You will make more money-and faster-using an agent.

    REALITY: Strike one against that myth is the fact that an agent will take 15% off the top of anything you earn. Strike two is that editors really don't have a prejudice against unrepresented authors. They're just looking for the best stories they can find. (Some larger publishing houses have instituted a policy of reviewing only those submissions sent by agents, so check in advance if you're representing yourself.) Strike three is the simple truth that it takes a long time and a lot of hard work for anyone-represented or not-to make substantial money as a children's book author.

    MYTH: Hiring an agent means a guaranteed sale.

    REALITY: A surprisingly common misconception is that once an agent decides to represent a client, the work is as good as sold. Would that this were true! Agents take on clients they think they can sell, but publishing is subjective to the tastes of editors and shifts in the market, so nothing is ever guaranteed.

    Myths aside, here's what a good agent can provide:

    • Knowledge of the marketplace.
    • Knowledge of the publishing contract.
    • The time and energy to send your manuscript to editors.
    • The ability to have your work read faster than if you submitted it yourself.
    • Career advice that-if it's good-can help you for years to come.

    So now, back to the question: Should you hire an agent? We are, of course, going to weasel our way out of answering that directly, and with good reason-the choice must really be your own.

    We will, however, sum up by saying this: If you are a talented writer it is possible to get your first book published without an agent. It takes perseverance, an understanding of the market (visit book stores and see what publishers are up to), and confidence that you can handle the business end of your career.

    An agent can simplify the submission process, find opportunities you may not be aware of, save you time and effort, give good advice and, hopefully, provide some encouragement. If this is worth a 15% commission to you, follow the steps above and find the right agent. If not, be comforted by the fact that many non-represented authors find success on their own.


    • HOW DO I FIND AN AGENT?

    Recommendations from other writers are the best sources for names of agents. Here are two books that can also help:

    1. Guide To Literary Agents published by Writer's Digest Books (updated yearly).
    2. Literary Market Place published by R.R. Bowker (updated yearly, found in the research sections of most libraries).