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Picture Book Publishing 101
September 26, 2012 6:39 AM   Subscribe

I want to write a children's picture book, submit it to a publisher, and get it published. Now what?

I love picture books. I love the art, the clever writing, the ability to tell a story in 32 (or fewer!) pages. I love how authors slip bits in for the grownups reading them. I love the repetition some authors add so that kids can participate. I love reading picture books aloud to the kids I work with.

For about a year, I've been telling my own stories to the kids I work with. I make them up on the fly from the kids' suggestions, and have great fun doing it. Occasionally it has occurred to me that one of my stories would make a good picture book. Beyond that, I'm not sure how to proceed.

Please school me on Picture Book 101, everything from story to writing to submission to publishing. What resources should I be consulting? Bonus points if you've actually had a picture book published and can share your experience. Please note: I'm not looking for a vanity press to print my book and send me copies.

Some questions:
  • I have read this question and this one, so SCBWI membership and getting a copy of the current Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market are on my list. I'm looking for current information. Is the market still flooded? Does the greater use of Kindles and tablets affect things in the picture book market?
  • Please point me at the magazines, websites, blogs and books I should become familiar with. For instance, I'm guessing that there's annual directories of publishers with contact information and what they're looking for.
  • I will need an agent, I'm assuming. How do I get one?
  • For a regular book, I imagine I'd submit a manuscript in a particular format, but that would involve hundreds of pages. How do I format a picture book manuscript?
  • I have heard that publishers do NOT want picture book authors to submit illustrations along with the story; that the publishing company will find an illustrator should they decide to publish it. What other things should I avoid that will mark me as an amateur/noob?
  • Are there rough categories of picture books (i.e. alphabet, stories with morals, stories about school, etc.) that publishers use, and are there categories that are really hard to get a publisher to accept a book from?
  • Am I completely crazy for thinking I can do this? I like kids, I like books, I like telling stories. I like telling stories to kids. Do I stand a chance?
  • I have a relative who works for a large corporation that includes a large publisher as part of it. Though the relative is not on the publishing side, they have friends/colleagues who are. How do I best leverage that connection? The relative is willing and eager to help.
  • Let's say that everything goes my way and a publisher says yes to publishing my picture book. What happens next? How long is the process from acceptance to holding my book in my hand?

    Thank you!
  • posted by booksherpa to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
     
    I can't give you advice on a lot of this, because I'm not a picture book author, but I can address a few of these.

    Am I completely crazy for thinking I can do this? I like kids, I like books, I like telling stories. I like telling stories to kids. Do I stand a chance?

    Look, people talk them out of their ambitions all the time. I'm not entirely sure why. If you work hard at it, there's absolutely no reason why it shouldn't be any more possible for you to do this than it is for anyone else. Don't expect success to come over night. In fact, expect to spend at least a few years at it before you get anywhere--you might get there faster, but never, ever expect to. But don't take yourself out of the running by convincing yourself this is something that only preternaturally gifted or well-connected people do, either. Five years ago I set out to be an author and next year I'll see my first book on the shelf. Lots of people told me it was impractical or unlikely to happen, but from this side of the screen it seems more like a matter of simply not giving up and being absolutely tireless about your work. Take yourself seriously. Take your work seriously. And don't look for affirmation that you can stop, because the world is all too willing to talk people out of their dreams.

    This dream--the one that you're passionate about? No less likely than any other. In fact, because of your passion, it might be more likely. It's easier to work hard at things you care about it. Really.

    I have a relative who works for a large corporation that includes a large publisher as part of it. Though the relative is not on the publishing side, they have friends/colleagues who are. How do I best leverage that connection? The relative is willing and eager to help.

    Ask them to set you up for lunch with these people. Go to lunch and listen respectfully to what they have to say. Be friendly. Be well-informed. Don't hound them for favors. People in publishing know how it goes. If they want to see your book, they'll ask about it.

    Let's say that everything goes my way and a publisher says yes to publishing my picture book. What happens next? How long is the process from acceptance to holding my book in my hand?

    Two years is the standard.
    posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:10 AM on September 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


    The Cooperative Children's Book Center (CCBC) is a great resource that can help you track some of the trends, classics, highlights and recommendations in books for younger readers, particularly with input from educators and researchers.

    One great example of what the CCBC can help with is Kevin Henkes, winner of both the Caldecott Medal and Newbery Honor. He only attended UW-Madison for -- I think -- a year or so, but because he built a relationship with the CCBC and researched books, talked with their librarians, etc. he knew exactly what he wanted to do. So when this 19-year-old kid went out to New York with a proposal, he picked the right (major) publisher, sold it, and has been with them ever since -- almost unheard of in the publishing world. Check out this program (with which I was affiliated) to watch an interview. They didn't mention the CCBC as much as I would have liked (thanks, John), but Kevin always mentions it.

    One other super-awesome thing they have (slight derail, but it's worth it) is the archives of Ellen Raskin, writer of The Westing Game. I recently found the part of the CCBC site where Raskin herself discusses the book design of The Westing Game, which is pretty great. TWG isn't a picture book, of course, but this is the kind of depth their resources can offer in some cases.
    posted by Madamina at 7:44 AM on September 26, 2012


    I'm copying and pasting (and slightly revising) a previous comment here:

    I'm a children's book editor. Check out Harold Underdown's website, which has a lot of information for people getting started out in children's books. (Start with "The Basics", over in the left sidebar.)

    Also, go to your local library or bookstore and read as many CURRENT picture books as you can. Think about what makes them successful. Take some books home and analyze them; try typing their text out in manuscript form and see what they look like without pictures. (Just type the text on a single sheet of paper in sentence form -- don't leave extra room for page breaks.) That's how picture books are usually submitted to a publisher.

    Join a critique group and get feedback on your works-in-progress; SCBWI is a great place to start.

    Good luck! You're already ahead of the game, because you aren't assuming that writing a picture book is easy. It's very difficult, but if you're passionate about it and willing to put in the work, there's no reason you can't succeed.
    posted by cider at 8:00 AM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


    I have read this question and this one, so SCBWI membership and getting a copy of the current Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market are on my list.

    That's a good start.

    I'm looking for current information. Is the market still flooded? Does the greater use of Kindles and tablets affect things in the picture book market?

    No idea, but who cares? You shouldn't write to the market anyway.

    Please point me at the magazines, websites, blogs and books I should become familiar with. For instance, I'm guessing that there's annual directories of publishers with contact information and what they're looking for.

    Books: you should read picture books. LOTS of picture books.
    Blogs/websites: the archives of Editorial Anonymous will answer lots of your questions. Harold Underdown (Purple Crayon) has up-to-date "who works where" information.

    I will need an agent, I'm assuming. How do I get one?

    More and more so. But this isn't the question you need to worry about now. First, write a good book. A damn good book.

    For a regular book, I imagine I'd submit a manuscript in a particular format, but that would involve hundreds of pages. How do I format a picture book manuscript?

    Double-spaced, standard font. You can put line breaks where you imagine the page breaks to be, but that isn't strictly necessary. DON'T include illustration notes.

    I have heard that publishers do NOT want picture book authors to submit illustrations along with the story; that the publishing company will find an illustrator should they decide to publish it. What other things should I avoid that will mark me as an amateur/noob?

    That's correct. Other things:
    -writing in rhyme
    -including illustration notes
    -stories with overt morals
    -anthropomorphic objects
    -a story that requires some non-standard format
    -talking down to children

    Are there rough categories of picture books (i.e. alphabet, stories with morals, stories about school, etc.) that publishers use, and are there categories that are really hard to get a publisher to accept a book from?

    Not really. Of course people distinguish between different kinds of picture books, but if you mean, is there an alphabet book every season, and is that slot already filled, no, nothing like that. Actually, no one is looking for an alphabet book anyway.

    If you write a plain good, original story--not something that relies on gimmicks or rhyme or singy-songy language or a moral--that alone will stand out. It is hard to write a good original story.

    Am I completely crazy for thinking I can do this? I like kids, I like books, I like telling stories. I like telling stories to kids. Do I stand a chance?

    As much as anyone who works hard at their craft. Is that you? None of the above will make you a good picture book writer, but they are all good qualities in one. Practicing writing picture books will make you a good picture book writer.

    What cider said.

    I have a relative who works for a large corporation that includes a large publisher as part of it. Though the relative is not on the publishing side, they have friends/colleagues who are. How do I best leverage that connection? The relative is willing and eager to help.

    This is putting the cart before the horse. Write the book first. And then...don't leverage the connection. Children's book editors don't care what Fred in Accounting thinks, and they don't schedule lunches with hopeful authors. Besides, do you know how many people try to slip them a picture book manuscript? If you want a better chance of getting your work read, either go to conferences (like SCBWI) where editors sometimes invite submissions, or get an agent.

    Let's say that everything goes my way and a publisher says yes to publishing my picture book. What happens next? How long is the process from acceptance to holding my book in my hand?

    Yes, two years is about right.

    tl;dr: Read lots of picture books, then practice practice practice till you can write a good story. Worry about the rest later.
    posted by the_blizz at 8:08 AM on September 26, 2012


    Listen to cider.

    Thinking about those connections, it really depends where these individuals work in publishing, too. Editors are the shit. Editors are the ones who matter. But no, you shouldn't take these people for lunch in the hopes of getting a shortcut. You should meet people like this whenever you can because they're amazing people to talk to and learn from. Enthusiasm and friendliness go a long way (but often not in the way you'd think.)
    posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:12 AM on September 26, 2012


    Wow, tons of good advice from everyone! "Take some books home and analyze them; try typing their text out in manuscript form and see what they look like without pictures." stood out as an immediate next step for me to take.

    Is sharing a manuscript for a picture book with kid test readers as important as sharing it with an adult writing group? I would think so, since it's aimed at them, but at the same time, it'll be the adults in their life buying it.
    posted by booksherpa at 7:09 PM on September 26, 2012


    You guys are inspirational! Got up this morning determined to write and have a first draft of a picture book done. Next step: contacting the local SCBWI chapter and writing group.

    All of your responses were the kick in the pants I needed and gave me the knowledge of what next steps to take. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
    posted by booksherpa at 7:25 AM on September 27, 2012


    I think sharing it with kids will of course be important, as well as with their parents. I remember taking a class on children's literature in college and then sharing a title or two with a friend (who also happened to be an artist) with two young children. He looked at it and said something like, "Uh, it's really pretty, but where's the story? My kids aren't going to jump at it unless they can follow it in a certain way."

    So as much as it's important to look at the research, the best research you can do is see things in action with kids.
    posted by Madamina at 10:02 AM on September 27, 2012


    In terms of your connection, I would say that it's fine to try to use it, but that you should wait until you have a really strong manuscript before going that route. It's true that editors get approached all the time, and we're usually good sports about looking at things for friends of friends (depending on what company you work for: I've heard that some companies' legal departments actually won't let editors look at unsolicited manuscripts), but I'll only look at my colleague's nephew's project once, so make it count. (I don't want to be discouraging, but it may take months or years of writing, revising, and getting critques until you have something strong enough to be published.)
    posted by cider at 10:28 AM on September 27, 2012


    I'm a children's book reviewer and I would suggest showing your story idea, or preliminary manuscript, to some children and parents for initial feedback. There are a lot more mediocre books than excellent ones (just look on Kirkus at what a small percentage of titles get a star), and there are some downright awful ones (I have no idea how they get published). So I agree with other commentators that it's hard to write a good one. My list of what I think are the attributes of the excellent ones might be useful for you, and you are welcome to MeMail me if you want personal feedback on anything specific you are working on. I encourage you to pursue your passion, and may one more excellent book be generated in the process. Good luck.
    posted by Dansaman at 12:56 AM on September 28, 2012


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