What does it take to author and illustrate kids books?
September 15, 2009 9:10 AM   Subscribe

My wife and I are interested in writing and illustrating kids books and getting them published. I realize there are plenty of neat books great illustrations, so what's the best way to find out what we'd be getting into if we were to pursue this as a hobby, or even as a main source of income?
posted by filthy light thief to Work & Money (16 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators is a good place to start--look for regional events in your area.

A warning, though: I know several people (my former professor is one) who have written a number of children's books; I don't know any who do it as a main source of income. It's not exactly a cash cow.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:35 AM on September 15, 2009

Best answer: There's a newsletter called "Childrens Book Insider" and there are a ton of workshops & conferences you can attend, for example, the Children's Writing Workshop at Big Sur in December.
posted by GuyZero at 9:40 AM on September 15, 2009

It may sound pithy, but I would start doing them as blog posts. While not a children's book, exactly, Why's Poignant Guide To Ruby (by why the lucky stiff) is pretty much what I'm talking about. Even though that hasn't been published in book form, people certainly are getting book deals of and through their online work.
posted by rhizome at 9:54 AM on September 15, 2009

Response by poster: Fantastic! Thanks for the tips, anecdotes and information.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:16 AM on September 15, 2009

Response by poster: Dag nabit .. Big Sur sounded so awesome, but $720 per person would be quite an investment at this moment. Interesting to see that it's an annual event.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:18 AM on September 15, 2009

Response by poster: It seems that Write 4 Kids is home to Children's Book Insider. Thanks again!
posted by filthy light thief at 10:21 AM on September 15, 2009

My wife went to Big Sur last year although it got moved to Seaside because of the mud slides in Big Sur. She liked it a lot but I think it would be best to go with a manuscript as a lot of the sessions are workshops & feedback. It is an investment but writing is only a profitable enterprise for a few writers. I think that if you want to make money writing, your best bet is to run a writer's conference. ;)
posted by GuyZero at 10:32 AM on September 15, 2009

Also, as an FYI, it is very rare for major commercial publishers to allow an author to illustrate their own children's book. That said, I am firmly convinced that truly great books will find a market. Do it for the love, not the money!
posted by mynameisluka at 10:38 AM on September 15, 2009

I'm not sure that you can go about it by wanting to be a children's book author. Writing is something you DO, not something you ARE. Write a story and find some kids to share it with. If you're willing to do it as a hobby, don't start with dreams of books and money. Volunteer at a school or library.
posted by rikschell at 10:41 AM on September 15, 2009

Best answer: Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market is another bible for people in this field--practically every library will have a copy. You can also sign up for a free newsletter at their website.
posted by carrienation at 10:45 AM on September 15, 2009

Best answer: 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. Look critically at the illustrations and ask yourself, in particular, whether your illustration skills are strong enough that your pictures would look professional when stacked up against what's out there. 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.

Don't just think about picture book ideas. Try actually writing them and see how they work. It's a lot tougher to write a picture book than you might think!

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

Good luck!
posted by cider at 11:31 AM on September 15, 2009

Seconding PhoBWanKenobi's comment.

I used to work at an agency that reps commercial illustrators. The vast majority of the illustrators had a day job - illustration was just a supplemental income. Even the rare few who managed to score a children's book were not full-time illustrators.

Also - you can't just submit a book to a large publisher. It doesn't work like that. They don't even look at unsolicited submissions and even if they did, the publishing schedule is already filled for at least a year or more. If you don't have an agent to get you in the door, it is better to not waste your time trying to get the right person on the phone. Also, don't try to get an agent - that is another huge time suck that takes your eye off the ball. When you get to a certain place, an agent will come to you.

That said - you should just publish on your own. Start local. The web is fine, but you'll build up something stronger and more resilient if you start in your own town. Readings at the library. Donate some self-published books to a school. Get a community behind you and doors will start to open up slowly. Stay consistent with certain characters and a certain aesthetic so you can start to build a visual brand. Publishers like consistency - it shows a depth of experience (as opposed to lots of little different ideas). If you draw it, with a little bit of luck, the readers will come.
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 11:36 AM on September 15, 2009

Best answer: you should just publish on your own.

This is generally a horrible idea with children's picture books, because the cost of good color separations means that short-run or digital printing translates to a prohibitively expensive per-book cost. The picture book industry exists because of large print runs at printers in Indonesia, Thailand, and other places with cheap labor--that's the only way you can get the per-unit costs down enough for it to make sense.

Another resource for people involved in children's books is VerlaKay.com. There are folks on the forums there who have tried the self-publishing route and they can give you detailed information about why it's hard to work.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:41 AM on September 15, 2009

Response by poster: it is very rare for major commercial publishers to allow an author to illustrate their own children's book

Interesting - can you elaborate? Is it because publishers like to use people with set and reliable styles?

I'm not sure that you can go about it by wanting to be a children's book author. Writing is something you DO, not something you ARE.

I understand. At this point, we've started telling some stories in a world we've made up together, and we thought it would be fun to try. I doubt my current illustration skills, but this is something I want to get into, not just with the idea of illustrating our little story world.

Also, go to your local library or bookstore and read as many CURRENT picture books as you can.

I'm looking forward to this part =) I've been thinking about the books that my parents read to me as a kid, and I'm interested in seeing how things have changed. The only recent book I've picked up was Neil Gaiman's Wolves in the Walls, which seems a shade dark, though I could be undervaluing kids interest in the spooky.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:28 PM on September 15, 2009

Best answer: Neil just happens to be a particularly spooky author; there're all types of children's books.

Publishers don't tend to allow authors to illustrate their own children's books because very few authors know enough about both writing and illustrating children's books to make a marketable one. Picture books are a very competitive market, and publishers aren't going to take risks on anything they don't think has a chance. Usually they don't even let the author and the illustrator talk to each other, for fear of (primarily) the author negatively influencing the illustrator's work with the author's expectations. The very general process of publishing a children's book is that the author submits the manuscript, the publisher accepts it, and then the publisher hires an illustrator they think will do a good job illustrating that particular story. The author has almost no say over how the illustrations end up.

If you and your wife really want to both write and illustrate your books, I recommend you first put together a really awesome manuscript. While you're doing that, you should work on your illustration ability until your no longer doubt it in any way. When you're done with your manuscript, you want to submit it to publishers; like infinitefloatingbrains says above, most large publishers won't even look at works that come in without agents. However, there are plenty of smaller publishers out there, and some even do children's books. You'll want to do a lot of research on any publisher you submit to, to see if your manuscript is something they even might publish. SCBWI should be able to help with that. Also, SCBWI events are the places you're most likely to be able to get your manuscript in front of an actual children's book editor; they often have editors come in and have pitch tables at their events.

If and when a publisher accepts your manuscripts, you can then, during contract negotiations, ask if you can put yourself forward as a candidate for illustrator. You'll want to have a small but nice portfolio of work ready if they say sure. Then they may or may not pick you.

The fact is that most of the time children's book author/illustrators were either authors or illustrators for a while and already had a working relationship with one or more publishers before they got the chance to write and illustrate their own books. Almost no one makes a full time living as either a children's book author or illustrator, and those that do have multiple projects going all the time. It's a tough business, it's not easy to write even an adequate children's book, and anyone who thinks it is is either crazy and never going to get published, or lucky, or a famous person whose books probably aren't great but are bought because their name alone can move books. Most people do it because they love it, deeply, and they've put a lot of time and effort into learning how to do it.

I'm not trying to be discouraging here, just realistic. If you really love it and are willing to put in the time and effort, I say go for it. Just don't expect to quit your day job.
posted by Caduceus at 1:14 PM on September 15, 2009

As an aside, I'd recommend the book Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, which is a collection of letters written by the editor of most of the famous picture books and children's books of the 1930s-1960s or so - although of course some aspects are a bit out of date, you really get a sense for how the publishing side of things works and how a good editor will work separately with the author and stable of illustrators to get things going. It's inspiring at times!
posted by muscatlove at 6:51 PM on September 15, 2009

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