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The Basics of Children's Writing and Illustrating
by Harold Underdown
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This is introductory information for people wanting to get published as a children's book writer or illustrator in the United States. I have worked for more than 20 years in hardcover children's books: for Macmillan, Orchard, and Charlesbridge, whose books are sold to libraries, schools, and bookstores; and more recently as an independent editor. I also have some experience in educational publishing, but I haven't worked in mass market publishing--the publishing of inexpensive books by companies such as Landoll's--or magazine publishing, so look elsewhere for guidance in those areas.You've written a story your family enjoys or painted some illustrations that your friends tell you are wonderful. Maybe you read your story out loud to a group of children, and they liked it.
Does this describe your situation?
Stop! Do not rush out, make 20 copies of your work and send them off to all the agents and publishers you know. Agents and publishers get thousands of manuscript submissions a year, and almost as many art samples. But some don't even read this mail, known as unsolicited manuscripts or "slush." Some specialize in one genre or another, and won't even look at something that isn't targeted at their needs. You can waste a lot of time and patience if you don't know about these and other pitfalls. Read on--but if this is too basic to help, have a look at some of the other articles on my site. For far more detail, consult my book, The C.I. Guide to Publishing Children's Books (you'll find some sample chapters available for free.) And if you have a very specific question to which you can't find the answer, search the site, or check my FAQ file and my Purple Crayon Blog, which compiles many questions and answers.First, before you go any further, take a minute to think about your motivations. Be aware that very few people, even established writers and illustrators, can make enough to live solely on the income from their books (typically, you receive a "royalty," a percentage of either the list price or the publisher's net receipts, or a "flat fee," a one-time-only lump sum payment). Be aware that the odds are against you, that only a few of the thousands of manuscripts a children's book publisher receives in a year will ever be published. If these things don't bother you, if you love to write or illustrate and would do it even if you would never make much money, and even if you never were published by a major publisher, then you may find the process worthwhile. Writing or illustrating because you must, because it is meaningful to you, can be very satisfying.
Why are you doing this?No matter how driven you are, you may not be the best judge of whether or not your work is ready to be submitted to a publisher. It helps tremendously to have your work evaluated by a professional, but not by just showing it to a librarian or teacher friend. It needs to be critiqued by a professional writer, editor, or artist. How can you accomplish this?
When are you ready to send your manuscript?
- Take a class at a local college.
- Join a writer's or illustrator's group, preferably one where real criticism is offered.
- Get a critique at a conference like those sponsored by the SCBWI (see below).
- Hire a freelance editor like me--probably not me, since my rates are high and I'm not always available.
One thing that you can do to develop your sense of what might interest today's publishers is to read many current children's books, and learn what is out there. There are many wonderful books being published now (and, of course, many that are not so wonderful), and tastes are different than they were when we were children. Don't do this so that you can imitate current successful writers or illustrators, but so that you will know if your work is a good match for the publishers you may end up contacting. I list some recent award winners in one section of the site, and you can learn about the different kinds of children's books and find recommendations for ones to read in A Family of Readers: The Book Lover's Guide to Children's and Young Adult Literature.
Agents and publishers open, close down, and move constantly. Some publishers rely on agents to "filter" their submissions, and don't look at unsolicited material--especially the larger ones, meaning you have to know the smaller independent publishers. How can you find the right one? First of all, try to zoom in on the right kind of publisher: see my article, "Trade vs. Mass Market vs. School 'n Library" for some help. Then try to find the right publisher or agent. I am constantly asked for recommendations of publishers, or for lists to use. Here are the resources I use, which I have found to be the most accurate sources of information. Most are not online; most online sources are not as comprehensive as what is in print:
Where do you submit?
- Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market (detailed review) -- Also known as CWIM, this guide provides detailed information about children's publishers, agents, organizations, and more. A very handy reference which should be on the desk of every aspiring author and illustrator. Though updated annually, you will also need to use the other sources mentioned here to keep track of changes between editions.
- Visit the WWW site of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), 8271 Beverly Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90048, and then join: They have lots of information available free to members, including publisher and agent listings, a newsletter (which notes changes at publishers), and conferences all over the country. They also help organize local writer's groups, folks who get together to read and critique one anothers' manuscripts. I know of illustrator's support groups too, though those are less wide-spread. You can reach them by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- To find out about what books are published by any publisher, if you don't have access to catalogs, which are your best option (and usually available on publisher websites in PDF form), there is a neat trick you can do on JacketFlap, drawing on the Amazon database. Go to their publishers section and you can view all the titles published by a particular publisher in a specific year, and narrow down the list in various ways as well.
- If you are in Canada, see my page on Children's Book Publishing in Canada for more information and links.
From your research, put together a small list of publishers who do the kind of book you intend yours to be, or agents who might be interested in your work. Check their websites for their guidelines. See the Sample Writer's Guidelines or Sample Artist's Guidelines for an idea of what to expect.
How do you submit?
Always follow the guidelines, and be sure you have an up-to-date version of them. If you don't know the name of an editor or a specific agent at an agency, address your envelope or email if that's what they prefer) to the Submissions Editor, and art samples to the Art Director. But check the publisher's guidelines. Some publishers, particularly the large corporate ones, have very specific requirements. They may require a name, or that all envelopes have clear return addresses, or that you send only a query letter first. If they do require a name, use the sources I list above to find one. Agents generally prefer email submissions, while publishers still tend to prefer real mail. Follow the guidelines!
For mail submissions, in your envelope, include a brief cover letter mentioning relevant experience. Put your return address on the envelope. Unless publishers or agents tell you otherwise in their guidelines, enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE) with adequate postage for the return of your materials. Always include a SASE, except for publishers who you know have a policy of not responding if not interested. Including a SASE is the polite, professional thing to do; if you don't want the materials back if the publisher isn't interested, say so in your cover letter, and include a business-size SASE for their response. Never send original art or the only copy of your ms. You don't need to copyright your materials before sending them in: unpublished art and text is stringently protected under copyright law, as I explain in more detail in my FAQ.
Query letters: Some places require a "query letter" from authors. In other words, you must first ask the agent or publisher if they want to see your manuscript. Sometimes, you need to include a sample of part of the manuscript. Be ready to send the entire manuscript if they say "yes." Do not be surprised to hear quickly in response to your query letter, and then not hear from them for months if they have asked to see the manuscript. Saying "yes" or "no" to a query is much easier and quicker than considering a manuscript. Sometimes, especially for picture books, the agent or editor will be happy to just see the manuscript.
Manuscripts: Type your story upper and lower case on plain paper, double-spaced. Use a standard, easily readable typeface. Put your return address on the first page. For more about formatting your manuscript, read Manuscript Format Basics. It's usually best to send only one manuscript at a time.
If your manuscript is intended to be a picture book or of similar length, send the entire manuscript; do not break it into pages with a few sentences each, as it would be in a book, just type it out as a story. If your manuscript is a novel or nonfiction of more than picture-book length, it is often OK and sometimes expected to send a query letter with a sample chapter or chapters, but be prepared to send the whole thing if requested. You don't need to indicate the age for which it is intended; that should be clear from the ms. itself.
Illustrations: Send color photocopies or tear sheets of your art; slides are usually not a good idea (see Getting Out of the Art File for more help). If electronic submissions are OK, follow their guidelines for formats. If you are an illustrator hoping to illustrate stories you have written, or want to show how you would handle an entire book, you can send a dummy book, with sketches and type in place, and a few finished samples (in this case, you might send this to an editor; samples by themselves go to an art director). Go into this with your eyes open--by doing this you may not get a contract to write and illustrate a book, but to illustrate someone else's.
Manuscript with illustrations: I've addressed this area in a separate article, Picture Book Manuscripts and Illustrations. If you don't want to read that, know this: If you are primarily a writer, there is absolutely no need to send illustrations with your manuscript. Publishers and agents expect to evaluate manuscripts without them--we don't need visual aids--and publishers choose and hire the illustrators for books. This is not an author's responsibility. I often hear from people with a friend or relative who wants to illustrate a book. Before you go along with such an idea, ask yourself if their work is at least equal in quality to the art you see in books published by the company to whom you are sending your manuscript. If it isn't, don't include it. If it is, you may send the manuscript with color photocopies of some of the art, or as a "dummy" (in book form) if you prefer. Make clear that you are offering these illustrations as a suggestion only. And remember that it would be better to wait until after you are offered a contract to make such a suggestion. If you are an illustrator, the reverse situation applies. It's fine to illustrate a text you've written, or that someone else has written, but don't expect publishers to buy both the text and your illustrations. Instead, see it as a way of showing what you would do if offered a contract to illustrate a book. Whoever you are, unless you don't mind increasing your chances of rejection, do not send a package of art and text that you insist must go together. This just gives a publisher another reason to turn it down, since the odds are that the publisher will want to choose the illustrator for the manuscript or will like the illustration style for a manuscript they already have, but not for the one you sent in.
You wait. Don't wait forever. If you don't hear within a reasonable time (defined by most people as 2-3 months), feel free to send your manuscript elsewhere, and send a note to the agent(s) or publisher(s) telling them you are doing so. Use your judgment as to how long you will wait, taking into account any signs of interest you may have received, your chances of placing the manuscript with another publisher, and so on. Don't actually withdraw the manuscript unless you have definite interest elsewhere--they may still get around to reading it. Illustrators should follow up mailings with phone calls, and try to make a trip to New York to take portfolios round. Send out new art samples every six months or so if you can afford it; it helps to be fresh in someone's mind.
How can you learn more?
Don't stop with one manuscript or mailing of samples. If you are serious, there is much more to learn that will help you become a published writer or illustrator. Joining an organization like the SCBWI or CANSCAIP can help, as mentioned above. Their conferences and newsletters are great sources of information, as are the other writers and illustrators you will meet. Talk to people you meet! You are all in the same boat, and you will not only learn from each other but be a source of support. You will also find more information elsewhere on my site, or by following the links on my site. And you will reach a point at which you will need to start to collect books. You don't need many. Just a few books, and a dictionary, will start your children's publishing bookshelf. Here are my suggestions, some of them linked through to Amazon for more information or purchase:
- A good dictionary
- The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Books (Link takes you to more information and sample chapters): I wrote this comprehensive guide to the children's publishing world. It covers all the basics from getting started to how to build a career once you are published. I'm biased, I know, but I don't know of any book that covers so much territory. It's not a guide to individual publishers or to writing, which is why I also suggest Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market and one of the writing guides you'll find in any bookstore or in the Resources section from the book.
- Chicago Manual of Style (Link takes you to a detailed review) This is the 2003 edition of the style guide used by almost all children's publishers. There has been a more recent one, but this one is still widely used. If you want to prepare a manuscript professionally, and find answers to obscure questions of punctuation, capitalization, spelling, and the like, this is a very valuable book to have. It will also be a very useful reference when working with your publisher--they will refer to it to justify changes they want to make to a manuscript.
- Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market (Link takes you to a detailed review): This extremely useful guide not only lists hundreds of publishers and agents for your work, with details about their publishing programs and submissions policies, but also includes interviews and other information. See a sample article I wrote for the 2009 edition: The Acquisition Process.
- One or two guides to writing or illustrating which resonate with you. One good guide for beginners is The Giblin Guide to Writing Children's Books. But there are a lot of options for writers, some of which are listed in the Resources section from my Idiot's Guide. Illustrators should look at either Uri Shulevitz's Writing with Pictures or Martin Salisbury's Illustrating Children's Books.
You will also find many how-to-write books, reference books, and other useful sources of information in the Resources section of my book, which I have posted for free on my web site, with information about the books listed. Start your own writer's or illustrator's bookshelf, and use it!
That's all I can think of for now. If this or one of my other articles doesn't answer your questions, please email me, I'll answer your question if I can, and I'll revise this. Please see the site policies regarding the use of this and other articles.
Copyright © 1995-2014 by Harold D. Underdown. Last modified 12/18/2014.
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