Writing for Kids

First off, let me warn you all: every parent, grandparent, teacher, and librarian dreams of writing a kids’ book. A lot of them actually write one and send it off to one or more publishers. The “slush pile” is the stack of unsolicited manuscripts in the offices of the children’s editors. It’s high and most of it is not publishable. But editors know that hidden in there are a few gems, so the manuscripts are all read….by someone.

Often hired readers do the initial screening. An experienced reader can tell a book that is hopeless in the first few lines. The editorial assistants do more screening; and finally the few good manuscripts make it to an editor who might consider acquiring it. The final decision is often a committee decision and even the marketing people have a say.

A really outstanding book will make it through; editors do like to discover new talent, but it’s a very competitive world. Remember that editors are also looking at manuscripts that that come in directly from published writers and from agents representing writers. Those go into a different pile…but there is no sure thing. I have a big file of manuscripts that never made it into books. You are only as good as the manuscript they’re reading.

Let me digress for a second here and talk to those of you who are thinking that you’d like me to read and comment on your particular manuscript. I don’t do it. Partly because I don’t have the time and partly because I really don’t know what the publishers are looking for. Sometimes I spend an hour or two in the children’s section of a bookstore and I can’t find any books that I would have encouraged if I’d seen them in manuscript form. Which may be why I have that big pile of unpublished manuscripts. You don’t want my opinion.

OK. Back to the nitty gritty. Unless you are a fine illustrator and can compete with the talent that is available to editors, don’t try to get the book illustrated on your own. Just sell your words. I have never met any of my illustrators. An editor considers it her or his creative contribution to make a good match. If you lock yourself into an illustrator, you are creating a liability. The editor has to like not only your words but also the illustrator that you have chosen. If you think you have the perfect illustrator, wait until you sell the words and then ask the editor if you can submit some sketches. But never lock yourself in. The editor may have bought your book because she’s looking for the perfect vehicle for a Caldecott winner.

If your book is for young kids, the 32-page kind, do a “dummy,” a page of text for each page of the book. Study some books. Count the pages so you know where you want to begin (page 3 or page 4). Odd numbers are always on the right, even ones on the left. If you need something in the picture that isn’t written in the words, write the illustrator a note on that page. And remember, if it is meant to be fully illustrated, you don’t have to describe in words what the reader will see in the picture. Just be sure the illustrator knows what you have in mind. Keep the description down and the words minimal. (You might want to look at some books that talk about the difference between picture books and easy to read books.)

If your book is fiction and short, you really have to write the whole thing. If it’s fiction and long, you’ll need a few chapters and a full summary, chapter by chapter, of the whole book. If it’s non-fiction, you can try a query letter.

You can send to more than one editor, but don’t waste your (and their) time sending to houses that don’t do the kind of book you’ve written. Check the bookstores for your genre and see who is doing your kind of book. Also check (in the children’s room of a library) the spring and fall issues of Publisher’s Weekly which have ads from all the publishers. You can see which ones will be receptive to your genre.

Having said all that, I have to be honest and say that I have always had an agent. I hate the business end of things. Agents get 15% of everything you earn forever (on the books they sell). Getting an agent isn’t easy if it’s your first time out. Pick up a copy of Jeff Herman’s book on literary agents and publishers. It’s updated annually and worth studying. If you can’t locate it, try Literary Marketplace; they have a section on agents. Don’t send your manuscript to agents that charge to read it.

Always double space. Don’t package your book…just paper-clip the pages together (they make copies) and send it off. If it’s long, get a box, but don’t get it bound. And after about ten rejections, revisit the book and try to figure out why it’s being rejected. I have to do that to my pile one of these days.

And worst of all…..expect to wait forever for an answer, even a rejection. Six months is not unusual. Even from agents. And sometimes they never respond. Especially today when they know you can just print out another copy. They are not holding a precious original.

Royalties are usually 10% of the cover price (hard cover) which the author splits with the illustrator if there is one; 6% on paperback, also split with an illustrator (3% and 3%). You may be able to get an escalating clause that will give you more royalty if the book goes over a certain number of sales.

You will get a part of the advance when you sign the contract, some more when the manuscript is finalized, and the rest when the book is published. This varies with publisher and author and agent.

I’ve been out of the look for a long time, but I think most kids’ books get an advance between three and six thousand dollars. Hold out for a percent of the cover price, not net.

The advance is an advance against royalties, which means that if you get a three-thousand-dollar advance, you will not get any more money until the royalties due you equal three thousand dollars….until the book “earns out.” That means that if the cover price of your paperback is four dollars and your royalty is 3%, you will earn 12 cents a book. But before you see any more money, the book has to sell 25,000 copies.

Oh yeah. You will get a royalty statement every six months. They hold onto your money for six months and get another three or four months to write the check, which means you will know how the book is doing nine or ten months after it is published.

This is not a profession for the faint hearted. Many, probably most books never get any more money after the advance. So don’t quit your day job.

There are lots of books about writing kids’ books that will give you more details. The best is “The Writer’s Guide toCrafting Stories for Children” by my friend and collaborator, Nancy Lamb. If you are thinking of writing a kids’ book, you should get it immediately! I still use it for research whenever I have to give a talk about writing for kids.

Before I leave, I would like to recommend the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) conferences. They’re all over the country (the only one I have been to is the one in LA in August…I used to go every year). They do a wonderful job of making everyone feel welcome and you can even get college credit for it. Their website is www.scbwi.org.

Good luck.