Seven things I would tell you about publishing a children's book if you bought me a drink and didn't mind me getting all worked up

I’m only at around 10,000 words with NaNoWriMo, but I think that’s pretty good considering I had a BUST column to finish this week. It makes me a little woozy having to go from high-volume unedited spewing to working on something that’s only 850 words. It’s like I spent most of yesterday building a little dainty delicate ship in a bottle with teeny tweezers and now it’s hard to go back to whacking big rocks with a shovel. This is all to explain why this children’s book publishing advice I’m about to give you now probably comes off like…whacking dainty ships-in-bottles with a shovel. My apologies. But here goes:

1. Don’t even think of submitting your picture book story to a major publisher with artwork (unless it’s your own). This means no illustrations drawn by your best friend, or your kid, or your computer, or the professional artist friend-of-a-friend who once did some work for Nickelodeon, or anyone else. It doesn’t matter if the art is good. It’s a bad idea. Art is to children’s book editors what hair is to America’s Next Top Model: the experts get to decide the look, not you. I know it’s hard to hear that the cute kitty pictures your cousin painted are as wrong as Bianca’s pink weave, but IT’S TRUE.

2. This also means that you have to write something that’s not a picture book yet. It will be open to an artist’s interpretation. It will become something very different than what you orginally imagined; you have to write a story that has both substance and possibilty. If this mystifies you or freaks you out, then chances are you’re either not inclined or not ready to write picture books. I won’t say it’s harder to do than other writing, because I don’t think it is—just that it’s a unique skill that some writers have and others (even very good writers) don’t.

3. On a related note, and because someone always asks: no, you can’t write one of those wordless picture books. Not unless you’re also the illustrator. Yeah, sorry, nobody is going to pay you for thinking up pictures you can’t draw.

4. The cover letter is where you mention your previous relevant publishing experience, if you have any. If you don’t have any previous relevant publishing experience, then the cover letter is just something I skim to make sure you’re not incarcerated or blatheringly insane. AND THAT IS ALL. Therefore please feel free to write a cover letter that is boring and standard and not at all the hustling, “attention-getting,” ingratiatingly assertive pageant-mom kind of letter that gives me cancer of the last nerve. Thank you.

5. If you think that you are the first person ever to write a children’s book about a about a specific subject, you’re probably wrong. Then again, not everything in the universe needs to have a children’s book about it, so if there really are no picture books out there about, say, asbestos abatement, maybe the world doesn’t need one that badly! I’m just saying.

6. If your story is something that you wrote for your kids, or your kids’ class, or the class that you teach, or the creative writing class that you’re taking, or if you sent it out as a Christmas card, then it’s probably not ready to submit to a publisher as a children’s picture book, no matter how much it impressed your family/friends/teacher in the first place. Maybe it can be a children’s book eventually, but you’ll have to take the time to learn a little bit about the business and probably rework your story, and the whole process takes awhile, and really, you should do it only if you really want to do it, not because your family/friends/teacher think you should. It’s nice of them to say so, but if you were wondering if your family/friends/teacher know something about children’s books that you don’t know, I’m here to tell you that they don’t. (Unless your family/friend/teacher happens to be me, in which case you have already heard me ranting about this.)

7. I’m telling you all this stuff just for today, but this lady does it every week, so if you want more, read her.

Comments

  1. says

    Hey, so, obviously you know your stuff, but I’m wondering where rule #1 would have left, say, Where The Wild Things Are, for instance. Or is the single-person-as-artst/illustrator a different set of considerations in and of him/herself?

  2. Wendy says

    Yes, it’s definitely a different set of considerations, based on the assumption that a writer/illustrator knows how to make words and pictures work together much better than two people trying to work together. It’s like the difference between walking and running a three-legged race.

    There are some writer-illustrator teams out there, so it’s not like it can’t ever be done, but in those cases both people have lots of book experience (and often, they’re married to each other, too). But for people who aren’t published yet and are just writing their first stories, recruiting an illustrator to work with them is like the blind leading the blind. Or the blind leading the ugly. Or blind leading the technically-competent-but-wildly-inappropriate. Or… you get the idea.

    (And I just edited Rule #1 so it makes more sense.)

  3. Wendy says

    Also (SEE HOW I GET WORKED UP?!), Maurice Sendak didn’t write Where the Wild Things Are until he’d been illustrating other people’s books for more than a decade. Sometimes it takes awhile for an author/illustrator to come up with something that really works as a whole.

  4. EditorialAnonymous says

    And it took even Maurice seven years to get it right. It started out as “Where the Wild Horses Are,” but, as I understand it, he couldn’t do horses as well as he wanted to.

  5. just say no says

    Just to try and keep your blog on topic, how about if I pitch a children’s book about a clever girl, fluent in pottymouthsmartass, who struggles with body image issues in a seemingly whippet-obsessed culture. She could do cool shit like take bike rides and try terrifyingly unfamiliar foods. The illustrations would consist of wry collages of photos taken from inane/campy/interesting places she travels to. Whaddya say?

  6. Stephanie Y says

    So pathetically true! Do’s & Dont’s had caused me hyper tension & nightmares…or perhaps cancer of that last nerve. Until then, nothing would happen.

  7. herschel says

    just say no has the smell of a thousand failed manuscript + doodle submissions about him/her.

    wendy, as a fellow reader of 1000+ word children’s book submissions, “my daughter illustrated and i wrote!”, “… and it rhymes!”, i cannot agree more with your sentiments. onward!

  8. Wendy says

    I’m not sure if just say no meant to be unkind. Mean or not, I thought it was pretty funny, so I left it up.

  9. says

    I have no inclination to get into the Children’s bookwriting business, but I hope “just say no” was being funny, because I totally appreciate any kind of insider information in any business I’m trying to get into.

    Just Say No has obviously got to be at least a closet fan — she knows too much history….

  10. amish says

    Hi Wendy,

    Enjoyed the rants and raves! I had NO idea that we aspiring children’s book writers were that obvious and typical in our behavior! I was both amused and horrified as I read your observations. But, better to shine a light in the dark corner of Authors WIthout a Clue, than allow us to continue to waste everyone’s time, including our own.

    I do have a question for you, which you seem to be open to as long as we’re not calling you at work. ;) If we work in a semi-related field (i.e., I’m a copywriter in the advertising field) is that worth mentioning in a cover letter? Or, could you give a rat’s *ss? My guess is “no, don’t mention it” as publishing and advertising are not the same. But, since I do write for a living, I thought that maybe an editor would take note.

    Thoughts?

    Thank you!

  11. Wendy says

    Yeah, “I’m a copywriter in the advertising field” will do. Mentioning briefly you do for a living is fine, even if it’s not writing-related, since the only writing we really care about is in the story itself.

    Knowing that you write for a living might make a difference if you send something that’s in the ballpark of what we’re looking for. On the other hand, I get lots of well-written things from professionals that aren’t close enough…

  12. amish says

    Thank you for your feedback. It was very helpful and I now know how to better handle those mysterious query letters! :)

  13. says

    THANK YOU.

    Gah. I’ve had so many friends say, “I want to write a children’s book and I want you to illustrate it.” It’s a compliment that they like my work, but a bit of an insult that they don’t know the first thing of how the business works.

    I’ll point them towards these links in case they are serious.

  14. says

    I’m sending this to every neighbor, ex-coworker, relative’s friend’s college roomate’s mother-in-law that calls me asking me to “draw really nice artwork” FOR FREE, for their great children’s book and how I should be grateful they’re even thinking about me (a working professional)

  15. Amber Rainsberry says

    Hi Wendy,

    Thank you for the great advice. I read about 20 children’s books a day to my 2 year old after my 10 hour work day, and have a vision of becoming a “brand” of children’s books. Since I am about to begin to look for a literary agent, it is great to know the “do’s and don’t” up front, and I am pleased to hear that it is better to submit without illustrations because I don’t want to do them anyways! :)

    I know it is a challenge to break into this industry and so many mom’s think that just because they have a child, they can become the next Sandra Boynton. I am really serious about this goal and believe that my books will be the type that parents love to read over and over to their children (since that is what they will be doing whether they like the book or not!).

    If you have an advice for me, I would love to hear it. And I will buy you a drink anytime! THANKS AGAIN!

  16. Lori Eaton says

    Wendy,

    In response to number one–I’ve found a couple of children’s publishing companies that say the WILL accept illustrations.
    In response to number six–I have written a story for each of my sons. (Write what you know.) Also, I’ve read my stories to teachers and kindergartners and 2nd graders, and they love them. I think that’s a good test of what’s marketable. If the students love them, then why not?!

  17. Wendy says

    Lori,

    Most publishers will consider illustrated submissions. The one I work for does. Whether or not we actually decide to publish them is another story. And I’m saying that unless you’re an experienced illustrator yourself you shouldn’t try to submit your story with artwork, because you will be wasting your time, putting your energy in the wrong direction, and hurting your chances. Of cours you’re free to try anyway, but know that I’m saying this because for the past decade I’ve seen countless people waste their time and hurt their chances at publication. Good luck.

    And the students may have loved your stories, but they also loved that you came to visit their class and they got to do something different for a half hour. It’s a nice thing to do, but the only thing it tests and proves is the theory “kids love it when someone reads a story to them.” And guess what? You’re not selling that. You’re selling a BOOK.

    Look, I’m writing what I know, too.