“I’ve written a children’s book…now what?”
As a published author, I hear this question a lot. Technology has made many things easier, but the publishing industry is still pretty standard. Sure, you could go the self-published route, which has earned a much better reputation than the past (but some small publishing houses are glorified self-publishers, so you have to be careful. Do your homework!), but you’ll still need to follow these first few steps.
First off, if you’ve written a picture book, and you’re not a professional artist, DON’T illustrate it unless you are self publishing. Don’t find someone to illustrate it, or take pictures to submit alongside. Let the publishing editors do that; it’s their jobs. All you’re going to be submitting are the words to the story. (That’s a relief, right?) Other beginner tips are here in a fun video worth watching: https://bitsykemper.wordpress.com/video/
Be honest: is it ready?
Really ready? I know you are excited to get your story out there–but hold on, Sally. Your first step ISN’T finding an agent. Your first step is getting your work polished and perfect. You only have one chance to make a first impression with editors and publishers. Don’t submit a manuscript that’s “almost ready.” I encourage you to take a bigger-picture look at getting not just editing help but overall writing guidance, especially if this is your first manuscript (or art/portfolio submission). Take the time to make sure it’s in the very best shape it can be. Non-fiction books, for example, need lots of research. Tips on how and where to do that research is here: http://www.darcypattison.com/picture-books/nonfiction-research-required/ Research aside, you’ve got to fix typos, ensure your story arc is strong, your main characters are likeable, and so on. How does your story compare with what’s selling today—both in topic, word count, and style? Make sure your work is in top shape. One tip I suggest new writers do is read 100 picture books (they’re short!) before they start the editing phase of their first manuscript, because there is so much to learn by reading other works, and by understanding the general formula and format that editors are looking for. At least read 50! No, I’m not kidding. There is a reason those books are published and you’ve got to figure out why. I’ve created a checklist that details all this, plus a discussion on strong beginnings, satisfying endings, and more at: https://bitsykemper.wordpress.com/2015/11/09/is-my-picture-book-ready-a-13-point-checklist/ ⇐Read this!
So, yeah, you might NOT be finished with that book afterall. There are authors that have taken SIX YEARS perfecting their manuscript, and they don’t regret a minute. You, your manuscript, and your readers are worth taking the time to do it right. Don’t rush it. SCBWI is here to help! Learn with us! Attend a workshop, conference, webinar, meet & greet, anything to connect with this wonderful writing and illustrating community. We’re great peeps! Find a critique partner in your region (ask your RA for help in finding some). Consider a Mentorship Program (http://www.scbwi.org/scbwi-mentorship-programs/; The Carolinas, Iowa, and Minn, for example, offer programs that fit members outside their immediate region. It can get expensive, but can be worth every penny. Professionals work directly with you and your manuscript one on one, some for several months.) If you want to hire editing help, “The Book” from SCBWI lists many reputable freelance editors you might want to contact. They each have different rates and processes, but are all professionals. http://www.scbwi.org/online-resources/the-book/Paid-for help is something to consider—but not necessary! Go online and check out the TON of free resources available online—open 24/7—to members only, like training videos and “bulletin boards” at scbwi.org! You have to be logged in at SCBWI.org order to access many of the helpful pages. Other excellent resources include http://www.kidlit411.com/ (too much great content to list!), http://www.writersdigest.com/forum/ and http://writeforkids.org/.
Do you need a strong social media presence—website, blog, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, Facebook, blah blah? Hmm. Define “strong.” The easy answer is yes, you need to be online and searchable in someway, for no other reason than it gets you practice being social and connecting with other like-minded creators. Some editors insist a social media platform is vital while others couldn’t care less. But don’t fake 2,000 Twitter followers or suddenly force yourself to gather 500 new Facebook friends just to get in the game. Be genuine. If you’re new to social media, it’s ok. But don’t ignore it. It’s not going away. It’s better to start true relationships now than to troll for friends only when you need them later. People know when you’re using them. Find some great social media tips from author Jenny Bravo here: http://jennybravobooks.com/blog/social-media-for-writers, some author platform tips from moi here, and some Twitter-specific basics here.
Find an Agent, Editor
(Either, not both) Once you’re certain your manuscript is ready (you’ve researched the industry, you’ve had a critique group look at it, it’s edited with no errors, et al), it’s time to find an editor or agent. Which one? The right one, not just any one. Spend time finding a good fit. You’ll be working with them for upwards of three years per book(!!). In this industry, you can submit directly to many editors at a publishing houses; you don’t NEED an agent. Yes, one will absolutely probably most likely help you. Get the scoop on if you should pursue an agent or if you should stick it out solo in this “How do I find an agent” post. (FYI I’ve got 16 books in print, no agent.) Whether or not you decide to get an agent or to submit directly, you’ll need to figure out who is the best person to send to. And where (which ‘house’). The BEST resource for that is SCBWI’s THE BOOK. Available to members online, you can also order a hard copy to be printed and mailed to your house for a nominal fee (I order one every year, dog ear the heck out of pages, and make scribble notes all over it!): http://www.scbwi.org/online-resources/the-book/ You have to be a member and logged in at SCBWI.org order to access it.
Write Query or Pitch Letter
Now you’re ready to submit! Start writing those agent query or Dear Editor pitch letters. The difference between a query letter and a pitch letter is best described this way: A pitch letter is sent directly to an editor or agent, with your manuscript, for them to consider taking on your work for publication. A query is a letter sent to see if the editor or agent is interested in seeing your manuscript, for the ultimate goal of taking it on; it’s the pre-step of submitting. THE MANUSCRIPT IS NOT SENT with a query–just a description of it is. Typically this is sent to a closed house where you have to ask permission before submitting. A great explanation of a query letter, and how it should include a pitch and synopsis is here: http://www.soyouthinkyoucanwrite.com/2015/09/the-pitch-query-and-synopsis-a-primer/. A great “how to write a query letter” is here: https://kidlit.com/2009/08/05/writing-a-simple-compelling-query/ Almost all submissions are done online now, although some houses still insist on paper subs. Find out all this detail, along with contact information and names of editors and agents at good ol’ SCBWI’s “The Book” (which you have to be logged in at SCBWI.org order to access). ALWAYS VERIFY INFO ON THE HOUSE’S OWN WEBSITE BEFORE SUBMITTING! Things change fast these days and you don’t want to submit to someone that changes houses four months ago, or waste your time submitting to a house that is now closed.
Chronicle Books has stellar advice of their own, which backs up most of the advice above: http://www.chroniclebooks.com/blog/2014/12/17/so-youve-written-a-childrens-book-now-what/ and a self-pubbed author named Carrie Lowrence shares her experience with the detailed steps she took here: https://horkeyhandbook.com/wrote-childrens-book-idea-execution/
Hopefully this is helpful. I encourage you to take a step back, catch your breath, and make sure your story elements are perfect before you spend the time (or money) on copy editing or, of course, submitting. One of the tips I learned from Writers Ink was to set your story aside for two or three months, then come back to it with fresh eyes. Amazing how different it looks! I know 90 days seems like FOREVER but you will thank your three-month-future-self for waiting. Your story deserves the best care you can give it 🙂
It’s not going to be easy, but it’s going to be worth it, even if you never get published. If you love writing, you love writing! Best of luck to you and your work. I am certain you’ll find ways to make it shine, and to make yourself proud.
Go get ‘em!