Children’s Book Blog: Everything you always wanted to know about children’s publishing (but were afraid to ask)

Rebecca Davies
typewriter 300x198 Children’s Book Blog: Everything you always wanted to know about children’s publishing (but were afraid to ask)

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What do you have to do in order to be a successful children’s book author these days? Write a great story, naturally, but what about getting an agent, and marketing your book, and tweeting, and branding, and finding the right editor to work with, and entertaining school children while dressed up as a giant bunny rabbit and wielding a glitter gun?

And how do you even know what publishers, agents and booksellers are looking for in the first place, let alone the children and parents who will (hopefully) buy your books?

All these questions – and more – were addressed at a day-long conference hosted by indie publishers Nosy Crow last Saturday. And judging by the speed with which the event sold out, it looks like there are plenty of aspiring authors and illustrators out there eager for answers.

In case you didn’t manage to get your hands on a ticket, here are the top 25 tips I gleaned from the expert line-up of editors, authors, agents, marketers and booksellers who spoke on the day:

1. A good editor is crucial – whether you’re working with a traditional publishing house or self-publishing, you need someone knowledgeable and experienced to help you get some distance from your book and make it the best it can possibly be.

2. Although many people do manage without a literary agent these days, publishers still rely heavily agents when it comes to discovering new talent. Slush pile successes are still in the minority.

3. Make sure you include a killer cover letter when you submit a manuscript to an agent or editor. This is the first example of your writing they will see, so make it count! Keep it short and pithy and try to address your letter to an actual person rather than ‘Dear Sir/Madam’.

4. Do your research before submitting to an agent or editor; if you send them a YA fantasy novel and they don’t handle either YA or fantasy, you’ll only annoy them, and may put them off you for future projects.

5. If you’re lucky enough to be asked to meet an agent or publisher about your book, be open to suggestions. Most books change quite substantially during the editing process – even if they were really good to start off with – and being too precious about your work may put people off working with you.

6. Keep the international audience in mind. The more universal your themes, the wider appeal they will have (fantasy and historical fiction are both pretty safe bets when it comes to this). If you’re an illustrator, remember that some animals – bears, for example – are familiar worldwide whereas others – like hedgehogs – are not.

7. Don’t try to write in accordance with the latest literary trends; by the time your book is ready the market will be saturated and no-one will be interested.

8. If you’re a picture book writer, don’t send in illustrations with your work, even if you’re working with a professional illustrator. Most publishers prefer to match you up with the illustrator they think works best with your words. Only submit words and pictures together if you’re a bona fide author-illustrator.

9. Target up-and-coming literary agents and publishers; they’re likely to have more time for new talent than established agents who already have an existing author base to look after.

10. Make sure you have lots and lots of ideas in your story bank; agents and publishers are not interested in one-book wonders.

11. If you land a book deal – hurrah! – but don’t have an agent, join the Society of Authors, who will look over your contract for you and let you know whether its terms are reasonable or not.

12. Never ring up to see whether an agent or editor has looked at your manuscript yet. You can send a polite email, but only after a minimum of three months.

13. Hardly anyone gets there first (or even second, or third) book published, so don’t be disheartened if yours is rejected. Instead, come up with a new, better idea and get writing (easier said than done, I know, but it’s the only way!)

14. Get feedback and use it. Organisations like the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators are a good place to go for this and offer all sorts of other support too.

15. Once you’ve got your feedback, sleep on it; your initial response may be quite emotional – and not necessarily in a good way! – but you may find the advice actually makes good sense once you step back and analyse it rationally.

16. If you have a busy work or family life – and, let’s face it, who doesn’t? – discipline yourself to squeeze in a bit of writing or illustrating whenever you can. Plenty of successful writers wrote their first novel by setting aside just half an hour a day.

17.  Write about something that really interests you; you may end up working on the same story for years, and you don’t want to get bored of it before you’ve even finished. Also, if you find your story gripping, chances are other people will too.

18. Once you’re published, do as many live events as possible – in schools, libraries, bookshops and more – and make them as entertaining as possible for the children and parents who attend them. This way you’ll build up an enthusiastic fan base who are likely to remember you and buy your next book as well as the one you’re currently promoting. If you’re writing or illustrating for younger children, fancy dress, craft activities, magic tricks and ‘story sacks’ full of fun props are all good ways to hook your young audience’s attention.

19. Start blogging! Even if you haven’t published anything yet, it’s never too early to start building your author brand online. That way, once your book is ready, you’ll already have a platform to promote it from.

20. Use Twitter, Facebook and more to promote your work and connect with your readers, as well as other authors. Twitter is also a pretty useful research tool if you need to find out something you don’t know that much about yourself, for example, ‘What word would a 12-year-old boy use to describe something he thought was really, really good?’ (Probable answer: ‘Sick!’)

21. When coming up with story ideas, ask yourself not only what children want to read, but also what adults think children should be reading. Parents are usually the ones buying the books, so if you can appeal to them as well as their children, you’re on to a winner.

22. Booksellers, agents and publishers are all looking for ‘something different’ that will stand out in a crowded market, so do your research, see what’s already out there, and only start writing once you’re sure you’ve come up with the best possible idea you can.

23. To get into the top 5,000 best-selling children’s books in the UK, you need to sell around 100 copies of you book a week. That said, booksellers like to champion good books, and will be happy if a book sells 1,200 in total if it’s an author they’re really passionate about – another good reason to do events in bookshops and get the booksellers on your side.

24. Only 2 per cent of UK e-book sales this year were of books for children, so if you’re considering e-publishing a children’s book, it might be worth waiting until the market picks up (which hopefully it will!)

25. Persevere! So many people fall by the wayside either before they’ve finished their book or after having their books rejected. Yes, there are annoying people who have their first book snapped up and become overnight sensations, but most published authors could wallpaper their living rooms in rejection slips. It’s the ones who keep at it who ultimately succeed.

Rebecca Davies is a journalist and children’s author and completed her middle-grade novel, Shirley Smart and the Nix’s Curse earlier this year. You can read more of her children’s book blogs here

Follow Rebecca on Twitter @TheStoryMonster

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  • Michael Bian

    “A good editor is crucial.” yes indeed, even scientist does.
    It is nice.

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