Children’s Writing Weblog

Children’s Book Fiction & Nonfiction: Can a Non-Celebrity Get Published?

Posted on: October 20, 2009

Sure, it’s frustrating. You work tirelessly on your manuscript, revise, re-write and revise again. You send it off to publishers and get a mailbox full of rejections. Meanwhile, some rock star or athlete gets a big money deal to write a children’s book without lifting a finger.

Well, that’s the way the world works. No need to get depressed. Just get to work. Non-celebrities get book deals every day. Here’s how you can do the same.

Step 1: Learn the Rules.

If you’re not famous, your children’s book fiction or nonfiction manuscript or query letter takes the same path as the rest of the non-celebrities. It gets dropped, as part of a huge pile, on the desk of an underpaid, overworked editorial assistant (or a freelance reader). Her job is to sift through the pile of dross and find a few nuggets of gold, and then pass them on to an equally overworked and underpaid editor. The editor then reads through the smaller pile, pulls out the submissions that catch her eye, and brings them to an editorial meeting. If the overall consensus is “yes, this is a book we want to publish”, you’re on your way to partying it up with Madonna in the special “Children’s Writers’ VIP Lounge” at the Viper Room.

Buried in that timeline is some bad news, and some good news. First the bad news: The editorial assistant weeds out up to 95% of the submissions that arrive. In other words, the great majority of submissions to a publishing house never even make it to a person in a position to publish it. Why not? They may, of course, simply be awful submissions, laden with poor grammar, misspellings and hackneyed writing. They may be the clear work of amateurs, handwritten on lined paper with childish drawings. Or, and this is where there’s some hope, they may simply get rejected because they’re the less obvious work of amateurs.

More subtle things, such as using single spacing rather that double spacing, or a manuscript whose word count is out of kilter with the “norm” is sometimes all it takes for an EA to say “Beginner”. Rejection.”

So here’s the good news: simply by learning the specific, but not wildly arcane, rules of children’s publishing, you can leapfrog over the madding crowd. When an EA or reader sees a manuscript that comes from someone who clearly knows how it’s done, they’re far more likely to give it a fair reading, and far less squeamish about turning it over to the boss.

Step 2: Write to the Publisher’s Needs.

The problem with many aspiring children’s book writers is that they have a specific idea from which they won’t budge. To be honest, it’s often a pretty dumb idea and, even if it’s halfway decent, chances are it’s been done many times already. Look, I know your dream is to write that book about the talking scrubber brush and his sinkside pals, but put the dream on hold for a bit. The absolute best way to get published is to figure out what publishers want – and give it to them.

Here’s an example: Schools desperately need fiction and nonfiction books that integrate into curricula. Publishers, thus, are eager to provide said books, as schools are big and dependable customers who are likely to buy directly from the publisher, offering even a better profit margin.

And you’re response to this is..? Hopefully, it’s “Hey, I’m gonna write some books that tie in with school curricula!”

This is just one example – publishers have all sorts of often unglamorous niches they need filled. How to find out? Send for their guidelines and catalog. Often, they’re quite straightforward about their needs, other times you need to read between the lines of the catalog to figure it out. But the answer is usually there.

And, seriously, let’s see Brad Pitt try to write an exciting thriller about the passage of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act.

Step 3: Learn to Craft a Great Query Letter.

Your query letter (used if you’re submitting a few sample chapters of a longer manuscript) or cover letter (used to accompany and introduce a complete manuscript) is your chance to really earn the sale. Almost always, it’s a wasted opportunity filled with irrelevance (I’m the mother of three and I’ve always dreamed of writing a children’s book!), pleading (It would mean so much to me to have this book published!) and ludicrous assertions (Everyone tells me I’m the next J.K. Rowling!).

A good query letter is basically this: a powerful sales letter meant to convince a publisher that it is in its best interests to publish your book. Essentially, you need to tell them that your book fits their needs and will sell to their current market and will expand into new markets. Tell them, specifically, how you will be able to deliver readers (e.g. I have a weekly blog read by more than 30,000 parents and my website attracts 60,000 visitors a month) and how there is a defined need for your book and how you will reach the target customers (e.g. There are more than a half million foster children in America. These children, their foster parents and foster siblings need books like mine to help make sense of their situations. I will promote my book directly to them through organizations, conferences, newsletters and websites.)

To succeed in publishing, you must strip away the romantic nonsense you’ve been brought up with and see things as they are. Children’s books aren’t published by magical elves. They’re published by business people (albeit, business people who, thankfully, often genuinely love the books they publish). Display to an editor that your book will be an artistic and financial success and you’re taking a big step in the right direction.

Step 4: Write to an Existing, Underserved Market.

Sometimes the concept of writing to a publisher’s needs can be turned on its head. Perhaps there’s a sizeable, outstanding market that no one is serving and you can convince a publisher that its just the one to serve it. It could be anything – children of interracial marriage, girls who like jazz, boys who play piano, American kids who dig the game of cricket – if there are enough of them out there and are too few books for them to read, you may very well be introducing a publisher to a potentially lucrative market.

Do your research. Talk to trade associations, government experts, owners of websites that serve specific markets or anyone else who can give you some supporting backup on the size of your target group. Search Books in Print for already existing titles that target the group. Speak with librarians and booksellers to get their viewpoint on needs. And include it all in a great query letter.

Step 5: Listen to the Pros.

There’s no need to go it alone. Take the time (and spend a few bucks) to listen to others who have made the journey. Writing conferences, workshops (visit for an excellent one), books and newsletters (such as Children’s Book Insider) can dramatically increase your chances of getting published by helping you avoid typical mistakes and pitfalls.

Interested in learning how to write a book and send it to children’s book publishers? Come on over to The CBI Clubhouse for audios, videos, insider writing tips and much, much more!

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