Children’s Writing Weblog

How to Win Over a Children’s Book Publisher By Following Four Simple Rules

Posted on: December 9, 2009

I often talk about the “rules” of writing for kids and sending manuscripts to children’s book publishers, citing proper page lengths and story types for different age groups. A more apt term would probably be “guidelines”; these rules exist only to tell you what, in general, editors want to see in the manuscripts sent to them. And, of course, for every rule there are a number of exceptions. But while we’d all like to think our mansucript is strong enough to override the guidelines, this is usually not the case. Here are some rules that shouldn’t be ignored until you really know what you’re doing:

Don’t Write Rhyming Picture Books

Yes, you’ve seen them in the stores and kids like them. But children also like non-rhyming picture books. It takes a lot of skill and hard work to craft an original story, complete with unique characters, in about 1000 words. It takes a different skill entirely to tell that story in rhyme. If you’ve got it, great. But don’t assume that because your story is targeted at young children it has to rhyme. Always try to create it in prose first. After you’ve got the story on paper, decide if the rhyming format will add to the text. If the answer is yes, make sure it’s strong rhyme: it has a consistent meter, uses no clichés or extra words, and has a rhythm that is easy to read aloud.

Don’t Ignore Designated Word Lengths

No editor is going to turn down a great book just because the text length falls outside the average guidelines. If your young adult novel is complete in 100 pages, there’s no sense padding the manuscript simply because most YAs are longer. But length guidelines are there for a reason – -publishers have determined about how much text kids of different ages can read, and so it behooves you to try to stay as close to those guidelines as possible. And if you’ve ever tried to get a group of 4-year-olds to sit still for a 2000-word picture book, you’ll understand why editors are leaning toward shorter texts in the youngest age brackets. When submitting to magazines, it’s vital that you stick to the requested word limits because articles must fit within a finite amount of space on the page. Too long, or too short, can mean instant rejection.

Don’t Include Testimonials in Queries

It’s nice to have lots of neighborhood kids read your manuscript and give you a thumbs up, but your potential editor doesn’t need to hear about it. Frankly, editors don’t pay much attention to testimonials from readers who may be family or friends of the author. Also, don’t clutter up the query letter with ideas for why children need your book or what they’ll learn from it. This is up to the editor to decide. (One exception: You’ve written a nonfiction book and can show that there aren’t any other books in print that cover the same subject). Keep your query letter tight, brief, and to the point. Provide an intriguing plot synopsis or nonfiction outline, relevant information about yourself, and enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope. Sell your book, not your reasons for writing it.

Don’t Write a Series Before Selling the First Book

I’ve critiqued many stories from authors who say, “I’ve got six more books written with these characters. Should I mention that to the editor when I submit my manuscript?” My answer is always no. Unless an editor is specifically looking for new series proposals, and the books were written from the start to form a series, this is a not a good idea. Understand that series are created as a group of books that are bound together by some sort of hook; in fiction, it might be a club the main characters form, a part of town they all live in, or a cause they champion. In nonfiction, it’s a topic (natural sciences, biographies) and an age group. It’s rare to see a picture book fiction series. What might happen is a character may become very popular with readers and the author is asked to write another book featuring the same cast. These fiction “series” actually grow over time, one book at a time.

So, unless you’ve conceived your books as a traditional series and are able to send a thought-out series proposal to the editor, stick to selling one book. When an editor sees you have numerous manuscripts featuring the same characters and similar plots, she may feel that you’ve invested too much time writing new material and not enough time revising what you’ve already got. And remember, each book – series or not – must stand on its own. It required a strong beginning, well-developed middle, and powerful end. No fair leaving the ending incomplete with the intention of continuing the story in the next book.

children’s book publishers

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