You know you’re a published writer

You know you’re a published writer when strangers come up to you and say things like, “I’ve always wanted to write a book about my dog,” or “I have this idea for a book” or “Could you read my manuscript about hobgoblins and ice cream?”

Alas, some days I barely have time to read my own manuscripts. But like most of us who’ve wiggled through the narrow funnel to publication, I do want to help new writers. So when I received this recent request, I asked if it would be okay to answer in a post:

“I dearly hope that you can lend me some direction and advice…my resources are limited as well as my budget…however I have been contemplating writing a children’s book series for some time and have finally developed my idea and made the decision to run with it; it will be targeted towards 5-10year olds with the theme being all about Alaska. I don’t know where to start or how to go about submitting it for publication…or if there are any local (alaska) places I can take it to first. I would appreciate your response.”

Lots of people think about writing, and a big percentage of those think about writing for children. Maybe it’s because kids’ books are short and approachable, or maybe they still feel connected to the books they read growing up. In any event, the first big step toward publication in any genre is committing your project to paper, for which this writer – I’ll call her Tami – should be commended.

It’s also good to have an age group in mind when you’re writing for children. But Tami’s target of five to ten year olds is too large in kid years. Five-year-olds are mostly read to, while ten-year-olds read independently. If her project is less than (give or take) 800 words and meant to be read aloud, then it should fit within 32 pages and follow the conventions for a picture book, roughly for ages four through eight. Longer projects are for middle grade readers.

Tami says she’s writing “all about Alaska.” That’s a big topic – like her age range, it’s probably too big and too nebulous to attract the attention of a publisher. She’d be wise to study Alaskan children’s books that are already on the market to see what makes her concept unique.

Yes, there are regional publishers of Alaskan children’s books – Sasquatch, Graphic Arts North, and McCoy and Blackburn come to mind. But even in that small niche the competition is huge. Tami needs a smart query letter that distinguishes her project from everything else on the market, a query that pitches her project in the same strong voice that (we hope) permeates her manuscript, a query that proves she’s professional and knows what she’s doing. Agent Nathan Bransford has some beginning tips for writing queries.

As she refines her project and seeks publishers, Tami would do well to connect with other children’s writers through professional organizations like the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Likewise, there are great online listservs and critique groups for children’s writers. A current copy of the Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market is an invaluable resource for children’s writers.

Since Tami mentions her limited budget, I feel compelled to make this point: she’s not going to get rich writing children’s books. Not even close. So hopefully her motivation is primarily her love of books and writing, and hopefully she has a nice day job or some other infusion of cash to live on.

Now for the rest of you. Writers, what advice (it doesn’t have to be genre-specific) do you have for newbies like Tami? And others hoping to be published – what additional questions do you have?

5 thoughts on “You know you’re a published writer”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Deb, I’ve always wondered if it’s easier/smarter to take an Alaska-specific children’s book idea to a regional publisher, because they know Alaska and may have better distribution here, where there are lots of tourism-related sales, or is it better to try for a national publisher? Does one type of publisher nurture their Alaska backlist better? Keep in mind, I know next to nothing about children’s books — I’m just curious! Are advances for Alaska children’s books all over the map, just as advances for adult books are?

  2. I guess, as with any book idea, I’d look at authors who’ve had similar stuff published. You can pitch to the publishers who’ve done these books, but not before analyzing them and determining how yours are going to be different. You can even try to track down and talk to one of these authors — though some may consider you competition, many will gladly provide pointers. Most of us got a leg up from an “established” writer when we started out — it’s part of a tradition.

    Self-publishing is always an option, if you live here and can promote and hand-sell your book (in case there’s no budget to pay for a distributor)– though I don’t know about the quality of self-published / print-on-demand illustrated books. (They mostly use high-end copiers.

  3. Sasquatch keeps a great backlist and has market-targeting down to a science. Kids books pubbed out of NYC go out of print fast, as they do in many other genres, and NYC publishers could pretty much care less about marketing to tourists. Advances for regional children’s books are a pittance, but there’s a good chance that they’ll go beyond earning out, provided the publisher stays active in the market.

    Other kids books, those with more universal appeal by authors with strong sales records, can garner mid to high five, sometimes even six figure advances. But those are exceptions. More typical for authors just starting out: $5000 for a picture book, $10000 for a chapter book or YA. Expect less from a regional publisher.

    Michael again brings up good topics for future posts – the willingness of authors to help one another even as they compete for slots in the market, and the pros and cons of self-pubbing.

  4. I just found your page and was poking around a bit. This particular post caught my eye.
    As a writer known pretty well in my area, I often get people calling me -someone whose husband worked with mine 10 years ago, a friends child, someone I am interviewing for another article, etc. All of these people want help on some project.
    One young lady, at the ripe age of 20, wanted to writer her memoir. At age 20. Her saucy story was based on her wierd family (we all have one) and a hot and spicy affair with a Professor (is that rare, too?).
    Anyway, because of this interest I tried to start a writers group to help these folks out. $25 bucks a head for 10 weeks of help. Not one of them bit. They just want free advice. Not advice and help that comes for $2.50 an hour.
    I -except for a small group of writer friends, no just say no.

  5. It’s a fascinating phenomenon. I’d love to know if the same things happen with other artists – painters, sculptors, musicians.

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