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Here are some common questions and hopefully helpful answers for people who are new to children's book publishing: 

 
I have written a children's story (or several children's stories) and want to know how to get published.
Should I copyright my work before sending it out? 
What does "buy all rights" mean?
Should I include a cover letter or a query letter with my manuscript?
Should I get someone to illustrate my picture book before I submit it?
What happens to my manuscript submission? 
Why does it take so long to hear anything? 
How long should I wait before contacting the publisher?
An editor wrote that she saw promise in my manuscript but wants me to revise it.
What should I do?
My manuscript has been making the rounds for a year, and still no sale. 
What now?
Would it help if I got an agent?
What about self-publishing, print-on-demand books and eBooks?
How much money will I make on my first book?
I have written a children's story (or several children's stories) and want to know how to get published.
 
Before you start sending your story to publishers, read it to other writers and listen to their stories as well. Your regional chapter of the SCBWI can help you join or form a critique group. You can join the manuscript exchange listed in the SCBWI Roster of Members or participate in the online manuscript exchange in the SCBWI Members Only Discussion Boards. Members can also obtain copies of the SCBWI Publications, "Starting a Critique Group" and "The Give and Take of Critique." Sign up for a regional and/or national conference and get a professional critique from a published author or editor. Read contemporary children's books. Revise, edit, rewrite, and then revise some more. Polish your work before submitting and make sure it is presented professionally. Read the SCBWI publication"From Keyboard to Printed Page" for proper formatting information.

Most publishers have writer and illustrator guidelines on their websites. SCBWI produces an updated Market Survey, called "Publishers of Books for Young People," every August and the Writer's Digest Children's Book Writers and Illustrator's Market is published every year. Once you have chosen the right markets for your project, you are free to send it to publishers that are accepting unsolicited manuscripts. Your manuscript is solicited if you queried a publisher according to their guidelines and received the okay to submit your manuscript to them. You might also get the okay to send your work to editors you meet at SCBWI conferences. This can be a great way to submit to otherwise "closed" houses. Exclusive submission means that you will not present your project to any other publisher while one publisher has it. You can designate the length of time it will remain exclusive. But most publishers who still accept unsolicited manuscripts also allow multiple submissions, which means you are sending it to multiple publishers. You should make your submission status very clear in your cover letter. Unless the publisher stipulates otherwise in the guidelines, include a self addressed stamped envelope with enough postage for your work to be returned to you, and never send more than one story to a publisher unless solicited. Keep copies/files of your correspondence and set up a system to track your submissions.

 
  Should I copyright my work before sending it out? What does "buy all rights" mean? 
 
The law is on your side: you own the work the moment you create it. And legitimate editors do not steal manuscripts. It is not necessary to copyright your work through the Library of Congress. To note, you cannot copyright an idea, only your version of that idea as your original expression.

An attorney might tell you that by additionally copyrighting your work through the Library of Congress, you'd have registered proof of ownership should there ever be a question. You can then license the work to a publisher for any particular use or even transfer all rights to the publisher. Also, when the terms of the license are met, the rights in the work are returned to you. You would not have to record a transfer of those rights back to you as you normally would, which can sometimes be difficult and time-consuming.

Do what feels best for your circumstances. To note, when your book is published it will be copyrighted in your name, not the publisher's. They are only buying the rights to publish.

Many publishers, especially children's magazines and educational publishers, buy all rights to stories and illustrations. You sell all of your interest in the work and they can do with it as they please. In some cases, you can negotiate a limit on those rights such as selling first printing rights only or you can designate a timeline. Publisher guidelines usually stipulate if they buy all rights. Never sign a contract if you have any question about what exactly you are selling. See the SCBWI Publication "Copyright Facts for Writers" for more information about rights.

 
 Should I include a cover letter or a query letter with my manuscript?
 
A query letter is what you send to find out if there is interest in your project. Most publishers require a query for a non-fiction project or novel. Your query should present your project succinctly, much like the preview you read on the inside of a book jacket, along with brief information about your publishing experience, if any. If they ask for a synopsis, try to outline the story with the crucial points and main characters only. Show them how the story is unique. Make them want to see more! For more information and examples, read the SCBWI publication, "Everything You Wanted to Know About Queries...But Were Afraid to Query."

A cover letter is what you include with your manuscript and should not be more than one page. If you have already queried the editor, you can simply remind them that they requested to read your manuscript and tell them you look forward to their response (and let them know if it is exclusive or multiple). If you did not query first, then your cover letter should have brief information about the project and yourself. For a cover or a query, you may include a resume if it reflects your expertise in the subject you are writing about and your publishing experience.

As for email submissions, send those only if you are invited to do so or if the publisher's guidelines allow them.
 

 
 Should I get someone to illustrate my picture book before I submit it?
 
Almost always: no. The editor who purchases your picture book manuscript or the art director at that publishing house will ultimately choose the illustrator. Except in rare circumstances, it is seldom a good idea to collaborate with an illustrator. Illustrators are better off researching the market and submitting their portfolios for assignments. You don't want to illustrate it yourself unless you are a professional. There is also no need to describe the illustrations in your submission. If your manuscript doesn't come to life visually without being explained, then it probably needs work. If the story needs to be told by the illustrations, then mention that briefly in your cover letter. Perhaps include a separate page with annotations for the illustrations (so titled), but you may not want to clutter the main manuscript with explanations. 

 
 What happens to my manuscript submission? Why does it take so long to hear anything? How long should I wait before contacting the publisher?
 
If unsolicited, most manuscripts are first reviewed by a reader, usually a member of the staff. If he/she doesn't see potential in your manuscript for their publishing needs, she/he will return it with a form rejection letter. This process usually takes two-three months. If your project makes it past the "first read" then you will wait longer for an answer. The editor reads it and perhaps shares it with colleagues. The publisher might want the editor to provide a P&L (profit and loss) statement projecting how well the book will sell and what it will cost to produce. They have to study the other books already scheduled or under consideration as well as the backlist. Usually if a manuscript gets this close to a contract, the editor will notify the author by telephone or email. But not always!

The publisher's guidelines will spell out the average waiting time but it is usually longer. If it is an exclusive submission, then you should contact them if you haven't heard within a few weeks past the estimated time. Or, just send it elsewhere if you designated how long it would remain exclusive. If it is a solicited submission, you have more clout to follow up on the status. Email (keep it short!) or a phone call is perfectly acceptable. Enclosing a stamped postcard that asks the publisher to let you know the manuscript was received doesn't work in most cases. Make sure your phone number and email address are on your cover letter and hang in there! Some publishers now tell us to wait X number of months, then move on. They no longer return rejected material. Keep up with current guidelines.
 

 
 An editor wrote that she saw promise in my manuscript but wants me to revise it. What should I do?
 
"Revision is like wrestling with a demon, for almost anyone can write; but only writers know how to rewrite. It is this ability alone that turns the amateur into a professional." -- William Knott.

Keep in mind that a request for a revision not a promise of a contract. You might revise an entire novel and it is ultimately rejected. It's your call. Do you think the comments will make a better story? Then consider taking the suggestions to heart and revising. When you've received approval from your critique group, send it back to the editor who requested the revision and remind her that she asked to see a revision. If she still turns it down, you might have a better chance with it elsewhere.
 

 
  My manuscript has been making the rounds for a year, and still no sale. What now? 
 
It is frustrating when you see books like yours being published and receiving critical acclaim while your 9x12 envelopes keep coming back. There are multitudes of possible factors that are in play. Maybe the idea has been done too often too recently, or it's too trendy or outdated, or the current market is "soft." Perhaps you haven't clicked with the right editor, yet.

However you don't want to make the mistake of spending more energy trying to get published than trying to become a better writer. Perhaps it is time to look at your manuscript again and consider revision, especially if the rejections are all form letters. Maybe it's been a long time since you've even read it and meanwhile, you've read lots of contemporary books of the same type and you've been writing lots of new stories and shared them with your critique group. Look at this returned manuscript with fresh eyes. If you don't know what to do with it, put it away for now and move on. Chances are your newer projects are better than the first. That is what usually happens with time and dedication. You might find that your tenth book will be the first to sell, then you can go back and revise the previous nine and sell them as well.
 

 
  Would it help if I got an agent? 
 
Though you don't need an agent to submit to many publishers, many other publishers only accept agented material. However finding a good agent can be as difficult as finding a publisher. Many will not be interested in you until you have a contract offer, but others are actively seeking unpublished clients. Agencies accepting new clients can be found in the SCBWI "Agents Directory" for members.

 
  What about self-publishing, print-on-demand books and eBooks? 
 
For some writers, self-publishing is a good way to go. But, you don't want to spend your life savings on a book that isn't ready to be published. For more information on self-publishing, read the SCBWI Publication, "The Self-Publishing Option: Creating Books to Suit Your Needs." It covers many of the ins and outs of self-publishing, and can help you determine if it's the right course for you.

Some publishers offer to publish your book but want you to either pay some or all of the expenses or find a sponsor to pay for many of the costs. They might offer to publish your book "for free" but their basic package is usually not the best representation of your work so you wind up paying for "extras." These publishers are called subsidy or vanity publishers. If you are willing to pay to publish your own writing, then consider self-publishing and educate yourself on all the options.

Print-On-Demand (POD) books and eBooks are fairly new to the market and for some authors and illustrators, can be a viable option IF they are non-subsidy publishers that pay a royalty. Information about them will be covered in the upcoming SCBWI Publication, "EBooks and PODs, the World of Electronic Publishing." As for posting your writing on an online message board in hopes an editor might wander by and discover you, this is not recommended. Though your work is protected by copyright, it is much easier to pirate a story that is displayed free on the Internet. Editors don't have time to search for stories, and these boards are known to attract unscrupulous vanity publishers and dishonest agencies.

Whatever method of publishing you choose, remember, when you put your work out there for the world to see, it is your name that is on the line.
 

 
  How much money will I make on my first book? 
 
Writing for the children's book market is seldom lucrative especially with a first book. Though there are always exceptions, for a 32 page picture book, you might expect to split an $8,000-$12,000 advance with the illustrator (the illustrator usually receives a larger advance than the author), then each of you will get 3.5%-6% royalties against your advance (your advance must be earned back before you receive any royalties). Most picture books sell from 5,000-10,000 copies in hardcover and go out of print within two years. Few picture books go into paperback. Easy readers are about the same. The royalties are not split on a novel, so you could receive approximately a $5,000-$8,000 advance against 7-10% royalties. Royalties are usually based on the retail price of the book, however some publishers use a percentage of "net price" which is the price of the book after their discounts and/or expenses are figured in. Read your contract very carefully and get advice on the things you don't understand. Compensation for magazine articles varies widely depending on the publication, its circulation and the type of piece being submitted, but payment usually ranges between $25 - $500. Though not as lucrative, magazines are a great way to build your writing/illustrating credentials and gain publishing experience. Authors and illustrators also supplement their income by doing workshops and school visits.

Ultimately, children's book writers, illustrators and editors work together to create a very special world for children. Though it is the adult who writes, illustrates, chooses, edits, markets, sells and buys the stories, it is all about the child who reads them. Respect your readers, make them want to turn the pages, and you'll be on your way!
 

2006 Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators
all rights reserved