So you want to write for kids?

If you’re thinking about writing a children’s book–and that means anything from picture books to young adult titles–here are some things about the business you should understand from the get-go:

There’s a lot more to it than just completing your manuscript, although you’re ahead of most writer wannabes if you do.

You need to be willing to give your beloved manuscript the Closed Drawer test for a few months until you can see it with fresh eyes. You have to force yourself to cut out all the boring parts and tangents. You have to rinse and repeat until you can’t find anything else to fix, and then you have to find a way to get intelligent feedback from other writers who are working in the same genre for the same age group. And revise again.

While you’re waiting for feedback, learn how to write a query letter (to an agent, to a publisher) and also learn how to write a synopsis (except for picture books, where you submit the complete text). There’s a lot of help online for this, especially on agent blogs I’ve linked to in the Resources for Writers tab at the top of this page.

(This process holds true even if you decide to self-publish. I know one local novelist who’s doing very well with books she’s uploaded to Kindle, but they’re selling because Karen is a terrific writer who put in years and years and years honing her craft in workshops and residencies, writing and submitting and revising and despairing and revising again and resubmitting and getting feedback before she decided, on a whim, to upload one of her manuscripts. I repeat: first, she put in a long apprenticeship learning how to write at a professional level.)

And after you have done all this, you are still in the early part of the journey to publication. Here’s what else is involved.

You need an agent. Most of the larger houses, and some of the smaller ones, are totally closed to unagented submissions. The way to get an agent is to read the guidelines the agent has published on his or her website and follow them exactly. If the agent wants a query letter and the first three pages, that’s what you send, not the first ten or first three chapters.

Getting an agent does not guarantee publication. If you manage to write a book that an agent thinks will sell enough copies to make it worth his or her time (in terms of 15% of your royalties), the agent is likely to ask for some revisions, probably even a lot of revisions, because he or she knows what works and what doesn’t. It probably will take weeks, even months, of revision on your part before the agent thinks your manuscript is ready to start submitting to publishers.

Sales potential trumps everything else. Even if an editor reads the agent’s submission immediately (in publishing terms, “immediately” = one to six months) and absolutely loves it, most of the time the book still has to go to Acquisitions, a committee of publishing honchos where the sales force holds most of the power. If your book doesn’t excite the sales force, the publisher won’t buy the book.

“Publishing” is another word for “forever.” Acquisitions doesn’t necessarily meet every week because the salespeople are out in the field selling the books in the publisher’s current catalogue, so expect to remain in limbo for at least a calendar quarter.

If by some miracle Acquisitions snatches up the book, several weeks to several months can go by before the contract arrives in the mail. The authors of books being released this autumn probably signed their contracts in 2007 or early 2008.

Ditto until the check arrives with the first part of the advance on royalties (see below).

The time until the book actually ships to stores ranges from one to three years (sometimes longer) because

  • The editor probably will ask for a couple of rounds of revisions (yes, more revisions…)
  • The revised manuscript will have to be copyedited, and the copyeditor already has xx books waiting for his/her attention.
  • The copyedits have to be approved by the author.
  • A new editor gets assigned the book because the original editor gets a promotion, goes on maternity leave, takes a better job with a competitor, or is packed off to rehab. It will take the new editor a while to get up to speed on inherited projects, which s/he might be less enthusiastic about than his/her own acquisitions
  • The manuscript file has to go to the printer.
  • {Lots of other steps such as cover issues, last-minute title changes, corrections to page proofs, etc.}
  • The book has to be printed and shipped.

Still not discouraged? Keep reading.

“Contract” is not another word for “guarantee.” A signed contract does not necessarily guarantee that your book will be published. In the past year, two authors on The Blueboards have reported that publishers have cancelled their books due to the economy. (They probably got to keep the first part of their advance, but not the part that would be paid on publication. See below.)

The money’s not as big as you think. Advances on royalties for young adult and middle grade novels are usually in the $7500 range, the exceptions being blockbusters with series potential (Harry Potter and Twilight, and more recently, Shiver and Hunger Games).

Picture book advances are likely to be around $3500.

Advances are usually paid half upon signing of the contract (which, in publisher time, means one week to six months later) and the remainder on publication. Writers of children’s books often earn more from school visits than they do from royalties.

The upshot is, you write your heart out for one or two or five years, query agents for months or years, finally get an agent and then suffer through the submissions process for months or years, and then you hit the big time–a partial advance of $3500 less the agent’s 15%) one year, and a couple of years later, the rest of the advance (another $3500 less 15%). This amounts to $6000 and change, not enough to replace a leaky roof, let alone buy a decent used car.

What it boils down to is this: You write fiction because you love it, not because there’s easy money in it (or even any money…most writers have day jobs that have nothing to do with writing).

You write because you have a story to tell that won’t go away and characters that you think about all the time.

You write because you’re more miserable not-writing than you are when an agent who has requested a full sends a form rejection with no feedback.

You write because you have a stubborn streak (in a good way) so you bounce back from rejections after a day or so.

And you write because when things go bad (see agent, above), you have a stash of Snickers in the freezer and the willpower to stop at one so that you can neutralize the calories with just a couple of trips walking to the library.

© 2010 Anne Bingham and Making It Up as I Go

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10 Responses to So you want to write for kids?

  1. Great post. Unfortunately, I’ve found, from working with new writers, that there are a lot who don’t want to know this; who feel they can pass go and collect their $200.

    My favorite overheard comment was when I saw two women in a bookstore, with one of them trying to convince the other that she wanted to write for children. She picked up a picture book, opened randomly, and pointed to a page. “See,” she said. “Two sentences per page. How difficult can it be?” (I’ll beat you to the Snickers stash…)


  2. Anne M Leone says:

    There’s so much to learn about how the writing business works, and I just think most people starting out (I definitely did this myself!) have no clue. This is a really useful and easy to read post, Anne. Hopefully it helps some people.


    • Anne Bingham says:

      Anne, I swear I responded to this comment, but it’s gone. Must have forgotten to hit send. It has been that kind of week. Anyway, I agree that most people starting out have no clue about how the business works–which may be a good thing!


  3. MaryWitzl says:

    Oh, does this ring true! Sometimes I think the amazing thing is that so many books actually make it to publication. It’s almost like the chances of your egg being fertilized by one particular sperm to make you — one in a billion.

    You have to love this to do it, and you have to believe in yourself. The work situation is generally okay, but the pay is negligible and the daily damage to your ego is just unbelievable.

    A neighbor here asked me what her grandson should do to get his stories published. I started in on the whole spiel and I could see her staring at me like I was insane. I’ll bet she was thinking that I was full of it — that there had to be some magic way to make yourself known and instantly successful as a writer — just what I thought ten years ago. So I scaled it right down: “Tell him to write a lot. And never give up.”


  4. Thanks so much for mentioning my story, Anne! I love that you used the word “apprenticeship” because that’s exactly how I view it as well. Over the years I was lucky in that I got a lot of feedback from other writers, editors, and agents. I’m also no stranger to revision, which is when the writing really takes shape and becomes polished.

    This is a great time to be a writer because we have more opportunities to get our work out there with POD, ebooks etc. but the writing and storytelling still have to be at a certain level if we want to connect with readers.


  5. This is such an excellent article. I wish I had something like this to read when I started out. It would have helped tremendously.


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