How do I get my children's book published?

So you've written a children's story and you really want to get it published. What’s next? Lots of questions from new authors show up in my email box. The publishing business sometimes feels scary and confusing, or even impossible. Like so many institutions, it is definitely in transition. What I'm writing here in 2017 could be obsolete next year.  But, I’ll answer here the most common questions I receive, and maybe you’ll find some inspiration.

I’ve written a story. Will you illustrate it? 

In traditional publishing, which has been my world for many years, a publishing house agrees to publish the author's story. Then editors and creative directors decide what style of illustration would work best. They then check in with the illustrator for availability and send the manuscript to review. If the illustrator accepts the job, the publishing house draws up a contract that includes an advance payment against royalties.  When the book 'earns out' the advance, the illustrator, (and author), receives bi-annual royalty payments as long as the book continues to sell.

If you are considering self-publishing and want to hire your own illustrator, understand that professional illustrators are paid well for their work. Since they are probably not receiving future royalties on the sales of your book, their flat fee will be higher. Illustrating a 32 page book can be months of work. I have illustrated book covers for novelists who intended to self-publish, but only one picture book. After I finished the final art for 32 pages and a cover, the author made a book deal with a major publisher. So technically in the end, it was not self-published. I am always open to stories walking in my door, and sometimes they are just the right ones at just the right time.

How do I communicate my ideas to the illustrator?

An illustrator sees more in your story than you ever thought possible…at least that’s what several of my lovely authors have said to me! This makes me very happy, as I always want authors to be thrilled with the end result of their stories. 

For me, a book is a collaboration between the author, the illustrator, the editorial staff, the book designer, and more. Everyone brings their best skills to the process. It’s a beautiful thing when all of that creative juiciness flows together. 

One of the sketches for Good Night, Stinky Face board book written by Lisa McCourt

One of the sketches for Good Night, Stinky Face board book written by Lisa McCourt

Experienced authors almost never include guidelines for the art with their manuscripts, unless they need to clarify something about the text. They trust the creative professionals working with them to bring the book to life. I've illustrated so many books written by Lisa McCourt. She was the original editor on I Love You, Stinky Face, and until I had finished all of the sketches for the book, she did not even tell me that she also wrote the story. We have become very good friends over many years of publishing together, but we still honor the professional process for creating our books. 

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I certainly appreciate that most books begin because of an author's inspiration. But as the illustrator, a happy art day for me is when my logical brain gets out of the way and ideas pour out on the paper from a much higher source of inspiration. That process almost never happens if I'm thinking... thinking... thinking about what I think the author was thinking... thinking... thinking. I have to be true to the vision of the book that flows through me.

At the end of the day, I want to be filled with gratitude for the happy 'accidents' and delights that appear on the drawing table. And I want the team along for the ride with me to be just as thrilled when they see the first round of sketches. They then give feedback on the sketches, and sometimes a few tweaks and changes need to be made before going to finished art. Somewhere in the process, the author might get a sneak peak or be allowed to have input on decisions, but in my experience this doesn't always happen. It depends on their contract and relationship with the creative team. Either way, the path from the author's original manuscript to finished children's book is always a big transformation. Hopefully, the experience is always exciting, and the result better than the author ever thought possible!

Should I self-publish my book? 

I’ve always worked with traditional trade book publishers and sometimes educational publishers. They absorb all of the start up cost to bring a book to the market. I realize that self-publishing is big business these days. If you are a public speaker with a big following, or you have an idea for a specialty market, this option might work for you. My friend is a spokesperson for the cystic fibrosis society. If she wrote a children's book, she would have a built in network for marketing her book.

While backpacking around Central America, my son got a kick out of finding Mom's Stinky Face books in local book stores.

While backpacking around Central America, my son got a kick out of finding Mom's Stinky Face books in local book stores.

Remember, if you are self-publishing, you are also self-marketing. This can be a full time job, and most beginning authors have jobs already. So would you have time to promote and sell your book by going to trade shows, blogging, getting your book in front of reviewers, etc? The school and library market and foreign markets require another level of expertise. I prefer to leave all of that to more qualified marketing experts while I move on with another project for them to sell. Because creating is what I do best.

Some vanity presses claim that their books are available at major book sellers. They are. But this only means that your book will be listed on a national database and can be ordered. Book stores will rarely stock self-published books. 

Publishers' exhibition spaces at Book Expo America

Publishers' exhibition spaces at Book Expo America

So how will you get your book to your potential customers? Publishers have big budgets for exhibition space and sales teams at trade shows like the American Library Association and Book Expo America. Most big name authors signing books and speaking at these events are sponsored by their publishers. But you can check rates on the convention websites for renting your own booth. 

The printing of a full color children's book will be expensive. Like most things in life, you get what you pay for. Next to museum quality art books, children's picture books can be some of the most beautifully printed, designed, and illustrated books on the store shelves. For this level of quality, your budget will need to include getting high resolution professional scans of all illustrations and the services of a qualified graphic designer who knows how to prepare files for production. Scans at Kinkos or on your desktop printer will be disappointing when printed.

Professional children’s book illustrators not only know how to draw and paint, but they also know how to visually bring your story to life on 32 pages. Hiring your niece or a friend of the family who likes to draw can result in an unprofessional product. Those colorful glossy book covers leaning face out on the book shelves at your local store will be your competition. My advice is to try traditional publishing first. Get yourself a team.

How do I network with other writers and editors?

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Check out SCBWI, The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. It’s a great organization for both unpublished and published writers, and you will make many new friends in the writing world. Go to their workshops and conferences, join a writers' group, and be open to helpful critiques of your work. Your writing will improve, and you will gain more confidence. You’ll get lots of advice from published authors and visiting editors. The annual dues are totally worth it. There is a national chapter and also local state and regional chapters. The national summer event in California is very inspiring!

Should I be afraid to submit my story—what if someone takes my idea?

As a judge once in a national writing competition, I was surprised by how few really original stories showed up. I developed a new appreciation for the job of the readers of the huge slush piles of manuscripts at publishing houses. After reading between two and three hundred manuscripts, only about seven of them truly highlighted for me. And I was amazed that the other judges, located all across the country, chose almost the same Top 5 as I did. Editors at publishing houses have seen every version of every theme ever written. If your story is indeed original or has a new spin, they will be so excited to hire you as the author. They've been waiting for you to show up! Nobody is going to take your story! 

how do I handle being rejected?

Getting rejected means you are part of an elite club whose members include folks like: J. K. Rowling, Dr. Seuss, Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, C.S. Lewis, Judy Blume, Beatrix Potter, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Richard Bach, just to name a few. Their books have sold millions. One of my favorite Peanuts cartoons illustrates the dream:

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Getting frustrated and quitting leads nowhere. Set your intention to be brave and positive, knowing that every step you take is leading you somewhere for your highest benefit. Honor every experience, looking for the wisdom, rather than the sorrow. If the world is opening for your story to appear, nothing will stop its success but you. If you happen to get a note on your rejection letter, celebrate! Pay attention to any editorial guidance, and keep dreaming and practicing your craft. Write another story. And another.

Top 3 excellent resources for Children's Book publishing

1. A guide book that every new children's book writer or illustrator must have in their education library is Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market. You'll find submission guidelines for almost every publisher in the U.S. Carefully follow the information.  If a publisher states that they don't take unsolicited manuscripts, they mean it. Look for the most current version as the data is updated every year. It also has loads of tips from other authors and illustrators. 


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2. If you feel your story is ready for publication and you need help with submitting to publishers, consider contacting a publishing agent to see if they will represent you. You can find them in the Literary Marketplace website. Your local library will have a print version in the reference section. They also publish a Guide to Literary AgentsThe Writer's Market, and other dedicated guides for poets, novel and short story writers, and more.


3. And last, but definitely not least, an editor friend, Harold Underdown, has an extremely informative website that every beginner NEEDS to check out. I don’t say this lightly. Save yourself some frustration. He generously offers a ton of information...all for free. An entire section is devoted to self-publishing. He also wrote the Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Books. I learn things from him that I have never known, and I've been doing this publishing gig a LONG time.

Good luck, friends! Keep writing and dreaming!