Frequently Asked Publishing Questions

GETTING STARTED

I’ve written some stories. What should be my next step?
Two things will help you learn a lot about getting published in a short amount of time: CWIM and SCBWI. Study the Children’s Writers and Illustrators Market . It includes information on formatting, contracts, contests, and finding publishers or agents. Read the articles and use the listings to help you target your submissions. You should also join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. The national chapter offers a library of marketing and publishing resources, a website full of current news and event listings, and two national conferences each year. The regional chapters host networking events, smaller conferences, and publish their own dynamic newsletters. SCBWI-Michigan has a great website: www.kidsbooklink.org.

Do I need an agent to get published?
No. Many wonderful publishers are open to un-agented submissions, and many of the houses which are closed to unsolicited manuscripts will accept queries. An agent can’t sell a manuscript that isn’t marketable. And because there are fewer children’s agents than there are publishers, it can be harder to get an agent than to sell a book on your own! If you are having trouble getting your foot in the door at the publishers whose lists you like, here are some suggestions:

  • Only send out your best, most polished work. This improves your chances of a sale, and can help you build a relationship with individual editors over time.
  • Carefully target your submissions. Editors and agents at every conference I attend mention that many of the submissions they receive are inappropriate for their list or genre. What a waste of everyone’s resources!
  • Attend conferences to learn about editors’ tastes and meet other writers.

That said, I do have an outstanding agent and I think writers can benefit tremendously from an agent’s publishing guidance, long-term career planning, and moral support. It can be hard to get one, especially if you only write picture books, because the market is so challenging. Agents prefer to submit work that isn’t road-weary. If you have what you think is a stellar manuscript, consider querying only agents (rather than agents and publishers simultaneously) for a dedicated amount of time — say, six months. The response you get to your queries will give you an idea of how to proceed. Interest from agents may or may not turn into an offer of representation, but if several agents are interested in seeing more of your work, you are probably on the right track. If you get form rejections across the board, consider working more on your craft and go back to querying editors with your strongest work until you begin seeing more positive responses.

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HONING YOUR CRAFT

Do I need a critique group?
This is different for every writer, and it can change as you develop as a writer.  Sometimes a writer is too close to a story–we love the idea or the characters so much, or we know the plot so well that we can’t see a manuscript’s flaws. Most writers aren’t good at everything. People bring different strengths to a critique group: some people are good with grammar, others are good at plotting, others are good at atmosphere-all the little details that make a story extra fresh or funny. I learn as much from critiquing other people’s stories as I do from receiving their feedback on my own work.

The hard part about working with a critique group is deciding which suggestions to take and which to leave. People can’t re-write your story for you. And it can be painful to hear criticism of characters and stories that you love. A good critique group will bring out your best, rather than highlighting your worst.

Some writers hate critique groups. They only share their work with one person or only with editors. That’s okay, too. But I like feedback, and I recommend that new writers who are frustrated by rejections should see if peer critique can help their work. I learn a lot from watching other people’s stories take shape. And I think my stories are fuller and richer because my critique partners have helped me “love them into existence,” as one editor described the revisions process.

Pssst…I have some great articles about critique groups here! And here! Go read them!

Can you recommend books on craft?
Poets and people who like to write in rhyming verse should have a trusty rhyming dictionary. I recently had the fun and painstaking task of revising revised the Capricorn Rhyming Dictionary for Perigee books recently — Nothing Rhymes With Orange is a labor of love and a really useful tool (if I do say so myself!). I also like Poem Making by Myra Cohn Livingston. It’s out of print but available from used booksellers. For regular picture books, I learned the most from reading hundreds and hundred of picture books in all genres: good ones, bad ones, recent ones, classics. Writer’s Digest has several books about the craft of creating picture books. And don’t forget the articles in CWIM or in my library.

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THE BUSINESS OF GETTING PUBLISHED

Can you read my manuscript and tell me if it’s any good?
Sorry. I have a full-time job in addition to writing and get lots of these requests. If I accommodated them all, I wouldn’t have any time for my own writing.

By the way, it’s not an editor’s job to tell you if your writing is any good, either. You need a critique group or a professional critique to help you with that task. I’ve compiled a list of friends and acquaintances who offer paid critique services on this page. (There are many more services available, but these are people whose work I know well.)

Can you give me the names of editors or publishers that would be good for my work?
Nope. That’s your job–it’s every writer’s homework. (Even writers with agents need to keep know which editors and publishers might be a good fit for their work.)

Here’s the good news: figuring out which publishers and editors might like your work is a pretty straightforward task. Read current and classic books in your genre. Notice who publishes books like the stories you write. If your idea has already been done, see how you can make your story different and fresh. You can also request publishers’ catalogs for the cost of postage, though many are online nowadays. After you have a list of publishers who do your kind of book, use the CWIM to get their catalog information and determine if they’re open to submissions, prefer queries, or accept only agented submissions. (Many closed publishers will accept manuscripts from SCBWI members and/or people who attend conferences where their editors speak.) Two times a year (February and July), Publishers Weekly magazine has special Children’s Preview editions which list all the books coming out for that season. Studying these lists will give you an overview of who’s publishing what.

Should I self-publish my work?
I meet two kinds of people who self-publish their work. The first group eschews the whole publishing rigamarole, waiting time, and negative statistics. They want to skip all that and make their book happen. My experience is that much of the work that gets published in this spirit is not up to par. It could benefit from editing, it’s not a fresh story, it has unattractive art, or it totally misses the target audience.

The other kind of writers who consider self-publishing are people who understand the market and have been trying to be traditionally published for a long time without luck. Some of these people simply don’t yet have the skills to be successfully published in any venue. Others are good writers whose projects are done well but which have too narrow a market appeal for traditional publishers to invest in them. This seems like a reasonable time to consider self publishing, IF: you have really studied the market and perceive a real niche for your project; you have the financial resources to produce a quality product; you have the time to market your books to booksellers and merchandisers.

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