How Do I Get Published?
by Elizabeth O. Dulemba

     True story:
     Dr. Seuss was at a cocktail party where he met a brain surgeon.
     "Oh, you're that man who writes those children's books," the Doctor said. "Some Saturday, when I have a little extra time, I am going to write one of those."
     Dr. Seuss replied, "Ahh yes. And someday when I have a little free time, I'll do brain surgery."

     Many people assume that writing children's books is easy and that getting them published is too. I held the same misconceptions before I tried to break into the industry.
     One of my favorite quotes is by Mem Fox, "Writing a picture book is like writing 'War and Peace' in Haiku."
     Picture books are their own unique art form and writing for children has particular and demanding requirements. For instance, most picture books contain less than 1,000 words, many less than 500. Most picture books consist of 32 pages - that's it. (Click here for a great article on word lengths for childrens's books: "Wordcount Dracula" by Jennifer Represents...) Trying to fit a good story into such a small amount of text can be hard enough, but getting published is even harder. In fact, breaking into the children's publishing industry is so difficult, the slot machines in Las Vegas offer better statistics.
     One of the main reasons this industry is so tough is because most people get into children's books with projects they are truly passionate about and completely emotionally attached to. Often their story will be an anecdote from their past or a story about their children (or a puppy!), or they have a moral lesson they want to impart (this is called didactic and is a serious no-no in kids books). They feel the world would be a better place with their story in it - their book could change lives! And they end up seriously resenting the walls they hit in the industry. And there are some serious walls.
     To give you an idea from personal experience, it took me three years to land my first contract as illustrator. That's considered very fast. It took me seven years to sell my first picture book manuscript as author/illustrator (Soap, soap, soap, Fall '09). Again, faster than average. And it took me ten years to sell my first children's novel (A Bird on Water Street, Fall '13). That is actually the average. But I have friends who are still trying to get published after ten years or more of trying.
     But new books come out all the time so somebody is getting published, right?
     It's true, and if you are truly determined, there are some things you can do to increase your chances in the very competitive world of children's books. (Self-publishing and eBooks are different subject entirely, read below.*)
     First, understand that children's books are a business and must be approached in a professional manner just as you would with any other industry. You wouldn't dive into the stock market without researching like crazy, children's books are no less of an endeavor. Learn as much as you can about the business side of children's books.
     There are rules on how manuscripts should be formatted (33k .pdf) and submitted to publishing houses. Not following the rules will almost guarantee that your work is passed over. (And trust me, manuscripts from those who haven't done their homework stand out like obnoxious, ugly beacons!)
     Click here for an article, "In Praise of Reading Slush" by agent, Nathan Bransford.
     Update! Many agents and editors are now accepting digital submissions to review on their Kindles and such. This requires new rules of formatting which are spelled out wonderfully by Agent Vickie Motter at "Navigating the Sluch Pile."
     Target your submission. Knowing where to send your manuscript is extremely important. Sending a picture book manuscript to a publisher who only does YA (young adult) will result in failure. Don't send a manuscript to a house that doesn't accept "unsolicited manuscripts" (solicited manuscripts are submitted by agents), it will just go in the trash. Don't send illustrations with your manuscript unless you are a professional illustrator (doing otherwise is presuming to do the editor's job - they select the illustrator).
     See a pattern? Learn the rules so you can jump the hurdles. Educate yourself. The more you know about the inner workings of this business, the better chance you'll have.
     But how do you learn about the industry?
     A great place to start is with the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. This is the largest writing organization of its kind in the world, and it is the umbrella that holds us together. The SCBWI provides wonderful resources for new writers, including lists of publishers and what they want. They also hold national and regional conferences where you can network, meet editors and Art Directors, and learn more about the biz. And there are chapters all over the world, so most likely there is one near you. In my experience, children's book creators are some of the most interesting, vibrant, friendly people you will ever meet. So, even if you never get published, it's a great and supportive group of people to hang out with. And volunteering with SCBWI can definitely improve your exposure. For instance, I am the Illustrator Coordinator for the Southern Breeze chapter (Alabama, Georgia, and the Florida panhandle) of SCBWI and I can say it's definitely helped my career. Visit SCBWI.org to find your local chapter.
    You can also learn about the various publishing houses, and how to submit to them, in the Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market (which is updated annually), or online at The Children's Book Council Member's List.
     Another fantastic resource is THE COMPLETE IDIOT'S GUIDE TO PUBLISHING CHILDREN'S BOOKS by Harold Underdown. Harold is a working editor, very knowledgeable, and highly supportive of those starting out. He also has a good resource online at The Purple Crayon.
     As I touched on above (and mention again because I receive so many requests to illustrate manuscripts that have not yet been sold to a publishing house), one of the things you'll learn from both of these resources is that unless you are a professional illustrator, you do not need illustrations to accompany your manuscript. Publishers prefer to select the illustrator for your book because they take many issues into account. For instance, they may pair a beginning writer with an established illustrator so the book will garner more marketing attention. However, once you have a contract with a publisher (which is the hard part) you can certainly suggest an illustrator if you have someone in mind. Just don't expect your opinion to have much weight. You may be the author, but children's books are a business (have I made that clear?) and the publishers have the professional experience.
     2011 Update: With the recent recession and the onset of eBooks and Apps, the picture book market has become even harder to break into. Celebrities, major events, and high concept picture books are still being picked up, but the rest of the market has seriously dried up.
     2013 Update: Things are slowly starting to move again, but with the consolidation of Penguin and Random House, there are now only 5 BIG publishing houses (called "The Big 5") - although there are hundreds of smaller ones. The biggies are Penguin/Random House, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, Hachette (Little,Brown), and HarperCollins. And they are still danged hard to break into.
     Another thing you will learn is that you don’t need an agent. Yes they can help you avoid the slush piles (the thousands of manuscripts that swamp publishing houses every month), but it can be harder to find a good agent than to find a publisher. Especially for picture books as there's not much money to be made yet lots of work to be done to break into the market. Wait until you have some projects under your belt, or a really amazing offer coming in that you need help negotiating before signing, to pursue an agent. Most literary agents charge 15% on average (art reps are different) and a good one will earn every penny of that. As with all things, research to find a good one.
     There are three classes of agents: the creme-de-la-creme (there are some great ones out there), the underqualified, and the crooks. Anyone who asks for money up front, falls into the last category. Agents work like realtors, they get paid when your project sells. If you're unsure, a good place to check out an agent's background is at PREDITORS & EDITORS.
     Of course, you need to make sure your manuscript is exceptional. Books must sell for publishers to buy new ones. Today’s market is especially tough, and nothing less will make it through (there are always exceptions, but let's not go there). Two great resources for studying the art of writing for children are: WRITER’S GUIDE TO CRAFTING STORIES FOR CHILDREN by Nancy Lamb, and PICTURE WRITING: A NEW APPROACH TO WRITING FOR KIDS AND TEENS by Anastasia Suen. Look into online classes and courses in your area. I also have numerous online resources in my LINKS section. Also, create or join a critique group - a group of writers who review and edit each other's work and cheer each other along on this difficult journey.
     Many beginning writers write in a style they fondly remember from their childhood. With technology and today’s fast paced world, that antiquated presentation holds little interest for today’s kids. Research the market. Go to your local independent bookstore and read what is out there. Buy lots of books - support your field! Some great, very modern picture books to study are DON'T LET THE PIGEON DRIVE THE BUS and PRESS HERE. These titles will give you an idea of how radically different children’s literature is today, even though the feelings of childhood remain constant.
     You do need to know the facts — it wouldn't be kind of me not to share them. Reality is less than 1% of the manuscripts received by publishing houses actually become books. I know it's depressing. I'm sorry, but it's the truth. Here are the stats:
    "81% of the population feels they have a book inside them . . .
     20% would do a picture book, cookbook, etc.
     6 million have written a manuscript.
     6 million manuscripts are making the rounds.
     Out of every 10,000 children's books, 3 get published."
               - Jerrold Jenkins. 15 May 99.
          Here's another interesting factoid. According to the Business Insider, being a creative writer is the second most competitive job in America to get - before athletes, stock-brokers, actors, and musicians. (Choreographer was first.) Read: "10 Competitive Jobs That Everyone Wants But Hardly Anyone Gets."
     More tough news. A common misconception is that all published authors must be rich. So, is there money in it? The stats are as follows. In all the arts:
     3% make the 'big bucks' (these are the creators most people have heard of).
     12% make enough to live on (and boy is that relative).
     85% make under $10-12k a year.
     As author and marketing consultant Seth Godin says, "The only people who should plan on making money from writing a book are people who made money on their last book. Everyone else should either be in it for passion, ... or joy."
     In other words, don't quit your day job, and expect lots of rejection. But also know, there are such things as “good rejections.” If you receive a hand-written note, or requests to see future works, that is a very good sign. Even Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) received 27 rejections before his first book was published. (And Kathryn Stockett's "The Help" was rejected 60 times before that best-seller finally sold.)
     In children's books, you realistically cannot expect your one-time whimsical project to go anywhere, but you can expect your 10th toiled over manuscript to finally grow some legs.
     All that said, it is possible to break in. If you have lots of stories in you, and you’re willing to work very hard, this may be a valid career path for you. But please, don’t take it lightly. Almost every published author or illustrator you meet has jumped unbelievable hurdles to get their work out there. You'll quickly understand that when you try it yourself. This business is for the stubborn and the persistent (to an extreme). Many call it "The 4 P's": Passion, Patience, Perseverance, and Postage.
     So why would anybody go into this crazy, manic-depressive business? Because there is no feeling like seeing a child joyfully dive into a book you created. And there's no equal to creating and sharing your stories with the world. In my opinion, people need three things to survive–food, shelter, and wonder. Storytellers have been providing that wonder throughout history - it is a long and proud tradition. As far as the unbelievable hurdles that must be jumped to make it in this business? Personally, I like to set my dreams high. That way, even if I only make it half way there, it's still pretty darned good.

Some more good quotes:
     “Writing is easy: all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.” - Gene Fowler
     “It is easy, after all, not to be a writer. Most people aren’t writers, and very little harm comes to them.” - Julian Barnes
     “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” - Madeleine L’Engle

More Resources:
SCBWI resources for beginners - click here
Unasked-For Advice to New Writers About Money
The Reality of a Times Bestseller
Anatomy of a Picture Book by Scott Franson
"One in a Million" by Seth Godin - practical advice for students
"Hope and the magic lottery" by Seth Godin
Moonrat's Rundown of Publishing Options by Editorial Ass
The Dark Art of Pricing by Jessica Hische

*Self-publishing, also known as Vanity Publishing or Print-on-Demand, is a completely different animal with different issues. Yes, you can pay to have your book published by the many companies who make this available, but don't confuse this with traditional publishing.
     Most bookstores will not carry self-published books because self-publishers seldom have the expertise or budget to seriously edit or market their books. They have not been through the checks and balances of traditional publishing houses, and because of retail restrictions, these books typically do not do well commercially. (Note: For these reasons, they generally cannot further my career and I don't take them on as an illustrator.)
     If you don't understand the difference, it breaks down like this: In self-publishing, you pay them; in traditional publishing, they pay you.
     But sometimes self-publishing IS appropriate. It should be considered for personal projects for family and friends, or for niche markets that a large publishing house would typically not cover.
     I recently consulted on a picture book with two artist friends who collaborated to self-publish. Because of their established markets and areas of expertise, self-publishing actually made more sense. Their book is doing very well and they landed a contract with a major (traditional) publishing house as a result. But this is an anomoly - a freak incident that rarely occurs.
     If you are just running out of patience waiting for those big publishing house cogs to turn, I'll say it again . . . it took me three years to get my first book contract as illustrator and seven years to get my first contract as author/illustrator. I have plenty of friends who have been trying to break into children's publishing for much, much longer. When you work that hard to be traditionally published, it is frustrating to hear self-publishers claim it is the same thing. It's not. Yes, there are some success stories, but generally self-publishing is not the way to grow as a respected creator in this industry.
     Update 2012 - I still stick by this information but must admit, the sheer number of self-publishers these days is forcing the pendulum to swing the other way. Some big names are choosing to self-publish rather than deal with traditional publishing houses. However, success stories for debut authors in the self-publishing world are still extremely few and far between.
     To quote Chip MacGregor, Literary Agent:
Who should self-publish? The answer is simple: Only authors who can sell their books. Period. If you can't sell your book -- either by speaking to a group or pitching them to your organization or offering them to your regular readers, don't self-publish. You'll just lose money. It's extremely rare for a fiction writer to sell any self-published books, no matter what company name is on the spine. So be aware, and do your homework.
Resources for self-publishers:
How Much Money Do Self Publishers Make?
The Book Designer
e-Books getting the words out (via the AJC)

** Note to beginning illustrators. If you've been approached to illustrate a book by a self-publisher - please read this before you commit to anything.

The Good News
     One side affect of self-publishing is that a lot of self-publishers discovered their work would carry more clout if they incorporated and took on creators other than themselves. Therefore, there has been an explosion of small publishing houses who are now open to unsolicited manuscripts. It raises your chances of getting published, although marketing is still the elephant in the room. With such a flux of titles in the marketplace, getting your book found is harder than ever, and many of these houses still don't have budgets for serious marketing. Also, with so many unrecognized publishing house names, bookstores are still wary to carry titles from houses they don't know.
     So you have to ask yourself what your goal is - to just be published, or to have your book sell. If its the latter, then you have two hurdles in front of you. Most authors these days, whether traditionally or self-published, are having to do their own marketing. Even the big houses expect it. It's why being an author is such a multi-faceted career. Along with writing, most of us also do school visits, speak at conferences and festivals, do book signings, are active on social media, etc. It all helps sell our books.

*eBooks
     eBooks and apps are indeed changing the industry. CLICK HERE to read about the creation of my first picture book app, LULA'S BREW, or visit the blog e is for Book to read up on current eBook trends in the industry.
All Artwork © Elizabeth O. Dulemba -  Y'all play nice, Okay?
dulemba.com