What should I do with my manuscript?

This is the question that frustrates new and experienced writers alike, but first, the basics.  All manuscripts should be typed, double-spaced, printed on one side of the paper only, sent unfolded in a large envelope, and accompanied by a SASE (a self-addressed, stamped envelope) for the manuscript’s return. In addition, include a well-composed, very brief letter mentioning your previous publishing experience, if any.

For more information see the SCBWI resource library “From Keyboard to Printed Page:  Facts you Need to Know”  and "Just Getting Started."  This is a good example of the kind of information you can receive from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators if you are a member.

Submit a picture book manuscript in its entirety; submit the outline of a novel with a sample chapter or two and a one or two page synopsis. Most editors prefer a query letter for non-fiction. Some editors do not mind multiple submissions (sending the same manuscript to several publishers at the same time); others reject multiple submissions without reading them. You may not hear about your manuscript submission for 1-9 months depending on how busy the publisher is; 3-6 months is typical.

Should I send illustrations with my manuscript?

Unless you are a professional photographer or an experienced artist who is familiar with printed artwork techniques, do not submit illustrations for your own manuscript.  Like a theater production, the making of a picture book is a collaborative effort, beginning with the editor’s choice of the illustrator which will affect not only the unit cost of a book but its marketability.  If you are an illustrator, check out The Purple Crayon illustrator's page; I recommend Caldecott recipient Uri Shulevitz's Writing with Pictures.  If you are both author and illustrator, you should submit the manuscript as well as a complete dummy and copies of one or two finished pieces of original artwork.  Do not send original artwork with your manuscript.

Where should I send my manuscript?

Before submitting a manuscript take time to become familiar with the wide variety and categories of children's books being published today by various houses.  A children's book manuscript will have a good chance of being accepted if it possess lasting literary merit, if it fits a recognizable category, and if it appeals both to the adults who will most probably purchase it and to the sensibilities of the child to whom it will be read.

Categories of children's books currently published include not only the broad division between fiction and non-fiction, but also board books, concept books, novelty books, picture books, picture story books, easy readers, chapter books, middle-age books, young adult (YA) books.  For a list of manuscript lengths for various children’s book genres see the SCBWI library resource "Just Getting Started."

Develop the habit of reading widely and critically, and make use of libraries and children's bookstores to keep up with new books on the market.  Learn to know the needs of various editors by obtaining catalogues from publishing houses, by signing up for editor critiques and attending editor sessions at conferences, and by reading book reviews. Never read a book without checking to see where it was published.

Do I need an agent?

I have met many successful authors who prefer handling the business side of their writing career themselves and others who prefer relying on the advice and professional expertise of their agents.  Currently, children’s book manuscripts are still being accepted by most publishing houses whether they are represented by an agent or or submitted by the author.  If you’d prefer working with an agent, you should know that few agents are willing to take on an unpublished client, so many authors submit their first books and magazine articles on their own before finding an agent interested in representing them.  Most agents prefer that authors send a query letter before they submit samples of their work. A list of reputable agents may be obtained from the SCBWI website or from The Association of Authors’ Representatives.

What about contracts, copyrights, and royalties?

Most publishers will offer you a standard contract with an advance against royalties based on sales. Advances on children's books are generally smaller than those given for adult books.  The standard royalty is 10% of the price of the book and that amount is split between the author and illustrator.  You will not receive royalty payments from the publisher until your book earns back the money the publisher has given you as an advance.  A work-for-hire contract (unlike a standard contract) offers a flat fee but no royalties.  Sometimes a work-for-hire contract is advantageous to a new writer who wants to establish publishing credentials or is convinced that the work will not result in large royalties.  On the other hand, keep this fact in mind:  Janette Sebring Lowrey, author of "The Poky Little Puppy" (a book published in 1942 that is still in print and has sold more than 15 million copies) was paid a flat fee of $75 for the book.

Most magazines will ask you for "first-serial rights" which give them the right to publish your work once, after which the copyright will belong to you. Some magazines insist on buying all rights forcing you to decide whether or not it is advisable to sell the piece for a flat fee giving up all rights in order to see it in print or to seek another market.

What chance do I have of succeeding?

Although most children's book editors have learned to spot a new talent, keep in mind that perfectly wonderful books are rejected every day. If you know your manuscript is good and you have done careful market research, do not be dismayed by early rejection—remember that Madeleine L'Engle's Newbery Award-winning Wrinkle in Time was rejected 29 times. For an unknown author, the competition is intense but not hopeless, and one's success depends not only on talent, but on luck and perseverance as well.


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