How to Publish a Children's Book: A Guide for First-Time Authors
In the early 1990s, Julia Donaldson, a former busker and the wife of a university lecturer, was approached by a publisher who wanted to adapt a children’s song she'd written for the BBC. With the release of A Squash and a Squeeze, she published her first children’s book at the age of 45, igniting a career that resulted in modern classics like The Gruffalo, Room on the Broom, and Stick Man.
Donaldson had the edge over most first-time authors, in that she had a background in kid's TV. But how does a regular person — one with no connections to the arts — become a published author? In this post, we’ll show you how to publish a children's book and get it into the hands (and hearts) of young readers everywhere.
- Understand the type of children's book you are writing
- Perfecting your manuscript
- Finding an agent
- Submitting children's books directly to publishers
1. Understand the type of children's book you are writing
Knowing your audience is essential when you’re writing your book and crucial when you’re selling it. The first thing an editor wants to know is whether it’s the kind of book they can sell. Refining your book’s target audience will also help demonstrate your understanding of the publishing business: something most editors want in a collaborator.
What are the age ranges for children's books?
Broadly speaking, children’s fiction is divided into four categories:
- Picture Books: under 5 years old, under 500 words
- Early Readers: 5+ years old, 2,000 to 5,000 words
- Chapter Books: 6-9 years old, 5,000 to 10,000 words
- Middle Grade (MG): 8-12 years old, 30,000 to 50,000 words
- Young Adult (YA): 12-18 years old, 50,000 to 100,00 words
Modern editors take word count quite seriously. They rarely have time to intensely edit the books they acquire, so if you’ve written a 200,0000-word Middle-Grade opus, most editors will think, “Who needs that kind of stress,” and give it a hard pass.
Tip: Demonstrate your understanding of the publishing trade and your category in particular.
If you want to learn more about writing for each category in children's publishing, sign up for this free online course on Reedsy Learning.
Research the market
You want to see first-hand what bookstores are selling and promoting. Scanning Amazon's bestsellers list is fine, but going into a Barnes & Noble will give you a much better idea of ongoing trends. Bricks ‘n’ mortar stores still make up a large chunk of the children’s market and — more so than with adult books — most parents still prefer them over online retailers.
So put on your spy hat and go on an intelligence-gathering mission to the children’s section of a large bookstore. Locate the shelf where your book belongs (i.e., picture books, middle grade) and take notes on:
- Which authors are popular in your category;
- What topics and themes seem to be thriving;
- Which publishers are putting out these books.
You can scan through all the major titles in your category and find out which ones your book will compete with. In publishing, we often talk about “writing to market,” which naysayers interpret as “cynically aping successful books.” But really, it’s about understanding the tastes of readers and publishers. You want to know what your audience has read before so you can either play up to certain tropes or subvert them.
Tip: Sign up to the Children’s Bookshelf newsletter at Publisher’s Weekly to stay current with developments in the market (including the latest titles).
2. Perfecting your children's book manuscript
As we’ve mentioned, editors rarely have time to edit, so your manuscript needs to be as good as possible.
Keep rewriting and editing your book
Great books are almost always the result of meticulous, well-considered rewrites and edits. In a letter he wrote to his daughter, Roald Dahl revealed the all-consuming work that went into his classics:
“But I've got now to think of a really decent second half [for Matilda]. The present one will all be scrapped. Three months work gone out the window, but that's the way it is. I must have rewritten Charlie [and the Chocolate Factory] five or six times all through and no one knows it."
Work on your manuscript until you have no idea how to make it better. Picture books and early readers are so short that it’s even more crucial to perfect every single sentence.
Tip: After you’ve finished your first draft, don’t look at your manuscript for at least two weeks. Objectivity is key in the rewriting process.
Get feedback from readers
Many authors get their children (or nieces, or their friends’ children) to read their manuscripts. Kids are brutally honest, so they make for some of the best beta readers. Parents are also great for feedback — they’re the people who will actually buy your book, so their reaction can help you gauge whether the book is suitable for the market.
Children’s Writing Communities
There are many excellent online communities where you can ask for feedback from fellow authors and enthusiastic readers. Facebook groups like Children’s Book Authors and Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators are a great place to start.
Put serious consideration into joining the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Members get access to a whole slate of resources like their “Book,” a page that includes directories of publishers, agents, and reviewers specific to children's publishing. SCBWI also has over 70 regional chapters around the world, allowing you to network with local, like-minded children’s authors. The annual fee is $80, but it’s well worth it — even if you only using a fraction of what they offer. Another group worth looking at is the Children's Literature Association.
Joining a writer’s community can make all the difference in your burgeoning career. Once you’ve established yourself as an active and giving member, you will find it much easier to find beta readers or ask for a referral to an agent or publisher.
Work with a professional editor
A professional editor doesn't just improve your storytelling and fix your grammar, they can also help you understand whether you’re writing for the right audience. Ones with the proper experience will make sure your book adheres to the standards and unspoken rules of the trade, and often guide you through the process of submitting your manuscript.
Many freelance editors on Reedsy have worked for the world’s largest publishers, so they know precisely what acquiring editors are looking for. Their help can prove to be invaluable.
Tip: Editing costs are often based on word count. Picture books and early readers are short, so a professional edit can be surprisingly affordable.
You can learn more in this article about working with professional fiction editors.
Don’t get an illustrator
Unless you’re already a professional illustrator like Raymond Briggs (The Snowman) or Jon Klassen (I Want My Hat Back), don’t worry about illustrations. In fact: don’t hire an illustrator. Don’t do it yourself, and don’t get your spouse, child, or college roommate to do it. Don’t even provide guidelines. The editor who buys your book will want to choose the illustrator — submitting sketches or guidelines will only work to your disadvantage.
Tip: Make your picture book manuscript more attractive for collaborators. Avoid using too many visual descriptions and leave space for illustrators to dictate the pacing and add their own touches
Assuming you’ve polished your manuscript to within an inch of its life, let’s get the thing sold!
3. Finding a children’s book agent
The most straightforward way of selling to a publisher is to first secure a literary agent, according to Anna Bowles, a former commissioning editor at Hachette: “Publishers who accept unagented submissions are pretty rare nowadays.”
An agent’s job is to sell your book to a publisher and negotiate the best deal on your behalf. If there’s the potential for your book to become the next Rainbow Magic or Percy Jackson, they will likely handle your film, TV, and merchandising rights as well.
The standard commission for an agent is 15% of an author’s total income, including both advances and royalties. But before you start worrying about that, you first need to convince a reputable agent to take you on.
Querying an agent
A query letter for a children’s manuscript is no different from one for any other kind of fiction book. It’s a letter “querying” whether an agent is interested in representing you. Ideally, it is a one-page note with an “elevator pitch” that sells you and your book. It should succinctly explain:
- Where your book stands in the children’s publishing market;
- What makes your book unique; and
- Why you and the agent are perfectly suited to each other.
You want to make an impression. New writers will sometimes try to stand out by doing something crazy like filling the query letter envelope with glitter to show that they’re “young at heart” — but those guys are more likely to get arrested than represented.
You can get plenty of tips for writing a great query letter, but here are two suggestions that will improve your chances.
- Only submit to agents who handle kid's authors. Too many authors don’t do their research before they query an agent. Don’t waste your time contacting agents who only handle adult titles or books that are way out of your category.
- Know where your book fits into their list. If the agent already has a few unicorn-based picture books on their list, mention how your unicorn picture book will sit nicely alongside them. If they don’t have any unicorn books, say how your book can add depth to their list.
What happens after you get an agent?
If you do manage to catch an agent’s eye and they agree to represent you, you’re not on easy street just yet. Just ask J.K. Rowling, whose agent struggled to sell the first Harry Potter book until an editor finally took a chance on it.
But what happens if you don’t have an agent?
What if you’ve sent out a dozen perfect query letters and you're still not getting the response you want? Well, you still have the option to submit the book yourself.
4. Submitting children's books directly to publishers
Without an agent, you need to search for publishers who accept ‘unagented submissions.’ Depending on your territory, major publishers might accept unsolicited manuscripts. For example, Penguin Australia encourages children’s authors to submit directly while their US and UK offices claim to only accept submissions through agents.
Look for niche imprints of big publishers
It isn’t strictly true that the major presses won’t look at unsolicited manuscripts: Penguin actually has an imprint called Dial Books for Young Readers which lets authors submit directly. Likewise, at the time of writing, Clarion Books (an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is also open to unagented authors. The small catch is that both don’t reply to authors unless they’re interested in publishing. So be ready for silent rejection!
Small and medium publishers
Smaller independent publishers are more likely to show interest in unagented submissions. It’s just a matter of finding the right ones. The industry tomes Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market and Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook (UK) both have directories of that can help you find the right publishers. Likewise, members of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators can access their exhaustive database.
For free resources, check out Picturebook Planet, which has a great list of picture book publishers you can submit to. For all other kid's categories, the Published to Death blog has a substantial section in their publisher’s directory (scroll halfway down).
Many companies won’t take submissions all year round, but if you sign up for the free newsletter from Authors Publish, you’ll be notified when publishers start accepting direct submissions.
Beware of vanity presses
If a publisher wants you to pay to publish your book, just run away. The publishing landscape is infested with vanity presses, looking to prey on the dreams of inexperienced authors
How much do authors get paid for?
It’s not about the money — it’s about the love of the craft, right?
Just kidding! Money always matters, especially if your goal is to write full-time.
Children’s authors can expect an advance of between $5,000 and $10,000 on their first book, with subsequent royalties of around 7% for printed books and up to 25% on ebook sales. Picture book royalties are split between the writer and the illustrator — and often in the illustrator’s favor.
Statistically, most published authors don’t make enough from their books to write full-time. If you see children’s publishing as an easy way to make big bucks, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. But if you have an original idea for a story, the creativity to make it unique and enjoyable, and the drive to get it published — you just might see your book in the hands of children everywhere.
Are you an aspiring or experienced children’s writer? Share your thoughts in the comments below.