How to Publish a Children's Book: A Guide for First-Time Authors
Updated: August 15th, 2018
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
- How to self-publish a children's book
- Marketing a children's book
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 see it in the hand of your readers, then there is a way your can make sure it gets published.
How to Self-Publish a Children's Book
In this section, we're going to take the big decisions out of the hands of big presses and look at your self-publishing options. We’ll cover the pros and cons of the indie approach before offering up our best tips for producing, distributing and marketing your own kids' book. We’ll mainly be focusing on picture books, but don’t worry — a lot of the principles can be applied to early readers as well.
Why should you self-publish a children’s book?
Contrary to public opinion, indie publishing isn't merely a last resort for authors who are unable to find a suitable publisher. Here are just a few great reasons for self-publishing your children's book.
1. It’s really hard to get a deal with a traditional publisher
The children’s book market — especially for picture books — is very competitive. Scoring that first publishing deal can be like finding a needle in a haystack, even if you’ve signed with an agent. But when you self-publish, you can almost guarantee that your book will get out there.
2. You can have complete creative control
Even if you manage to sign with a traditional publisher, they will decide how your book is illustrated and designed. If you want to draw your own illustrations, pick your own artists, or have final say on things like the title of your book, the self-pub route may be for you.
3. You keep more of the royalties
At a traditional publisher, a picture book author will be looking at getting 5 cents on every dollar made by the book. Because the illustrator needs to get their cut, this is a smaller percentage than what you’d expect if you’re writing an MG novel, perhaps. When you self-publish, you can expect a much bigger piece of the pie. (The relative size of that pie is another matter altogether, though.)
4. Traditional publishers are slow
“The production cycle is around two years from acquisition to hitting the shelves,” according to children’s book illustrator Kim Fleming. Traditional presses work very far in advance and have complex launch schedules for countless books that they need to balance.
If you want to see your idea come to life before Christmas, for example, then indie publishing may be your best option.
5. Traditional publishers will rely on authors to market their books anyway
You know how publishers advertise books on the subway and in newspapers? Well, the bad news for you is that they only really do that for their very top authors. In almost all cases, even Big 5 presses will make the author market and promote their own titles.
So if you’re doing all the work selling your book, why shouldn’t you also be keeping a bigger chunk of the sales?
Naturally, there are also drawbacks to self-publishing a children’s book — most of which are financial. You’re not expected to drain your savings account just to work with professional editors and illustrators, but you will be responsible for finding the money somewhere, whether through crowd-sourcing or profit-sharing. And then there’s the time and effort you need to spend on producing and marketing your book.
If that doesn’t daunt you, then proceed to our next section, where we’ll show you just how to do it.
How to self-publish a children’s book (in 5 steps)
In this section, we’ll assume that you know the basics of self-publishing a book. Instead of re-hashing what you can learn elsewhere, we’ll dive into what makes publishing children’s titles (and in particular, picture books) different.
Step 1: Perfect your manuscript with an editor
In the first section, we told you to polish your manuscript to within an inch of its life before you showed it to anyone. Now, if you're self-publishing your book, you need to take it one step further and ensure that it's fit to publish. And you can easily assure that by working with a professional editor. The benefit of having a manuscript that’s only 500 words long is that it makes hiring a freelance editor so affordable. Look for an editor who's worked on books you enjoy, and be willing to take their advice on what's working (and what's not).
Step 2: Find an illustrator
You remember how we told you not to look for an illustrator if you were writing a children's book? Well, you're self-publishing now, so you better start hunting for someone who knows how to use a paintbrush!
If you have your heart set on illustrating your own book, that’s great — so long as your pictures are right for the story you want to tell, and you feel there’s no one else who can do a better job.
But if you’re open to the idea of working with a professional, then you’ll find a whole world of illustrative styles opening up before you. In her course on publishing picture books, Kim Fleming name-checks a number of popular aesthetics including:
- Linework (Quentin Blake, et al)
- Cute & Sweet (Renata Liwska, et al)
- Naive (Mo Willems, et al)
And many more! We suggest looking at an illustrator’s portfolio to get a good sense of their style...
How much does it cost to hire an illustrator?
How long is a piece of string? Every illustrator will offer different quotes depending on their experience and the nature of the project, but Fleming reckons you’ll be able to find an illustration student or recent graduate to work on your book for around $4,000.
“It is a lot of work to illustrate an entire book! To put it in perspective, illustrating a 32pp book can easily take 3 months of full-time work to complete. This includes character development, story pacing, rough concepts, final illustrations — and if created by hand — scanning and color correction as well.”
Can you split the royalties with the illustrator?
You can, technically. But the vast majority of freelance illustrators will receive a flat fee for self-publishing work. No offense to your wonderful manuscript, but most freelancers need to pay their bills and won’t gamble on the success of your book.
If you’ve conceived the book with an illustrator, and this is a project you’ve decided to work on together, you might want to know that authors and illustrators tend to split all royalties 50-50.
Step 3: Get a book designer
Wait… isn’t the illustrator designing the book? Probably not. Children’s illustrators are very rarely super-experienced at interior book design. Instead, you need someone with a flair for typography and layout — someone with the technical expertise to assemble your book into its final, printable format. In Fleming’s experience, you don’t want to wait too late to hire someone.
"Wait… isn't my illustrator going to design my entire book? Not necessarily — especially since there's a world of difference between interior book design and illustration. It’s very rare to find someone super-experienced at both. Instead, you need someone with a flair for typography and layout — someone with the technical expertise to assemble your book into its final, printable format. In Fleming’s experience, you don’t want to wait too late to hire someone."
“It is worthwhile to have the designer on board early if at all possible — at the minimum before the illustrator starts creating the final illustrations. This way, the designer can advise on appropriate “real estate” for the text on the page.”
Step 4: Choose a Printer and Distributor
In almost all areas of self-publishing, there is a focus on digital formats. After all, ebooks cost nothing to set up, are priced more attractively for readers, and provide authors the greatest royalty split. This, however, is not the case with books for younger readers.
Print-on-Demand technology has transformed publishing, allowing indie authors to print only as many copies as they sell. The main players in the game are IngramSpark and CreateSpace (an Amazon company that will soon shutter in favor of a similar service called KDP Print).
Both of these companies will print books to a serviceable standard. The cost of printing a 32-page full-color book is £3.65 with CreateSpace, and roughly the same on Ingram, depending on how you customize it.
Blurb is another service that offers greater customization and a higher quality product — with a base cost that’s twice what you would pay CreateSpace. The upside is that they offer generous discounts once you start ordering in bulk.
Using any of these PoD services, you’ll be able to sell your book through every major online retailer — Amazon, Barnes & Noble, et al.
Step 5: Work the libraries
However, your goal shouldn’t just be to sell directly to parents. After all, most parents don’t just buy every book under the sun — the majority still head to their local library.
Every book of yours that’s in a library is effectively free advertising.
If a parent sees a picture book at the library that’s vaguely suitable for their child, chances are they’ll borrow it. If they like it, they might look for other books the author has written and buy those.
And then they’ll tell their friends, who will also borrow it for their kids, then buy other titles published by the same author, and recommend it to their friends. And thus, the virtuous circle is complete.
To get a better idea of how to get your book into the library system, check out this free Reedsy course on the topic. But if you’re too impatient to take the course, we can reveal that to get your books into a library, you’ll need a lot of good reviews — which bring us to our final crucial topic…
Marketing a children’s book
As we alluded to earlier, regardless of whether they're self-publishing, children's authors are expected to do a significant share of the marketing work. 80% of the time, marketing kidlit is the same as marketing any other book. There are dozens of great book marketing ideas for you to mine — from creating a mailing list to running promotions with other authors.
In this section, we’ll focus on the other 20%: the marketing techniques that are unique to children’s books.
Reviews are even more important
Parents rely more on reviews when buying books for their children than when they’re doing it for themselves. They want to see what other parents think, how other children have enjoyed it, and whether the subject matter is appropriate for their own wee ones.
Moreso than with a self-published thriller or romance novel, a picture book with no reviews will really struggle to sell — and will be impossible to place in a library or bookstore.
Look to online communities for influencers and street teamers
Blogs, Instagram, Facebook Groups, Twitter, Reddit. These days, most parents of young kids are millennials. As a result, they will rely on the internet for almost any kind of recommendation (another generalization, admittedly).
Search through Facebook for children’s book groups, or groups that might be concerned with the topic of your book. If you’ve written a picture book about firetrucks, you can bet there’s a Facebook group of people who love fire trucks — and some of those people are going to have kids.
Share pictures of your book on Instagram or Twitter using relevant hashtags — ones that either deal with your book’s topic (#unicorns #firetrucks) or tap directly into your audience (#mommylifestyle #picturebooksaremyjam).
Work with an influencer
You will have likely heard of the term ‘influencer,’ most commonly used to describe YouTube or Instagram personalities who get paid by brands to promote products. While it’s not a terrible idea to reach out of any of these people whose interests align with your book — not all influencers need to be vloggers.
Yvonne Jones wrote a picture book about a monster truck (Lil’ Foot the Monster Truck) and to promote it, she reached out to Bob Chandler, creator of Bigfoot and originator of the monster truck sport. He liked the book and gave her a short review, which then helped get her foot in the door with various monster truck associations and blogs.
Similarly, if you can identify someone who has some clout amongst people who might buy your book, then politely reach out, introduce yourself and offer to send them a copy of your book.
Most schools will welcome visits from authors — in fact, some schools even set aside an annual budget for it. So why not get in touch with an administrator or a librarian and ask what you can do for them? And if you’re doing the school visit for free, Jones suggests taking the opportunity to sell some copies.
“Follow up your first email with a phone call to let them know that you visit local schools for free, in return for the school sending slips home, offering the chance to buy signed copies of the book.”
Of course, there are plenty of other marketing avenues to pursue — many of which you can learn about on Reedsy’s free course on children’s book marketing.
Are you an aspiring or experienced children’s writer? Share your thoughts in the comments below.