Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Children's Publishing (But Were Afraid to Ask)

I love London. I lived there during law school. It's filled with fantastic museums. Soho is awesome. Hyde Park is beautiful. I learned I loved curry and Indian food. Who doesn't love Downton Abbey? Now I have another reason to like London because I found a blog post from the UK that summarizes most all of what I would say about breaking into the children's book publishing world. When we set out to publish our first book in the River Royals series, I would have loved to find the above post that begins by asking questions all aspiring children's book authors have asked themselves:

"What do you have to do in order to be a successful children's book author these days? Write a great story, naturally, but what about getting an agent, and marketing your book, and tweeting, and branding, and finding the right editor to work with, and entertaining school children while dressed up as a giant bunny [or in my case, a yellow southern belle] and wielding a glitter gun?"    

Yes! Finding those answers would be like finding the Holy Grail of KidLit! Turns out, as you are probably well aware, getting published and becoming a successful children's book author is not that easy. You can do all the right things, check all the boxes and still not get published and have a successful career. On the other hand, chances are good that won't see your book on the shelves at Barnes & Noble unless you follow some basic guidelines.

So, enjoy some English Breakfast Tea, with a little milk, and read the super English blog post above. Then, in case you'd like my two cents on the subject after years of what seemed like running in place to then visiting five states and almost 100 schools in one year, keep reading.

1. Rejection will happen and it's not necessarily a bad thing.  River Royals was rejected approximately 30 times (from agents and publishing houses) before we heard YES!  Most came in the form of fill-in-the-blank standard rejections. In fact, we only received one really nice rejection. That sounds like an oxymoron, but you come to appreciate nice rejections. Keep trying. It only takes one publisher. Word on the street is that Gone With the Wind was rejected 80 times. Now, next to the Bible, it's been printed more than any book in history. John Grisham self-published A Time to Kill after failing to land a publisher and before The Firm launched his career. 

The River Royals continued to take some hard knocks even after getting published. Some came in the form of bookings that resulted in no interest and awkward conversation among book fair hosts (despite the fact that I was dressed in the aforementioned yellow southern belle costume). Some came in the form of presenting to hundreds of children, then selling five books. Last year was a learning curve, and we learned a LOT! You learn what works and what doesn't. The main thing is to keep working. 

2. Consider working for free. You may be thinking, "Why in the world would I do that?! I'm in this to make money!"

First, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but this is not a lucrative business. In fact, you'll be required to invest time and money to get off the ground. A small percentage of authors hit it big with Disney movies and figurines at Target, but I can count that number on one hand.

Second, you'll be overpaid with precious comments from little readers. My favorite one last year came from Ainsley at Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, Arkansas. With great enthusiasm, she told us, "I usually do not like reading, but after you came to my school, I LOVE reading." See? Overpaid.

Third, you don't have to work for free forever. Consider visiting schools without charging an honorarium initially, but ask that your order forms are sent to interested parents prior to your arrival. Hopefully you will sell some books that way, and most importantly, you will begin building your "platform."

3. What is a platform and why do people keep stressing that I build a larger one? A platform is a comprehensive plan detailing your target audience, why your audience will be interested in following you and how you intend to reach your followers (through social media and public events). Even if you are fortunate enough to land a killer contract with one of the big five publishing houses, branding and marketing yourself as an author is going to largely fall on your shoulders. There are too many books published a year and marketing is too expensive for houses to help get your name out there.

PRIOR to approaching houses, have an attractive website, blog interesting topics consistently on your site and grow your Twitter followers (3-4 posts a day) and Facebook friends (2-3 posts a week). A good rule of thumb for gathering followers is to make 80% of your posts about topics relevant to the publishing world and only 20% shameless plugs for your book. The larger platform you have, the more attractive you are going to be to agents and editors. Show them you are willing to work hard.

4. Think outside the box. This does not mean sending your query letter on hot pink paper. Really, don't do that. Send in a query letter that you have rewritten many times over many days that has a great hook and concisely sells your book and you, in that order (another post for another day). I know the hard and fast rule, "thou shalt not use the telephone to contact agents and editors!" This is true 99% of the time. However, we've had some luck picking up the telephone. What??! It's true. Main rule on that note, be very nice to the receptionist. She is the gatekeeper. Rely much more heavily on an amazing query letter - on white paper.

You can also think outside of the box in terms of agents and editors that you choose to pitch. Research lots of both. What about you or your book matches perfectly with a particular agent or editor? Finally, keep your mind open to lots of possibilities. Our agent does not typically handle children's books, but he's had great success on 5th Avenue in Manhattan and works daily with children's book agents, our personalities meshed wonderfully and we are thrilled he chose to represent us.

Now, finish your English tea and scones and go get a publishing contract!

Sarah