Like many educators and artists, I’ve had a few ideas for picture books kicking around in my head for years. I suppose it’s inevitable. As creatives who work with children, we are surrounded and often captivated by them. This past fall, however, I finally decided to make my long-ignored dreams of authorship a reality. While my first book has yet to be published, I have already learned a lot, and I’m happy to share the resources and lessons I have acquired.
First, the writing.
Thanks to my years as a songwriter and educator, I felt pretty comfortable getting my ideas down on paper, but, as with most media, picture books have their own set of rules, conventions, expectations, and limitations. After a few false starts, I decided the best way to learn how to navigate these tropes was to take a class on picture book writing. It was my first truly good decision in this process.
I was lucky enough to be in Chicago and found a class at the venerable Newberry Library called “Picture This: Writing Picture Books for Children.” It was affordable and met once a week for seven weeks. If you are in a major metropolitan area, chances are you too can find a class like this. There are plenty of online options as well. The Writing Barn is well-respected and offers many online classes. Take a look at KidLit411 also.
The first thing I learned was to discard my idea that I could simply jot down a few sentences to make up my twenty-eight-page picture book and call it a day. The writing process for picture books is just as involved, just as detailed, and just as demanding as writing a much longer work. It is common to write seventeen, eighteen, even twenty-five drafts before you are done. This is not a quick process, nor should it be. With any luck, you are creating a tangible work of art that will be loved and revisited by children for years to come. I’ll admit, though, realizing my little idea was not ready for the big time was a bit of an adjustment.
My teacher, Esther Hershenhorn, was (and is) a dream. She is a published author of several books and a deeply knowledgeable and passionate scholar of all things picture book. She offers seminars and classes year round, not only in Chicago. She opened my eyes to the process of picture book writing with love and precision. I highly recommend her.
In class, one of the many topics we covered were the ways to get published. For an original story, it really comes down to two avenues. Before I get into details, please note that I describe these processes as I understand them for an author who is not illustrating their own work. If you are an author/illustrator, there are fewer steps for you. See notes about that at the end, but as I myself am not an illustrator, I can’t say as much about it.
One more note before we begin. The absolute first thing you should do, no matter the route you choose, is join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). They are the largest organization of their kind in the world. They are helpful, friendly, active, and chock-full of resources. The only organization I can think of that compares with its welcoming, helpful, and sharing attitude is CMN. Join. Interact. Reap the benefits.
After you’ve got a story and illustrations, you’ll need to make some decisions about how and when to publish your book.
First Route: Self-Publish
There’s a lot to be said about self-publishing. It has never been easier. Websites like Upwork and Fiverr make finding an illustrator easy to do. You can find artists just entering the field, seasoned professionals, and everyone in between for every price point you can imagine. You maintain control over the look and feel of your finished book and, because you are paying for the illustrations outright, you get total ownership at the end of the process.
Once you have text and illustrations in hand, the fastest and most direct way to self-publish is to use a company like BookBaby to print yourself some copies and then head out to local indie booksellers and convince them to carry your books, while also offering them at your shows, in your storefront, or on your website. You could also take a page from the book of member Susan Salidor’s husband, Jay Rehak, and start your own publishing house. (Check out Sideline Ink Publishing.)
The second-fastest way would be to go through something like Amazon’s self-publishing arm. You can publish directly to Kindle, with other options as well.
As with any product you create, you will have to market, market, market. Reading blogs; local children’s librarians; social media like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Goodreads; and your local schools all can serve as valuable marketing avenues. Also, if you have a built-in audience already, such as hundreds of students at various schools, self-publishing could be a great way to provide more content to your already-existing fans, while potentially attracting new fans.
The two main pros of self-publishing are that you get to control the entire process, and you get to keep 100 percent of any profits you make. Self-publishing has even led to “widestream” success; for example, the infamous Fifty Shades of Grey series was initially self-published, as was the work of middle-grade fiction author Jessica Burkhart, and she’s sold 1.5 million books.
Both of these authors ultimately went a more traditional route, however, and next, I break down how that works.
Second Route: Traditional Publishing
This is the dream of so many of us: to be a published author, our book listed in places like the New York Times, featured in bookstores, beloved by teachers and children, librarians, and grandparents. It probably seems like you have it made if one of the “big five” publishing houses—Penguin Random House, Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, MacMillan, and Simon and Schuster—chooses to publish your book. Even with a smaller, indie publisher, such as Enchanted Lion Books, it might seem that much of the work detailed in the self-publishing route is done for you: they set up book tours, get your book reviewed, and arrange for it to be featured in bookstores and at fairs.
The disappointing truth is that none of the above is guaranteed or even likely. But let’s start at the beginning. You’ve taken a class. You’ve written a manuscript. You’ve shared it with trusted friends or classmates. It’s funny or sweet, unique or heartfelt, or all of those qualities. The point is, you need to share it with the world. Now it’s time to write a query letter. This is at once a simple step and a complicated step that numerous workshops, classes, articles, and anxiety-ridden Twitter threads focus on exclusively. Here’s a recent article on writing query letters to get you started.
Once you’ve got a rough query, you can either send your manuscript and query directly to editors or to literary agents. If you send to an editor, you’ll get a yay or nay about whether they’ll publish, and maybe a published book. If you send to an agent, you’ll get a yay or nay, then a bunch of waiting while they query editors, and then a published book (maybe).
If you’re tempted to skip the middleman, please note all evidence suggests that working with an agent almost certainly gets you a bigger advance. Also your agent will likely know way more than you do about the ins and outs of negotiating, which editors are looking for which kind of books, where your most likely audience is, and so on. On top of that, you can write your next masterpiece while your agent is knocking on figurative and literal doors for you. A legitimate agent will only get paid when you do. If one agrees to take on your book, they are putting their own incomes on the line, which means they believe in you and you’ll have a seasoned pro in your corner. That in and of itself is valuable in the world of the arts, which is so filled with rejection.
Traditional publishing also makes it more possible for your book to be carried by large, chain bookstores, like Barnes and Noble, and included in their publicity campaigns. You have people to help guide your work, create the marketing campaign, and pay for the expense of actually publishing physical copies. These are all very good reasons to go traditional.
Now for the cons: The first downside is that traditional publishing takes a long time. Querying agents easily takes a year. Finding a publishing house extends many months after that. Then you’ll get your advance and the publisher will begin publishing—which will easily take another year or two.
This leads me to the second con: Unless you are an author/illustrator, the publisher will not want you to provide illustrations or even, in most cases, to share your opinions on them. Your manuscript should do everything needed to paint the story in someone’s head. That someone will be an illustrator hired by the publishing house, and you may never even meet them. You’re also unlikely to see their work until after it is completed. That said, many editors do choose to involve authors in some way with the illustrations, especially if there is a cultural aspect to the story. Typically, though, you are meant to “stay in your lane” and leave the illustration to the experts.
Now for the third con: Traditional publishing does not mean you will get a robust marketing budget and that someone will plan a tour for you or set up interviews. Often, you still have to do much of that on your own. In fact, publishers look for authors who have a demonstrated following on social media already, or who are willing and able to do a lot of their own marketing. The publishing house buys your manuscript, hires an illustrator, and assumes all the other costs of making your book a reality. They pay you upfront with the understanding that you will be an active participant in making your book a success. Go back and read the section on self-publishing. The part about Goodreads and other social media, the part about walking into indie bookstores and pitching your book? You still need to do all of that if you want your book to sell. In short, some of the work is done for you with traditional publishing, but not all of it. You get a team, not an army.
If you’ve come this far into my article, you are probably feeling a little disheartened. It’s easy to think that once you are lucky or hard-working enough to write a manuscript that people want to read, your work is done. Much like in the music industry, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
There are a few bright points, however. Picture books are one type of medium that are still doing healthy business. People still seek picture books and buy them, unlike CDs, every day. There is nothing like the magic of holding a beautiful picture book in your hands and sharing it with a child (or children) you love. Picture books last for years, not only physically, but in the hearts and minds of the people who adore them.
I’ll wrap this up as I started: Check out SCBWI—any questions this article has raised can be answered in their vast archive of resources. Whether you choose to publish your book yourself or try the traditional route, SCBWI has a lot to offer in addition to providing a community of fellow writers and illustrators to learn from and commiserate with.