At Girl Friday we get a lot of inquiries from folks who have written or want to write a children’s book. It makes sense. Who doesn’t love a great story for kids? Everyone has a childhood favorite, whether it is The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, Horton Hears a Who!, or one of thousands more. These books often light a lifelong fire for reading and, in adulthood, bring back memories of parental connection or intoxicating escape. But writing a great children’s book is no small feat (despite the relatively low word count) and it’s an even more daunting task to capture the interest of a literary agent or publisher among the mountain of submissions in this genre. Self-publishing is an option, but authors need to be aware of the high costs of production. Children’s books have all those lovely (and expensive) illustrations to consider, which necessitates pricey four-color printing. So what do you need to know about the world of children’s books to help your book stand out and maybe one day be the light for someone else’s literary fire? Today we ask children’s book editor and writer Laura Marsh, five burning questions we have about this market.
1. What are the most common misconceptions that writers have about the publishing process or the market for children’s books?
Well, as you mentioned, people assume writing a shorter text for a younger audience is pretty simple—or at least easier than writing for adults. There is a famous quote that goes something like, “I would have written a shorter letter if I had had the time.” The point is that writing less text takes more time and effort. In a traditional thirty-two-page picture-book format, every word must count. Crafting a compelling story with space restrictions is challenging. Other common misconceptions are that most children’s book authors survive on the income from their craft alone (only a handful do), and that a story you tell your own children will surely make a great children’s book (it rarely does).
2. Why is it important for a children’s book to go through the developmental editing process? As an editor, what types of issues are you looking for?
Every manuscript needs an editor. Even though an author may have revised his or her text many times, a fresh pair of eyes will see parts of the story that need trimming or a little more polish. The finished book needs to capture and sustain a child’s attention. (Anyone who has read to a four- or five-year-old knows when a book lags! Your audience may stand up and walk away.) A successful story also needs dynamic characters with voices that feel authentic, and it needs a narrative arc, with a conflict that progresses and builds until it is resolved in a satisfying ending.
3. Should a children’s book writer always have an illustrator connected to their project before they shop it around to agents and publishers?
No. In traditional children’s book publishing, the editor is like a casting director in a play. The editor pairs an illustrator with the text (unless, of course, the author is also illustrating the book). An editor knows what art style is marketable and has access to many talented illustrators. However, the author most likely knows few illustrators, let alone the illustrator who could best tell the story. Rest assured, an author benefits from this structure. If an author submits a manuscript with an illustrator the editor doesn’t view favorably, the project will typically be rejected.
4. What does the market for children’s books look like today, and how has the publishing landscape changed in the last few years?
For a while, people have been concerned that eBooks and other children’s media would severely diminish book sales. However, children’s book sales in the United States have actually increased in recent years. As far as I can tell, there’s no substitute for cuddling up with a good book.
5. What was your favorite project to work on and why?
Recently, I wrote an early reader book called Ugly Animals (National Geographic Kids, 2015) that I got completely wrapped up in. Do you know what a tarsier or a naked mole rat is? If not, they’re worth a look! These creepy-looking critters won’t win any beauty contests, but their bodies have super-cool adaptations that enable their survival. I finally had to cut myself off when I was doing research for this book—the intriguing facts and photos went on and on.
Laura Marsh has worked in children’s book publishing for over twenty years as an editor, packager, and author. She has written more than twenty-five books in the National Geographic Readers series, including the Great Migrations titles, companion books to the National Geographic film miniseries. She currently lives in Westchester County, New York, with her husband, two sons, and their dog, Bode.