How to Write & Publish Children's Books

By Christina Hamlett

  • Overview

    If you enjoy the energy and imagination of young children and believe you have a gift for entertaining, educating or inspiring them through the written word, you may want to try your hand at writing a book and pitching it to a publisher. While few of today's major publishing houses will look at a newcomer's work unless it comes from a literary agent or by referral from one of their existing authors, the good news is that there's no shortage of small to medium publishers who are always open to fresh talent and ideas. Likewise, the proliferation of self-publishing venues is an option that many new authors are pursuing to retain creative control, pricing and distribution of their product.
    Once Upon a Time
    • Step 1

      Identify the age group you want to write for (i.e., early readers, elementary school students, teens). This choice is often based on how much familiarity you have with the various stages of childhood development. Perhaps this comes from being around your own children, running a day care center or being a teacher at a neighborhood school. To successfully write what your young audience wants to read, you need to understand how they think, what they dream about and what they're afraid of.
  • Step 2

    Study the competition. Once you have decided who your target audience is, you'll need to become a voracious reader of popular titles that are similar in scope to your ideas for plots. Become a regular in the children's and young adult sections of your local bookstore. And don't forget to go back and read some of the classics from your own childhood. The reason they have endured is because they were great stories to begin with.
  • Step 3

    Subscribe to monthly publications such as "Children's Writer Newsletter," which features interviews with top agents and editors who have an interest in books specifically geared toward young readers. This newsletter is published by Writer's Institute Publications, which also puts out an annual publishers guidebook and a magazines market resource. (The latter is beneficial if you want to test the waters by writing stories for magazines before you plunge headlong into longer works.)
  • Step 4

    Decide whether you want to write fiction or nonfiction. While a lot of children's literature contains elements of both (i.e., a fictitious story set against an historical backdrop), publishing decisions are based on where exactly a book is going to be placed in the bookstore. As far as stores are concerned, fiction and nonfiction are two different animals. Further, they just don't have the shelf space to put your book in both locations.
  • Step 5

    Decide what genre your book will be. A genre refers to the type of story it is. For instance, it could be a mystery, science fiction, fantasy, horror, young romance, western or coming of age book. Once you have figured out what your plot will be and what kind of characters will be in it, experiment with different genres to see which one best carries the story forward. If you're light on ideas for plots, hop on over to websites such as AbsoluteWrite, which offers writing prompts to energize those brain cells.

  • Step 6

    Decide whose point of view will prevail throughout the story. Even though many books are written in the third person and involve multiple characters doing interesting things, one of them needs to be the lead. Interestingly, this doesn't always have to be the hero or protagonist; it can also be the villain or antagonist around which all events revolve.
  • Step 7

    Outline your book before you sit down to write it. Have a clearly defined beginning, middle and ending. This is also a good time to start writing your synopsis. A synopsis is a mini-summation of what the book is about, and it will be a necessary element in your pitch to editors once the book is written. Unlike a school book report that leaves the editor guessing how everything works out, a synopsis reveals the ending.
  • Step 8

    Write the book. Easier said than done, especially if your life has lots of distractions. If you're going to finish it, though, you need to have the discipline to stick to a firm writing schedule and not spend copious amounts of time editing yourself. Join a critique group. This will not only provide you with ongoing feedback and support, but it will also hold you accountable; you can't show up empty-handed for meetings. It's also critical to recruit a few readers who are the same age as your target audience. Teens in particular aren't shy about telling you if your plot is really lame.
  • Step 9

    Get yourself an agent if you want your work to get pitched to the larger houses. The Agent Query website listed at the end of this article is a great place to start.
  • Step 10

    Purchase a copy of "Writer's Market," which is published every year by Writer's Digest Books. This resource contains detailed listings and submission guidelines of publishers seeking new material. Follow the instructions to the letter once you have identified publishers who publish the kind of material you have written.
  • Step 11

    Prepare a polished cover letter of no more than one page that briefly introduces yourself, describes what the book is about and explains why it is right for today's market. If you have a background that makes you particularly qualified to have written this book, be sure to include it. Do not, however, make any reference to the fact that loved ones think it's good, make any apologies because it's your first attempt at writing or tell them that this is the next "Harry Potter" or the next "Twilight."
  • Step 12

    Explore the possibilities of self-publication as an alternative. Companies such as Outskirts Press, for instance, offer competitive rates, provide ongoing marketing assistance to their authors and give writers more creative control over the look and the cover design. Considering that even traditional publishing houses today are shifting more and more responsibility on the authors to get out and aggressively market their own titles, you may want to self-publish if you're already in the local spotlight and have access to your target market. Many teachers, for example, have self-published textbooks and then put them on the recommended reading lists for their students.
  • Step 13

    Network with your fellow authors by participating in chat rooms, subscribing to online newsletters related to the craft of writing and attending workshops. You may also want to develop your own website and/or blog to talk about your experiences in writing your book. This helps generate a buzz.
    • Skill: Moderately Challenging
    • Ingredients:
    • Mailing envelopes
    • Postage
    • Current copy of "Writer's Market"
    • Tip: Learn from whatever feedback you get from your critique groups as well as from editors or agents to whom you pitch your work. Writing is a subjective craft. In other words, you're not going to be able to please all the people all the time, but if everyone finds fault with the same things in your style, your plot and your characters, it would behoove you to listen to their suggestions.
    • Tip: Keep excellent records of when, where and who as you start sending query letters and sample chapters. Nothing is more mortifying than to have an editor ask you why you have re-sent her something she already rejected six months ago.
    • Warning:
    • When you're first starting out, be prepared for the reality that you're going to get a lot of rejection. Because publishing is a financial risk--especially in an uncertain economy--editors have far more reason to tell you "no" than to say "yes" to an idea that could flop and cost them their jobs. If you don't have a very thick skin or the willingness to develop one over the course of your career, this may not be the best use of your time.
    • Once you've sent your material out, don't become a pest about its status. Allow 6 to 8 weeks for a response before sending a polite follow-up letter.
    • Never address an editor by her first name until she invites you to do so.
    • Never send a publishing house more than they ask for. If they only ask to see the first 10 pages, do not send the first 108 just because you think they'll really, really like it. They won't.
    • Never recycle your manuscripts to the next agent or editor. Print out fresh copies.

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