Ten Steps to Publishing Success
By Chana Stiefel
You’ve written a children’s book and you’d love to get it published. Now what?
First, congratulations! You’ve taken a huge first step—getting your story on paper. No small feat! And the world needs to hear your story. But patience is key: The road to publishing is long and twisty and there’s a lot to learn along the way.
My picture book career began more than 10 years ago when I wrote the first draft of my debut picture book, Daddy Depot. That book took eight years—and more than 50 drafts—until it hit bookshelves. Daddy Depot taught me the ropes of children’s publishing, and I’m still learning.
Other kidlit authors will tell you that this is common. On average, it takes two to four years to publish a picture book with a traditional publisher. If you are determined, if you love children and books, if you believe that kids need to hear your story, buckle your seatbelt and read my tips below. (BTW Everything I’m sharing is from the perspective of a traditionally published author. I have never self published. There are many other resources if that’s a route you’re considering.)
I’m posting helpful links beneath this post so you can read through the entire post without distraction. I also encourage other authors and publishing professionals to add their advice in the comments. One thing I know for certain is that there is no other community more supportive and uplifting than the kidlit community. If you believe in yourself, if you treat publishing like a job, if you do the hard work, you too can become a published children’s author.
1. Join SCBWI. Joining the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators is the place to start. SCBWI membership benefits include professional webinars, regional and national conferences, ways to connect with other authors around the world, and so much more! SCBWI’s online publication for members, The Book: The Essential Guide to Publishing for Children, is packed with everything you need to know from preparing your manuscript for publication to publicizing your published book.
2. Learn picture book basics. What is a picture book? How many words does it have? Should it rhyme? How many pages are there in a picture book? Do I have to hire my own illustrator? Learn the nuts and bolts. I highly recommend posts by authors Tara Lazar and Josh Funk to get you started. See below!
3. Find a critique group. While your family and friends may love your story, it’s essential to have other authors read it and give helpful and constructive feedback. Organizations like SCBWI can help you connect with other authors who meet online or in person and share manuscripts on a regular basis. Many highly acclaimed authors offer critique services for a fee. (Check qualifications and references first.) At the very least, find another author willing to swap manuscripts for critiques.
4. Write & revise. Every manuscript needs revision. That’s the hard work of writing. The original draft of Daddy Depot had too many characters, it rhymed (badly), and was 1,500 words. (The standard is 400.) Two great resources on writing picture books are:
5. Read books in your genre. I can’t stress this enough. Read, read, read. Know what’s being published for kids right now. Learn the trends and try to stay ahead of the curve. (If unicorns are trending, you may have missed your moment.) Read reviews. Collect your favorite picture books and delve into why you love them (and kids do too). Learn from them. Connect with librarians and indie booksellers and see what books they’re promoting and why.
6. Attend writing conferences and workshops. While the pandemic has kept us home, many professional writers organizations have gone online. Check out webinars from SCBWI, the Highlights Foundation, the Writing Barn, the Writers’ Loft, the Picture Book Summit, and many others. See below!
7. Join kidlit author groups, blogs, and podcasts: Children’s writing is all about community—learning and growing together. Follow groups like Kidlit411 and We Need Diverse Books on Facebook. You’ll find groups within groups. For example, I belong to Jewish children’s authors groups, like Jewish Kidlit Mavens and The Book Meshuggenahs. Some groups provide challenges and motivation to keep writing. Two groups that I find invaluable are:
If you prefer to listen and learn, some popular kidlit podcasts include:
8. Research agents: Do you need an agent to publish a picture book? My short answer is: yes. Agents open doors for authors, support & build our careers, help manage the business side of publishing, dry our tears, celebrate our success, and so much more. Research agents online and read The Children’s Writers and Illustrators Market 2020. Also follow Manuscript Wishlists from Agents and Editors #mswl. Kidlit411 spotlights agents as well. Learn about submission guidelines and make sure to follow them. Most agents will want to see more than one manuscript so be prepared.
9. Query: How do you submit a manuscript to an agent? With a query letter. Writing queries is an art in itself. I’ve included some resources below but the basic recipe to follow is: The Hook, the Book, and the Cook. Capture an agent’s attention with a great hook (something that leaves them wanting more), describe your book in a few short sentences, and tell a bit about yourself (the cook) and your writing history.
10. Keep writing! This information is a lot to take in at once. Think of it as a journey—or an endlessly loopy, scary, but thrilling roller coaster ride. Take it one step at a time. I am often juggling several manuscripts at a time and for every book that I publish, I have a dozen more that may never see the light of day. Why do I do this? Because I love to write. Because I care about children and literacy. Because I have stories to share. If that describes you too, then keep writing!
Wishing you the best of luck on your journey.
Kidlit authors! What tips would you include for budding authors?
Resources: Where to Start
The Society of Children’s Book Authors & Illustrators https://www.scbwi.org/
Picture Book Basics
Tara Lazar’s Blog: Writing for Children While Raising Them: https://taralazar.com/
Picture Book Layout Dummies:
Josh Funk’s Guide to Writing Picture Books: https://www.joshfunkbooks.com/resources-for-writers
The Highlights Foundation https://www.highlightsfoundation.org/
The Writing Barn https://www.thewritingbarn.com/
The Writers’ Loft https://www.thewritersloft.org/
The Picture Book Summit https://picturebooksummit.com/
Writing for Children with Katie Davis http://writingforchildren.com/
Children’s Book Podcast with Matthew Winner https://www.matthewcwinner.com/
Picturebooking with Nick Patton https://picturebooking.libsyn.com/
The Yarn with Travis Jonker and Colby Sharp https://www.mrcolbysharp.com/
We Need Diverse Books https://diversebooks.org/
The Brown Bookshelf https://thebrownbookshelf.com/
The Book Meshuggenahs https://www.facebook.com/TheBookMeshuggenahs/
12 x 12 Challenge https://www.12x12challenge.com/
Reading for Research Month (ReFoReMo) http://www.reforemo.com/
Manuscript Wish Lists from Agents and Editors
How to write a query letter:
Chana Stiefel is the author of more than 25 books for kids and co-blogger of KidLitTakeaways with Donna Cangelosi. Chana’s next picture book, LET LIBERTY RISE (illustrated by Chuck Groenink, Scholastic, 3-2-21), is the true story of how children helped build the Statue of Liberty. Other picture books include MY NAME IS WAKAWAKALOCH!, illustrated by Mary Sullivan (HMH, 2019) and DADDY DEPOT, illustrated by Andy Snair (Feiwel & Friends, 2017). Recent non-fiction titles include ANIMAL ZOMBIES…& OTHER REAL-LIFE MONSTERS (National Geographic Kids, 2018), which was selected as a Top Ten YALSA Quick Pick for Reluctant YA Readers in 2019. Chana loves visiting schools and libraries and sharing her passion for reading and writing with children. She earned a Master’s degree in Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting from New York University. Chana is represented by Miranda Paul at Erin Murphy Literary Agency. Follow her @chanastiefel on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Donna Cangelosi and Chana Stiefel are picture book critique partners & friends who are passionate about kids' books & are eager to share tidbits from their writing journey with other aspiring writers.