Before Your First Sale

If you’re just beginning to pursue your career as a children’s book writer or illustrator, it’s important to learn the proper procedures, formats, and protocol for the publishing industry. This article outlines the basics you need to know before you head to the post office with your submissions.

Finding the Best Markets for Your Work
Researching publishers well is a basic element of submitting your work successfully. Editors and art directors hate to receive inappropriate submissions ? handling them wastes a lot of their time, not to mention your time and money, and they are the main reason some publishers have chosen not to accept material over the transom. By randomly sending out material without knowing a company’s needs, you’re sure to meet with rejection.

If you’re interested in submitting to a particular magazine, write to request a sample copy, or see if it’s available in your local library or bookstore. For a book publisher, obtain a book catalog and check a library or bookstore for titles produced by that publisher. Many publishers and magazines now have websites that include catalogs or sample articles (websites are given within the listings). Studying such materials carefully will better acquaint you with a publisher’s or magazine’s writing, illustration, and photography styles and formats.

Most of the book publishers and magazines listed in this book (as well as some greeting card and paper product producers) offer some sort of writer’s, artist’s or photographer’s guidelines for a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE). Guidelines are also often found on publishers’ websites. It’s important to read and study guidelines before submitting work. You’ll get a better understanding of what a particular publisher wants. You may even decide, after reading the submission guidelines, that your work isn’t right for a company you considered.

Submitting Your Work
Throughout the listings you’ll read requests for particular elements to include when contacting markets. Here are explanations of some of these important submission components.

Queries, cover letters and proposals
A query letter is a no-more-than-one-page, well-written piece meant to arouse an editor’s interest in your work. Many query letters start with leads similar to those of actual manuscripts. In the rest of the letter, briefly outline the work you’re proposing and include facts, anecdotes, interviews or other pertinent information that give the editor a feel for the manuscript’s premise ? entice her to want to know more. End your letter with a straightforward request to write (or submit) the work, and include information on its approximate length, date it could be completed, and whether accompanying photos or artwork are available.

Arthur Levine, editor-in-chief of Scholastic imprint Arthur Levine Books, recommends writers send queries that present their books as a publisher’s catalog would present them. Read through a good catalog and examine how the publishers give enticing summaries of their books in a spare amount of words. It’s also important that query letters give editors a taste of your writing style. For good advice and more samples of queries, cover letters and other correspondence, consult a guide like How to Write Attention-Grabbing Query & Cover Letters.

  • Query letter for nonfiction. Queries are usually required when submitting nonfiction material to a publisher. The goal of a nonfiction query is to convince the editor your idea is perfect for her readership and that you’re qualified to do the job. Note any previous writing experience and include published samples to prove your credentials, especially samples related to the subject matter you’re querying about.
  • Query letters for fiction. More and more, queries are being requested for fiction manuscripts. For a fiction query, explain the story’s plot, main characters, conflict and resolution. Just as in nonfiction queries, make the editor eager to see more.
  • Cover letters for writers. Some editors prefer to review complete manuscripts, especially for fiction. In such cases, the cover letter (which should be no longer than one page) serves as your introduction, establishes your credentials as a writer; and gives the editor an overview of the manuscript. If the editor asked for the manuscript because of a query, note this in your cover letter.
  • Cover letters for illustrators and photographers. For an illustrator or photographer the. cover letter serves as an introduction to the art director and establishes professional credentials when submitting samples. Explain what services you can provide as well as what type of follow-up contact you plan to make, if any.
  • Resumes. Often writers, illustrators and photographers are asked to submit resumes with cover letters and samples. They can be created in a variety of formats, from a single page listing information, to color brochures featuring your work. Keep your resume brief, and focus on your achievements, including your clients and the work you’ve done for them, as well as your educational background and any awards you’ve received. Do not use the same resume you’d use for a typical job application.
  • Book proposals. Throughout the listings in the Book Publishers section, publishers refer to submitting a synopsis, outline and sample chapters. Depending on an editor’s preference, some or all of these components; along with a cover letter, make up a book proposal.

A synopsis summarizes the book, covering the basic plot (including the ending). It should be easy to read and flow well.

An outline covers your book chapter by chapter and provides highlights of each. If you’re developing an outline for fiction, include major characters, plots and subplots, and book length.

Sample chapters give a more comprehensive idea of your writing skill. Some editors may request the first two or three chapters to see how your material is set up. Find out what the editor wants before writing or revising sample chapters.

Manuscript formats
When submitting a complete manuscript, follow some basic guidelines. In the upper-left comer of your title page, type your legal name (not pseudonym), address and phone number. In the upper-right corner, type the approximate word length. All material in the upper corners should be typed single-spaced. Then type the title (centered) almost halfway down that page, the word “by” two spaces under that, and your name or pseudonym two spaces under “by.”

The first page should also include the title (centered) one-third of the way down. Two spaces under that type “by” and your name or pseudonym. To begin the body of your manuscript, drop down two double spaces and indent five spaces for each new paragraph. There should be one-inch margins around all sides of a full typewritten page. (Manuscripts with wide margins are more readable and easier to edit.)

Set your computer or typewriter on double-space for the manuscript body. From page two to the end of the manuscript, include your last name followed by a comma and the title (or key words of the title) in the upper-left corner. The page number should go in the top right corner. Drop down two double spaces to begin the body of each page. If you’re submitting a novel, type each chapter title one-third of the way down the page. For more information on manuscript formats, read The Writer’s Digest Guide to Manuscript Formats, by Dian Buchman and Seli Groves, or Manuscript Submissions, by Scott Edelstein (both Writer’s Digest Books).

Picture book formats
The majority of editors prefer to see complete manuscripts for picture books. When typing the text of a picture book, don’t include page breaks. And unless you are an illustrator, don’t worry about supplying art. Editors will find their own illustrators for picture books. Most of the time, a writer and an illustrator who work on the same book never meet. The editor acts as a go-between in case either the writer or illustrator has any problems. How to Write and Sell Children’s Picture Books, by Jean E. Karl (Writer’s Digest Books), offers advice on preparing text and marketing your work.

If you’re an illustrator who has written your own book, create a dummy or storyboard containing both art and text. Then submit it along with your complete manuscript and sample pieces of final art (color photocopies or slides ? never originals). Publishers interested in picture books specify in their listings what should be submitted. For a step-by-step guide on creating a good dummy, see to How to Make a Smart Dummy. Also refer to How to Write and Illustrate Children’s Books and Get Them Published, edited by Treld Pelkey Bicknell and Felicity Trotman (North Light Books), or Frieda Gates’s book, How to Write, Illustrate, and Design Children’s Books (Lloyd-Simone Publishing Company).

Writers may also want to learn the art of dummy making to help them through their writing process with things like pacing, rhythm and length. For a great explanation and helpful hints, see You Can Write Children’s Books, by Tracey Dils (Writer’s Digest Books).

Mailing submissions
Your main concern when packaging material is to be sure it arrives undamaged. If your manuscript is less than six pages, simply fold it in thirds and send it in a #10 (business-size) envelope. For a SASE, either fold another #10 envelope in thirds or insert a #9 (reply) envelope which fits in a #10 neatly without folding.

Another option is folding your manuscript in half in a 6 X 9 envelope, with a #9 or #10 SASE enclosed. For larger manuscripts use a 9 X 12 envelope both for mailing the submission and as a SASE (which can be folded in half). Book manuscripts require sturdy packaging for mailing. Include a self-addressed mailing label and return postage.

If asked to send artwork and photographs, remember they require a bit more care in packaging to guarantee they arrive in good condition. Sandwich illustrations and photos between heavy cardboard that is slightly larger than the work. The cardboard can be secured by rubber bands or with tape. If you tape the cardboard together, check that the artwork doesn’t stick to the tape. Be sure your name and address appear on the back of each piece of art or each photo in case the material becomes separated. For the packaging use either a manila envelope, foam-padded envelope, brown paper or a mailer lined with plastic air bubbles. Bind non-joined edges with reinforced mailing tape and affix a typed mailing label or clearly write your address.

Mailing material first class ensures quick delivery. Also, first-class mail is forwarded for one year if the addressee has moved, and can be returned if undeliverable. If you’re concerned about your original material safely reaching its destination, consider other mailing options, such as UPS or certified mail. If material needs to reach your editor or art director quickly, use overnight delivery services.

Remember, companies outside your own country can’t use your country’s postage when returning a manuscript to you. When mailing a submission to another country, include a self-addressed envelope and International Reply Coupons or IRCs. (You’ll see this term in many Canadian listings.) Your postmaster can tell you, based on a package’s weight, the correct number of IRCs to include to ensure its return.

If it’s not necessary for an editor to return your work (such as with photocopies) don’t include postage. You may want to track the status of your submission by enclosing a postage-paid reply postcard with options for the editor to check, such as “Yes, I am interested,” “I’ll keep the material on file,” or “No, the material is not appropriate for my needs at this time.”

Some writers, illustrators and photographers simply include a deadline date. If you don’t hear from the editor or art director by the specified date, your manuscript, artwork or photos are automatically withdrawn from consideration. Because many publishing houses and companies are overstocked with material, a minimum deadline should be at least three months.

Unless requested, it’s never a good idea to use a company’s fax number or e-mail address to send manuscript submissions. This can disrupt a company’s internal business.

Keeping submission records
It’s important to keep track of the material you submit: When recording each submission, include the date it was sent, the business and contact name, and any enclosures (such as samples of writing, artwork or photography). You can create a record-keeping system of your own or look for record-keeping software in your area computer store. features a submission tracker that can be kept up to date online.

Keep copies of articles or manuscripts you send together with related correspondence to make follow-up easier. When you sell rights to a manuscript, artwork or photos you can “close” your file on a particular submission by noting the date the material was accepted, what rights were purchased, the publication date and payment.

Often writers, illustrators and photographers fail to follow up on overdue responses. If you don’t hear from a publisher within their stated response time, wait another month or so and follow up with a note asking about the status of your submission. Include the title or description, date sent, and a SASE for response. Ask the contact person when she anticipates making a decision. You may refresh the memory of a buyer who temporarily forgot about your submission. At the very least you’ll receive a definite “no,” and free yourself to send the material to another publisher.

Simultaneous submissions
If you opt for simultaneous (also called “multiple”) submissions ? sending the same material to several editors at the same time ? be sure to inform each editor your. work is being considered elsewhere. Many editors are reluctant to receive simultaneous submissions but understand that for hopeful freelancers, waiting several months for a response can be frustrating. In some cases, an editor may actually be more inclined to read your manuscript sooner if she knows it’s being considered by another publisher. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators cautions writers against simultaneous submissions. The official recommendation of SCBWI is to submit to one publisher at a time, but wait only three months (note you’ll do so in your cover letter). If no response is received, then send a note withdrawing your manuscript from consideration. SCBWI considers simultaneous submissions acceptable only if you have a manuscript dealing with a timely issue.

It’s especially important to keep track of simultaneous submissions, so if you get an offer on a manuscript sent to more than one publisher, you can instruct other publishers to withdraw your work from consideration.

Agents and Reps
Most children’s writers, illustrators and photographers, especially those just beginning, are confused about whether to enlist the services of an agent or representative. The decision is strictly one that each writer, illustrator or photographer must make for herself. Some are confident with their own negotiation skills and believe acquiring an agent or rep is not in their best interest. Others feel uncomfortable in the business arena or are not willing to sacrifice valuable creative time for marketing.

About half of children’s publishers accept unagented work, so it’s possible to break into children’s publishing without an agent. Some agents avoid working with children’s books because traditionally low advances and trickling royalty payments over long periods of time make children’s books less lucrative. Writers targeting magazine markets don’t need the services of an agent. In fact, it’s practically impossible to find an agent interested in marketing articles and short stories ? there simply isn’t enough financial incentive.

One benefit of having an agent, though, is it may speed up the process of getting your work reviewed, especially by publishers who don’t accept unagented submissions. If an agent has a good reputation and submits your manuscript to an editor, that manuscript may actually bypass the first-read stage (which is done by editorial assistants and junior editors) and end up on the editor’s desk sooner.

When agreeing to have a reputable agent represent you, remember that she should be familiar with the needs of the current market and evaluate your manuscript/artwork/photos accordingly. She should also determine the quality of your piece and whether it is saleable. When your manuscript sells, your agent should negotiate a favorable contract and clear up any questions you have about payments.

Keep in mind that however reputable the agent or rep is, she has limitations. Representation does not guarantee sale of your work. It just means an agent or rep sees potential in your writing, art or photos. Though an agent or rep may offer criticism or advice on how to improve your work, she cannot make you a better writer, artist or photographer.

Literary agents typically charge a 15 percent commission from the sale of writing; art and photo representatives usually charge a 25 to 30 percent commission. Such fees are taken from advances and royalty earnings. If your agent sells foreign rights to your work, she will deduct a higher percentage because she will most likely be dealing with an overseas agent with whom she must split the fee.

Be advised that not every agent is open to representing a writer, artist or photographer who lacks an established track record. Just as when approaching a publisher, the manuscript, artwork or photos, and query or cover letter you submit to a potential agent must be attractive and professional looking. Your first impression must be as an organized, articulate person.

For a detailed directory of literary agents, refer to 2002 Guide to Literary Agents; for listings of art reps, consult 2002 Artist’s & Graphic Designer’s Market; and for photo reps, see 2002 Photographer’s Market (all Writer’s Digest Books).

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