Wednesday, December 14, 2011

For Aspiring Authors and Illustrators...

As an author-illustrator of children's books, I hear from a lot of people who are trying to get started in the children's book business, but don't know where to begin. Sometimes they've written a story and they want me to illustrate it. Sometimes they just have an idea, and they want me to write and illustrate it (then we'd split the money, I guess...). Most often, they just want to start the process of trying to get published, but aren't sure what to do first.

Everyone's path to getting that first book published is different, but I thought it might be helpful to write a blog post to help point people in the right direction. Some of this is for author/illustrators, and some is just for authors (who aren't also illustrators). I hope it helps! If there's anything I missed, please leave a comment and I'll try to answer any questions you might have.


For anyone hoping to break into the children's book business, whether you're an author, an illustrator, or an author/illustrator, the absolute very best place to start is to join the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. I'm pretty sure it only costs $70 to join, so it's not a huge investment. You should do this right now. I will wait.

Welcome back! As a member of SCBWI, you now have access to tons of information about how to get your story published, including lists of publishers, what type of books each publisher makes, which publishers accept unsolicited manuscripts (for many publishers, you need to have an agent or they won't even read your story). They also have a list of agents accepting new clients, and online message boards where you can connect with other writers, illustrators, etc., and find answers to any questions you might have. Their web site is

Another great reason to join SCBWI is their regional and national conferences, where editors and art directors from all the major publishers review manuscripts and portfolios. This is the only way for new authors and illustrators who don't have an agent to get their foot in the door with certain publishers.

For example, Candlewick Press, who has published most of my books, only accepts submissions from literary agents. But they always send their editors and art directors to SCBWI conferences. They see the SCBWI conference as a sort of filter. They know that anyone who has taken the initiative to join SCBWI and devote the time to attend a conference is serious about it, as opposed to when they tried accepting unsolicited manuscripts, some of which were scrawled on notebook paper, and most of which was not anything that would ever get published.

Some publishers do accept unsolicited manuscripts, and SCBWI provides you with a list of them too.

FOR ASPIRING AUTHORS (who aren't also illustrators):

If you've written a book and you're in the process of finding an illustrator, I've got good news! You can stop searching RIGHT NOW! Unless you are planning on illustrating it yourself, you should submit your story to publishers with no illustrations. Even if it's a picture book. It sounds crazy, but it's true.

A lot of aspiring authors waste valuable time searching for an illustrator, not realizing that publishers would prefer to have them submit their manuscript without any illustrations- which is actually a good thing, because you can skip right to the next step, trying to find a publisher who might like your story.

Here's how it typically works: the author submits the un-illustrated manuscript to the publisher, then if the publisher likes it, they offer the author a contract. Next, the publisher finds an illustrator that they feel is a good match for the manuscript, and offer the illustrator a contract. Usually, the author and illustrator never even meet, and everything goes through the publisher.

People often come up to me and tell me they've got a great idea for a children's book, and they want me illustrate it. Every illustrator I know has stories about their neighbor, or their second cousin, or their ex-girlfriend's mom, asking them to illustrate their unpublished story. I'm never quite sure what to say in these situations, because I know any answer will probably make them think I'm a jerk. But I guess it all boils down to this: Illustrators get illustration jobs from publishers, not from authors.

Maybe you wrote a great story, and maybe you think I would be the perfect illustrator for it. And maybe you're right. But if you send me your story, I can tell you right now that my answer will be "no". But not because I'm a jerk, and not because your story isn't any good (I haven't even read it!).

When I take on a new project, not only do I need to feel passionate enough about it that I want to spend seven to nine months working on it, but I also need to know that I'll be working with an editor and an art director who will help me make a great book, and I need to know that it will be distributed to bookstores and libraries, and it will have the support of a marketing department.

This is how I make my living. This is how I pay my mortgage and support my family. That's why I only take illustration jobs from publishers, who pay me an advance and royalties, and get my books into bookstores and libraries. So if you want me (or any other illustrator) to illustrate your story, first find a publisher, then tell your editor you think I'd be a good fit. And if they agree, they'll send it to me!


-Spend some time in the children's section at your local bookstore, so you can get a sense of what kind of book yours might be, and what publishers might be interested in such a book.

-Find some of your very favorite children's books, the ones you think are the greatest books ever made (For example, I might pick The Polar Express, or Make Way for Ducklings), and try to make your book BETTER! If your book isn't better than those books (and it probably isn't), try to figure out why. What do those books have that your book lacks?

Sure, you might fall short of your goal here, but it's a good way to improve your work and get the most out of yourself. And it's a heck of a lot better way to approach it than what I hear from a lot of people, who basically say, "Why isn't my book getting published? It's better than most of the crap out there!" Maybe it is. But if you start off your career by comparing your book to books you think are crap, I think you might be heading down the wrong path.

-Maybe this is obvious, but if you're an illustrator, you should set up a website with some samples of your best work. If an editor or art director is considering publishing your book, they're going to google your name. Make sure you have something impressive for them to see when they do. They might like your illustration style and want to see what else you've done. They might see the book you're submitting, and even if they aren't crazy about it, maybe your style is a good fit for a manuscript they're working on and you'll get your first book deal that way.

-As much as you have poured your heart and soul into this book you're shopping around, don't get too attached to the work you've already done. When Candlewick Press decided they wanted to publish my senior thesis (which ended up being Zachary's Ball), they told me up front that they saw it as a really good rough draft, and they wanted to rebuild the book with me. I ended up doing almost all new pictures and revising the story. I was 22 at the time, and some of the people I was working with had been making children's books for longer than I had been alive, so I listened and took their advice and learned a lot.

-One last thing that might sound obvious, but I think it's important to remember: your focus needs to be on making yourself the best writer and/or illustrator you can be. I think sometimes people get so caught up in the "trying to get published" part that they lose focus on the "working hard to become a really good writer and/or illustrator" part. Keep practicing, and keep getting better.

I hope this helps. Good luck!

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