As a published children’s author I often get approached by writers or illustrators who have written or created a story, wanting to know about how to get it published. Sometimes it is their friends who approach me – writers and illustrators can be a diffident lot.
It’s hard to give advice without this being seen as a criticism of the work itself, which is often penned with flair and illustrated lovingly. Maybe it’s a family story, a fun Dr Seuss-like rhyme, or wonderful pictures of New Zealand birds. The illustrations are cute, the rhyme is fun, your kids or grandkids love it. Unfortunately that won’t automatically translate into a book that publishers want to publish and other adults want to buy.
I recently attended the Storylines Children’s Writers Conference in Auckland, which prompted me to add more information to the advice that I wrote last year on writing for children. The conference reminded me that there are many expert writers and editors out there willing to help people refine their work, so read on and be prepared to ask for help.
- Take a realistic approach: First the bad news – it’ll be near to impossible to have your first work accepted by a publisher. To give you a sense of scale, David Ling, of Duck Creek Press told me last year “I receive 300 submissions a year and only publish 6“. Given the scale of difference between submissions and actual publications, some publishers will only accept work from already published authors which must feel like a Catch-22 situation to the unpublished author. Others will only take submissions at certain times of the year. Most publishers’ websites include a section of ‘information for contributors’ or ‘submission guidelines’, read these thoroughly. (For a list of New Zealand publishers see: PANZ.) Look at the kind of books they publish, does your book idea or manuscript fit with the kind of books they publish? Don’t waste your time sending your book where it won’t be read and isn’t wanted. BUT before you send anything anywhere read point 2.
- Invite critique and develop your writing skills: You may feel you’ve done all you can to your manuscript BUT you’d be surprised how much time published authors spend polishing and refining their work. Author Janice Marriott, puts it like this “All writers work at improving their skills in order to tell the best stories they can that really engage the reader. Learning how to recognise when a story idea has enough action, character, drama and uniqueness can be taught. Learning how to polish your writing till it shines can also be taught, by a combination of information, practice, and tutoring. Writers who know about the importance of structure, characterisation and style will always be able to make their story ideas come to life.” You can take a course such as Janice’s Go Write Now, join an informal writing group where writers assess each other’s work or your could approach an assessor for advice. NZSA has a list of assessors as well as a scheme for members to get their work assessed. If you are a first time writer, getting your manuscript assessed is a great first step.
- Do your homework if you want your writing to be published: Learn about children’s books. Barbara Murison, a respected children’s literature expert and manuscript assessor, said “If you want to write for children and young people you need to be very aware of what this group is reading, and is interested in, by reading as many current books yourself as possible and by talking to and listening to what this group is saying.” Your local children’s librarian will know what books are popular with what age group. Remember too, that booksellers are a key part of the publishing chain for illustrated children’s books. Visit your local bookshop and ask, what kind of books sell well? What topics would they like to see covered in books? At the conference, I was reminded that something as simple as the amount of bookshop shelf space given over to a particular genre or age group has an impact on what booksellers stock. This in turn has an impact on what publishers will publish.
Footnote: If you don’t plan to become a children’s author or illustrator and would just like to see one manuscript you’ve developed in print, then choose self-publishing. The technology is there to make a great production for friends and family, even to sell though the local store. See the NZSA website for information on publishing including self-publishing.