Zonderkidz and was previously at Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. She collected a diverse batch of questions from SCBWI-MI members and compiled her answers to share with our community. What a wonderful gift!
Hello everyone! First of all, a huge THANK YOU to everyone who took the time to send me their questions about publishing. It was very exciting to get such a great variety of questions. I hope all of you, whether you sent in a question or not, find this post helpful and informative.
Just a few notes before we dive into your questions. First, I humbly request that you take my comments in the spirit in which they’re intended; the advice here is meant to be friendly and helpful, and I sincerely hope that no one finishes this post feeling vulnerable or discouraged. We’re all in the process of growing and changing as writers, and while we all have areas we could improve upon, we all have wonderful strengths too.
Second, please keep in mind that my thoughts are my own; I do not speak on behalf of all publishing. If I say something that you really don’t agree with, or you’ve received comments from an editor or agent that directly conflict with my own perspective, that’s okay! You can disregard my comments; I won’t be offended (mostly because I won’t know). I do think that after being in the business for a while, my fellow children’s editors and I agree more often than we disagree when it comes to writing, so I do believe my advice is valuable. But it remains solely one woman’s perspective.
Lastly, I’ve adjusted the wording in many of the questions that were sent in, eliminating specific details to protect the person’s privacy, or combining several similar questions into one. So while you may not see your exact question below, I have done my best to respond to every question that was sent in. If you feel like I haven’t adequately answered your question, or you find the answer just prompts a new question, please feel free to email me. I could always use material for my next post!
Thanks so much, and happy reading (and writing)!
What makes a manuscript stand out? What do you most love to see? What’s the biggest turnoff? What signals to you that a manuscript is ready (or not ready) for publication?
You could probably ask a dozen editors this question and get twelve different responses, but for me, voice is probably the biggest determining factor in deciding whether or not to keep reading. A strong voice is essential to establishing a connection between the book and the reader; it’s the thing I most love to see in a manuscript, because without it, the text just falls flat (which is one of the biggest turnoffs I can think of). A manuscript’s voice should have a spark — it should draw you in, compel you to keep reading — it should make you feel something. If a manuscript doesn’t do those things, it’s not ready to be published.
How can I recognize when my manuscript is really, truly ready for submission?
Every writer knows that manuscripts are never finished, only abandoned. So how do you know it’s time to abandon your manuscript/masterpiece? Short answer: after you’ve drafted it, put it away for a while, come back fresh and revised it, then revised it again, then showed it to a critique group, revised it again, brought it back to critique, and revised it one more time (or fifty more times. Who’s counting at this point?).
I think the most important thing to do before submitting your manuscript is to have someone else read it and provide honest feedback. Meaning the person reading it should not be related to you. What you’re looking for is a friendly acquaintance who happens to be a top-notch reader. Ask them to be brutally honest with you. Be okay with it when they are brutally honest with you. Take their brutally honest feedback and use it to make your piece better. Do this with as many bookish friendly acquaintances as you possibly can. Eventually, the issues they find will be small and inconsequential, more a matter of taste than actual problems. When you reach that point, submit your manuscript. You’re ready.
Should a writer have a predetermined reader age and genre in mind before attempting a first draft, or should a writer dive into the story and figure out what it is and who's it's for after the story is on the page? Or should a writer simply submit a manuscript and let the editor figure out what he or she wants it to be? How important is it for a writer to be mindful of probable reader age when crafting a story (especially in regards to vocabulary choices, sentence length and structure, etc.)? Should the writer try to adapt to the reader or vice versa?
This is a very good, very complicated question that I will do my best to unpack. The first part of the question — whether you should write with an audience in mind or just write the story and let the audience work itself out — is a question that minds far greater than mine still can’t seem to agree on. I’d say while you’re crafting the story, do what works for you. But by the time you’re done revising and ready to submit it to an editor, you should have a good idea of the genre and target reader; I would mention one if not both of those things in a query letter. Editors like to know how a book will fit into their list, and it’s also nice to know that the writer has given some thought as to the book’s marketability.
As for the vocab, sentence structure, etc., my biggest rule is NEVER talk down to your readers. Don’t make the text cutesy, sing-songy, or overly simple in an attempt to appeal to kids. Just be real with them. If you’re writing a picture book and the best word to convey your meaning has fourteen letters in it, use the fourteen-letter word. Books are practically made for building vocab. But don’t fill a picture book with sentences that would be better suited to a novel either. If you’re feeling stuck, find some books in the library that have the same target audience as your manuscript and see how they approach the language.
Are there any children's publishers who are willing to take a look at our self-published books, either as a pdf or hard copy?
The short answer is yes! There are certainly plenty of examples of a traditional publisher acquiring the rights to something that was previously self-published. In my personal experience, it’s a mixed bag. I’ve seen writers get offered contracts because their self-published work sold like hotcakes, and I’ve seen publishers decline self-published books because they were already sold into the target market, thus diminishing the potential future sales. It really depends on the individual publisher you’re interested in; some will specify whether or not they’ll accept self-published books in their submission guidelines. If they don’t, it’s a fair question to write to them about.
Do you think it's worth it to hire a "book tour" company (such as Artisan Books) to connect with bloggers who will review our books and mention them in their blogs? Do you know of any marketing companies that you feel are worth doing a book tour with?
I’m sorry to say that I don’t know much about book tour companies; the publishers I’ve worked with have had an in-house marketing team to handle review copies, author events, etc. In general, it’s worth it to promote your book however you can, and hiring a book marketing company can get you a boost in sales while taking some of the publicity pressure off of you. But I’m afraid I don’t know enough about them to say definitively whether or not they’re worth the expense or which ones you should approach. I’d suggest doing a lot of research and getting some testimonials from people who have used them before approaching a book tour company.
I write stories featuring Latino characters and southwestern culture, and often add Spanish for more authenticity. What tips do you have for finding an agent or publisher that is looking for this type of manuscript? Do I need to look for persons/companies based in West Coast/East Coast states where one might find a stronger connection to Latino cultures in the U.S.?
You’re in luck! Pretty much every children’s publisher and agent is on the lookout for a great book featuring diverse characters. But if you want to try and find an agent/publisher who specializes in books that feature Latino culture, look at the agents and publishers who have been behind any of the recent Pura Belpré award winners. That’s a great place to start.
I write old-fashioned (warm, fuzzy, not high tech) children's books. Is my style out of date, or is there a place for my style of writing?
I think the best way to figure out whether or not your writing style is appropriate for the current market is to study the current market. Make a list of every children’s book in your genre (picture books, middle grade, YA) that has been published in the last three years that has received an ALA award or a starred review. Go to the library, check out those books, and read them in their entirety. Pay attention to the writing style; ask yourself why it works, and then compare it to your own. If it’s pretty similar to your own writing, then great! If it’s not, you may want to spend some more time studying current trends and figuring out how to keep your voice authentic while also matching what’s getting published these days.
Are postcards the best way to advertise illustrations to publishers? If so, should they be addressed to editors or art directors?
I don’t know that there’s a “best” way, but postcards are certainly a way to get your art samples in front of publishers! Typically those are sent to the art directors, but if you can’t find one listed for the company and you’ve been searching the internet for hours, just send it to the editor. It’s also a good idea to show off your art on social media; I know art directors who have signed illustrators after finding their work on Instagram or Twitter.
Is 800 words too long for a picture book aimed at second–fourth graders?
It totally depends! Is it a picture book? Early reader? Fiction? Nonfiction? For a standard picture book aimed at ages 4-8, I’d say 800 words is pretty typical for nonfiction, a bit higher than average for fiction. But that doesn’t automatically mean it’s too long. When in doubt, head to the library. Find books that are similar to the one you’re writing and look at the word count, how they crafted the story, what they included and — more importantly — what they left out. Your manuscript certainly doesn’t have to match theirs on those points, but it’s helpful to see what’s been done and what’s been successful if your worried your manuscript won’t hit the target audience.
How much does a publishing company worry about an author’s age in terms of signing them?
When it comes to signing with an author, it’s the author’s platform that matters (plus the manuscript itself, of course) rather than his/her age. Publishers want authors who are tech-savvy, who have a presence on social media, who are willing to go out and hustle and do book signings, readings, conferences, etc. As long as you check those boxes, I wouldn’t think there’d be an issue — there are plenty of older writers out there who are slaying it!
I am submitting a manuscript to a publisher; their submission guidelines state that they want to know if it is a simultaneous submission. They also state that their turnaround time is three months, fairly lengthy if I am hoping to get a story moving. I would at least like to submit to two houses at a time or stagger it with a month in between. Is this acceptable submission etiquette?
I hate to say it, but from my experience, three months is a pretty standard — even quick — turnaround time for an unagented manuscript. As you say, it’s a good chunk of time, which is why most publishers are perfectly fine with authors sending out simultaneous submissions; the ones that aren’t will explicitly say so in their submission guidelines. So cast your net as wide as you’d like (though keep in mind that your odds of getting published are much higher if you research each publisher ahead of time and know how your book would fit into their list). Just be sure to note in your query letter that it’s a simultaneous submission, and if one of the publishers does make you an offer, it’s polite to reach out to the others you submitted to, let them know you’ve received an offer, and give them a week or two to make a counteroffer if they wish to.
When evaluating a picture book manuscript that is driven by the illustrations/page turns, how would you prefer to see that manuscript presented? I am a writer and am NOT gifted in the art of illustration. Is a manuscript with illustration notes and page turns a turnoff? Is a dummy book with stick figures preferred?
This is one of those areas where different editors will have different preferences. Personally, I like it when writers separate the manuscript into page breaks; it shows me that they’ve thought about the length of their book, whether it fits into a signature, whether there’s enough illustration content on each spread, etc. That being said, I tend to view those page breaks as suggestions; it’s important that the illustrator has creative license to interpret and illustrate the text the way they choose. Very often, the page breaks that were in the original manuscript will change before the book goes to print.
On that same vein, a bunch of art notes from the author can inhibit the artist’s creativity. I’d say if there’s an illustration you have in your head that’s critical to the story, put an art note in the manuscript. Otherwise, it’s best not to dictate the illustration too much; after all, you want the artist to engage with the book as much as you do.
What’s the best way for an illustrator/author to present their picture books to an agent or editor that they are querying for representation or publication? I have heard from one source that one only has to to present the manuscript with a couple of completed illustrations, while another told me that one must submit a fully completed dummy. Is there one way that is preferred over another?
As the question notes, preferences are going to vary depending on the particular editor/art director/publishing house. I’d say the first step is to check the publisher’s submission guidelines; if they stipulate how they want a dummy presented, follow those instructions exactly. If they don’t provide guidelines, I’d actually suggest a combination of what your two sources recommended: I’d suggest putting together a full dummy and having at least two pages of it be completed illustrations. From a publisher’s perspective, unpublished illustrators are a lot riskier to sign than published illustrators, because when an illustrator has previous titles, you can look at those books and get a very clear idea of their art style and their level of expertise. If an illustrator’s unpublished, the only thing the editor has to go on is what’s being presented. So personally, I think it’s a good idea to show the idea sketched out in its entirety (the dummy), while also providing some samples of what the final art would look like.
Ask the Editor is a new quarterly feature on the Mitten blog. Do you have a question about publishing? Email Mitten blog editor Kristin Lenz with "Ask the Editor" in the subject line, and she'll forward your question to Katherine.
Coming up on the Mitten Blog: Interviews with the mentors for the 2019-2020 SCBWI-MI Picture Book Text Mentorship Competition and a recap of the SCBWI Winter Conference in NY from Shutta's Scholarship winner.