Previous entries in the series:
Part 1: Overview
Part 2: My Tools
Part 3: Publishers Database
This seems so basic, but it’s amazing how many writers I’ve met who are trying to sell a manuscript without a basic understanding of what they’ve written and how it fits into the world of children’s book publishing.
There are two prongs to this in my own process.
- Figure out what genre and format my manuscript belongs to, as well as who its key audience it
- Come up with words to describe my manuscript when I send it out
Genre and format and audience
If you have not read several hundred children’s/ya books published in the past 3, you have probably not read enough to have absorbed the information you need to help categorize your own writing. In brief (very brief), here are the basic categories.
- Board books for ages 3 and younger, often 50 words or fewer, printed on cardboard
- Picture books for ages 3-8, often 500 words or fewer (nonfiction might be longer)
- Easy readers for kids in grades K-2 who are learning to read, generally 200-1200 words, depending on intended audience, usually sold in series
- Chapter books for grades 1-3, generally 1500-10,000 words
- Middle-grade novels for grades 3-6, around 10,000-50,000 words
- Young adult novels, for ages 12 and up, around 40,000 words and up
- There are some other smaller categories, like tween books, graphic novels, and older nonfiction books.
(Check out Lisa Bullard’s Get Started Writing for Children for a terrific explanation of these categories.)
You need to do LOTS of reading to become comfortable with the terms publishers use to categorize books and to become skilled at categorizing your own books, especially if you are writing anything that bends or blends genres and formats (as many of my own books do).
I look at each of my manuscripts and really think about how I will categorize it to market it. Most of my manuscripts are picture books, which is simple enough. But that’s not all. Meet My Family, for instance, conveys a lot of nonfiction information about animal families, but it is told first-person from the points of view of many young animals. So it’s clearly not a traditional nonfiction picture book. Here’s how I described it when I first sent it to my editor at Millbrook, with whom I already had published several books:
My Family Is My Own – In a combination of verse main text and prose sidebars, a variety of young animals (each with its own voice) share the pros and cons of their parents’ parenting styles. [965 words with sidebars] Excerpt:
I’m in charge of all my meals.
I have always picked my own food, since right after I was born. I stand. I graze. I find tasty grasses and plants, just like the elders do.
Mi madre brings me lunch.
I do not leave my nest yet. When I was very small, mi madre y padre used to throw up entire fish into my bill. Now they pass the fish from their bill to mine.
We’ve lived one place since I was born.
I’m almost two, and I live here in the lodge with my parents. I help fix things when they break! I’m great at jamming sticks into the lodge walls. Soon, I’ll leave this lodge and build my own…
We move around a bunch.
I sleep high in the trees. My mother builds us a new sleeping nest nightly. I never know where I’ll be, but she is always right beside me.
And here are some other possibilities that I think might hit that sweet spot of providing information, but delivering it in an unexpected way…
So I indicated right away through the details I shared that it was not straight nonfiction. Had it been a submission to a new-to-me editor, I would have been even more straightforward, perhaps saying something like, “This is nonfiction information delivered through the fictional voices of a variety of young animals.”
Descriptive words/phrases for my manuscript
But I have to do more than just categorize my manuscript. I have to describe it in an appealing way. The way I’ve been approaching this for a while has been the six-word framework I first learned from Verla Kay. (You can read about it here: https://mentorsforrent.wordpress.com/2017/08/15/the-quick-pitch-describing-your-manuscript-in-two-sentences/)
Here’s part of my database (yes, I have a database for this, too) that shows my six words/phrases for several of the manuscripts I’m currently submitting.
B = describe the main character
C = summarize the tone of the book
D = identify the pace of the book
E = name the main character’s big problem
F = share the flavor of the manuscript (this is often another aspect of the tone of the manuscript)
G = describe the ending in terms of how it makes either the character or the reader feel
You’ll see my own words and phrases aren’t necessarily textbook perfect nor consistent. That doesn’t matter. These categories are just starting places to help you come up with a vocabulary to describe your project and hopefully engage an editor.
It can be hard coming up with these words and phrases! Read reviews of children’s books, though, and you’ll start to learn the kinds of words reviewers, editors, publicists, and marketing departments use to try to capture the essence of books. Those are the words you want to start incorporating into your own descriptions in your query and cover letters.
The work I do identifying and describing my manuscript not only helps me write my cover letters, it also helps me identify possible publishers. Coming up next: Making a Marketing List for My Manuscript.
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Any suggestions for narrative NF or expository NF? This is definitely a weakness of mine!
I’m not sure what you mean, Annette? Suggestions for identifying and describing them? I would look through PW Children’s Bookshelf for nonfiction picture book announcements (and they have the archives online somewhere you can browse, too) to see how agents have described their clients’ nonfiction picture books. That’s usually (I believe) who sends in the announcement.
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