Hi, writers! I need your help. I’ve started a padlet where I would love to feature photos (and brief descriptions) of hundreds of families. People of all shapes, sizes, colors, religions, gender identities, nationalities, sexual orientations…When I share my book Meet My Family, about diverse animal families, I want to be able to share this padlet and have every kid in the room be able to find a family he or she can relate to in some way. I would be super grateful if you would click on the + button below to add a photo of your family to the board! Thank you so much!
How I Do Publisher Research and Submit My Children’s Book Manuscripts: Part 4: Identify and Describe My Manuscript
Previous entries in the series:
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.
How I Do Publisher Research and Submit My Children’s Book Manuscripts: Part 3: My Publishers Database
Previous entries in the series:
Part 3:My Publishers Database
I thought I’d go into a little more detail about the database I keep of editors and publishers. This is a crucial part of my submission process, and I rarely meet anyone else who does this. Of course, that may be because they have better memories than I do. I have a very hard time remembering who publishes what, which editors are where, and so forth. And editors move around a lot, which does not help!
I used to keep a database of all publishers and editors. That was a nightmare. I did it so that I could help Mentors for Rent clients with market research, but now that we no longer offer that service, I focus just on the editors and publishers who put out the kind of books I’m interested in writing.
Probably the most useful source of information for my publishers database is the PW Children’s Bookshelf free e-letter. Here’s a video of me going through a recent newsletter and gleaning info from it.
Highlights I hope you noticed:
- It takes time to learn an industry! Do not feel like a failure because you don’t recognize editors’ or publishers’ names! Start slowly. Pick one age or genre to focus on, and begin building your list, little by little. It’s like an investment account. What you put in today is not worth much. But as you build up your store of information, as it earns interest through your own submissions and attendance at writers’ conferences and such, it will become priceless.
- The newsletter is a starting point. I often have to do a quick Google search to check out a publisher.
- You are not trying to create a comprehensive market listing! If you have one or two editor names at a publisher, you might not want to add any more unless you see that an editor has acquired something very close in style or tone to your own work.
And that’s it! I find a database to be a flexible way to store and access the information I gather about editors and publishers in the kidlit industry. Maybe you will, too. Happy writing!
Writer friends, a year ago, my friend’s son killed himself. He was kind and loving and young–a college student and a veteran. A few weeks ago, designer Kate Spade and then celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain killed themselves. Both had fame and, I’m assuming, fortune. A couple of days ago, a former colleague of my husband’s killed herself. She was smart and successful and young and beautiful. All of these people were fiercely loved by many others.
News of suicide always gets me in the gut, not only for the inherent sadness of it and the empathy I feel for those left behind, but also because I have a daughter with bipolar. People with bipolar are especially at risk for suicide. She is smart and artistic and one of the funniest people I know. She has moved to a new city recently (something she’s super excited about), but change is hard. This morning she has a doctor’s appointment to start finding a new medical support network. It’s a long and exhausting process. We went through it with her for her entire childhood, and now she’s 25 and in charge of her own health.
What’s this got to do with writing? I know many of us come from childhoods that weren’t the happiest. Many of us are introverted and introspective. There are links between depression and creativity. Clinical depression rates among writers appear anecdotally to be higher than rates among the general population. I’m not talking about being depressed over a manuscript that doesn’t sell. I’m talking about clinical depression. I haven’t experienced clinical depression, but many members of my family have (and still are). I have two resources from the past couple of months that might resonate with you if you are a writer with depression, or you have a loved one with depression.
First is Wil Wheaton’s post about living with depression. Wow.
Second is Joanna Penn’s podcast interview with horror writer Michaelbrent Collings about being a writer coping with depression. Another wow.
I’ve seen and read a fair amount about depression over my life, but these two brutally honest and yet ultimately uplifting pieces gave me more insight into depression than I’ve ever had before. My hope for you is that you DON’T need these. But my guess is that you might, either for personal information or for insight into a loved one’s struggle.
That’s all for now. Sending love and good writing wishes to each of you.
Part 2: Tools
I use several tools, some free and some pricey, to help me research markets and submit my manuscripts. In this post, I’m going to describe the tools and very briefly say what I use them for. Future parts of this series will have more information.
I use Excel documents to keep track of many things. I don’t do anything super-fancy with them, and I’m sure I’m not using their full potential. But they work for me. And they work better than just Word documents, because I can sort my information in many ways (for instance, by last name, by date, by manuscript). Here are the main databases I have created to help with my research and submission.
Publisher Database – Here’s where I put info about editors and publishers who publish the kind of writing I like to do. For example, I have no interest in writing YA, so I don’t bother to include info about YA editors.
The columns above are Publisher/Imprint/First Name/Last Name/Title/Email/Source of information/Note. Most commonly, the note area holds news of that particular editor buying a particular manuscript. I mostly track acquisitions of picture books and poetry collections. The yellow is just a flag to myself that I want to send that person something soon, and the dark purple is a note that that editor has replied and told me she only takes submissions from agents. (I don’t delete the editor altogether because I would probably forget and resubmit to them.)
I find the info that I put into this database in several different places:
- PW Children’s Bookshelf
- Conferences I attend or get notes from
- My writing community
Submission Plan Database – Here’s where I have my actively being submitted manuscripts down the left, and all the publishers I think might be a possible fit across the top.
The colors mean different things. When I have a manuscript ready to start submitting, I go across my columns and put pale yellow for any publisher I think might be a possible fit. If I submit it, I change the box to pink. If it gets rejected, I change the box to blue. The other colors along the top row mean various complicated things you don’t need to worry about right now. If I pull a title from submissions in order to revise it, I mark the title hot pink.
This is a new way of doing this for me. I used to just keep lists in a Word document. But it got too confusing. I have between 10 and 20 manuscripts out on submissions, and it’s really helpful for me to be able to see at a glance, “Hey, Publisher A is a possible market for Manuscript B. But I see Publisher A has a pink box filled in below it, so that editor is already looking at a different manuscript of mine.”
Submissions Database – You have to keep track of what you submit, to whom, when, and what the response is! This is crucial to your efforts to become a working writer. My submissions database has almost 1500 entries and goes back to 1996. Wowza. Here’s an excerpt from many years ago.
The columns I use are Keyword (a one-word description of the topic), Status (Sold, Abandoned, etc.), the manuscript’s actual Title, Format of submission (email, hard copy, by me, by an agent), Word count (so I can tell if and when I switched to a different version), Publisher, Editor, date I Sent the manuscript, what the Reply was, Date the reply came to me, and Tickler date (the date I want to follow up if I don’t get a response). I guess I wasn’t using those last two columns almost 20 years ago, but I use them today!
This is a free once or twice a week email newsletter from Publishers Weekly all about children’s literature. It announces job moves and promotions as well as a selection of recent deals made. There are also industry-related articles. You can subscribe at https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/email-subscriptions/index.html?pwtracker=14&utm_campaign=newsAll&utm_source=pw&utm_medium=web
This resource is not cheap, but it is probably the best investment I’ve ever made as an unagented writer. On this website, I can look up all the picture book acquisitions made in the past year, for instance (their database is not exhaustive, but it is very large and always helpful). Or I can look up all the acquisitions made by a certain editor in the past three years. If that editor has a Dealmaker page (many do), I can then get the editor’s snail mail and (most importantly) email address. I can find information here that would take me hours and hours to find elsewhere. The cost is $25 per month, or you can get a discount by signing up for an entire year. It will probably be most useful to you if you have several manuscripts ready to submit. But even with only one manuscript, I personally would buy a one-month membership and research my little heart out.
Horn Book Guide Online
This is a searchable online database of all the reviews from the Horn Book Guide (which reviews many more titles than Horn Book). I mostly use it to find comp titles (titles I might compare my manuscript to in my cover letter) and to figure out which publishers might be a good fit for any particular one of my manuscripts. I wrote a blog post and included a demo video here: https://mentorsforrent.wordpress.com/2016/12/20/the-horn-book-guide-online-and-why-writers-need-it/ There’s a free demo version online with two years’ worth or reviews, and that might be all you need. Otherwise, you can subscribe for various periods, with an annual subscription being $48 as I write this.
My Writing Community
Concrete resources are amazing, but my writing community, both off- and online, is also a source of marketing info. Because I talk with kidlit writers all the time and am a friendly but professional part of the community, I can sometimes ask flat-out, “Anybody know of an editor still at XYZ Publisher?” I did this recently in a Facebook Group for nonfiction writers, and two different writers published by the company I was asking about offered names, experiences, email addresses, and opinions. You can’t put a price on that kind of information and willingness to help!
So, those are my basic tools. Remember, you might set up your databases a totally different way (and go about this entire process differently, too). I’m just sharing the way I do it in hopes that it will inspire you to figure out what will work for YOU!
This topic is complex and a bit overwhelming, but I’m going to try to break down my overall process into steps (over several blog posts) and explain it. Who to send your work to and how to send it–those are the most common areas that writers early in their journey have questions about. So…I’ll give it a shot.
Today, I’m just going to share an excerpt from my book Making a Living Writing Books for Kids. It will give you an idea of my basic philosophy around submissions. Keep in mind, though, that this is what works for ME. If an entirely different system is working for YOU, then you should stick with that! There is no one right way to do this.
Find Homes for Your Love Writing
Getting your love projects published does rely on a certain amount of luck, as far as hitting the right editor in the right mood on the right day. But 90% of it, I believe, comes down to submitting your work smartly and consistently. Make your own luck!
Submit Work Regularly
Submitting your work regularly is a key requirement for getting published. But it takes lots of other habits to support that one big task. In order to submit regularly, I:
• read widely in the areas of picture books and poetry, my two specialties
• read a review journal regularly
• keep track of who’s publishing books I like in my areas (I do this through a combination of tracking books in Goodreads, keeping a publishers database in Excel, keeping abreast of publishing deals in PW Children’s Bookshelf and Publishers Marketplace, and studying publishers’ catalogs, websites, and booths at big conferences
Those are time-consuming but necessary habits if you do not have an agent.
Each month, I look at what submissions I plan to make the following month. Here’s what I do:
• check my list of manuscripts that I’m actively submitting
• mark the ones that are out with fewer than three editors
• check which editors on the market list I’ve made for that particular manuscript I might submit to next (making sure they don’t already have a different one of my manuscripts right then)
• study each of those editors and find somewhat similar titles that I can mention in my letter (Since you acquired XYZ, I thought this manuscript might appeal to you…)
• figure out contact information for each editor (from CWIM, their website, or Publishers Marketplace)
• write a fresh cover letter for each manuscript and each editor, making sure to update anything needed (like the editor’s name and the books I’m comparing my manuscript to, as well as any personal contact I want to remind her of)
• attach my manuscript
• send the mail or email
• note the submission in my submissions database
It’s easiest for me to do this in big chunks of time rather than a little bit each day. Every month, I typically spend one afternoon identifying my submissions for the coming month and which editors I’m sending them to and another afternoon actually putting together the submissions and sending them out.
I spend six to eight hours per month on submissions. I could do it all in one day if I had the stamina, and some people prefer that.
It’s exhausting, honestly. But it also fills me with hope to send off a bunch of letters. I’m renewing old relationships, introducing myself and trying to start new ones, and learning which editors will respond to emails and which won’t. It’s all rather exciting and satisfying.
And when I get sick of doing it, I remember this mantra: Editors can’t buy it if you don’t send it!
Since February 11 (122 days ago), we have had family visiting or I/we have been out of town visiting family for all but 23 days. And 4 of those 23 days, I was teaching at a Young Authors Conference. To say my routine is a little out of whack is understating things by a marathon (not just a mile, mind you, an entire marathon!).
During those 122 days, I’ve done school visits, met deadlines on revisions, signed two trade picture book projects and created some new works. I kept up with my business plan check-ins and such. But I do feel a little bit disconnected from my writing life. I haven’t been online that much. I’ve got a million emails to answer. I’m concentrating on what needs to be done, but I’ve somewhat lost the thread of big-picture thinking. So, what do I need to do to get back on track smoothly? Here’s my plan for today.
- Check in online with my people! Post here, on Facebook, etc., to say hi and catch up on reading a bit.
- Review my 2018 goals. Get out my June Status Sheet I did a couple of weeks ago. Think about each goal and project. Where does each stand? Which ones have upcoming external deadlines (where other people are waiting for me)? What have upcoming internal (me only) deadlines? Am I still excited about each goal? Have new projects come up that might shove some of the other ones out of the way?
- Update my goals and status sheet, as well as the writing deadlines I have on my calendar or my project management software. Make sure I’m being realistic. I’m a very productive person, but I don’t want to run myself into the ground.
- Take 45 minutes at lunchtime to read a few of the picture books and poetry picture books sitting on my TBR shelf (ok, in my TBR ottoman).
- Spend 45 minutes on emails.
- Go for a walk and think about why I’m excited to be getting back to my normal routines and what exciting and risky writing projects those routines support.
That’s my plan for today. Maybe it’s the beginning of summer for you and you’re also re-evaluating. Or you’re just coming out of a period of time that has knocked your writing routine for a loop. If you have any thoughts about what helps you get back on track, I’d love to hear about it. And feel free to share any other thoughts, too:>)
When I left my literary agency in 2015, it was largely because no new sales were happening, and I couldn’t get regular updates on submissions. I knew that to improve things, I would have to submit like a beast (as I did before I had an agent).
And I have. Since June 1, 2015, I have sent out 286 pitches, query letters, manuscripts, and follow-up letters. That’s a lot. Most have been via email, though some have been snail mail. (These represent about 20-25 different manuscripts, by the way.)
In this past year, I have really focused on building up some new editor relationships. I had about 10 editors who would read and respond to my work, but I had basically sent all the appropriate manuscripts to each editor. So it was time to find new editors. By doing loads of research through Horn Book Guide Online and (mostly) Publishers Marketplace, I identified fresh markets to try for my existing manuscripts. I emailed them out of the blue, introducing myself and pitching my work.
It was intimidating. I got a couple replies that they couldn’t look at unsolicited manuscripts, but even those were polite. Others rejected the manuscripts I sent but invited further submissions. A couple even gave me specific tips on what they were looking for. And this week, I’m signing contracts with two new-to-me publishers. One says, in SCBWI’s The Book:
But I connected with my new editor via email, submitting an unsolicited manuscript. It’s also my first fiction picture book sale, which was another big goal! I am bouncing off the walls excited! (The other also doesn’t accept unsolicited manuscripts, and I’ll tell you how that one came about in a different post.)
I tell you this so that you know there are ways around many obstacles, if you work hard enough. Here’s my question for you. What is the big goal you want to reach in the next year? Put it in a sentence. Here’s mine from a couple of years ago: I want to sell fiction and nonfiction picture books to new-to-me publishers.
Yours is probably totally different. Perhaps:
- I want to learn how to craft a fiction picture book.
- I want to get invited to contribute to three anthologies.
- I want to write a middle grade novel.
- I want to become comfortable giving school visits.
Put your goal into one sentence, being clear to focus on one aspect: craft of writing, building your community, improving skills, selling more, etc. Then ask yourself this next, even more important question: What do I need to do to reach that big goal?
Maybe you need to take classes, pay a mentor, triple the number of submissions you send out, read deeply in your genre/niche, attend conferences, write a bunch of new manuscripts, etc. Some of the things that will help you reach your goal might be one-time events, and if you can swing them, great. But even more important is to focus on the things you can do daily or weekly that seem very small: Send out one manuscript. Write for 30 minutes. Read a poem. But they accumulate over time, leading to big results. So make yourself a plan, and if you’d like to share your goal in the Comments, I’d love to read it!
As a working writer, someone making a living off my writing and related activities, I tend to be efficient and productive. And I love participating in writing and reading challenges that stretch my comfort zone and teach me new things. Usually.
This past April (National Poetry Month), though, I ran into some problems. Every year, I choose some kind of poem-a-day to do in April, and I share it on my blog for educators. This year, my life was bonkers. I had one daughter living with us but preparing to move out of state with her boyfriend. We were helping with all sorts of stuff–helping to research insurance, toting cars full of boxes around, throwing a going-away party, etc. We were prepping for an overseas visit to see our other daughter. And we were getting our townhome ready to go on the market. Plus the usual everyday stuff and full work schedule of writing and school visits and such. I thought briefly that I might skip doing a public challenge for Poetry Month. But that thought made me feel like I had a bowling ball in my stomach. So I came up with something relatively simple: one haiku per day. I wasn’t even going to do fancy graphics–just write it with a Sharpie on a Post-It note and share it online. Easy peasy.
And on Day 1, I felt optimistic.
But then, my optimism…waned.
I missed a few days. And…
I wrote a few that I never even remembered to share online. And…
The ones I did write felt mostly flat, uninspired, and, frankly, crappy.
It was not my most creative or celebratory Poetry Month effort, that’s for sure. But, even though it felt like a failure–and boy, did I breathe an enormous sigh of relief on May 1–it still was worthwhile. Why?
- Looking for small details or moments to write about forced me to pay close attention to the world around me. When we were in Cyprus visiting our daughter, I noticed small moments that I might have otherwise missed (even though most of those moments never made it into haiku).
- Reading back over the set of haiku gives me a sort of haiku diary of my month–of a very chaotic time full of joy and bits of heartbreak, too:
- Maybe some of them will seem more inspired or beautiful or poetic after some time goes by?
- A Twitter follower shared one with her principal or someone in administration, and my haiku ended up being read aloud at a school board meeting.
- It let me share moments I might not otherwise have shared, like a minor car accident I was in.
Basically, it was moments of my journey through the world, shared with a handful of people.
Did I meet my goal? Nope. Was it still worth it to try? Yes!
So if you participate in NaNoWriMo, StoryStorm, NaPiBoWriWee, ReFoReMo, or any of the many other challenges–or even if it’s just a challenge you publicly (gulp) set for yourself–remember that life is not an all-or-nothing game. We take on challenges to push ourselves…and sometimes we don’t complete them. But we can still celebrate whatever we do accomplish–and we can learn from that.
Got back in the U.S. on Monday night, and I am still wading through mountains of emails and deadlines and assorted catching-up tasks. The most exciting of those, though, is that I came home to an offer on a picture book! Just before I left for a family trip almost two weeks ago, the editor had told me she was taking it to acquisitions. Then I arrived home to good news (that is unbelievably fast in the traditional publishing industry!). But…
This publisher (once my contract is fully executed, I’ll be happy to share more details) works a little bit differently, publishing picture books simultaneously in hardcover and ebook, and it has a strong digital platform. The editor suggested a phone call to explain how they are the same as and different from other trade publishers. Ack! I am horrible at phone calls with editors, and they give me major anxiety. But what was I going to say–no, thank you?
And that’s where my writing community stepped in to support me.
- My very tech-savvy husband asked me lots of good questions about digital promotions, how they affected my royalties, etc. Brainstorming with him helped me formulate some questions for the phone call.
- My IP attorney, who will negotiate and vet the contract, cheered me on and suggested I chat another writer who has worked with this publisher. I decided to reach out to a couple of writers to ask, “Is there anything you know now that you wish you had known when you signed the contract?”
- I Facebook Messaged two writers. One is local, a casual friend, and someone I’ve answered questions for, so I didn’t feel presumptuous reaching out. She answered warmly right away. She’s out of town speaking, but will share thoughts and details with me as soon as she’s back home.
- The other writer is someone I’ve met a couple of times in person and know online, but I don’t know him well. I felt a little intrusive reaching out, but he answered right away and suggested a phone call when he was done with a day job project. A phone call! Out of his busy day. For someone he doesn’t really know. We talked for 20 or 25 minutes, and he had some really helpful thoughts/suggestions.
- Both writers have loved the process of working with this publisher, which is always great to hear!
- And then the Facebook Group I founded, Writing for Children, sent me so much encouragement when I posted about my phone call anxiety!
- The phone call went pretty well. The editor was super nice. Every children’s book editor I’ve worked with has been super nice, so it’s not like that was a surprise. She spelled out a lot of info (some of which I already knew, thanks to my community), answered questions I asked, and made me really excited to move forward!
- And after the call, I emailed my attorney, who is going to ask a couple more questions for me.
Without my community, I would have been not only much more nervous, but also much less informed.
Maybe you’re thinking, “But I don’t have a community.” Then go build one. Join SCBWI. Go to events. Talk to people. Answer questions. Join my Facebook Group. I have known the folks listed above from 1 year to 30 years. If an introvert and socially awkward person like me can build a community, you can, too!
Huge shout-outs to Randy Salas, Trisha Speed Shaskan, Aimée Bissonette, Josh Funk, and Writing for Children! I truly appreciate all the support you gave me yesterday:>)