I often get emails from people looking to break into children’s publishing. I don’t have all the answers, but I do have some general advice I find myself giving again and again. Below are three steps, in order of importance, that I think writers should focus on:
1) Write a Really Good Book
First time writers don’t sell books based on partial drafts or outlines. They sell finished manuscripts. And there are a lot of finished manuscripts in the world. That means the first step is completing a book and revising it until it is airtight. Don’t expect an agent or editor to look at a sloppy manuscript and see the potential–that same agent or manager has hundreds (not an exaggeration) of other manuscripts to consider, and they’ll take the one that demonstrates the greatest professionalism and craft. Taking an example from my first book, Peter Nimble, I did about 15 complete re-writes before showing it to an agent … and then did another 3 drafts before the book went to an editor. I have yet to talk to a professional author who didn’t go through the same level of revision before finding a publisher.
2) Join SCBWI
The “Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators” (SCBWI) is a national organization with local chapters all over the country. This group is a fantastic place for both professional and aspiring writers and illustrators to gather and discuss craft and business of children’s publishing. The annual conferences are often attended by agents and editors who are looking for new books. I have a number of author friends whose careers were launched when they met an editor at an SCBWI event who requested to see their really good manuscripts (see above point).
3) Query Agents
If a lot of industries, the “it’s who you know” rule applies. Not so in publishing! Book agents read and consider manuscript submissions from unknown writers all the time–that’s their job. Nearly every writer I’ve ever met was pulled out of the “slush pile” from an agent who discovered them. Your job is to query agents who will best understand your work and be in a position to sell it. This means doing a bit of homework, by reading the Writer’s Market and finding agents who are looking for material like your book. The internet is awash with resources about how to approach agents. A good place to start might be Kidlit.com, a website run by children’s book agent Mary Kole. She answers questions about the dos and don’ts of querying better than anyone!
The above steps aren’t a guarantee of any success, but they are a good place to start! Also, I might as well link to this brief but eloquent video of Neil Gaiman talking about step one (which is really the only step that matters):
New feature! Recently, a few people have been contacting me with questions about various aspects of publishing or writing craft. I’m well aware that there is no shortage of websites devoted to answering publishing questions (most of them written by people far smarter and more qualified than myself). Still, I thought it might be worth adding my drop into the bucket from time to time.
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As to your entry fee question, I’d say it depends. Reading and sorting thousands of entries is a huge endeavor, and I don’t begrudge the organizers for wanting to fund the operation. The problems start when the exchange is less cut-and-dry. I know a lot of fiction contests offer some kind publication as a prize. In general I would say avoid contests that come with contractual obligation. To my thinking, if you’re paying $30-$50 bucks to enter then the prize should be cash (and recognition) … otherwise it feels dangerously close to you paying a publisher to publish your book. Still, I know fiction is a tough racket to break into, and taking a lowball publishing deal might be worth if for you if it means getting your foot through the door.
Screenwriter John August has a number of valuable posts on the subject of screenwriting contests. On the fiction side, Nathan Bransford does a good job summing up the issue. Poets & Writers magazine has a nice database of competitions and grants, and, of course, always check out Writer Beware’s section on contests before sending anyone money. Hope that helps!
- I should say that while waiting to hear back from competitions, I was also writing new scripts and building relationships with people in TV and film — winning a contest got my manager to call, but it was this other work that made him willing to sign me. ↩