When I mention to people that I write children’s books, I can often count on one or two reactions (sometimes both!):
- Wow, that’s so cool!
- I’ve always wanted to write a children’s book too!
It’s like there is this giant club of people who want to write for children–and a bazillion of us belong, but we don’t even realize it!
One thing I do know–it’s a great club to belong to.
The problem is, with so many of us as members, we are all over the place in terms of where we are in our journey in learning to write for children.
This post is for those of you who have always thought you might want to try writing for children. But you don’t have a clue (or maybe just one or two small ones) about how to get started.
It could be a deep-seated dream you’ve had ever since you could hold a pencil. Or it could be a vague idea in the back of your head that being a kidlit author could be really fun and cool. Or it could be that some event in your life (becoming a parent or teacher, for example) has ignited this desire in your heart.
But first, let’s pause.
Before we get too far along, I think it’s important to understand a few things to start. These points could help you decide whether or not you should keep exploring this idea of writing for kids.
Fact Number One: Being a children’s book author is not a ticket to fame and fortune.
If you have spent any time on this website at all, you know that this topic is one I am interested in exploring more deeply. But if you believe you can write a book, get it published, and spend the rest of your days drinking margaritas on the beach while the royalty checks flow into your bank account, well, I’m sorry to burst your bubble.
This isn’t your future from publishing books…yet.
If you want to read about what children’s authors actually get paid, I have a couple of posts you can read:
- The Honest Truth About How Much Money Children’s Authors Make
- What Publishers Actually Pay Children’s Authors
Fact Number Two: It is hard to get your children’s book published
Most children’s book authors, whether they are traditionally or self-published, will tell you it’s a lot of work. And it takes a looooooong time. I’m talking years from the time you have a draft of your book to the time you hold the final published product in your hands. (Now, I do know of self-published authors who have managed to publish rather quickly. But it is still a good amount of work, and will still take many months).
Fact Number Three: Writing for children isn’t easier than writing for adults
Now, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. And if you have successfully written a great manuscript for a children’s book and found it easier than other kinds of writing, I’m thrilled for you. I’m being completely honest here.
But just because most children’s books are shorter than books for adults, and often use a simpler vocabulary, that does not make them inherently easier to write. Many would argue that in order to write for children, you have to boil your story down to its essence. And that’s a pretty challenging thing to do.
There is no room for fluff of any kind.
I love this quote by Mem Fox (the author of a slew of amazing books for kids:
Now that we’ve cleared up some possible misconceptions, are you still interested in wading into the labyrinth of exploring writing for children?
Since we are on the topic of clearing up areas of confusion or misconception, I thought a good place to start would be with some of the common questions that come up from those who are just starting out. I think it’s helpful to understand the basic lay of the land before you get much further into the How-tos of writing your book and getting it published.
What are the different ways to get published?
Generally speaking, there are two ways to publish your book: traditionally or self-published.
A traditional publisher is one who will take care of all aspects of publishing your book. They pay authors an advance (well, some small publishers don’t pay an advance) and royalties (which is the percentage authors receive from the sale of their books).
It is the author’s job to seek out a traditional publisher and find one that agrees to publish their book. This category includes the “Big 5” publishers: Simon and Schuster, Macmillan, Penguin/Random House, Hachette, and Harper Collins. But there are many other traditional publishers of all sizes (e.g. Scholastic, Lee and Low, Albert Whitman, and Page Street Kids to name a few).
Self-publishing is just what it sounds like. The author takes on all the tasks of getting their book published. This means writing, editing, formatting, and then releasing it out into the world. You can decide to offer it only as an ebook, or offer printed copies as well.
What are children’s book genres?
Children’s books fall into four broad categories:
- Picture books
- For ages 0-8
- Chapter books
- For ages 6-9
- Middle Grade
- For ages 8-12
- Young Adult
- For ages 12 and older
How long does your book need to be?
The sweet spot for picture book length has gotten a lot shorter over the years. Now most publishers will suggest shooting for around 500-600 words. Nonfiction can be longer, up to 1,000 words. This is in contrast to when picture books used to often be in the 1,000 word range. For nonfiction, a 3,000 word book was not uncommon.
In my experience, chapter books tend to be all over the map in terms of length. The general consensus is that they range from around 6,000 up to 15,000.
Some examples include the Junie B. Jones series, which run around 6,000 words each. The Magic Tree House books fall in the 12,000 word range.
But some chapter books can be very short. For example, the King and Kayla books are less than 1,500 words. Andthe chapter books I have written were all in the 1,500 word range.
Here again is a category where the word count can be all over the place. I’ve seen estimates of 20,000-40,000 words and 25,000-60,000, which is probably a solid average. But then Wendy Mass’s book 13 Gifts, is almost 90,000 words! Still, if your book is geared toward the younger end of middle grade, then shorter is probably better.
With YA, the issue of word count is probably more about a floor, rather than a range. Most YA books will not be shorter than about 40,000 words. But just as with middle grade, you are definitely going to find many books that are much longer than that. Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games is almost 100,000 words. Popular YA author Sarah Dessen’s books range from around 60,000 to over 100,000 words.
Do I need to find an illustrator?
The short answer? No.
If you are trying to get traditionally published, after a publisher agrees to take on your book, they will then look for an illustrator. Sometimes the author has some input into this process, but often not.
Keep in mind that with traditional publishing, not only are you not expected to help find an illustrator, it is frowned upon to do so. So if you want to publish a book with a specific illustrator, then you are better off self-publishing.
If you are self-publishing, then yes, you need to find an illustrator.
Do I need an agent? Or what even is an agent?
Again, the short answer is no, you don’t need an agent.
BUT, it can be a good idea if you want to be traditionally published.
An agent is someone who works on behalf of an author to try to find a publisher for their book. They get paid a percentage of the author’s advance and royalties once they are able to land a contract for their client (the author). While there are several publishing houses that will accept manuscripts directly from an author, many require you to make inquiries through an agent. All of the Big Five publishers require submissions through an agent, for example.
How does one get a book published?
Okay this is obviously not the kind of question that can be answered in a few sentences. But for an introductory conversation, it is helpful to understand the very broad steps involved.
To try to get your book traditionally published, here are the bare bones steps:
- Write a story
- Revise your story
- Get feedback on your story
- Revise again
- Decide whether or not you want to get an agent
- If you want an agent, research which agents could be a good fit
- Write a query letter to the agent and submit your story to them
- Do this anywhere from 10 to 100 times
Take these steps if you want to try to get published without an agent:
- Research which publishers take unsolicited manuscripts (meaning they take submissions directly from authors)
- Out of those publishers, research which might be a good fit for your story
- Write a query letter to the editor and submit your story
- Do this anywhere from 10 to 100 times
A publisher wants to publish my book! Is the amount they are asking me to pay reasonable?
Sadly, the world of publishing, like many other industries, does have a few bad actors. I am including this point here because I never want you to be taken advantage of because you are new to the game.
A general rule of thumb is that you should never pay to get published–if you are looking to be traditionally published.
If a publisher claims to be a traditional publisher and asks you to pay for any part of the process (the editing, the illustrator, printing costs, or marketing, for example)–that is a HUGE red flag. They are not being honest about being a traditional publisher.
There are even such “publishers” that sign up unsuspecting authors for a “reasonable fee” and promise to publish your book with beautiful, professional illustrations and a fantastic marketing plan. But once they get your money, they produce shoddy work and do the bare minimum to promote your book.
Please understand that I am not painting all self-publishing companies with this same brush. If you decide to explore self-publishing, there are many reputable services out there. They are the ones not pretending to be a traditional publisher and trying to deceive you. They are transparent about costs and what you are getting for your money, and they have happy customers.
It’s a very important distinction.
If you have questions about a specific publisher, feel free to ask me about them. I am pretty confident I will be able to assess what kind of publisher they are, whether they are legit, and if they could be a good fit for you.
What Do I Do Next?
Congratulations on getting to the end of this post!
Seriously, you are now more informed than a huge percentage of the bazillion people I referenced earlier who are interested in writing a children’s book (or two, or ten, or 100).
Now you are ready to start learning about the writing process.
Fee free to download this handy flowchart to illustrate what the journey looks like in a nutshell.
Notice I didn’t say you are ready to start writing.
If you are itching to get your story down, by all means, go for it. Because no matter how great a writer you are, your first draft is going to be more of a brain dump than anything else.
Your next steps are going to be about immersing yourself in the world of kidlit. And before you start crafting your story, you’ll need to decide these things:
- What is my story idea?
- What age category am I interested in writing for?
You can learn about your next step in my post, How to Brainstorm Ideas for Your Children’s Book.
Then you should start focusing on learning how to write for children.
There are many, many resources available to help you. I suggest you explore books, websites, membership organizations, and taking courses.
I’ve compiled a resource list of the ones I have personally used, or know to be excellent because they are well-regarded in the kidlit community. You can get a copy of the resource below. Just a heads up, I will ask for your email in order to send it to you.
Want a FREE copy of my Resources for Aspiring Kidlit Writers? Click here!
Hopefully this information will help you get started on your journey. I’m planning on adding more to this series, so stay tuned!