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How to Become a Children's Author

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Though revenues have declined slightly in recent years for the children's book publishing market, editors are always looking for fresh material to capture the public's imagination. Do you have what it takes to be a children's author or illustrator?

Writing for Children

Some people mistakenly believe that writing for children is easy. It may seem as though there is not much to crafting a story with fewer words and a simpler vocabulary, but it can actually be harder. In a children's book, every word has to count toward making the content engaging and enjoyable.

Jeff Kinney, author of the "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" series, advises, "If you don't write down to kids, you have a better chance of reaching them." Kinney must know what he's talking about. He earned $19.5 million in 2016 with his comic novels.

If you're looking for a children's book template, there isn't one. It's the job of editors to understand public taste and determine whether a book is likely to sell, although there are no guarantees. J.K. Rowling's first Harry Potter book was rejected by 12 publishers before it was picked up by Bloomsbury in the United Kingdom, followed by Scholastic in the United States. Twenty years later, the Potter series has sold more than 400 million books. Films based on the books earned billions at the box office, and the Potter-themed amusement parks attract millions of visitors annually.

Making a Living as a Children's Author

Although the success of Harry Potter is a phenomenon unlikely to be duplicated, many writers are able to make a living penning children's books. The most successful authors write books that stand the test of time. Theodor Seuss Geisel, who wrote under the pen name Dr. Seuss, published his first book, "And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street," in 1937. Though Geisel died in 1991, in 2016, his estate earned $17 million from his books.

Writing is hard work. You might have a great story to tell, but it takes effort to make it as good as it can possibly be. Revisions, edits and rewrites are part of the process. It's helpful to have others read your manuscript and provide constructive criticism. If possible, join a local writer's group. Membership with a regional chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators can help you develop a professional network.

Illustrating Children's Books

Some authors create their own illustrations, but most work with professional artists. It's possible that a writer and illustrator might never even meet. A manuscript may be accepted by a publisher and sent to an illustrator that the publisher contracts.

Education Requirements

There are no formal education requirements to become a children's author and illustrator. Successful writers are usually voracious readers. If you hope to enter the children's book market, visit the children's section of your public library. Study the wide variety of books on the shelves. Take note of the names of characters, how dialogue is used and the types of devices that are employed to advance the story.

You can also learn a lot by visiting the children's section of your local bookstore. You'll get a good idea of the types of books that are currently selling. Remember that the publishing process takes time. If books about unicorns or the moon landing are hot this year, you can be sure that books with other topics and themes will be featured prominently next year.

Aspiring writers can benefit from writing classes and workshops. There are plenty of good options for classes in residence and online.

Children's Book Publishers

The top children's book publishers in the U.S. are Penguin Random House and Scholastic, Inc. As top publishers, they can afford to pay authors and illustrators well. They have big budgets and a broad reach when it comes to marketing. Because of what these publishers can do for authors and illustrators, they get thousands of submissions every year. It can be tough to break in and get your manuscript seen by the right people.

There are dozens of smaller publishing houses that successfully market children's books and help their authors earn good money. You have a better chance of getting published when you're starting your career if you choose a small or independent publishing house. For information about children's publishers, refer to the Writer's Market, a yearly reference produced by Writer's Digest Books.

Get the names of prospective publishers and spend some time reading guidelines on their websites. Their websites should provide the most current information on what the publisher is looking for, how to prepare your manuscript for submission and other important details.

Should You Publish It Yourself?

Self-publication is an option if you're unsuccessful in selling your book to a publisher. Self-published electronic books (e-books) now account for 30 to 40 percent of that market. Whether you decide to go with print or digital, or both, be sure you're dealing with a reputable publisher. Know exactly what your responsibilities are before signing a contract.

There are two types of publishers you can work with to self-publish. Retailers sell the books exclusively through their own stores. Examples include Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing and Barnes & Noble Press. An aggregator offers publishing and retailing platforms and also markets to other sources, including online retailers and libraries.

A vanity press is one that publishes your work for a hefty fee, upwards of $10,000 to $15,000 in some cases. Once you pay your money, you may have little control over any aspect of the production process or the final sales price. You may be required to purchase hundreds or even thousands of copies of your book, which you'll then have to try to sell on your own.

Beware of scams. Scammers target victims with promises of big money, the ability to work from home and guarantees that you'll be published. As always, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Salary and Job Outlook

It's difficult to state a salary figure for writers and authors. The jobs website PayScale reports that median annual earnings is $50,993. Median salary means that half in the profession earned more, while the other half earned less. As a children's author or illustrator, you'll work on a freelance basis. You'll only get paid for the work that is published and not for the hours you spend creating ideas.

According to Publisher's Weekly, 2018 was a year of growth for children's books. Graphic novels are increasingly popular. Books with holiday and religious themes showed strong sales numbers. Backlist titles (books that were published any number of years ago) continue to be popular with buyers of children's books. The "Berenstain Bears" series, which, like the Dr. Seuss books, were written more than 50 years ago, are still much loved by children and their parents. Board books, marketed for babies and toddlers, enjoyed double-digit growth in sales two years in a row.

These trends indicate that children's book publishers will continue to look for engaging manuscripts for young readers. Opportunities are available both in print and digital publishing for talented children's authors and illustrators.

  • When submitting your manuscript, try to limit your cover letter to one-page only. Be engaging, but not overblown. Proofread your proposal for errors as typos can be a killer. Be sure to include a SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope) with your proposal package. Make sure you have covered the return postage for your entire mailing.

Denise Dayton is a a freelance writer who specializes in business, education and technology. She has written for, Library Journal, The Searcher, Bureau of Education and Research, and corporate clients.

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