Saturday, July 6, 2013

What I Learned in Two Years About the Children's Book Market

A few years ago I decided to pursue children's writing for a variety of reasons. Prior to that, I spent a lot of my time writing short stories and pretending to write novels. At first, my children stories read more like philosophically heavy tales for adults that happen to feature children in childhood scenarios. While stories like these sometimes see the light of publication day, they rarely target young readers. No, my real journey into the children's market actually started when I received an opportunity to write a children's picture book for a film about the monarch butterfly. I had a question for the screenwriter that started it all: "Would you suggest fiction or nonfiction?"

The screenwriter's inexperience with the children's book market sent me on a two-year wild goose-chase. Fortunately, I've learned some lessons along the way and surmounted some of those issues. I will share some of what I've learned so you can start out two years ahead of where I was on that fateful day. 

In the context of the recent recession, the children's book market suffered late and recovered relatively early. Unfortunately, within the genres of the market (i.e. young adult novels, middle grade fiction, etc.), children's picture books never fully recovered. Add to that a general push to have children read less childish literature--a discussion prompter for another day--some publishers now only release three or four titles of children's picture books a year. Of those titles, only one might be written by a new writer--someone not previously published. Yet, it seems everybody and their retired moms write children's picture books--lots of competition out there. In a highly competitive market where sales are not quite what they were, publishers reluctantly take on new picture books. To make matters worse, now some agents and publishers only take on author-illustrators, as opposed to one or the other. Bleak picture, huh?

In terms of children's fiction, agents and publishers thirst for middle grade (in between chapter books and young adult novels), and continue to demand great YA fiction. On the other hand, the market for nonfiction books for children of varying ages is seeing a slight bump, partly because of demands by librarians, teachers, and the Common Core standards. Nonfiction is not a bad market to be in, and middle grade nonfiction is even better. 

If I were to answer my own question (i.e. would you suggest fiction or nonfiction?) using all this information, my response would look like this:

"If aiming for a picture book, especially one grounded in reality (e.g. monarch butterflies), nonfiction might be the more viable route. There are many publishers of nonfiction out there, some big and some small, including those that publish children's magazines. Having experience and expertise in the book topic will lend credibility to the work, which is always a plus. A strong bibliography must supplement this. Shooting for middle grade nonfiction also meets a demand. Some publishers and agents prefer "creative" nonfiction, as opposed to more strict nonfiction. Either way, always remember to tell a story. 

Most fiction publishing houses don't accept manuscripts unless they come from a literary agent, but most nonfiction publishers still accept unsolicited manuscripts, often preferring snail mail. The webpages of these publishers reveal valuable information, like submission guidelines, the kinds of books they publish, and what they look for. Try these out for starters: Dawn Publications, Boyds Mills, Carolrhoda, Sylvan Dell, Flashpoint, Learner, Holiday House, Candlewick, Peach Tree, Roaring Brook, Scholastic, and Clarion, but there are others.   

Finally, I recommend checking out the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. They organize regional and national conferences with embedded opportunities to have a manuscript looked at by an agent or editor. This networking is so valuable. Plus, a plethora of likeminded people attend. An ALA or NCTE conference can also be valuable.

So, does that help you get started?"  :)

In reality, no hard and fast rules exist. Usually, the best way forward includes writing an absolutely phenomenal manuscript, regardless of the genre. 

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