As traditional as the publishing industry may appear (and sometimes is) there is no single way for publishers to take an idea and turn it into a published book. In fact, the whole process can be pretty fluid at times. So for us to answer all of your questions around being published as a picture book author, we're going to need to spread the information across a few posts.
In Aspiring authors: Part A, we answer five very common questions that unagented and unpublished writers often ask.
1. What should I write about?
Inspiration, as they say, is EVERYWHERE. In your home, outside yoru home, in the behaviours of others, in the questions children ask, in the humour and emotion of the every day. Keep an eye on the news. What's happening in the world of course effects children – they're dealing with a lot of what we're dealing with, but are considerably less equipt to do it – and, at their best, children's books are a way to help children:
Process their emotions
Learn more about the world
Learn more about themselves
Step out of their own shoes and walk in someone else's for a moment in time
So, bear in mind the challenges children may be facing in their day-to-day.
On the flip-side of that, it's always worth understanding current trends and how they feed into the children's book markets. If you think unicorns are over and done with, then think again! Unicorns are now an evergreen – they're here to stay. I have commissioned over a dozen unicorn books in the past three years alone (truly). The thing is – and I appreciate that this may sound obvious, but – when approaching trends you need to be sure that your idea is original, because if it's like something that is already out there then it's going to be an obvious "No, thank you," from publishers. Which leads me on to my next point...
Do your research. I always say this, but it's very important for authors and illustrators to learn about the industry they want to be in. And, once you're in it, it's important to retain some awareness of market activity, trends, etc. When you're starting out, it's vital that you get a feel for what publishers are publishing right now. Not ten years ago, not five years ago, maybe not even two years ago, but now. So, if you're able to brave social media, follow publishers and let them do part of your research for you as they post about their new releases. Look at the types of books they're publishing. Are they funny? Poignant? Do they have an environmental message? Are they quirky? Silly? If you take the time to learn about each publisher's personality (because, each publisher does have a personality, as we've said on here before), then you'll be able to make sure your ideas don't conflict with something they've already got on their list. And in doing all that research, you may find a gap in the market that feels like the perfect fit for you.
As an important aside, you'll also start to get a feel for which publisher might appreciate the texts you're writing.
So, keep your eyes open, think about themes and topics you would like to write about and the approach you would like to take, do your research, identify gaps in the market, consider which publisher could be interested in your texts based on what they're publishing at the moment. And lastly, have fun with it and put your personal spin on it – because you are what makes your writing unique and your voice is key.
2. Do I need an illustrator to submit my text to agents and/or publishers?
In a word: no.
To be honest, this is one of those myths that I am (and everyone else in publishing is) continually trying to dispel. If you write a text, you do not need to find someone to illustrate your text. More than that, if you do bring in an illustrator you run the risk of narrowing the perceived appeal of your submission. Why? Well, it goes back to what I mentioned before about publishers having their own personalities. Because, the fact of the matter is that an agent could submit the same text to three different publishers and those three different publishers would likely respond to the same text in three different ways. For example:
Thanks so much for sharing this with us. Unfortunately, this doesn't feel right for our list because (insert truly valid but seemingly interchangable reason here), so on this occasion we need to reject.
We love this text! Would the author be open to developing it with us? We see this being illustrated by someone like Illustrator 1.
We love this text – it's perfect as it is! We also think it would be the perfect match for someone like Illustrator 2.
What I'm trying to show here is that every publisher – and sometimes every editor – will visualise your text in their own way. You don't need to send them a complete book because part of a publisher's job is to add the missing pieces of the puzzle. Your text is enough.
3. Can I submit my ideas directly to publishers?
On the most part, no. Most publishers do not accept unsolicited manuscripts, which is to say that they only accept solicited manuscripts, which is to say that they only accept manuscripts that come to them through an agent. I know that this adds an extra hurdle and it can seem elitist at times. But. Publishers are sent A LOT of material to review. Usually more than they're feasibly able to read – and that's with agents already in place as the first "gate keeper". So if publishers accepted unsolicited submisisons they would be drowning in them (I'm genuinely not exaggerating here). Which means, if you want to be published, you either need to self-publish, find one of the publishers that does accept unsolicited submissions (you can research this online) or submit to an agency.
4. One publisher turned down my text. Does that mean they all will?
No, and this is where it's useful to refer back to my second point about why you don't need to commission an illustrator yourself. Publishers will react to your submission differently. Some will love it, some will like it, some won't get it at all. It's not just about what the big publishers think, it's about finding the editor who connects with what you're saying and who feels able to champion your writing. There is no wrong or right text, but there are just texts that are right or wrong for specific publishers.
5. I wrote a text two years ago and it was rejected across the board. But now I think it might work in the market. Should I re-submit?
Yes! One of the factors at play in any success story is TIMING. A text can be rejected by multiple publishers in one year. And they can all stand by that decision, but times change. If you still believe in a particular idea – if you keep coming back to it, and seeing the value of it – review the market. Has it shifted? Does it feel like there's space for your text now? If so, maybe it is worth re-submitting. But also be honest with yourself – sometimes, despite our best efforts and the best efforts of those around us, a great idea doesn't get picked up. And sometimes we do have to let those ideas go.