According to the US Census figures, almost 54 million citizens were between the ages of 5 to 17 years old in 2010. That number represents a huge audience for children’s books.
6. Respect the adult vanguard: Before books reach their intended audiences, they pass muster with a vanguard of literary agents, publishers’ readers, publishers’ editors, teachers, librarians, parents and other big people who buy books for and read stories to small people. Placating the vanguard doesn’t necessarily mean authors must self-censor output, preach morals or eliminate s-e-x.
Writers who produce prose adults can stomach reading aloud for hundreds of bedtimes sell more than writers who ignore the vanguard. Disney stories, geared primarily toward kids, contain laughs for grown-ups, too. Kids tune out blatant indoctrination, anyhow. Lessons should be subtle. If the protagonist learns a lesson over the course of an entertaining story, readers also learn. While editing your second or third draft, ask, “What message is my story communicating, intentionally or unintentionally? What moral will kids pick up?” John Marsden, award-winning novelist for adolescents, has demonstrated that masturbation, “penis,” and teenaged sex pass muster if written about thoughtfully.
7. Pull in a million. Don’t pull a “Millie.” Mildred Benson, alias Carolyn Keene, wrote 23 Nancy Drew mysteries. She died in 2002 at age 96. You’d think her survived-bys would’ve inherited a treasure chest of money, what with Millie’s royalties from 200 million copies sold…and still selling. The disappointing truth is that Millie was paid $125 for each manuscript. No royalties. A crooked publisher didn’t rip her off. She received a flat fee, as promised.
Nowadays, publishers expect authors or their agents to negotiate contractual terms. Business terms that might appear in your book contract are:
• Advance – money publisher pays author when contract is signed. Authors receive royalties after sales earnings surpass the amount of the advance.
• Agent’s commission – payment literary agent deducts from author’s royalties.
• Flat fee – one-time sum publisher pays author for completed work.
• Royalties – publisher pays author percent (typically 4 to 15%) of proceeds from book sales.
• Subsidiary rights – a second company pays author for rights (i.e. movie, electronic, foreign, magazine, anthology) to the work. If the original publisher sells subsidiary rights, author splits proceeds. Negotiate to retain as many rights as possible.
8. Care about categories: Categorically speaking, one standard for categorizing children’s books doesn’t exist. Book categories can differ among publishers, libraries and literary awards criteria. Moreover, within a single publishing house, categories overlap and books seesaw between categories. Fourteen-year-old bookworm Stewart doesn’t care about book categories. He reads slim comic book-style publications as well as the leviathan Moby Dick. Unlike the Stewarts of the world, publishers care about categories. Writers should, too.
Categories are determined by theme, topic, word count, manuscript length, number of illustrations, vocabulary level, sentence length, paragraph length and other factors. Sending a “transition book” to a company that publishes “easy readers” guarantees instant rejection. Learn about categories in magazines and websites dedicated to writing for children and in Children’s Writers & Illustrators Market, updated annually.
9. Go beyond books: Publishers woo readers with books tied to movies, and long comic books that echo TV programs and video games.
Why limit yourself to penning book manuscripts to the exclusion of other formats, when kids are devouring media that also rely on writers’ creative outputs? Children’s authors are paid to write teleplays, puppet plays, screenplays, stage plays, radio scripts, video scripts, software, CD-roms, magazine articles, stories and games; newspaper lift-outs, brochures, booklets, textbooks, comic books, internet site text, and tie-ins.
10. Avoid the crowd: Kid lit publishers receive heaps of stories featuring anthropomorphized animals, talking objects, Easter Bunnies and Santa Clauses. Stories in rhyming verse seem to annoy acquisitions editors, as do twists on The Ugly Duckling tale. “If that’s true,” you might ask, “why are new books published whose authors ignored this advice?”
Outstanding, imaginative, well-written stories find an audience, even if the subject or style is old hat, because children have always and will always cherish stories starring human-like animals and talking trains. However, successful books of this ilk are exceptions that prove the rule. The rule: authors who submit what publishers want have higher rates of success than those who don’t.
Publishers want stories reflecting experiences of children living in cities as well as rural neighborhoods, coping with broken families, squabbling with step-siblings, and encountering kids from other cultures. Additionally, publishers want entertaining non-fiction books for classroom use.
It might seem as though today’s kids are glued to computers and electronic games 24 hours a day. In fact, the youthful set carves out reading time. Carve out time to learn about writing for children, and maybe your name will appear in the younger readers’ stacks.
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