We’re about halfway through our Pitchapalooza Rocks America Tour, and we’ve made a startling discovery. A staggering number of adults want to write books for kids. And approximately 99% of them have absolutely no idea what they’re doing. They don’t know the rules. They don’t know the players. They don’t know anything except that they have a GREAT idea for a kid’s book and they yearn with a burning fever to get it published. Between us we’ve we’ve thirteen books, four being nonfiction books for tween girls, and the other a middle grade novel aimed at boys. And Arielle has agented dozens and dozens and dozens of books in her 18 year career as a literary agent. But so much has changed in the world of children’s books, and so many people seem all fired up to write them, that we thought we’d get the inside skinny from one of our favorite children’s book resources, Jennifer Laughram. Jennifer’s had a fascinating career in the publishing industry, because she’s gone from hand-selling books to readers in brick-and-mortar bookstores, to finding writers who have the right stuff, then figuring out how to present and sell their manuscripts to publishers in the increasingly ridiculous book business.
BOOK DOCTORS: How did you manage to end up in the book business?
JENNIFER: My first job was in a bookstore, when I was twelve.
BOOK DOCTORS: Ah, they got you young.
JENNIFER: Exactly. It may have been child labor; as I recall I got about five dollars a day plus all the stripped copies of Sweet Valley High I could read.
BOOK DOCTORS: Who could resist that?
JENNIFER: Certainly not me. I spent the next eighteen years working as a bookseller, and then events coordinator and buyer, for bookstores all over the country. I was also a reader and assistant for literary agents for a couple of years before I became one myself. Then I joined Andrea Brown Literary Agency as an agent three years ago.
BOOK DOCTORS: So, everyone wants to know, do you need an agent to get a children’s book published?
JENNIFER: Ten years ago or more, the answer would have been no. These days, trade publishing is ever-more competitive and none of the major publishers accept unsolicited (i.e., un-agented) submissions. If you are very lucky, very persistent and very well-connected, you may not need an agent. But most authors don’t fall into that category.
That said, if you are looking to be published in a niche market, by a specialty educational publisher, regional or smaller independent publisher, you may not need an agent.
BOOK DOCTORS: What are the standard age groups for children’s books?
JENNIFER: Board books – 0-3. Picture books – 3-7. Chapter book/Early readers 5-8. Middle Grade 8-12. YA 12+ or 14+ (depending on content)
BOOK DOCTORS: Does your book have to be a particular length to sit on a children’s book shelf?
JENNIFER: Sure. But that varies depending on the age group; picture books are usually less than a thousand words, YA is usually less than 100,000 words.
BOOK DOCTORS: Can you sell a book for kids of all ages? How would you go about doing this?
JENNIFER: In general, children’s publishers pick one age group that the book is for and publish it accordingly, and if there is crossover, that is all to the good. Every book I can think of that is supposedly “for kids of all ages” does in fact fall into one of those categories above, or is an adult gift or novelty book in disguise.
BOOK DOCTORS: If a writer has ideas for illustrations, should she put them on the page?
JENNIFER: No. Illustration notes are distracting and almost always unnecessary, and will expose you as a newb.The only time you should put them is if there is some sort of visual joke or device that is totally necessary to the plot of the book, but impossible to deduce from the text alone.
BOOK DOCTORS: Is a good idea to have your uncle’s friend’s 18-year-old son who’s pretty good at art illustrate your book?
JENNIFER: No. Let me say again: NO!
BOOK DOCTORS: Is it ever okay to team up with an illustrator before going to a publisher?
JENNIFER: There are some successful folks who are husband-wife or sibling teams or even best-friend teams, where one party is a professional illustrator and the other writes. They work well together and create awesome projects together. That said, these sorts of collaborations aren’t the norm. The much more likely scenario is that a publisher will prefer the text or the art and might be fine with publishing one but not both. Publishers almost always really want to choose their own illustrator.
BOOK DOCTORS: If you are an illustrator that has an idea for a kid’s book, but you have no writing chops, how would you go about getting your book published?
JENNIFER: I’d learn to write, or get enough published as an illustrator of other people’s works that I developed a reputation with publishers. A big-name illustrator has a much better chance of getting help from publishers in developing a project.
BOOK DOCTORS: What are the top 3 mistakes you see in author submissions?
JENNIFER: Impatience, Poor Presentation, General Cluelessness. Folks often shoot themselves in the foot by not taking the time to craft an effective pitch, or to target agents specifically, or to query in small batches. They submit material that is deeply flawed, not revised, not finished, or in some cases not even started. They submit material that is totally inappropriate and not what I represent at all because they are blanket-querying every agent in the world simultaneously. I only do kids & YA, fiction yet I daily get queries for erotica and narrative nonfiction.
Ideally, authors would do their homework before they start querying, and their work would be as finished, polished, as close to being ready to sell as possible.
BOOK DOCTORS: Does it help to come up with a publicity and marketing plan for your book when querying an agent or publisher?
JENNIFER: Sure, though I wouldn’t lead with that; it’d just be a cool bonus if they loved your work enough to publish it already. Most marketing plans sort of grow organically as the book progresses in the editorial and design process and as buzz builds in-house.
A book can take anywhere from a year to several years to be published, and the content of the book, as well as the way it is positioned in the marketplace, are definitely subject to change in that time. That means marketing and publicity pushes that come about just prior to or just after publication will likely look a lot different, and be a lot more effective, than what was being imagined at the query stage. That early in the game, most folks don’t REALLY know what their book is going to be when it grows up.
BOOK DOCTORS: Jennifer, on behalf of the Book Doctors and clueless children’s book writers all over America, we thank you.
JENNIFER: You are all certainly welcome.
Jennifer Laughran worked in bookstores for years, and is now an agent at Andrea Brown Literary Agency. She is also the founder of the Not Your Mothers Book Club.