Breaking into the Children’s Market

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Breaking into the children’s publishing market is a daunting task. Trying to

get a contract with a major, or even minor, publishing house is probably not for

the faint of heart. I am sure that I could cover the walls of my oversized office

with the rejection letters I have received in the past ten years. The children’s

market is volatile and highly selective. In the current economy, many publishing

houses are refusing to even look at unsolicited manuscripts. In fact, most don’t

accept queries or proposals from anyone except established literary agents.

With these encouraging opening words (ha ha), let me share with you

some lessons I have learned on my journey as a writer and illustrator of

children’s books and as a Professor of Children’s Literature and Literacy

Education. Here are thirteen things I have learned so far as an author / illustrator:

1. Know the Field: I can’t tell you how many times a year I hear people tell

me they have a children’s book they want to submit. They have read a few

books to their children and suddenly they are experts in children’s

literature? To this I say, “Good Luck!” In order to break into the field of

children’s literature, like any field or endeavor, you have to know the field.

Read the trade publications and the guides to the children’s market.

Familiarize yourself with review publications like the Horn Book

( and Booklinks

( and

take time to read the websites of the Society of Children’s Book Writers

and Illustrators (, American Library Association

(, Children’s Literature Association

( and National Council Teachers of English

( and other professional organizations.

2. Read Publisher’s Catalogs: Submitting a good book idea to the wrong

publisher is as worthless as submitting a bad idea to the right publisher.

Every publishing house has a catalog, and most are available free or

online. Get to know what a publisher is looking for, what they publish and

most importantly, what they won’t even consider. The better the match

between your work and their catalog, the better the chance you have of

catching an editor’s eye.

3. Understand the Submission Requirements for Each Publisher: The last

thing you want to have happen is to have your submission get rejected

before anyone even reads it because you didn’t follow their submission

process. It if says they only accept query letters, don’t send a full

manuscript. If their guidelines say they are only looking for young adult

fiction, no use sending primary non-fiction. If they don’t accept email

submissions, be sure to send it via mail. Ending up in the “slush pile” is

bad enough, but not even making the slush pile is worse.

4. Study Writing for Children: Just because you have read stories to your

children does not mean you know how to write for them. Non-fiction,

poetry, original stories, magazine articles and ABC books all require

different writing skills. A writing course or conference can be very helpful.

5. Non-Fiction Series catch Editor’s Eyes: Editors like non-fiction series more

than single books. An added bonus is you often get a contract for multiple

books. Hooray! Being able to envision what a series may look like will get

you noticed more than submitting a single book at times. My first series,

Looking Closely now has six books in it with as many as four more that I

would have published if given a chance.

6. Court an Editor: I don’t mean flowers and such, but get to know them,

learn what they like and what they are interested and not interested in.

Realize their time is valuable and make every effort to respect their

schedule. Once you get to know one, figure out a way to work together on

projects. Listen to them! The good ones will make your books and your

writing better. I suggest making contact with local and smaller publishing

houses that focus on the types of publications you are interested in. It is

hard to initially break into a major house. Besides, you may have a better

chance if you can meet with someone face to face that enjoys living where

you live.

7. Be Open and Flexible with Your Ideas: My first ideas for an ABC book

about Earth’s Natural Features was rejected by my publisher, but they

liked my photography enough to sit down with me and listen to other

ideas. Eventually we worked together to find a way to use my photography

to help children see the world differently.

8. Develop a Presence: Websites, on-line galleries, podcasts, blogs,

photography magazine articles, workshops, camera clubs can all add to

ourselves getting noticed. Always have business cards or a flyer of your

work in your photo bag and backpack. You never know when someone

will want to see what you are working on.

9. Understand How Images are Presented in Book Formats: Not only do you

have to worry about light, composition, exposure and focus, now you have

to understand where the gutter (the crease in between two pages in a

double page spread) falls in an image, but also whether the book will be a

horizontal (landscape) or a vertical (portrait) format. There are generally

32 pages in a picture book. How many images per page, how much

writing, and whether the images will have borders or be full bleeds are

now things that must be considered.

10. Keep Your Images Simple: This is the hallmark of great photography in

general, but it is essential for book images. If the image is of a box turtle,

then readers don’t want to focus on the grass or the reflection in the pond.

11. Color Catches the Eye: My publisher and editor love when I submit bright

eye-catching colors in my images. They are always thinking about what

will make a great cover image that will catch the buyer’s eye. Bold, simple,

well-focused images seem to work best for publishers.

12. Require Gallies and the Right to Review Images: If you are lucky enough

to land a contract, be sure you have some right to review the final images

before production. The biggest mistake I made with my first picture book,

Desert Seasons: A Year in the Mojave, was being so excited about getting

published that I trusted my publisher to do justice to my images. Big

mistake. When the final books were released, I was deeply pained by how

bad my beautiful images were presented in the book. My new publisher is

just the opposite. They go to great lengths to ensure my images look

great. I have it right in my contract to be able to review final gallies of the

books before production.

13. Learn from Rejection: As hard as this may be to actually do sometimes,

don’t get discouraged by rejection letters. Every great children’s author

and illustrator, even Dr. Seuss, has had many book ideas and manuscripts

rejected. If you get a personal response with some feedback, really listen

to what they are saying. It’s hard to hear sometimes, but we can learn

from editors how to match our images with their needs.

Well, there you have it. Thirteen things I have learned so far. As of 2021, I

have six books published with Kids Can Press in the “Looking Closely” series.

Two of these books were selected to be featured as Happy Meal books at select

McDonalds restaurants across Canada. Great free publicity.

I am currently working on a few projects and creating some proposals for

both fiction and non-fiction titles. I keep a shot list of potential images I might

need for future projects in my camera bag, and am always looking for some

ideas to explore. Patience, persistence and a thick skin are all helpful virtues in

the children’s publishing market.

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© Frank Serafini 2021