Updated May 2023
With some regularity, I get e-mails from people who have written a book for children and would like advice on how to get it published. The first thing I always tell them is “Congratulations! Writing a book is a huge accomplishment!” (Seriously. It took me seven years to write my own first children’s novel, All Four Stars, and then a few more years of revising, agent-seeking, publisher-seeking, and editing before it hit the shelves.)
In any case, since I recently wrote out a long response to one of these e-mails, I thought that I would share here what I would currently know and advise for those who seek traditional publication for a middle-grade, YA, or picture book. (And who, I assume, actually have a finished manuscript, not just an idea for one or a half-finished draft.)
Join SCBWI* and attend a conference: One of the best things a newbie to the kidlit world can do is join SCBWI (the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), if you’re not already a member. There are branches all over the world. This is a great way to start learning about the children’s book industry, and if you attend a conference (either a regional or national one–highly recommended) not only can you take workshops with published children’s authors, but you can also interface with agents and editors and sometimes have a chance to pay for a critique from an agent, editor, or published author. Some branches have mentorship programs available as well. And if your branch has monthly meetings, that’s a great way to meet some other childrens’ writers in your area, form a critique group, network, and learn. Membership costs around $80 a year, and attending conferences costs more, but remember, it’s all tax-deductible. 🙂
*Note (5/23): Since I originally wrote this post, SCBWI has had diversity and equity issues on the national level, and some children’s book creators have distanced themselves from the organization. Many regional branches are still doing good work on behalf of aspiring and established writers of all backgrounds. In the absence of the emergence of another kidlit organization with the wide reach of SCBWI, I still recommend checking out their offerings, but can’t recommend membership as strongly as I once did. For creators of color, I’ve heard wonderful things about the Kweli Color of Children’s Literature Conference, held annually in New York.
Get critiqued: Join/form a critique group with other writers (preferably other people writing for the same age group you are, whether middle grade, young adult, or picture books) if you haven’t already. Having your work critiqued by other serious writers, whether aspiring or published, is an important way to get feedback and improve your work.
(And going back for a moment…Step 0? Hopefully you are already doing this, but read widely in the genre/age group you are attempting to be published in. Have you read at least 50-100 books for that age group that have been published in the last 5 years? If not, do this before anything else, so you can see if and where your work may fit in the market and come up with some current “comp” titles that you can later use in your query letter.)
Seek an agent: When your manuscript is revised, polished, and absolutely as good as you and your critique partners can make it, then it’s time to look for an agent.
You will need an agent if you seek to be traditionally published by one of the large or medium-sized US children’s publishers (the “Big 5” are Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, Macmillan, and HarperCollins, and other well-established companies like Scholastic, Candlewick, Algonquin, Bloomsbury, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Sourcebooks are also in this category), as they don’t accept unsolicited submissions. (The one exception to that is that sometimes editors who are presenting at an SCBWI or other writing conference open their submissions to attendees for a certain period after the conference.)
Good places to start to research agents are querytracker.net, literaryrambles.com, and the Absolute Write forums. What are you looking for? An agent who is with a reputable agency; who ideally has at least some sales record in the genre/age group you are writing in (or, if they’re new, are at an agency with a strong record); and who, in interviews/on social media etc. expresses something that makes you think they might be a good fit for your work.
You should also check out pitchwars.org, and there are sometimes other opportunities/hashtags on social media for pitching your work to agents, such as #DVPit, which focuses on amplifying diverse and underrepresented voices.
Finally, to really dig into an agent’s history of sales, you can buy a membership to Publisher’s Marketplace and study the deal histories there. In addition, you should probably subscribe to Publisher’s Weekly Children’s Bookshelf, a biweekly (and free!) e-mail that not only covers news in the kidlit industry, but also announces most of the higher-profile book deals being made and can give you a sense of what’s selling for publication in the industry. As it includes the deal-making agent’s name and the publisher, this is another place for you to do a little agent research.
You generally pitch agents by sending them a one-page query e-mail that includes a brief pitch of your story and a brief bio. If you don’t know about proper query format, definitely research the “success stories” on querytracker to familiarize yourself with good queries. Mine is in there at https://querytracker.net/success/tara_dairman.php. Stick closely to the one-page limit and hone your pitch to really grab an agent’s attention. Use your critique group to help with this! (Also, this is an area where, if you know a published author, you may be able to ask for a favor in the form of feedback. While I wouldn’t have time to read and critique someone’s manuscript for them–at least, not for free–I’m often willing to look over a one-page query letter and share a few pointers for someone who is serious about trying to pitch themselves to the industry.)
Please note that many people query 50 or more agents before finding representation. I advise sending your query out in small batches (5-7 or so) so that if it’s not getting the results you want you can go back and revise it before sending out to more agents.
If you snag an agent’s attention, they will request some (a “partial”) or all (a “full”) of your manuscript. It may take them months to get back to you after that, though–unfortunately, that’s normal, as agents are extremely busy with their current clients. The best thing to do during that time is to work on your next book!
And/or seek a publisher directly: There are a few smaller but reputable children’s publishers that accept unsolicited, unagented manuscripts, and you could query them directly as well. Off the top of my head, here are a few I believe are still open to submissions, but definitely check their websites to confirm, and carefully follow all submissions guidelines.
-Carolrhoda/Lerner (periodic open calls)
I’m sure you can find more in the Children’s Writers and Illustrators Market (published yearly and available at the library if you don’t want to purchase).
That’s all I’ve got for now. Surely I’ve missed things–if there’s information that you know and think I should include here, please leave a comment and I’ll update when I can. If you have questions, please leave a comment and I’ll answer when I can! And good luck on your publishing journey.