"Oh, I've always wanted to write for children!"
I hear it all the time, whenever I reveal that I'm a published author of children's books. Always the starry-eyed look, the slightly wistful expression, and the inevitable, “That would be so fun!"
Fun, indeed. All the fun of slaving over getting just the right word, of collecting rejection slips, of wondering if new authors really can break into the children's market.
There is a way - if you are willing to exercise some flexibility in your writing.
Take a stroll through the children's non-fiction section of your local library and look at the newest books you see there: books on jet planes, hot air balloons, holiday crafts, bicycles, helicopters, race cars, and more - some of them with my name on them.
Welcome to the world of the School and Library Market.
How the School and Library Market Works
Budget cuts or not, libraries need a constant supply of new books. Library books get a lot of hard use, and the most popular titles wear out quickly. Even the nonfiction section, the part of the library that many people think is “boooring!" gets a lot of use as kids look for books to help them with reports, or books on their favorite hobbies and interests.
When librarians pull worn copies of well-loved novels off the shelf for replacement, they may get new copies of the same title. But in the nonfiction section, old, worn, or outdated books get replaced with new books with up-to-date information.
Where do they get these books? From publishers that specialize in the school and library market. These publishers produce new titles and entire new series every year to meet librarians’ needs. This also means that they need authors to write new titles ever year.
These aren't books that are going to be sold in bookstores, nor are they going to make any best-seller list, so don't expect high royalties. In fact, most school-and-library books are written on assignment on a work-for-hire basis. This means that the work is purchased outright from the author. The publisher retains the copyright and all rights to the book. This might sound like a raw deal, but consider that librarians want up-to-date nonfiction titles. This means that the book you write this year may not stay on the backlist more than five or six years. These aren't books that would earn a great deal in royalties. However, that same publisher will need a new title on the same subject in a few years. If your work satisfied the editors, they may ask you to write the new book.
Approaching School and Library Publishers
So how do you find publishers that specialize in the school and library market? Start again at the library. Look through the shelves for the newest books and note the names of the publishers. You can also ask the children's librarian if you can browse through their book catalogs. Get the addresses and website of the publishers, then see if they post author guidelines on their websites. You can also find educational publishers in the Children's Writers Market, which is widely available in bookstores and libraries.
Once you have a list of potential publishers, read their guidelines and follow them carefully. There are two ways to approach school and library publishers. One is with a book idea of your own. Many will accept submissions of fiction and nonfiction manuscripts, and will pay an advance and royalties. The other way is to send a resume that lists your published works (if any) and pertinent experience (any education experience you have is helpful), along with samples of your writing (sometimes called “clips"). If the editors like your sample, you may get a phone call or an email from an editor asking if you would like to accept an assignment. Which approach you use depends on the publisher. Their guidelines will state whether you should send a manuscript, or if you can send a resume and writing sample.
If you get an assignment, be sure to ask plenty of questions to clarify the editor's expectations. Make sure you're clear on due dates, and be prepared not only to meet the due dates, but beat them. Ask if there are sample books from the series that you can see before you start writing. There won't be if the series is new, but there may be a similar series that can serve as a model. If other authors are working on other titles in the series, ask if someone else has a due date before yours, and if you can look at their outline. This helps preserve consistency in the series. Educational publishers usually have extensive guidelines to help you write according to their style, and often have outlines from which authors work.
Then go to work doing your research and writing the best book you can. If the editors are pleased, expect more assignments in the future!
Karen E. Bledsoe is a children's book author, and has written many books for the school and library market. For more information on writing for children, see her website at http://www.gkbledsoe.com