We welcome back multi-book author John Micklos Jr. to share his best tips and tricks to successfully break into children’s publishing.
It seems like every other person you meet wants to write a children’s book. Many people think it’s simple to write for children, but it’s not as easy as you may think. This post describes some key things to keep in mind when writing for children and offers tips for successfully breaking into children’s publishing.
Levels and Lengths
What age level are you writing for? Children’s books are broken into categories by age, although there can be some crossover. Age levels and word lengths are approximate and can vary.
Picture Books: These serve young children ages 0-8. Books with very minimal text are aimed at ages 0-3 (a couple dozen words up to 200 words), simple concept and story books are aimed at ages 3-6 (up to about 600 words), and more sophisticated books are aimed at children ages 6-8 and up (can be 1,000 words or more). The main text is still simple, but these latter books may contain fairly detailed sidebars or back matter packed with information.
Early Readers. Aimed at children who are just beginning to read independently, these books feature relatable characters and simple stories (up to 1,500 words). Nonfiction books feature high-interest subjects and simple, engaging text.
Chapter Books: Appropriate for children in the elementary grades, these books typically run between 5,000 and 15,000 words. The plots for fiction books grow somewhat more complex, with deeper character development. Nonfiction books cover a wide variety of topics, often written to correspond with Common Core State Standards. Many educational publishers focus on this market.
Middle Grade Books: These books are aimed at readers in grades 6-8. Plots, characters, and subject matter are appropriate for “tweens.” These books may run as long as 50,000 words. Nonfiction books tackle more substantive topics at a deeper level.
Young Adult Books: Designed for students ages 13 or 14 and above, these books contain sophisticated plots and may feature deeper and darker subject matter. These books may run as long as 80,000 words. Nonfiction topics include biographies, science, social studies, and more.
Tips for Success
Children’s books continue to be a growing market in publishing, but you need something special to make yours stand out in the crowd. Here are some quick tips, many of which apply across age levels and genres. These are things that traditional publishers look for in submissions, and self-publishers will do well to consider them while preparing their own manuscripts.
Create a truly memorable character. There’s a reason series featuring Llama, Llama, Junie B. Jones, and Harry Potter remain popular over the years. Readers identify with these characters and are eager to root them on.
Focus on high-interest topics. What really matters to children? Books relating to family, friendship, and school are popular at all age levels.
Look for a fresh approach. Does the world need another alphabet book or coming-of-age story? Yes, if you can find a new angle—something that makes your book unique.
Create a strong story arc. Successful fiction books show the main character striving to overcome a problem or challenge. The character faces obstacles along the way but, through perseverance, reaches a satisfying resolution.
Touch readers’ emotions. Think of the children’s books you loved best. Some probably made you cry. Others probably made you laugh out loud.
Aim for simple, not simplistic. There’s a difference between writing simply in a way children will understand and writing simplistic text that speaks down to them.
Hone your writing. Work with a critique group and/or hire a professional editor to make your submission as strong as possible.
Tip: Read widely in the age range and genre you wish to focus on. Look especially at books that have won awards, received great reviews, or simply sold well. What elements do you see that you can incorporate into your own writing?
Taking Control of Your Future in Children’s Writing
More and more writers are self-publishing their books to avoid the lengthy time frame and frequent rejection involved in traditional publishing. Today, it’s easier than ever to prepare a professional-looking book at a reasonable price. Here are some things to consider.
Pros of self-publishing
- Guaranteed acceptance. The odds of breaking in with most traditional publishers are slim. Your odds of having your self-published book come out are 100 percent, assuming you complete the process.
- It generally takes traditional publishers months to even consider your manuscript. If they accept it, expect to wait at least one or two more years for publication. A self-published book can be ready in months.
- You control the process. You (and not the publisher) make the final decisions regarding the text and the cover design. The final product reflects YOUR vision.
Note: I self-published two of my books—The Sound in the Basement and Beach Fun: Poems of Surf and Sand—because I had a particular vision for how I wanted them to look. I’m glad I chose that route.
- You control the process. The flip side of the “Pro” cited above, you have to take the initiative and make everything happen from start to finish.
- All the details. It’s no longer about just writing the book. Now you have to consider editing, formatting, cover design, and all the details of printing (electronic or paper).
- Consider the costs. There are costs involved in self-publishing, and the only way to recoup them is by selling enough copies. That responsibility falls on you. It took me a while to break even on my self-published books, but after that my profit margin was MUCH higher than if I were getting royalties from a traditional publisher.
Tip: One key secret to success involves engaging professional editors, illustrators, and self-publishing experts to work with you. It’s well worth your investment to ensure that your book looks and sounds professional, and that you reach the maximum audience with it.
I hope you find these tips for breaking into children’s publishing helpful. Happy writing!
John Micklos Jr. is the author of more than 50 children’s books. His latest picture book, Raindrops to Rainbow, published by Penguin Workshop, was Delaware’s “Great Reads from Great Places” selection for the 2021 National Book Festival. Learn more about John at www.JohnMicklosWriter.com.