Three Easy Steps to Getting a Picture Book Published.
Hello. As you may know from this earlier post, I’m getting my first picture book published. The title of the book is I Have an Orange Juicy Drink and you can buy it from here. Speaking as a totally biased author, I thoroughly recommend you go and buy it now before reading onwards. No really. It’s awesome. Go buy it. Go.
Anyway, I thought that this would be the perfect time for me to write a blog post for any prospective author/illustrators out there who are hoping to get published. See, there’s only three things you really need to do. Just three steps you need to follow to getting your picture book published. It’s easy as that.
- Write and draw a picture book.
- Get an agent.
- Get a publisher to publish it.
Right. That blog post was easy. I’m off to the pu–
Hold on. There’s a bit more to it than that.
Actually, there’s a lot more to it than that.
Truth be told, I’d be lying to you if I didn’t give you some kind of indication of what you need to expect to go through in order to get your first picture book published. Before we move on though, there’s a few things you need to know:
a) This post isn’t about self publishing; either physical or ebook. I’ve not travelled down that route, and I only know of it in passing. Some very good books are self published, but I don’t know a huge amount about it, so if you’re wanting information on that, you’ll have to look somewhere like here.
b) This post IS about the traditional route of getting published through an established publishing company, along with all it entails.
One of the main prompts for writing this post is due to the fact I regularly share my illustration work on a site called Tickld and when I posted on there that I was finally getting my work published, along with all the congratulations and kinds words, I also got a number of people who asked how I did it, and what they have to do to end up in the same position as me. The answer is that yes, it’s as easy as 1, 2, 3… but only in the same sense that to become world high jump champion all you have to do is jump higher than everyone else.
It sounds easy when you put it like that, doesn’t it?
So let’s break it down into something useful:
1. Write and Draw a Picture Book
1.1 Get something down on paper
I’ve got an idea for a picture book in my head. It’s going to be great. Better than the Gruffalo. Better than The Mister Men. Better than Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Better than all of them put together, and it will change the face of picture books as we know it. It’s going to be brilliant – truly brilliant.
I love that enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is contagious, and you need passion to help sell your book. Right now though, we need to actually produce it .You might have a good idea. It might be the greatest idea in the world. Heck, you might even be able to picture the characters drawn perfectly in your head, visualise every kid in the country reading your book, and even know the last three lines of prose inside out. But, the longest journey in publishing is the 18 inches from your head to the paper. So if you haven’t done this yet, get whatever idea you have out in your head onto paper. Do it in rough. You don’t need to be perfect about this right at this second. If you know you’re not actually good enough to be an illustrator, then just focus on producing a great story. Don’t even try and produce the illustrations. As my agent told me:
It’s doubly hard to be a writer & an illustrator, because publishers have got TWO things to reject you on. Both need to be absolutely fantastic.
So, if you feel you have the skills, then by all means write and draw your idea. And if you’re anything approaching a normal human being, you’ll still find that it loses something on the way from your head to the page. The story doesn’t flow as well, or the drawings don’t seem to pop quite right. But that’s OK. You’ve just done the first step.
1.2 Research and Identify your audience
Do I have to do this? Really? My idea is awesome. It’s going to get picked up by publishers. I don’t need to worry about this kind of stuff.
There’s an old Chinese proverb that failure to plan is planning to fail. And research is very much part of the planning stage. Some people would argue you need to do this bit first. My personal view is that you need to get something out on paper to begin with, and then you’ve actually got something physical to compare to what else is out there.
What kind of things do you need to find out? Well, if you’re looking at picture books, you’ll need to be aware of the standard page set ups. Most picture books are 32 pages (different if you’re doing something for very, very young kids who read carton board books, or if you’re a super successful author who can command a higher page count) but even a 32 page picture book doesn’t mean you get 32 pages to work with.
There’s title pages to remember. And dedication pages. And pattern pages (at the front and the end). And also the pages that get stuck to the covers, which you can’t use at all because they’re covered in glue. The long and the short of it is that you end up with only 12 double page spreads to work with. For more information on these restrictions, see here for Tara Lazar’s really useful blog post on picture book conventions.
If you don’t work to this convention, you’re not going to get taken seriously by either agents or publishers. (One point on eBook publishing at this point: if you just want to publish your book digitally, through the kindle store or similar, then you don’t really need to worry about page count as you’ve got an unlimited canvas to work with – but that’s a different ball game.)
Just as importantly as layout, you need to ensure that your work is actually pitched at the right age group. Do your characters fit in with the characters you see aimed at the same age group in Waterstones or WH Smiths? If not, then you’re going to have to refine either your text or pictures to fit an appropriate age group.
Finally, is your tone of voice unique? By this, I mean do you sound sufficiently different to other writers at the minute? I accept that this is an infuriating question to try and answer: on the one hand, you need to fit in with the market, but on the other, you need to stand out. If you’re too heavily copying off one artist/author then publishers are going to spot that a mile off, and they’re certainly not going to want to work with a cheap knock off who just nicks other people’s ideas. But that’s the whole point of reasearch. Look at what’s popular – what people are buying now: burying your head in the sand and saying “Well, I liked Where the Wild Things Are when I was little, and that’s all I need to look at for inspiration.” Sorry, picture books have moved on an awful lot since then, and you really need to get a firm grip on where the industry is right now.
You’ll also need to get a grasp of flow: how many pages in a standard picture book are used to set up the status quo? How many are used to interject something unexpected? How many are used to tell the adventure that the characters go through to resolve it? And how many are dedicated to actually ending the story? You’ll find that there’s a pretty consistent convention to all picture books in this regard, and you should do your best to follow it.
One final point before we move on: what really excites publishers is seeing something truly new: something that can be expressed shortly but conveys it’s uniqueness: e.g. “It’s Julia Donaldson meets Pokemon”. That at least, suggests you’ve got the originality to create something that isn’t just lifted from one source.
1.3 Accept you need to refine your work
My work is great – Publishers will see my brilliance from 1.1 and queue up to offer me a book deal.
I really don’t want to dampen any enthusiasm you’ve got, but you wouldn’t run a marathon without practicing first. You wouldn’t try and play for Manchester United without working on your passing. You will need to practice a bit more before you submit anything. I’ve put this in as a step, because it’s probably the most important of the lot.
1.4 Refine your work
OK. So I need to refine this so publishers can see it?
Now you’re getting it. You’ve scribbled down something that vaguely looks like a first draft. You’ve researched other books out there. Now you need to work with your material and try and get it spot on.
Keep rewriting it.
Use sketchpads, spider diagrams, pictures, thumbnail sketches, Word Documents – whatever works for you. (I use all of the above.) If you do produce stuff digitally, then make sure that you save ALL versions of your work. I’d recommend going so far as calling it:
- Story textV1.doc
- Story textV2.doc
- Story textV3.doc
If you’re planning on writing AND drawing your picture book, your work should definitely fit the 32 page picture format. This means making the appropriate breaks etc. and fitting the text on each page. You should also sketch out the layouts so that they fit. (If you’re just writing the text, then you don’t need to do this. You can suggest where page breaks would be, but not all publishers will want this. They may just let the artist decide.)
Done all that?
Now go leave it in a drawer for 2 weeks.
1.5 Refine it some more
You seriously want me to ignore my work for a fortnight? But I want to get published now!
If you don’t like the idea of being patient, you’re really not going to like the rest of the publishing process.
After 2 weeks, you’ll come back to your work with a fresh pair of eyes. Layouts you really liked can now seem cramped. Words that flowed effortlessly off your tongue suddenly feel clumsy. Occasionally, something you thought sucked actually looks better. Either way, keep this initial version and rewrite it.
I usually do the *ignore/put in a drawer/read it later thing* at least two or three times before I even consider showing it to anyone else. It’s a bit like distilling vodka, but with words and visual imagery instead of hangovers.
1.6 Produce a Mock Up
Hey! I’ve got a really nice draught here! I think I’m on to something!
Glad to hear it! Then let’s turn that into something we can show to other people. This means sketching it out full size, and basically creating a dummy copy. This is a whole kettle of fish in of itself, but what I’d say right now is that you basically need to ensure you do the following:
a) Try and ensure you’re working to a common picture book size. (25cm x 25cm is pretty common)
b) draw all the artwork out in pencil as accurate as you can. (All 12 double page spreads.)
c) add the text where you see it fitting on the page. Try and use typed text wherever possible.
d) pick the two spreads that are going to best represent your picture book (either the prettiest ones, or the ones that have the most going on in them) and produce them as fully finished artworks with pictures and text. Replace the pencil sketches of these pages with your finished artwork pages.
(Note – In the past I’ve gone to publishers with complete books that are fully finished with complete artworks on every page. Bizarrely, they don’t like that as much as you’d think. They prefer to see work as something embryonic that they can help shape and grow.)
1.7 Find Some Small Children and Read it to Them
Will those ones over there by the swings do?
God, no. Don’t just go up to random kids in parks. Use your own kids. Or your nieces or nephews. If you don’t have any of those, then consider approaching a local school and explain you’re looking to get published and you’d love to get the feedback off the kids. Don’t tell the children that you’ve written it. Even little kids will tailor what they say to avoid offending people. What you want is honesty and clarity from them. They might for instance ask why the main character runs away on page 10. If it’s not clear to the kid WHY your main character does that, then you can bet your bottom dollar that other people are going to say the same thing. At this point it would be advisable to go back into your draught and beef up the story so that it’s really clear why things are happening. Alternatively, your kid might just ask “What’s that big shape on page 12?” and you then have to consider if your artwork is clear enough. Maybe you need to redraw things so that it’s easier to see what’s going on in the action.
Basically, if you’ve got issues here then, you need to go back to 1.4 and address them.
1.8 You’ve got a Finished First Draught of a Picture Book
I did it! I’ve got a draught picture book that’s ready to share with the world.
Good stuff. Make copies of it. And brace for crippling rejection.
2. Get an Agent
Do I have to get an agent? I heard they take a cut of my money.
Now, you don’t have to get an agent. Ultimately, you just want to get published. Some publishers will consider material that is unsolicited – meaning that you can send it in yourself. And yes, literary agents will take a cut of your money. Anywhere from 15-20% would be typical. If you come across someone who wants to take significantly more than that (or if you meet one who pressures you to sign a contract on the spot) then they are quite unlikely to be legit and you are much better off without them. However, the reputable agents out there (of which I am very lucky to have the services of a very bright and productive one) are worth their weight in gold.
What is it that the agent helps you avoid?
The slush pile.
Publishers often have a slush pile: a 4 foot high pile of submissions from all and sundry that is full of 95% terrible work, 4.9% semi-decent and 0.1% publishable work. I have truly heard of art students getting work experience at publishing houses and their job for a week is:
“Have a look through the slush pile. If you find something that’s any good, bring it over. If not, bin it.”
I mean seriously? The kid on work experience is in charge of deciding whether or not your work gets put in front of an actual editor? No thanks. I don’t like the sound of that.
Getting an agent means that you get to side step that. The publishers trust the agents to only bring work of a certain standard to them. And given that the agent gets paid on commission, if you get an agent then they want you to get published.
Plus, some publishers only take work from agents, so you’ll never be able to get your work in front of them without one.
So what’s your best bet?
2.1 The Children’s Writer and Artist’s Yearbook
I live in the UK so I got a copy of The Children’s Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook and produced a shortlist of 10 agents that might want to take me on. It’s updated every year. I looked at their client list – who each agent represented and checked to see if I would fit in. There’s no point contacting an agent who only deals with teen and adult fiction if you’re writing a book called Moo, Cow, Moo.
2.2 Pay careful attention to how they want work submitting to them
Draw up a list, and then submit your work to them. The Children’s Writers and Artist Yearbook will tell you how to format your work for submission to them, and also how they accept work. Usually this is just through the post. Do NOT try and do a One-Size-Fits-All approach. If they want to see entire books, sent entire books. If they want to see just text, send just text. They get hundreds of submissions every month and they don’t have time for idiots that don’t send work in as they request it. So make sure it’s spot on.
Before we move on, I have a confession to make on this point. When I was young and cheeky, I actually had the brass neck to don a suit, and wander up to agent’s offices of London Town with copies of my work in a briefcase and knock on doors, asking if I could drop my work off in person. This isn’t the done thing: You’re usually meant to send things through the post and wait 3 months for the inevitable rejection. But whether it was because I was smiley and a little bit Hugh Grant-ish or because they just wanted to humour me, I actually managed to drop my work off at a significant number of agencies in person.
This didn’t make my work any better, but it did mean that I got rejected a whole lot quicker.
In fact, out of the 10 agents I contacted, 8 were very much “No thank you” with the occasional pointer on what I was doing wrong. One was mildly interested, and one… well, one got in touch and said “Please can we see some more of your stuff,” which I duly provided and about a week later they rang me up and said they wanted to represent me.
You could have knocked me over with a feather. Surely, at this point fame, fortune and a book deal were only a few months away?
3. Get a Publisher to Publish It
So, I got my agent. From here it was plain sailing: she rings around a few publishers. Tells them she’s got the best new writer/author since Julia Donaldson and Walt Disney secretly created that kid in a laboratory, and then BANG my book deal and successful picture book career would be up and running.
Publishing moves at a glacial pace.
Right. Now go chug a bottle of sedatives until time feels as though it’s running like treacle.*
There are book fairs around the world: The London Book Fair, The Fankfurt Book Fair and The Bologna Book Fair are the 3 biggest in Europe. The publishing industry calendar basically revolves around them. Publishers and agents spend a lot of time getting ready for the fair, going to the fair, coming back from the fair and discussing the people and books that were there and preparing for what happens next. So everything else in their diaries kind of slots in around these three events.
There are other fairs rest of the world, but I can’t say for sure which are the biggest on different continents. (A general point about the fairs, though: if you live vaguely near any of them and you want to get published, I strongly recommend you go to them to see about furthering your career – it means that you get to see what’s hot or not at the minute in publishing circles. There’s also a horrible term called Networking, which I believe is relevant.)
Anyway, between agents & publishers being very mindful of the book fairs, there’s another thing to remember: Your agent will have many dozen other writers/illustrators on their books, and publishers will have a queue of people they’d like to see. So it really could be a while before meetings get set up. I’m very lucky in the fact that my agent is a lovely, proactive lady with bags of experience and a polite, yet engaging approach to getting things done. She’s actually a marvel. But even so, meetings won’t just magically pop up for later this week.
What’s most important is that your agent sets you up with the right publisher. (If you don’t have an agent, you can still do this yourself. Again, use the Children’s Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook to see where your work would best fit.)
3.1 Meet with publishers
Now, I’m a reasonably friendly and intelligent guy. I’m not George Clooney, and I’m no politician, but I still like to think that I come across well when I meet people. So these meetings got set up, I dressed up in a suit, got my smiley face ready and met with publishers, ready to dazzle them and sign a book deal.
And do you know what the first thing I realised was?
DON’T WEAR A SUIT TO A MEETING WITH A CHILDREN’s BOOK PUBLISHER.
When you look at yourself at yourself in the mirror wearing a suit, you realise look more like a corporate idiot than anything else. All the silliness and whimsy that you actually harbour, all the inner kid that you channeled to produce the book in the first place – it won’t get through to the people that count because you look like you’re there to sell them double glazing. Dress smart, (but not suity,) be smiley, be open to suggestions, but most of all, present your work with passion.
3.2 Make changes for the publisher
And if all goes well at your meeting, you’ll go home and amend your work. Then you’ll stick it in a drawer for a week or so, and dig it out to see if you still like it. If you do, then send it off to your publisher and wait for them to contact your agent with an offer for your first book deal. (International rights and the like will also follow, but frankly, that’s not worth worrying about right now.)
I’ve made step 3 sound fairly easy, but it won’t just happen overnight. In my case I spent a considerable amount of my spare time creating many different artworks and stories… producing new work, reviving old work from half an idea I had one Sunday morning when I was 12, and generally chasing my ideas around in sketch books till they cried in the corner. In such a situation it’s perfectly normal for you flip between thinking “Hey! I’m an industry standard author/illustrator” to thinking “What am I doing? I’m just a cretin with crayons in my bedroom” a thousand times over before you get out of bed.
This whole process is hard, not just in terms of the challenge, but in terms of what it does to your self esteem and brain. My brother has perviously described me as the most optimistic person he knows, and yet the process of going from creating an idea for a book, through to getting it published is probably the most challenging and taxing thing I have ever done.
However, at the end of it, I know that I am getting my first picture book published and I can’t begin to describe the pride and satisfaction that it gives me to know that there will be kids out there that want to read my stories and see my characters before they go to sleep. It’s truly a wondrous feeling to know that something you’ve created can have that kind of an impact upon any audience, and I can’t wait to get that first copy and read it to my nephews at bedtime.
They do say that the first book is the hardest. I really hope that’s true.
I certainly hope getting my second book publishes isn’t quite as challenging as the first. But if it is, I’ll blog about that too, so you can avoid the same mistakes that I make.
Andrew’s first book, I Have an Orange Juicy Drink is published by Fat Fox Books and first editions are available to pre-order now on Amazon. Visit http://www.amazon.co.uk/Have-An-Orange-Juicy-Drink/dp/1910884049 to buy it now. If you want to get in touch with him, you can find him at firstname.lastname@example.org
*Disclaimer: don’t neck medicine, guys.