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How to Break into the Childrens Market with Nonfiction

So you want to write for children. Perhaps you’ve read your little ones to sleep each night with their favorite picture books. Or you’re an elementary teacher and you love reading great children’s literature to your students. Or you just love reading children’s books yourself. That’s great. A love of children’s literature is essential for anyone who wants to write for the children’s market.

Now suppose that you’re thinking of writing a picture book. Children love good picture books with their rhythmic language and colorful illustrations. The difficulty is that writing picture books is a lot harder than it looks. It’s also the first form of children’s literature that most new authors try to write, so publisher slush piles are piled high with picture book submissions. Competition is stiff, and many beginners soon give up in frustration, sure that they lack the talent to write for children.

Don’t give up hope yet! Instead, take a stroll through the children’s section of the library. You’ll find a lot more than picture books shelved there. Now take turn down the nonfiction aisles. Look at all those books! Books on elephants, tigers, and lions. Books on trains, helicopters, and skyscrapers. Books on crafts, games, and holidays. Biographies of everyone from Hammurabi to Britney Spears.

Someone had to write those books. That someone could be you.

Librarians need good nonfiction, and it must be new nonfiction. When a well-read classic fiction book wears out, it’s replaced with a new copy of the same title. But when a nonfiction title wears out, it’s replaced with a brand new, up-to-date book. There’s a continuous need for new titles, and thus a continuous need on the part of the educational publishers for authors to produce new books.

How can you write for the school and library market? There are two ways to approach educational publishers. Some publishers want authors to send a query and a proposal for a specific book that fits their line, or for an existing series. Others assign topics to authors, and prefer to see a writing resume and samples. Some publishers will accept both.

First, you’ll need to find the names of good educational publishers. Again, the library is a good place to start. Use the information on the inside covers of books to find out who published them. Get the address and website. Some publishers (such as Enslow, Capstone, and Perfection Learning) are exclusively school and library publishers, while others (such as DK and HarperCollins) and have a broader publishing agenda. Use the internet to track down the publishers and study what kind of books they produce. If they have submission information for authors on the website, copy this information for your reference, or use the Children’s Writers and Illustrators Market for guidelines. If there are no submission guidelines, the publisher may want to hear from agents only, or may produce everything in-house and might not accept outside submissions.

When looking at school and library publisher websites, study the existing series of books. What topics could you contribute to? What topics can you see a need for? Jot down your ideas, then narrow your ideas to the topics you’d like to write about the most.

If possible, get your hands on some copies of the books from the series you’d like to write for. Study the format, the language, the depth of the topic. Often the publishers will try to achieve a consistent style between the books within a series and across similar series. Sketch out an outline for a new book that you think would enhance this series. If you’re a new, unpublished author, it would be a good idea to do your research and write at least a first draft of the book before querying, to be sure you can complete the book and do a good job. Otherwise you might find yourself agreeing to a project, only to find that you can’t locate good references or aren’t as interested in the topic as you thought.

Once you’ve done your homework, you’re ready to write your query.

Some school and library publishers prefer create their own series concepts and assign the titles to their authors. They will often accept a writer’s resume and writing samples to keep on file for future assignments. If you’d like to be considered by one of these publishers, assemble a good resume that begins with your areas of interest and expertise, followed by any relevant publications you have (if none, then don’t point that out, but make sure your writing samples are stellar), any relevant experience (such as working in a school or a library), and your education and training. Your writing samples can be published or unpublished pieces, and should be in a style similar to the style of the books the publisher puts out. Again, go to the library and find books by the publisher you’re considering, and practice writing in their style.

Let’s suppose you are lucky and the publisher contacts you. “We’re creating a series on children in European countries and we’d need someone to write about Belgium. Would you be interested?”

The correct answer is, “Yes!” so long as you’re sure you can meet the deadline, which is often short. Don’t know much about Belgium? Not sure it’s even in Europe? Not to worry. Here’s where the rule of, “Write what you know,” becomes, “Write what you CAN know.” The first writing assignment I received was a request to write a 3000 word book on the Blue Angels. I had six weeks in which to do it. After agreeing to the contract, I hung up the phone and thought, “Let’s see, the Blue Angels, they’re with the Navy, right?” Within days, I’d found great reference books on the Blue Angels (the U.S. Navy’s flight demonstration squadron), found videos showing how the pilots train, and had contacted Blue Angels fan clubs and an official representative of the Blue Angels themselves to get interviews and information. By the time I had amassed the information, the book practically wrote itself, and several of my contacts helped fact-check the manuscript.

The publisher should provide you with a general format, or even a detailed outline of the book, as well as style sheets to guide your writing. Ask if there are books in the series already, even in manuscript form, that you could see. This will help assure that your book fits with the style of the series.

You’ll put your research skills to work to find out the information you need. Use the adult section of your library, article databases at the library, and the internet to collect information and find expert contacts. Access to a university library is helpful for more arcane knowledge. Get to know your research librarian by name, since this is the person who can show you all sorts of sources for information. Be sure to cross-check EVERY fact.

Keep a calendar of all deadlines and strive not only to meet them, but to beat them. Be ready and eager to do any editorial changes. If all goes smoothly with the first book, chances are good you’ll be assigned a second – and more!

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