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No Magic Answers: How I Got Started
Anna Grossnickle Hines
Mindprint Review, Summer 1983

     Now that I am a published author and illustrator of children's books I get occasional calls from other writers, asking me how they too can get published in the children's book field. Unfortunately, I don't have any magic answers. I can't guide anyone to THE publisher who will automatically accept their stories. I still get more rejections than acceptances myself, and if I knew ten years ago, when I first started submitting work to publishers, what I know now, I still might have to go through the more than one hundred rejections before I got that first right manuscript to the right publisher at the right time.

      People often ask how I can stand the rejections. Some say they are afraid to submit because they don't think they could take being rejected. I don't know any way to avoid it. Publishers are not going to walk up to a person on the street and say, "You look like someone who could write a great children's book. You wouldn't happen to have a few tucked away in a drawer would you?" To have any chance at all of being published you have to risk having your work rejected...many times usually.

      And while it's disappointing to have a manuscript for which I have high hopes come back by return mail, it isn't all that bad. For one thing I know I'm in good company. I've heard that ALICE IN WONDERLAND was rejected twenty-seven times. Madeleine L'Engle's award winning A WRINKLE IN TIME was rejected by every major American publisher and was on it's way around a second time when it was accepted. Jack London had over 200 rejections before he made his first sale. Many such stories circulate among aspiring writers, so take heart.

      Also there is often much encouragement in those rejections. A personal letter is to be treasured and followed up with a revision if indicated, or submission of other work. I had eighteen such letters from Susan Hirschman at Greenwillow before she accepted TASTE THE RAINDROPS. Even a note scribbled on a form letter is a sign that someone at that house is interested. Send something else as soon as possible. Let them know you are serious and productive.

      Straight form letters are the hardest to take of course, but even they don't necessarily mean you have a bad story. It could be just not their sort of thing or maybe they don't take unsolicited manuscripts or they are committed for the next few years. So now you know where not to submit.

      I read that while Thomas Edison was searching for the right material for a light bulb filament, an assistant said to him, "We should give up. We have tried several thousand things that have failed." Edison replied, "Failed, no. We have learned several thousand things that do not work." Like Edison, perhaps authors should think of making submissions as a way of gathering information, learning what doesn't work as well as what does. You are finding out which publishers respond to your work and which don't. You are finding out which stories get the best responses and if there are any comments at all you may be able to learn what they like and/or don't like in your work. Give it all serious thought. These are your lessons.

     The editors are also learning about you. Are you serious? Can you listen to their suggestions? Are you willing to revise if they suggest it? You don't have to revise if you feel strongly about leaving a story as it is. You may find another editor who agrees with you. But the writer and editor must eventually work together. The editor and art director have information and experience which I, as an author, do not have. If I work with them, they can help me produce a better book. I do not think an author has to agree with every suggestion, but it probably is important that editors know that you at least give their suggestions serious thought, that you are willing to work with them.

      So, you are a serious writer, want to do children's books, and you are willing to risk getting rejections, to look at them as part of the process of writing and publishing and a way to learn. Where do you start? How do you submit and to whom?

      Start by perfecting your craft. Write the very best stories you can. Learn as much as you can about the genre. Study the works of other writers. Visit the library and bookstores frequently to see what's being done. What's new? Talk to the librarian about which books are most popular. Read books to children. To what do they respond? To what do you respond? Which books do you like best and why?

      If you don't enjoy reading children's books it's hard to imagine you could enjoy writing them. Writing books for children is not easier than writing for adults. In fact it may be harder. Because of the sparseness of words, each one is that much more important. And most importantly, children deserve the best we can give them.

      Read books about children's literature and about writing for children, such as WRITING BOOKS FOR CHILDREN by Jane Yolen, and FROM CHILDHOOD TO CHILDHOOD: CHILDREN'S BOOKS AND THEIR CREATORS by Jean Karl. FROM WRITER TO READER by Howard Grenfield tells how a book is produced and may be especially helpful to those interested in illustration. Many other good books are available, too numerous to list here*.

      For a self-addressed stamped envelope, the Children's Book Council, 67 Irving Place, New York 10003, will send you two small brochures, "Writing Children's Books" and "Illustrating Children's Books" which contain, as well as useful tips, lists of books to consult for further information. You can also obtain from them a list of their members, which includes most of the major publishers of children's books in the country, and a listing of the member's current publishing programs. A one time fee of $15 will put you on their mailing list to receive their quarterly Calendar and notice of other events and publications**.

      Another organization which has been invaluable to me is the Society of Children's Book Writers***. Through them, directly or indirectly, I have learned most of what I know about the field. An annual membership fee includes the SCBW Bulletin (a bimonthly publication containing current information on the children's book field), a discount on tuition to the annual four day conference in Los Angeles (well worth the trip), individual advice about contracts, dealing with publishers, contact with chapters all across the country, and a number of publications sent to members for the cost of postage only. One of these is an annual marketing survey in which all the major publishers are asked what types of books they currently need, whether they require queries and if they accept unsolicited manuscripts.

     Attending workshops and symposiums on children's literature and writing is another way to gather pertinent information.

      But the most important way to learn is to do it. So write. A lot. Consistently. The turning point for me came about a year and a half before I sold my first book when I decided that I either had to be serious about my writing or forget it. At that point I made it a priority. I made a commitment to it and even though other responsibilities kept me from doing it full-time, writing was an important part of every day - even if only for five minutes.

      When you have a story you are ready to submit, you must select a publisher. Again you have research to do. Look at recently published books in the library and bookstores noting who is publishing what. Study professional publications such as PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY, HORN BOOK, SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL, and ALA's BOOKLIST. Study THE WRITER'S MARKET. Write to publishers and ask them to send a copy of their current catalogue; enclose a large self-addressed stamped envelope. Which publishers seem to be publishing the type of story you have written? Check the members publishing programs of the Children's Book Council and the SCBW's marketing survey for hints about publishers future plans. Make a list of those publishers that seem most likely to be interested in your story.

      Names and addresses of all the publishing houses can be found in LITERARY MARKET PLACE which will also list the editor's name. All submissions and queries should be sent to the editor by name.

      If your story is longer than a picture book, or is non-fiction, most publishers prefer that you send a query letter first, asking if they would like to see it. It is acceptable to query several publishers at the same time, telling the type of book you have, subject matter, age level of your audience, and a bit about yourself, writing experience, involvement with children or whatever you feel might qualify you to write that book. When you receive responses to your query you can list the publishers according to which seem the most interested.

      Send your story to the first publisher on your list, and get to work on another story. If the first story comes back, send it immediately to the second publisher on your list. Send your second story to the first publisher and get busy on the third. The more you have out, the better your chances of making a sale and it can help take the edge off your disappointment when one story comes back if you have others out trying.

      Keep a file on which stories go where and what type of response you get. I use index cards; a card for each publisher indicating which stories I've sent there (including date sent, date returned and type of response), and a card for each story recording which publishers have seen it (also noting dates and responses). I also note revisions on the story cards because sometimes I may want to send a revised story back to a publisher who sent me an encouraging rejection letter even though they didn't specifically request a revision.

      As you collect your rejections (information remember!) you may want to revise your list of likely publishers. Put the ones who give you the most encouragement at the top, also maybe the ones who respond the fastest. Some publishers respond in a month. Some take longer. After two months you may want to write and ask about your manuscript. Sometimes publishers take longer because they are giving the story serious consideration, sometimes they are just slow, occasionally they may have misplaced or forgotten about your manuscript and your letter will nudge them into action.

      It is important that you keep a copy of your work in case it is lost by the publisher, or more likely in the mails, but you really don't have to worry about protecting your copyright. The major reputable publishers don't steal stories. If they did, other authors would soon hear about it and would no longer submit to them. Publishers depend on authors' submissions. If they like your work they will pay you and publish it with your name on it.

      So what do you send? First of all, a neatly typed manuscript, double-spaced with nice margins, your name and address on the title page, your name and the title at top of every page and the pages consecutively numbered. If your story is a picture book you may also want to send a dummy, which is a little booklet made by folding the appropriate number of sheets together. Most picture books are either 24 or 32 pages including the front matter, although any multiple of eight will do. A dummy can give a feeling for the rhythm of the words to the page, and show the editor that you have given this some thought.

      If you are not an illustrator you needn't worry about the pictures at all unless there is something in the illustration that is not indicated in the text. In this case you may note that on the page or make a simple stick figure drawing. Don't worry about finding someone to illustrate your book. The editors prefer to choose their own and combining your name with a known illustrator will be to your advantage in book sales.

      If you are interested in illustrating your own book, you may want to do a more elaborate dummy to show what you can do, and include one or two completed sample illustrations, preferably in black and white or adding just one or two colors. Full color books are expensive to produce and beginners don't usually get to do them. If you are hesitant to send original art work through the mail or to have it handled by many publishers before the work is sold (it can get rather dog-eared and shop-worn), you can send reproductions, photostats or color Xeroxes or what ever, and say you'll be happy to send the originals if they are interested.

      You need not do finished illustrations for the entire book. It may be good practice, but other than that will probably be a waste of time. The final design of the book is a joint decision of the author-illustrator, editor, and art director and is based on many factors. The size, dimensions, colors, number of pages, or text of the book may be changed so that all the illustrations would have to be done again. In my books we send sample illustrations back and forth several times before all the decisions are made and I start on the final drawings.

      Along with your manuscript, dummy and sample illustrations if appropriate, you should include a cover letter, and a self-addressed stamped envelope with sufficient postage for the return of your material. The cover letter should be brief. The manuscript really has to stand on it's own. Include only biographical material that indicates a special knowledge of the field, if you have published before, or worked as a librarian or a teacher for example.

      In my early cover letters I said that though I would like to illustrate the book myself I would be willing to have another illustrator do it if the editor felt that would be best. I also said I would be interested in illustrating the work of other authors. I had been told that most publishers did not like to take a risk on a new author-illustrator, preferring to couple a new name with an established one for the first few books. I wanted to keep all possibilities open in case an editor liked my writing but not my drawing or vice versa.

      As it turned out I have been able to illustrate my first five books, two published and three in process. I was also told that it was nearly impossible to break into illustration from the West coast, and that I'd have to move to New York to get established. One of my editors told another illustrator, who made the trip to New York, that she'd never choose a California illustrator, because the distance would make it too difficult. We've done two long distance books together so far and I haven't gone to New York yet.

     If all of this sounds like it's too discouraging, too hard to take the rejections, takes too long, and too much work, then quit. Don't even start. It is hard. And though many children's authors make a living, few get rich. There are easier ways to make money. But if it is something you really want to do, then go for it! It can be done and it is well worth every rejection and every ounce of effort.

    * More books about writing, illustrating and children's literature can be found on this list.

  ** Some of this may be outdated, but the CBC remains an invaluable resource for information.

*** Since this was written the organization has added "Illustrators" to it's name to become the SCBWI.

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