Want to write and publish children’s books for a living? Read this interview with author and editor Emma Walton Hamilton to find out how it’s done.
How did you first get into publishing, and why did you choose to concentrate on children’s books?
I’ve been a book lover all my life, and wrote stories all the time when I was a kid. My Mom and I actually wrote our first story together when I was five – which my father illustrated, and which several decades later we re-wrote and published as the book “Simeon’s Gift,” so my love of reading and writing goes back as far as I can remember. But it wasn’t until I had kids of my own that I really got motivated. Having kids re-connected me with the power and value of children’s books in a young person’s life.
My mother had been writing children’s books for 40 years, having published her first children’s book – “Mandy” – in the 1970’s. About 14 years ago, her publisher asked if she would be interested in writing a book for very young children. My son, Sam, was a year old at the time, and Mom asked me what he loved to read about. Without hesitation, I said, “Trucks!” He loved trucks, but there were very few books about trucks that were character-based or included a valuable story or message for kids, and that would keep ME amused reading it with my son night after night.
That inspired us to write the Dumpy the Dump Truck series together, and once I got started I was hooked. Mom and I have written over 20 books together now – and eventually formed our own publishing program, The Julie Andrews Collection, for which I serve as the Editorial Director. From there, I moved into freelance editing for children’s books, and teaching children’s book writing for Stony Brook Southampton’s MFA in Writing and Literature program and online – and most recently to my appointment as Director of the annual Southampton Children’s Literature Conference.
How does children’s book publishing differ from book publishing in general? Are they marketed differently?
There are many similarities and some key differences. Most of the differences can be found in picture books and chapter books (as opposed to Young Adult novels, which these days are very similar to adult books).
Let’s start with the editorial/publishing process. Picture books are dictated by the necessary economy of text. You have 32 pages and less than 1000 words with which to tell a complete story with engaging characters, a compelling plot and a theme that is emotionally resonant for young readers. Then of course you have to factor in illustrations, which impact the process in a number of ways. The illustrator is an equally important creative contributor when it comes to telling the story, so instead of the process being strictly between author and editor, children’s books have more key players – specifically the author, editor, illustrator and art director. This also adds a considerable amount of time to the process, since an illustrator usually needs at least six months to work on the images for the book, and then there are color proofs to be run, etc. in the printing process.
Finally, there are several key markets that are unique to children’s book publishing, such as schools and children’s libraries.
How and where do you sell books in today’s market?
The most common retail outlets for children’s books are bookstores, libraries, schools, and internet stores such as amazon.com or B&N.com. But books are also sold to book clubs (like Scholastic, or Children’s Book of the Month, etc.) as well as specialty stores such as airport shops, toy stores, children’s clothing or maternity stores, museum shops, and the like. Ebooks are another market, but print has always been for the children’s market.
Unless he or she is self-publishing, authors are generally not very involved in the sales process. The process of getting a published book into a book buyer’s hands is essentially handled by the publisher’s sales department, and involves the following chain of command: publisher – distributor/wholesaler – fulfillment house – retailer – book buyer.
Of course, a key part of this process is marketing, which drives the demand for the books at each step of the chain of command – and which is handled by the publisher’s marketing and publicity departments, sometimes in partnership with an author’s publicist (if he or she has one).
What is the difference between a publisher and a distributor?
A publisher is the entity that contracts with an author to publish a manuscript, then pays for that book to be created/published. A distributor disseminates books into the marketplace. There are basically three ways books are distributed – through wholesalers, through book distributors or through fulfillment houses.
Bookstores, libraries and other retailers seldom buy books directly from publishers – they buy them from wholesalers. Most publishers lack the storage space to house massive quantities of books and prefer to focus their energies on the acquisition and publishing of manuscripts rather than their dissemination into the marketplace. The wholesaler buys books from publishers at a high discount and sells the books to their customers (the retailers) for a slightly lower discount.
Among the most commonly known wholesalers are Ingram and Baker & Taylor. But wholesalers seldom work with small publishers, since there are so many of them, so small publishers generally use a distributor.
The distributor takes the publisher’s books and actively sells them into the retail and wholesale marketplace. A distributor will do all of the warehousing, packing, shipping, etc. that a fulfillment house does, but will also work to sell titles by calling on accounts. They then take a share of net revenue in exchange for their services.
A fulfillment house stores the inventory; packs & ships the books; bills & collects from customers; processes returns, etc. but does not market or sell books. They fill the orders received, but creating demand for the book is up to the publisher and author.
So, in a nutshell, a wholesaler works for their big retail customers (and waits for orders to come in from them); a distributor works for the publisher (and actively promotes/sells to the wholesalers and retailers) and a fulfillment house can work for anyone, including a self-published author – but simply stores, ships and bills for books sold.
Are children still reading books, now that they have so many forms of electronic entertainment available? How does your book, Raising Bookworms: Getting Kids Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment, address this question?
With all that competes for our attention these days, from television to the internet to electronic games and social networking, we face the possibility of a serious decline in the reading and writing skills of the next generation. The disturbing facts are that one third of today’s high school graduates – and forty-two percent of college graduates – never read another book for the rest of their lives. And this decline in reading occurs across all ages, sexes and races – though it is most pronounced among the young.
But reading skills continue to have a powerful effect on how well we communicate, succeed in school and in our chosen careers, and ultimately our level of personal fulfillment. Our reading skills correspond directly to our ability to be confident, engaged, informed citizens. In fact, in order to participate fully in society and the workplace in 2020 and beyond, we will all need powerful literacy abilities.
Raising Bookworms is rooted in the philosophy that we need to keep reading as attractive to young people as all the other temptations out there. We can achieve that by focusing on activities that support the joy in reading (as opposed to reading as chore, or duty) and by ensuring that what is being read is so good that the reader gets hooked and comes back for more. Building on the premise that an appreciation for reading stems from a kinesthetic connection between books and pleasure, Raising Bookworms offers over 150 insights, recommendations and tactics to engage even the most reluctant reader and to build, maintain or restore a love of reading for every age range.
What effect do the iPad/Kindle/Nook etc. have on children’s books?
My view is that electronic readers, apps and the like provide a valuable complement to picture books, but won’t replace them altogether. I do love the freedom that e-books or apps provide in terms of options when my kids and I are out and about. For instance, if we are on the road, or waiting in a doctor’s office, it’s wonderful that my daughter can be engaged in something that has creative or literary value, albeit on my iPhone. But at the end of the day, when we snuggle together for reading time, it’s always a book version of a story that she asks for – not an electronic version.
It’s hard to imagine Moms and Dads ever cuddling their small children with an e-reader. There’s something about the tactile pleasure of the way books look, feel and smell, and the turning of the pages, that I think has perennial value when it comes to sharing stories with children.
What trends do you see in children’s publishing?
Right now the children’s publishing market is heavily focused on, and invested in, the Young Adult market – much more so than picture books or middle grade/chapter books. This is understandable, since YA is currently one of the only aspects of the publishing industry that is showing growth. In the YA market, the trend is towards books that are edgy, gritty, and truthful, and that deal with tough subjects that today’s teens are wrestling with. I think we are pretty much done with vampires and the paranormal for a while, but dystopian fantasy/futurism continues to sell.
The trend in picture books is toward less and less text. Economy of words is key – 1000 or less – as well as originality of voice and style. Humor is always hot. In middle grade, character-driven series books continue to sell well, and there also seems to be renewed interest in the stand-alone middle grade novel.
Do you need an agent to get published, and how do you find one?
Authors need agents. Agents handle everything from manuscript submissions to contract negotiations and the oversight of royalty statements, in exchange for which they take a 10-20% commission from an author’s earnings. Most publishers do not accept “unsolicited” manuscripts, which essentially means “un-agented,” or manuscripts submitted directly by writers. There are some exceptions to this rule, but they are few and far between. So I do encourage aspiring authors to try to find an agent to represent their work.
You get an agent the same way your book finds a publishing house – by impressing them with the quality of your work. Most agents and publishers have very specific and strict submission guidelines, which are posted on their websites. Unfortunately, it is NOT one size fits all. Your best recourse is to pick up a copy of either the latest Literary Marketplace (best borrowed from the library, as it is so large and expensive), Children’s Writers and Illustrators Market (worth the annual investment to purchase the latest edition) and/or Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents 2011: Who They Are! What They Want! How to Win Them Over! These volumes are updated each year, and include comprehensive information as to names, addresses and submission guidelines for every publisher and/or agent in the industry that year. The annual turnover rate is very high – it can be breathtaking how quickly editors move from one house to another. So you want to be sure that you’re looking at the latest version of who is who at which house before you submit.
If a publisher is interested, what would a typical advance be, and how much should you expect to make in royalties?
Advances vary widely depending on whether they are for a picture book, a novel, or a series – and according to whether or not the author has been previously published. Generally speaking, a first-time author can expect anywhere from $4,000 – $25,000 as an advance against royalties. But smaller publishing houses may pay less. The amount is usually paid out in two or three installments – the first part upon the signing of contracts, and the balance due upon acceptance of the final draft of the manuscript or sometimes upon publication. Royalties are standardized across the publishing industry at 10%, which can escalate to 12% for paperback sales or after a certain the book exceeds a certain sales threshold (if that has been negotiated into the contract). Advances are always booked against anticipated royalties, meaning that no further royalties are paid to an author until the advance has “earned out,” or the book’s net sales are greater than the amount of the advance.
How would you suggest our readers get started? Where would they find resources?
I would encourage anyone who is interested in writing children’s books to explore some of the resources I offer on my website – . I blog weekly on issues of interest to children’s writers, host an 8-week online course in picture book writing ( ) and also a membership forum, the Children’s Book Hub, a center of resources and support for children’s authors ( ).
Aspiring children’s authors should definitely join the Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators (http://www.scbwi.org), which provides comprehensive resources, publications, conferences etc. for children’s authors for a nominal annual membership fee. I also encourage participation in writers groups and conferences specific to writing for children. I happen to be the Director of the , which takes place in July at Stony Brook Southampton, and features workshops, panel discussions, guest lectures and more – and I can recommend that particular conference highly!
What are the advantages to having a publisher, as opposed to self-publishing? What are the caveats for self-publishing? What are the costs?
This is a huge subject and one worthy of an entire interview dedicated just to that, but here’s a brief overview. The self-publishing industry is indeed booming, but there is much to consider before you make the decision to self-publish.
First of all, just because a book is published is no guarantee of sales. Publishing does not operate according to the “if you build it, they will come” principle. There is a sizeable stigma within the industry toward self-publishing, and many retailers and libraries will not carry self-published books. It can also be difficult to get reviews for self-published books. Countless self-published authors are dismayed by the lack of sales volume for their books, as well as by the hidden costs that the vanity presses (or pay-to-play self-publishing companies) failed to communicate up front. They are also often unaware just how much marketing is required to sell – and continue to sell – a book, or how to even go about the marketing process.
On the upside, if a book is marketed and sells well, the self-published author can expect to keep up to 80% of the net sales proceeds as opposed to the 10% royalty rate offered by the traditional publishing house.
Being published by a commercial/traditional publisher means that the lion’s share of the work of publishing, sales and marketing of a book is done by the publishing company. In self-publishing, the onus is on the author to market and sell his or her book.
That said, it is possible to achieve success with self-publishing if one is committed and motivated to do the follow through necessary for marketing. For anyone genuinely interested in exploring self-publishing, I strongly recommend the book and website of Peter Bowerman, The Well-Fed Self-Publisher, (). Peter provides authors with comprehensive information on the choices available for self-publishers, the difference between self- and independent publishing, pitfalls to avoid and a blueprint on how to achieve publishing success.
Once a book is published or self-published, what should an author do to make it successful?
It’s all about the marketing. Whether a book is commercially published or self-published, authors today are expected to play a major role in the marketing of their books.
Emerging and established writers still dare to hope that once the book is written, their work is done, and that their publisher will take it to the next step while they go back to work on the next project. But the truth is that writers today have to do a lot more than write – if we want to keep writing, that is, and experience high sales (and royalty) levels instead of high returns.
The good news is that new developments in technology and fresh approaches in marketing have made it considerably easier than it would have been even ten years ago for writers to chart their own publishing course. It’s also fun – strategizing marketing and promotional ideas to support a book can actually be as creative as writing the books themselves. It’s just a question of applying the same level of imagination to our marketing plan as we do to writing our stories.
Here are my two favorite resources when it comes to children’s book marketing:
1) Raab Associates () – Susan Salzman Raab’s wonderful marketing and pr firm devoted exclusively to children’s books. If you have the resources to hire a marketing consultant/publicist, this is the best your money can buy.
2) Jay Conrad Levinson’s Guerilla Marketing for Writers – still one of the best books ever, packed with advice to help authors sell their work before and after it’s published; practical low-cost and no-cost marketing techniques and powerful strategies for strengthening proposals, promoting books, and maximizing their sales.
What is The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and when should an author think about joining?
The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators () is the only professional organization specifically for those individuals writing and illustrating for children and young adults in the fields of children’s literature, magazines, film, television, and multimedia. SCBWI provides invaluable resources and information for writers, illustrators, editors, publishers, agents, librarians, educators, booksellers and others involved with literature for young people. There are currently more than 22,000 members worldwide, in over 70 regional chapters writing and illustrating in all genres for young readers from board books to young adult (YA) novels, making it the largest children’s writing organization in the world.
The benefits of membership in SCBWI are many, including two annual International Conferences on Writing and Illustrating for Children as well as dozens of regional conferences and events throughout the world. Their bi-monthly magazine, SCBWI Bulletin, provides valuable information on the craft and business of writing and selling books for young readers. The organization also has an invaluable website filled with resources and information for children’s book authors, which includes a members forum.
Anyone who is interested in writing for children should join SCBWI right away. There are several levels of membership, from published to as-yet-unpublished, so even (or perhaps especially) unpublished authors have much to gain from membership.
I was surprised to learn that, in most cases, the author and illustrator of a children’s picture book are matched by the publisher, and may never meet. How does this affect the writing of the book?
This is absolutely true. The thinking behind this is that the editor and art director act as a necessary ‘buffer’ between author and illustrator, communicating information back and forth gracefully and without rancor, and thus preserving the artistic integrity of the work and the working relationship. These intermediaries can also remind both author and illustrator of the limitations of trim size, number of lines per page, budget or other issues that may affect both art and text. This allows both creative entities – authors and illustrators – to do what they do best, without being overly controlled (or rankled) by the other.
For authors who do not also illustrate their work, the choice of an illustrator is critically important. A good art director will bring ideas to the table that an author may never have thought of. I can’t tell you how many times we have been introduced to a wonderful illustrator from a gifted editor or art director.
Generally speaking, an illustrator is not brought on board until the text of a manuscript is complete – so the lack of direct communication does not affect the actual writing of the book. That said, there are almost always minor adjustments to the text that happen as a result of the artwork being delivered. At this point, the editor and author review the text once more to see if any words or sentences can be eliminated because of what the art shows that the text need not. This is where the collaboration between author, editor, illustrator and art director becomes so critical – and so valuable.
What services do you provide, who would benefit from them, and how can they reach you?
I offer a number of different types of service to both established and aspiring children’s book authors. First and foremost, I blog regularly on writing for kids of all ages at .
I also have an online course in writing picture books called Just Write for Kids! at . The 8-week course introduces the fundamental aspects of writing for children, including how and where to find ideas, developing characters, mapping a plot and identifying themes, writing engaging narrative, effective dialogue, and successful beginnings, middles and endings, special issues such as anthropomorphism, verse vs. prose and word play, and how to edit your manuscript.
Each week, participants receive a specific lesson in writing and editing their picture book, with corresponding assignments and worksheets. In just 8 weeks, they have a completed manuscript in hand, ready to submit to agents and publishers, plus a host of bonus materials such as how to write a query letter and a list of agents that accept unsolicited manuscripts.
In addition, I host the Children’s Book Hub (), a center of resources and support for established and aspiring children’s book authors. The Hub is a ‘virtual salon,’ featuring lively, ongoing discussion of the latest trends in the children’s book industry and providing an ongoing network of support for children’s book authors all year long. Members have access to a monthly newsletter focusing on items of interest for children’s book authors in the areas of writing, editing, marketing, publishing and selling your books, monthly teleseminars featuring interviews with authors, editors, agents and other notable members of the children’s book industry, monthly question and answer calls, networking opportunities with other authors and children’s book lovers, and information about industry trends and resources including conferences, workshops, festivals, organizations and associations specific to children’s literature.
For those who have completed manuscripts, I offer editorial services, including manuscript evaluations, line editing and one-to-one mentoring or consulting. (These services are purely editorial – I am not an agent, nor do I make agent submissions or offer sales support.) Details on all these offerings can be found on my website at .
Finally, as I mentioned before, I am the director of the . Held in July each year, the Children’s Literature Conference provides a unique forum in which to study and discuss the craft of writing for children. World-renowned authors, illustrators and editors offer inspiration and guidance through workshops, lectures, group discussions and special presentations. Open to new, established and aspiring writers, the Conference is located in the Hamptons at the Eastern End of New York’s Long Island—a resort area of natural beauty.
Details can be found at
Emma Walton Hamilton
Director – Southampton Childrens Literature and Playwriting Conferences
Executive Director – Young American Writers Project (YAWP)
MFA Writing and Literature
Stony Brook Southampton
239 Montauk Highway
Southampton, NY 11968
Cathy Zimmermann is a staff writer for BusinessKnowHow.com