My 12-part guide to writing and publishing picture books for children
This has turned out to be a longer post than I had anticipated, but I believe the following information will be of interest to aspiring authors, as well as those already published. Also, I realise late Friday afternoon is an odd time to post, and I may be better waiting until early next week when you’re bright-eyed and ready to take on the working week, but I’ve decided to go ahead and press publish. Perhaps you’ll read it on your way home, or bookmark it to read over the weekend when you can take the time to dream into having your book published.
I hope you enjoy the article, and do feel welcome to comment if you’ve found it useful.
AUTHOR OR AUTHOR/ILLUSTRATOR
When venturing into the world of writing and publishing picture books for children, it is a good idea to understand your role. Are you the author, or are you the author and the illustrator? That is, do you intend to write the book and have someone else illustrate it, or do you intend to write and illustrate the book yourself?
Unless you are an artist, do not attempt to illustrate your own book. If you believe you have thought of a brilliant idea for a picture book, and you’ve written a well-crafted and engaging story, you don’t want to then let that story down with mediocre illustrations.
Similarly, if you plan to submit your manuscript to publishers or literary agents with the hope of being traditionally published, I advise you don’t ask a friend to illustrate your book prior to submission, for three good reasons. First, if your picture book happens to be accepted for publication, the publisher will want to match your story with an illustrator whose style they believe is perfect for your book — most likely not your friend. Second, through the editing process your story will probably change, which means the time and effort your friend has invested in illustrating your story, believing the manuscript to be the finished product, will have been in vain. Third, should your picture book be rejected by publishers and not make it to publication, again, your friend’s work will have been for nothing.
Illustrating a picture book is usually an extremely time-consuming undertaking and, while it may be enjoyable work, it is still work — and people deserve to be rewarded for their time and expertise. If, of course, you are intending to self-publish your book and you have the funds to pay an illustrator reasonable rates, by all means, invite your buddy to illustrate your story. You’ll find an excellent guide to book illustration rates on the Australian Society of Authors website.
If, however, you are an author/illustrator, and you intend to submit your story to publishers in the hope of being traditionally published, you will need to send a) a finished manuscript, edited, scrubbed and polished to the best of your ability; and b) a couple of finished illustrations to demonstrate your style and artistic prowess, and perhaps some roughs or a storyboard to indicate how you imagine the entire 32-page picture book playing out. Again, there is no need to submit a fully illustrated, complete picture book as your story will more than likely change and develop throughout the editing process, and many of your illustrations may no longer be relevant. (I will write more about illustration and about the submission process in parts 6 and 8 of this series — there’s lots more to learn.)
So, once you’ve ascertained if you are an author or an author/illustrator, who else is there in this publishing matrix?
PUBLISHER + LITERARY AGENT
Publishers and literary agents hold very discrete positions, but I am going to briefly outline their roles within the same section of this blog post because, should you submit your manuscript for publication, you will be submitting to either a publisher or an agent. Again, I will write more about the submission process in part 8 of this series; this post is more about your relationship as the author with other important figures in the publishing process.
Simply speaking, a publisher is the person or people whose primary business is the printing and distribution of books and other publications. The word publisher may refer to the publishing house — for example, my children’s picture books are published by UQP — or the person directly responsible for publishing your book — for example, my books were accepted for publication by the Children’s and Young Adult Publisher at UQP. So, when you submit your work for consideration to a publishing house, you will be sending your manuscript to the publisher of the genre of the book you wish to have published — in this case, children’s picture books. Should a publisher like your story and think it suitable for the market, your manuscript will more than likely be presented to a publishing committee who will collectively determine the future of your book with their publishing house. If your book is accepted for publication, the publisher will take financial responsibility for a number of things, including editing, book design, typesetting, proofreading, printing, distribution and marketing. There’s a lot involved in getting your book out there, onto shelves and into the hands of ready readers. Besides accepting your book and offering you a contract, a publisher will shepherd your book from acceptance to publication and beyond.
A literary agent, on the other hand, is someone engaged to represent you, the author, in your dealings with publishers and other bodies, such as film producers or theatre producers, and who will negotiate contracts on your behalf. A good agent will not only love literature and have a thorough knowledge of the marketplace, they will be experienced and expert in contractual law. If you decide to approach a literary agent, and that literary agent decides to represent you, they will have done so because they believe in you and your work. They will not choose to represent you if they have misgivings about your work in the marketplace. The author–agent relationship is one that is ideally of mutual benefit. You, the author, are represented by an expert who can find the best publisher for your work, and the agent is financially rewarded by giving your book its best launch into the sea of books already out there in the marketplace. They will also, all going well, become your firm advocate and ally — and sometimes even friend — and they can help shape and progress your career as an author. A good literary agent is worth their weight in gold.
Once your book is accepted by a publishing house, you will be assigned an editor to help shape your work and make it ready for publication. You may be aware that there are different kinds of editors: structural editors (otherwise known as substantive or project editors) and copyeditors. A structural editor is one equipped to look at the bigger picture of the story and iron out any problems in the plot, themes, characterisation, dialogue, pace or point-of-view. A copyeditor reviews the story once finished, and corrects any errors of punctuation, grammar, style, omission, inconsistency and repetition. In my experience, the editor assigned to a children’s book author is often both. Your editor will assist you to polish your story and make it shine.
If you are the illustrator as well as the author of your book, you may like to read part 6 of this series, in which I write about the illustration process. If you are the author only, an illustrator will be contracted by the publisher to create pictures for your book. With your concepts in mind, the illustrator will be given a brief before starting work, and she or he will submit rough illustrations to the publisher and editor before beginning the final illustrations, to ensure everyone is on the same page. The illustrations aren’t usually designed simply to echo the text; rather, they may communicate subtext, as well as complement the story and even contain surprises. Depending upon your specific arrangement with your publisher, you may have little or no contact with the illustrator, or you may work with them directly. Having illustrated all of my picture books, I have not had personal experience in working with an illustrator to bring my work to life. But I do believe it pays to remember that, while your ideas for the illustrations will be taken on board, the illustrator may have a different vision than you had anticipated, and they may create wonders you’d not even imagined. Respect your illustrator’s process and ideas, and allow them to do their best work.
Depending upon whether the illustrations for your book are hard copy (for example, watercolour on paper) or have been created or finished using computer software (for example, mixed media drawings scanned then assembled in Photoshop to create a montage), the illustrations may need to be scanned. Hard-copy illustrations need to be professionally scanned by a reliable pre-press company, before the book can be designed. Scanners use specialist equipment, such as state-of-the-art flatbed scanners, which are operated by highly skilled staff with an eye for detail.
BOOK DESIGNER + TYPESETTER
The book designer is contracted to do just that: design your book. The publisher or project editor will provide the designer with a design brief, which will outline the publisher’s vision of the book. The brief will include such things as dimensions, hard cover or soft cover, the style of the book, suggested fonts and other such specifics. The designer will then set all of the illustrations on the pages of the book, and design the cover. A typesetter is the person who places the text in the book using the designated typefaces, and the designer may double as both the book designer and the typesetter. Again, I have not had personal experience with a book designer as I have designed and typeset my three children’s picture books (the third is due for release later this year!), as well as two cookbooks and around a hundred books for clients, but I genuinely admire the work of skilled designers who can, with their clever design, really make a book sing. Though the story may be wonderful and the illustrations superb, bad design can ruin the visual appeal of a picture book, whereas good design can make it irresistible — which is what you want, right?
Once the book has been designed and typeset, it will be sent to the proofreader. The proofreader will scrutinise the text and images, and draw attention to any errors. Once the book has been thoroughly checked and pronounced perfect, it is ready to send to pre-press and then to print.
PRE-PRESS OPERATOR (COLOUR REPRODUCTION)
Before sending a picture book, or any illustrated book for that matter, to print, it is prudent to send the book to a pre-press company that specialises in colour reproduction. This is particularly the case for books using photographic elements or books using illustrations that have been created or finished using a design program such as Photoshop. Colour reproduction is the process of matching and adjusting images to suit the paper stock on which the book is to be printed. The process ensures, for example, the final pages will not be too dull, as can happen when colour is absorbed by uncoated stock (that lovely, tactile matt paper often used in contemporary magazines), or too lurid, as can happen when high-colour illustrations are printed on glossy stock. The colour reproduction process simply guarantees your illustrations will look their best when printed.
Finally, your book is ready to be sent to the printers. Hurrah! Some books are printed in Australia — mostly short-run editions or black and white books — and many, particularly full-colour illustrated books, are printed overseas, often in China. This is due to costs. The book will be printed and bound, then shipped back to Australia.
If you are traditionally published by a small- to medium-sized publishing house, or if you have opted to self-publish and you have contracted a book distributor, the books will be shipped directly to the distributor. Most book distributors store the several thousand copies of your book in vast warehouses, and market your book to booksellers on behalf of the publisher. Some bigger publishers distribute books themselves. It is unlikely you will have much contact with the distributor if you are traditionally published.
Booksellers are the people who, well, sell your book to the public — independent bookshops, large bookstores, retail giants, online bookstores and more. You will probably get to know a few booksellers, as you may well be engaged for author talks or readings, or you may choose to launch your book at your favourite local bookshop. Not every bookstore is obliged to sell your book; it is a choice and each bookshop owner or book buyer will have personal preferences. While a bookshop may promote your book, much of your publicity will be organised by the publisher or by you, the author.
Every traditional publishing house will have a publicist or marketer (or both) whose job it is to promote their books. The publicist’s work will have started well before the time your book is on bookshelves around the country, usually many months prior. Publicists will do such things as register your book in catalogues; send media releases, marketing material and advance copies to relevant media and book reviewers; organise promotional events such as readings; generate marketing collateral such as posters or bookmarks; and nurture relationships between the publisher, the bookseller, the media and the author. Do your best to assist the publicist in their work, and work with them to create inventive marketing opportunities to give your book its best chance at success.
These are only some of the people involved in publishing — there are other skilled and important people who work behind the scenes to bring your book to life. Think of the clever folk who look after contracts, for example, or overseas rights. And what about financial people who organise your royalty payments. You have to love them! I do hope, however, that this blog post explains just who is who in the wonderful world of publishing, as well as some of the steps your book is likely to take on its way to publication.
Stay tuned for part 5 in the series: storyboarding and editing.
If you found this post helpful, you may like to read the upcoming posts in the series: My 12-part guide to writing and publishing picture books for children. I will publish the posts over the coming weeks and announce them on Facebook and Instagram, but if you want to make sure you don’t miss a post, subscribe to my newsletter for free.
My 12-part guide to writing and publishing picture books for children:
Part 1: Know and love your readers
Part 2: Ideas and inspiration
Part 3: Character, theme, rhythm and rhyme, and all of that writing stuff
Part 4: Who’s who in the zoo (writer, illustrator, editor, designer, publisher)
Part 5: Editing and storyboarding
Part 6: Illustration
Part 7: Traditional publishing or self-publishing
Part 8: Submitting your manuscript — the slow business of traditional publishing
Part 9: Contracts, advances and royalties
Part 10: PR — book launch, web presence, book talks and more
Part 11: Who are you and who do you want to be?
Part 12: Resources