Dumb Books for Children

Why do some [books] become “classics” while others which are just as good or maybe better never even heard of, or in some cases never even published?

Classics become so because:

  • they impress an editor/publisher as something that will appeal to a lot of people
  • they actually get published
  • they are marketed or promoted in a way that catches the attention of key people—like book sellers, reviewers, librarians, teachers, Oprah—who then recommend the book to others
  • people start reading the book and then tell all their friends and neighbors about it
  • the book speaks to universal themes in a way that touches a wide variety of people,
  • as word spreads about the book and people read it, the majority of those readers respond positively

A book must meet all of these criteria or it won’t become a classic.

I have a sister-in-law who has written several children’s books and has yet to get any published, and they’re good. I’ve read some of them, and they’re a lot better than a lot of the junk I’ve seen in libraries and bookstores. It makes no sense, really. How do such dumb books manage to get published and other really good ones don’t?

I’ve asked myself that question many times. The answer is: the publisher thinks they can sell it. Period. Either the author has name recognition, or there’s a marketing hook, or it fills a niche the publisher is looking for. It also comes down to timing.

Let’s say a publisher is looking for a St. Patrick’s day picture book. They look through the submissions on that topic and pick the one they think will sell the most copies. Maybe they’ve got a good mss by a new writer and a not as good but still okay mss by an established author who routinely sells hundreds of thousands of copies of each title. Financially speaking, the better bet is the established author. Hopefully then, the next publisher the new author submits to will not have any other St. Pat’s mss in their slush pile.

Another scenario is, the publisher has looked for six months and finally has a decent St. Pat’s manuscript turned in. It’s not the best, but library contacts keep telling them they get lots of requests for St. Pat’s books in March, and there are only one or two out there. So the publisher crosses his fingers and goes into production on the mss he has. Then, six months later, he gets a phenomenal St. Pat’s mss—but he can’t publish it because he already has one at the press. And even though the demand is great in March, there is NO demand the rest of the year, so he only needs one St. Pat’s title. Regretfully, he passes.

Now. Some publishers refuse to publish mediocre stories and would rather wait for quality. But if they wait too long, they’re out of business. Other publishers would choose the better story over the well-known author, but their expenses on the new author’s book are going to be twice as much. If they don’t find ways to lower their expenses, they won’t stay competitive.

Rock and hard place.

I know this is more in reference to novels, but what do you know about publishing children’s books?

I don’t work with children’s books and haven’t for some time. However I do know that children’s books are more expensive to publish and harder to sell than adult books.

Picture books are very expensive to print because they are full color on every page, or every other page. Good artists are very expensive. Picture books sell based on the quality or cuteness of the illustration.

Chapter books and middle readers cost as much as an adult book to print, even though they have fewer pages. However, you usually can’t sell as many of these books as you can adult books because most adults will buy books for themselves, but use the library for their children.

See more on this topic here and here and here.

4 thoughts on “Dumb Books for Children”

  1. Children’s books are a hard sell, especially picture books. The market is saturated with PBs and editors are slammed with more and more PB manuscripts every week. In order to find publication, a PB really has to stand out from the rest and the publisher has to believe in that PB enough to be willing to invest a lot of money to finance it. The market for children’s books is extremely competitive, but new authors are published all the time.

    I’d suggest that your sisters-in-law attend some conferences, especially ones where an editor or agent will be present and attendees are given the opportunity to meet with the editor or agent. Attending a conference can open otherwise tightly closed doors. If their work is good it will eventually find a home, but patience is key in the children’s market.

  2. Thank you so much for the info. I will pass it on to my sisters-in-law.
    I did wonder, though, if they are better off submitting with or without pictures. I’d heard that the publisher usually likes to get their own artist, but it seems to me that having the pics already in it can help the author’s intent come across better and would also save the pub. from having to do the pics–that is, of course, assuming the pub. likes the pics. submitted with the book. What do you both think?
    Thanks again! 🙂

  3. I would not submit with illustrations. Publishers usually have a list of illustrators they work with and if they purchase the manuscript they will assign one of their preferred illustrators to work on it. Most authors never even meet the illustrator. Just have your sisters-in-law polish their manuscripts, study the market to see which publisher would be the best fit, follow the submission guidelines, and send the manuscript 1st class mail.

    Most big houses won’t consider unsolicited manuscripts or unagented manuscripts so be sure to check their guidelines.

    Children’s editors have worked with enough manuscripts to be able to visualize illustrations so you don’t need to send those in. I know a prolific picture book author who sent in his manuscript and was surprised that the “people” he’d envisioned were bunnies in the published version. Editors have their own vision of your work.

    Your sisters-in-law should also have others read their work and even join a critique group so that they send in their very best work.

    I hope they find great success.

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