Long regarded as the Cinderella of the publishing
world, children’s publishing has enjoyed a remarkable rate of growth and
is now seen by many as one of the most exciting areas to work in. This is
not just because of the Harry Potter phenomenon, as many other children’s
authors such as Jacqueline Wilson, Philip Pullman and Judy Blume have also
produced megasellers which have proved attractive to children all over the
In some ways children’s books are innately more stable, as successful
authors sell their backlist strongly, with a new generation coming into
each age group every year. For many years the sector as a whole was stable
in terms of personnel as well, with editors staying in their jobs over a
long period and having the chance to build their lists.
The downside of this is that children’s publishing used to be a ghetto,
with lower pay and fewer opportunities, but now this is changing too.
Recent major successes, such as Michelle Paver, have shown that a new
children’s author can rapidly build an audience with good marketing,
particularly if a strong series is involved. Now, instead of major
literary agencies not being interested in children’s work, many more
agents are handling authors focusing on children, with special children's
departments and a larger number of agents specialising in children's
Submitting to children’s publishers
It’s still just as important for the author to get their material into
good shape before submitting it, but in children’s publishing houses there
are more editors who do actually edit books, so many do offer really good
input to the author. To get the project taken on in the first place,
it’s important that your work is as fresh and as original as possible
– no-one is going to be interested in the latest J K Rowling or Philip
Pulman look-alike at
this stage in the game.
For younger children the illustrations are an important element. Most
publishers will prefer to marry up the author with an illustrator of their
choice, so don’t assume you need to have an illustrator on tap before
you submit your work to a publisher. The key thing with picture books is to
match up the text and illustrations and many enduringly successful writer
and artist partnerships have developed over the years.
Age groups are an important element of the way publishers look at
publishing for children. The storyline and language must be appropriate
for the intended age-group and this is where many writers who haven’t
written for children before are likely to go wrong. It pays to pay close
attention to this. In books for the very
young, picture books and first readers every word counts and must be
absolutely right, so children’s publishers always pay very close
attention to the text.
The international market
Publishers of children’s books have a strongly international dimension
in what they do. In order to cover the start-up costs of a picture book,
for instance, they need to build in co-edition sales from the
beginning. This involves having powerful subsidiary rights departments
focusing on the international market and building up enough of a print run
to make the project viable. It also means that children’s publishers need
to be acutely aware of what will sell in particular countries and what
sensitivities of subject-matter or vocabulary there might be. The US and
the UK look like the same English language market, but anyone who sells
across the Atlantic, in whichever direction, will confirm that the
superficial similarity conceals a mass of small differences of
vocabulary and practice.
The market itself has changed radically in recent years. British
publishers used to expect to sell to the US, but now American publishers
are more interested in originating their own books and selling to the rest
of the world. The European markets are very important for children's
countries are enthusiastic buyers-in of children’s books, Japan, India and
Singapore can be
great markets, and new markets such as China are rapidly growing in
importance. The rights-sellers who deal with international rights need
to know each market in detail to get the best deals for their books.
Sales and marketing
Sales and marketing of children’s books have taken on added weight and
importance now that big numbers can be involved. Some of the most
successful publishers of children’s books, such as Walker Books in the UK, do not
publish anything else. Others are part of a larger organisation, such as
Random House on both sides of the Atlantic. What seems to be key is
that a children’s list should have dedicated sales and marketing focused
on their own titles and staffed by real enthusiasts who want to work in
In sales and promotion, as elsewhere in children’s publishing, working
in the sector is a lifelong commitment and a positive choice, and this
dedication does give children’s publishing a different feel.
Most recently, during the recession, children's books have been
selling better than books for adults, possibly because parents see books
as an educational tool and will prioritise spending on them at the
expense of books for themselves.
For writers trying to get into the field, the best advice has to be
to study the market carefully and to read widely, to understand the
dynamics of children’s publishing and what is successful, and why.
It’s really important not to patronise children and to produce stories
which will interest them, as well as being written at the appropriate
level in terms of vocabulary, storyline and characterisation. But it is a
flourishing sector with lots of excitement, a strong sense of purpose and
potentially high rewards.