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Writing for Children Part 4

By November 25, 2019News, Writing for Children

How do I find an illustrator? How do I find a publisher? How do I submit my manuscript to a publisher? by Katrina McKelvey

I get asked these questions all the time. Usually the person asking doesn’t realise there are whole courses and workshops written to answer them. They are HUGE questions with no simple answers. There are processes involved and a lot of work.

1) How do I find an illustrator?

Illustrators are assigned by the publisher unless you are self-publishing. The publisher wants to make sure the writing style and the illustration style match. Only very established authors get to ask for specific illustrators. And publishers like teams too. Libby Gleeson and Freya Blackwood, Jackie French and Bruce Whatley are a few examples. Kirrili Lonergan and I have worked on two books as an author illustrator team, Dandelions and Up To Something. This is wonderful for us as we can visit schools together and talk to kids about making picture books from both perspectives.

The publisher also works between the author and illustrator to bring the project together. The author and illustrator don’t generally directly talk to each other about the book they’re working on together unless it is via the publisher. Some authors and illustrators never meet or meet after their book is released. I knew Kirrili before we started in this industry. So, when we were contracted as a team for Dandelions, we were delighted, as new people don’t usually get to work on a project together when both are new to the industry. She would sneak photos of work in progress while she was illustrating our book. I would get so excited when they popped up on my phone. It was such a privilege to see these snippets as this doesn’t often happen in the industry. Once the book is handed over to the illustrator, the author has to step back during the next part of the project. They’re often brought back in after the illustrations are finished to check the text is still working and look for any final mistakes before the book is sent off for printing.

2) How do I find a publisher?

I’ve said this a few times during these articles now: do your homework. Not all publishers publish children’s books. But there are many ways to find the right publisher.

Look for a publisher’s Submission Guidelines on their website then bookmark that page (article 3). Follow these guidelines exactly. Note: not all guidelines are the same. If a publisher is closed for unsolicited submissions, DON’T send something to them. Instead, go and meet them at conferences and pay for a manuscript assessment. Then you can ask them if you can submit further work to them.

3) How do I submit to a publisher?

There are several ways:

Slush piles (direct and unsolicited)

Manuscript assessments during conferences (book via the conference)

Via an agent (but getting an agent to represent a children’s author is very difficult)

Solicited (invited directly via a conference or networking opportunity)

Twitter parties (yes, there is such a thing!)

Before submitting, there are a few things you need to do. These take time—so don’t rush your submissions.

  • Write a simple one-page cover letter. There is loads of information on the internet and in courses about this. If you don’t know the name of the commissioning editor, address it to, ‘Dear commissioning editor’.
  • Format your manuscript based on the submission guidelines of the publisher you are submitting to.
  • Write a synopsis and a pitch—can you write what your story it about in one sentence, three sentences, in 30 words, in two paragraphs? Practise these. There’s loads of information online and in courses about how to do this. This is not as easy as it sounds. And this can be done badly if the author hasn’t conducted some research into how to write a synopsis/pitch correctly. Also practise writing a blurb. This is different to a synopsis.
  • Track which publishers are open for submissions. See earlier article.
  • Enter writing competitions that give you feedback. This may give you an idea of whether you’re on the right track.

You can submit your manuscript to more than one publisher at a time but publishers would like to know whether your submission is in front of multiple publishers. And if you get picked up by a publisher before you’ve heard from all who you’ve submitted to, you must email them and let them know you’re withdrawing your submission. This is very important! Publishers spend a long time preparing to present possible manuscripts to a publishing team in acquisition meetings. If your manuscript is now unavailable you need to save them the time in preparing for these meetings.

After submitting:

  • Track your submissions—name of manuscript, name of publisher, were they via email or hard copy, who was the editor, what date did you send your submission, record date of any feedback, record any comments.
  • What do you do in the meantime?

Some publishers don’t offer any feedback and say if you haven’t heard from them in three months, it’s a ‘no’. Very informal I know, but they just don’t have the time. If you want feedback, pay for an assessment via a conference. In the meantime:

– write the next manuscript

– build your social media platform—own the title ‘author’.

– build and maintain a website

– write blogs

– support others

– read

– volunteer

After you believe you’ve exhausted all avenues and you still haven’t got that dream publishing contract, you can either put it in the bottom drawer, rewrite it based on any feedback you’ve been given, or let it rest and relook at it down the track.

Rejections are part of this exhausting process. They can be very confusing, disappointing, and upsetting. And most of the time you won’t know why you were rejected. But try not to take them personally. Publishing is a business.

I have always had the mantra, ‘If my stories aren’t good enough to compete with Jackie French, I don’t want my book on the shelf’. This is the attitude you need to get by in this tough industry. The rewards are worth it if you make it. Trust me!

Acceptances are so exciting. But I need to be a parent here. Not all contracts are the same. Some are extremely unfair and don’t have the author’s best interest in mind at all. If you are not a contract lawyer, and most of us aren’t, you can do several things. You can either become a member of the ASA and access their contract advice service and pay to have a professional contract lawyer let you know if it’s a good contract or not (https://www.asauthors.org/findananswer/contracts). The other thing you can do is complete a course about understanding contracts via the ASA or AWC. They don’t come up often and probably not when you need them most, but keep an eye out.

Do I need an agent? This is a personal question with no simple answer. The answer is yes and no. In Australia, you don’t necessarily need one. Many children’s publishers offer a slush pile or are accessible via conferences. But not all publishers have unsolicited slush piles. Some publishers only want submissions via agents. But getting an agent can be as hard as getting a publisher. This is a question that needs its own article. Look online and read relevant articles or listen to advice offered by agents at conferences.


So where am I in my journey now?

I am eight years in and I intend on continuing in this career for a lot longer yet. I have two picture books being released next year so I’m starting to plan those book launches.

I’m currently researching the structure of early chapter books—a new format for me. I’m also researching potential publishers. I’m hoping to have book 1 and 2 ready to submit by Christmas.

I’m a Littlescribe co-author. 

I’m writing four books for Macmillan Education Australia as part of their Snappy Sounds project. This has been challenging and rewarding. These books will be available in 2020. 

I love attending conferences and children’s events as a chair, panelist, or participant so I’m planning where I’ll go in 2020.

I’ll be writing more picture books and, of course, will continue to facilitate my writing group through the Hunter Writers Centre.

And I’ll be popping into schools doing author talks and writing workshops. Love these! I’m on several speaker’s agencies lists. To find out more, visit my website.

Hopefully I haven’t left you feeling overwhelmed by all this information. Work your way through it. You can’t get your writing career off the ground overnight. Everything takes time to develop including manuscripts, author platforms, branding, your writing style/voice, and your networks.

I can guarantee you one thing. If you put your heart and soul into this industry, you will be rewarded. But you can’t cheat. You have to work hard, learn, make mistakes, and continually pick yourself up and dust yourself off. But it will be worth it. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

Have you got what it takes to be a children’s author too? If you’ve got the 6 Ps—patience, persistence, practise, perseverance, passion, and positivity then you’re ready to start.


Katrina McKelvey author

Katrina McKelvey is a children’s author with over ten years primary school teaching experience. She’s currently working on her first chapter book series while developing new picture book stories. She’s highly involved in the Children’s Book Council of Australia, literary conferences and festivals, and loves visiting schools. No Baths Week and Up To Something are Katrina’s recent publications, after her successful debut picture book, Dandelions. Two more picture books are coming in 2020. She loves chocolate but doesn’t like chocolate cake. She’s left-handed but plays sport right-handed. She loves tea, but dislikes coffee. Katrina lives in Newcastle, Australia with her family and a naughty puppy. Google her or visit her website: www.katrinamckelvey.com