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Queries, Pitches and Proposals

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The Elephant in the Room:
Marketing Your Children's Manuscript

by Peggy Tibbetts

We're all aware of it, but we'd rather not talk about, or deal with it. Marketing is the elephant in every writer's room -- unless you have an agent, then you don't need my help. Although as hard as it is to find an agent to represent children's books, most of you will want to keep reading.

If you're like me, you have spiral notebooks stuffed with ideas you can't wait to make into stories. You love to write -- but you hate to market your work. Take it from me: you don't have to love marketing to be good at it.

In the Indian folktale "The Blind Men and the Elephant," when six blind men approach an elephant from their own perspectives, they all disagree about how to describe it. The same goes for marketing, if we approach it blindly, without a plan, we come away confused and frustrated.

Children's book agents sell manuscripts because they've researched the market and know which editors are looking for specific manuscripts. The good news for children's writers is that many editors still look at un-agented, unsolicited manuscripts or queries. Your key to success is in knowing how and where to find those editors and publishing houses.

In order to sell your manuscript to a publisher, you must first research the market to find out which editors are publishing books like yours. In a perfect world, market research should begin before you write the book, especially for nonfiction. Researching the market in the idea stage will help you determine whether or not you should move forward with the project. If you find there is a market for your idea, you will also find clues as to how to approach your subject. For example, you took your kids to the zoo, and learned there aren't many tigers left in the world. That gave you an idea for a book about tigers. Your market research reveals lots of books about tigers; therefore your idea is too general. You'll need to narrow your topic, and come up with a new angle, or twist, to make your book stand out from the others.

Writers often ask me how to judge whether their story is strong enough for the picture book market, or whether it's better suited to the children's magazine market. Research is the key to finding the answer to the question.

If your book is already written, don't despair. You can still do an effective job of market research. You might find you need to make some revisions in your work to "fit the market," which will strengthen your chances of finding a publisher.

Market Research Begins in the Marketplace

By marketplace I mean libraries, bookstores, specialty stores, and gift shops, because librarians buy books and retailers sell them. Grab your notebook, or PDA, and go to the library. Look for books that are similar in genre, length, and subject matter (this can be as broad as YA problem novels) to the one you've written or plan to write. Ask the librarian which books in your genre are popular; which ones have a waiting list.

Next, go to the bookstore and repeat those steps. Look for books similar to your subject matter and target age group. If your idea would make a good novelty book, look at those. Ask the manager what's hot in kid's books. But don't stop there. Does your manuscript fit into a niche market? If your manuscript has religious content, be sure to visit Christian bookstores and gift shops to look for similar books. If you've written a story about zoo animals, visit the zoo gift shop and look for similar books. Due to publishers' mass marketing efforts, you can also find books at most discount stores, such as Wal-mart, Sam's Club, Costco, K-mart, and Target. Don't overlook these markets.

Okay, so the baby's napping and your 3-year old's good for one-stop shopping trips. In other words, your time is limited. If you have a computer, go shopping on the Internet. Amazon.com is the number one place for marketplace research because you can use their internal search engine to search for topics and genres. When you bring up a title everything is right there: author, publisher, year, even sales ranking.

Use a search engine like Google to look for specialty stores and niche markets. Let's say you want to write a children's book about quilting. Type "children's books about quilting" into the search engine and I guarantee you'll find everything you're looking for.

Once you identify titles somewhat similar to yours, jot them down in your notebook. Be sure to list the author, publisher, and year published. Books published in the past five years are more indicative of publishing trends. Yes, I know, editors always say you shouldn't follow trends, you should write about what you know. But if you want to market your manuscript successfully to the right publisher, you have to know what the publishers are publishing. Novelty books and niche markets are less affected by trends.

Research the Publishers

After you search the marketplace, you should have a list of publishers. Do your research. Find out whether or not your story is right for a publisher, or whether or not a publisher is right for your story. If a publisher only publishes nonfiction, don't send the editor your picture book. You will be saving him time and aggravation, and you will be saving yourself the cost of postage, and a quick rejection.

Target your submission to a specific editor. However, this requires a bit more research. The Children's Writers & Illustrators Market is a good, comprehensive listing of children's book publishers' guidelines. You will also find the URLs for their web sites, and the names of editors to contact. Because the information is compiled in the year preceding its release, some of it is outdated, so it's not a good idea to make this your only reference for guidelines.

Look at a publisher's web site before you send out that manuscript. Look for an online catalog to see what they publish. Does your story meet their needs? Does it fit in with the other books on their list? If so, mention that in your cover letter.

The Colossal Directory of Children's Publishers Online is an excellent Internet resource for locating children's book publishers' web sites. The listings are in alphabetical order with direct links to the sites. Most publishers post submission guidelines online, and if not, at least you'll be able to find an email address to send a request.

If you're a member of the Society of Children's Writer's & Illustrators be sure to go to the Publications page on the web site and click on "SCBWI Publications," then click on the "Members" prompt. Scroll down to the bottom of the page to find "Publishers of Books for Young People/Market Survey," a list of children's publishers, editors, submission guidelines, and it's free. You can download and print the PDF, or send an SASE with sufficient postage to have a printed copy mailed to you.

Submission Calls

An editor will often put out a "call for submissions" when she has specific needs to fill, such as a series, holiday theme, or social issue. Connie Epstein's "Publisher's Corner," in the SCBWI Bulletin, regularly publishes calls for submissions from editors who will look at manuscripts submitted by SCBWI members.

Monthly newsletters like Children's Book Insider and Children's Writer contain marketing sections where you can find tips, guidelines, and calls for submissions. "The Business Side of Children's Publishing" is a new monthly email newsletter featuring a Writer/Illustrator Friendly Market of the Month. Look for Margaret Shauers' "Children's Writers Marketplace" at Write4Kids.com. She includes an update on book publishers each month. Editors also post specific needs at the publishers' web sites.

Get Organized

Marketing is the business side of your job. Whether you use file folders, index cards, spiral notebooks, or computer software to track your manuscripts isn't important. Find a method that works the best for you and organize your marketing tasks around it. I prefer file folders because I make copies of my cover letters. Each letter contains the date, editor's name, publishing house, and address, which is exactly what I need to track the manuscript. I file my cover letters in a folder labeled "Children's Submissions [year]," a file for each year. When the reply comes back from the editor, I staple it to the cover letter, and place it at the end of the stack. This method also helps me track my annual submission progress.

Make a marketing schedule each week and stick to it. I set aside a few hours on Monday to check my submissions folder and decide whether I need to send out any queries.

When (and What) to Submit

For nonfiction, you should query publishers first with your idea, an outline, and a sample chapter. It isn't necessary to have a complete manuscript, however you should tell the editor in your cover letter whether or not you have a finished manuscript ready to send.

For fiction, from picture books to YA, you should have a finished, polished manuscript ready to submit to publishers. Most editors want to see the full manuscript for picture books, but prefer a cover letter, synopsis, and three sample chapters for longer works.

Whether you query or submit a full manuscript, in your cover letter you can let the editor know what the market is for your book, how it stands out from others, or how it fits in with other books in the catalog.

If an editor requests the full manuscript, remember to include a brief cover letter including the title, that it was requested, and a word of thanks. Be sure to write "Requested" on the outside of the mailing envelope, and address it to the editor who requested it. If your query is for nonfiction, and the editor is interested, be sure to communicate with her about a reasonable time frame to complete the manuscript and submit it.

When in doubt, always double check and follow the publisher's submission guidelines.

The bottom line is, you can't get your manuscript published unless you submit it to editors. So what are waiting for? Do your research. Then push that elephant out the door. Send it out!

For more information:

Children's Writers Marketplace

The Colossal Directory of Children's Publishers Online
http://www.childrens-publishers.com

Society of Children's Writer's & Illustrators
http://www.scbwi.org

Children's Book Insider
http://www.write4kids.com/aboutcbi.html

Children's Writer
http://www.childrenswriter.com

Copyright © 2003 Peggy Tibbetts
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Peggy Tibbetts is a professional writer, editor, and full member of the Society for Children's Book Writers & Illustrators. She offers courses in children's writing and has edited several successful children's manuscripts. She is the author of the children's novel The Road to Weird, as well as the adult novel Rumors of War. Visit her online at http://www.peggytibbetts.net/.

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