I consider myself lucky to have only come across very polite aspiring children's book creators here in Minnesota, but every month or so I'll get a solicitous email from someone who clearly has not done any research into the industry, and I'll have to send a very delicately-worded reply. It's not fun, but worse is seeing other uninformed individuals plunge in and make even worse mistakes. So, in the interest of furthering informed interaction, I'm posting my "10 Commandments" for Aspiring Children's Book Creators:
- Thou shalt not presume that making a children’s book is “easy.”
Believe me, it’s not. Go ahead and look up the backgrounds of your favorite children’s book creators: they’ve been working extremely hard at this for years. Plus, going around with a superiority complex annoys people pretty fast.
- Thou shalt regard this as a “real job.”
Please don't be rude by asking otherwise. Working on our children’s books is very much a "real job," and any full-time or part-time work we may do outside of it just helps pay the bills. It's funny how serious you have to be if you want to make children's books, but we love it.
- Thou shalt read, read, and then read some more.
It’s a given that you should read as much of the genre in which you’re writing or illustrating, but you should also keep researching your craft and how the industry really works. If you’re a writer, read about writing, revisions, and process. If you’re an illustrator, read about illustrating, technique and style. Do your homework on the submissions process and you’ll have a much easier chance at successfully navigating the tumultuous waters of the children’s book industry. A good place for anyone to start is The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books by Harold Underdown.
- Thou shalt practice thine craft each and every day.
Whether you write or illustrate, you should consider yourself a lifelong learner. Take classes, attend workshops and conferences hosted by your local chapter of the SCBWI, get critiques on your work, learn new techniques, keep a sketchbook or a journal, etc. Practice as though your career depended on it, because it does!
- Thou shalt not ask established writers or illustrators for contacts in the industry.
Most of us have spent years building relationships with our editors, art directors, and agents. Referrals are to be fully appreciated, but not expected. Do your own legwork and it’ll pay off in the end: grab a copy of the Children’s Writers and Illustrator’s Market to start building your submissions list.
- Thou shalt not solicit illustrators if you’re submitting your manuscript to a traditional publisher.
That is just not how it’s done. The publisher matches the illustrator with the manuscript, not the writer. You’re not involved with this process unless you’re self-publishing, which brings us to:
- Thou shalt not attempt to solicit illustrations for free if you are self-publishing.
Don’t approach an illustrator promising only a cut of profits if/when the book sells. We work on an advance with royalties. Anything less is basically asking us to work for free, and unless you’re a friend or my Abuela, I can’t do that.
- Thou shalt use professional services for your self-published books.
Don’t be cheap! Hire an experienced professional editor, illustrator, and graphic designer. Use quality printing services, preferably local so you can check out their products before you commit.
- Thou shalt pay according to industry standards outlined in the Graphic Artist’s Guild Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines.
The professional illustrators and graphic designers I mentioned above are using this, too, so they’ll know how much they should be paid.
- Thou shalt not burn bridges.
I get it: children's book people tend to be very passionate people (just ask my husband!). But don’t let your creative ardor damage your reputation. Don’t take harsh critiques personally, always thank people if they go out of their way to help you, and don’t be a weirdo stalker. Networking is huge in this industry, so word gets around if you’re unprofessional.
Those are my "10 Commandments," and I hope they'll help someone in the long run. What are your "Commandments" to other writers and illustrators?