Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Seven Misconceptions About Writing Children's Books

As a children's writer, I come across a lot of misconceptions about writing children's books. You yourself might be guilty of some of these. 

To set the record straight, here's the skinny of the top seven misconceptions I hear over and over. 

Misconception One: It's easy.

Writing for children is not easier than writing for adults. 

Writing for children is NOT easy.

First, when you write for children, you have to appeal to the children as well as their parents, teachers, and librarians. Also, contrary to what some people seem to think, children's books do contain complex ideas, and children's writers have to convey these complex ideas in a way that's easy to understand. This can be quite challenging. 

Children's books are often shorter than books for adults. This means that they might take less time to write, but it doesn't mean that those words are easy. Picture books are often only around 500 words, but those words have to be perfectly chosen. There's no room for clunky prose or superfluous words. 

The brevity also brings other challenges. Even picture books need to convey a complete story with endearing characters and a full plot -- and this has to be done in only about 500 words. 

Misconception Two: You need to get illustrations.

Unless you are both an illustrator and a writer, don't worry about the illustrations. If a publisher buys your manuscript, the publisher will select and hire the artist. In fact, agents and publishers really don't want the author to get involved in this. Provide the text only, and include illustration notes where absolutely necessary.

Of course, this is only for traditional publishing. If you're self-publishing, you are the publisher, so you have to select and hire the illustrator. 

Added: I have encountered a couple of small publishers that encourage authors and illustrators to collaborate prior to submission. But this is still the exception, not the rule. 

Misconception Three: It's Easy to Self-Publish Children's Books.

I have nothing against self-publishing. I think it's a great option for many writers. I also think competition in the publishing world is healthy, wherever this competition comes from.

But self-publishing works better in some genres than in others. Many self-published romance novelists do very well, for example. 

Self-publishing children's books is harder for several reasons. Many of these books are distributed through schools and libraries, and it's hard for self-published authors to get into these locations. Also, most children read physical books, not ebooks,* and the physical books are expected to be relatively inexpensive. It's hard to produce physical self-published books at a competitive price point. 

*Added: I realized I should back this claim up with some data! This Publishers Weekly article says that, according to Nielson, only 10 percent of juvenile fiction sales in 2016 were ebooks, whereas 49 percent of adult fiction sales were ebooks. Only 1 percent of children's non-fiction books were sold as ebooks. And remember that not all ebooks are self-published! 

Misconception Four: If your kids like it, it will sell millions.

I'm glad your kids enjoy your book, but the children's literary market is very crowded. To achieve commercial success, you need a product that really stands out. Many authors have to write multiple books before they manage to sell one. I know I did. 

I'm not trying to be discouraging -- quite the opposite. When people underestimate how hard it is to succeed, they get depressed when they don't find immediate success. If you're serious about children's publishing, accept that it will be a long and difficult journey. 

Misconception Five: You don't need to read children's books now because you read them when you were a kid or when your children were young.

Expectations have evolved. Many classics that were published decades ago and continue to do well would probably be rejected if they were submitted to an agent or publisher today. 

Read recently published children's books so you know what modern readers -- and publishers -- expect. 

Misconception Six: "Children's books" is a single category.

Before you start writing a "children's book," narrow it down. Are you writing a picture book? A chapter book? A middle grade novel? A young adult novel?

Each age category comes with a number of expectations in terms of word count, language, plot, character age, and acceptable content. If you try to write a book without knowing these categories, you are likely to end up with a book that doesn't fit into any category -- and a book that no agent or publisher knows what to do with. 

Learn about the different age categories. Before you try to write in one, research the expectations and read widely. 

Misconception Seven: You don't have to pick an age category because your book will appeal to all ages.

Some writers will be tempted to ignore the advice I just gave because they think they're the exception. Their books will appeal to everyone, they argue. 

We all want that to be true, but it's still important to understand your target audience. 

Take the Harry Potter series. The first books are a little long, but they're still easily recognizable as middle grade novels in terms of the characters, content, plot, and language. Older and younger people may enjoy the books, but this doesn't change the fact that they are middle grade novels. 

Also note that the Harry Potter series matures as it progresses, and many people classify the last books in the series as young adult novels. Following the "rules" of publishing doesn't mean you can't be creative or do something unique. It just means that you're approaching publishing as a professional, and you're taking the time to understand the industry. 

Publishing is already hard enough -- don't make it harder than it needs to be by assuming you'll be the exception. 

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