Wednesday, April 01, 2015

So you want to write a children's book?

As a publisher, I subscribe to a lot of book publishing and marketing newsletters. Yesterday, I received the following email from two of those newsletters:
Ever wanted to write a children’s book?
If so, publishing your work as an e-book on Amazon’s Kindle platform is a great way to go – and now is a great time to get started.
The children's e-book market is up 475% this year alone, which makes it one of the fastest-growing book categories on Amazon.
Plus, once you know a simple formula, children’s books are one of the easiest types of books to write.
To discover how to get started writing and publishing your own children’s e-books, join Steve Harrison for a free webinar this Wednesday, April 1. (link redacted)
Steve will be interviewing an author who wrote a silly little 26-page Kindle children’s book in less than seven days, which, more than two years later, still produces more than $1,000 in royalties each month!
The idea that anyone can write a children's book using a "simple formula" is offensive and misleading. Writing a good children's book is not easy, it's hard! It takes dedication, hard work and a willingness to educate yourself about children's writing.

A common misconception is that writing for children is easy, because the writing in children's books appears simple. But that simplicity is deceptive; it takes skill and experience to know how to write for children in a way that's appealing without talking down to them. Writing good children's books is harder than writing good adult books. That book your children beg you to read every night? It was probably the result of many rounds of edits trying to get exactly the right words and the right tone. Of course, good adult writers do the same thing, but they don't have to agonize over every word, every sentence the way children's writers do.

Simplicity is hard! Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, is one of the most well-known and beloved children’s writers. The seemingly simple rhyming text of his stories has fooled many writers into thinking that it’s easy to write such books, but Geisel labored over each book, writing and rewriting, sometimes for a year or more.

Encouraging people to write a "silly little" children's book using a "simple formula" does no one a service, least of all the writers themselves. The marketing copy above leads people to believe that fame and riches are just around the corner and easy to achieve, when in reality nothing could be further from the truth. There are thousands of new children's books published every year, probably even more than that when you count all the self-published books. Many of those will languish in obscurity, many others will sell a decent number of copies and sit solidly midlist, and very few will sell a large number of copies. I personally know many, many children's authors, both traditionally published and self-published, and very few are getting rich. (Actually, I don't think any of my author friends are rich. If you are, let's talk!)

If you want to write a children's book, great! I admire anyone who pours their heart, soul, time, and effort into writing a book. But don't do it in expectation of making money. Yes, you might get lucky like the author mentioned in the ad above, but that's the exception, not the rule, and unless you are very, very lucky you won't achieve that. There is no magic formula that guarantees success - believe me, if there were, the big publishers would be using it! If you're going to write for children, do it for love, not for money. For most authors I know, the letters they receive from children mean much more than the royalty check. There's nothing wrong with wanting to make money from your writing, but if you go into it with that as your primary goal, there's a good chance that you're in for disappointment.

As a book blogger and Cybils Awards organizer/judge, I'm active in the children's book blogging community. Self-published books have developed a bad reputation in the community, and many bloggers now have review policies that exclude self- or indie published books. For years, I've advocated for indie publishing among my peers. Authors self-publish for many reasons, and self-publishing by itself is not an indicator of the level of quality. Self-publishing gives a voice to those who are disenfranchised by the traditional publishing industry. As one of the leaders of the Cybils Awards, I continually advocate to keep self-published books eligible and judged fairly and impartially. There are excellent self-published books, and a few have even been finalists or winners in the Cybils Awards.

But I sometimes feel that advocating for self-publishing is an uphill battle, when for every excellent book there are hundreds of others that are poorly done. People like Steve Harrison are making the situation worse by encouraging people to take the easy road, to produce more dreck that will further drag down the reputation of self-publishing. Not only that, but it misleads authors to believe that there is an easy road to success. There is no easy road that guarantees success! You might get lucky, but then, someone wins the Publishers Clearing House, too.

If you want to write a children's book, go for it! But rather than looking for easy formulas, take the time to learn what makes a good children's book. To start with, read a great many children's books. (If you have children, this isn't hard!) Read them critically, with an eye to what works well and what doesn't. (I've learned so much about children's books from nearly ten years of reviewing them for the blog, and nine years of being a Cybils judge). Read books about writing children's books. Take classes from reputable institutions or teachers. Join the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and your regional chapter of it. Attend writing conferences. Join or form a critique group. Check out any potential agents, publishers, promotional companies, contests, and more on the excellent Preditors and Editors.

One of my good friends, Anne Boles Levy, has her first book coming out in August, a YA fantasy published by independent publisher Sky Pony Press. For Anne, it's been at least a fifteen year journey: writing, editing, revising, and submitting the book. Anne works regularly with a critique group that includes multiple award-winning authors; I believe that the group has been working together since before any of them were published. During that fifteen years, in addition to writing Anne also invested a lot of time into things that helped her to be known in the children's book community: blogging, attending conferences, and even founding a children's book award. None of that guarantees any good reviews, of course, but it does mean that Anne has a better than average chance of getting bloggers to take a look at it. I haven't yet seen the book (although I can't wait!) but I assume that all the work she put into writing it has paid off in the form of an excellent book.

Now, I'm not saying that everyone needs to invest fifteen years. That's a lot of time to wait to achieve your dreams. But I am saying that true success does not come overnight in most cases, and if you want to succeed, you need dedication, perseverance, hard work, and a willingness to learn.

Don’t give in to the siren call of get-rich-quick schemes. Instead, invest your time and money in learning the craft and trade of children’s writing and publishing.

Post a Comment