I have received one of the most difficult things I have ever worked for my first book contract! I spent over a year writing and photographing Steam Train Ride, a picture book for 3-7 year-olds. A year later, I have a contract in hand! The one question my fellow writers keep asking is, "How can an unagented newcomer break into children's books?" I don't pretend to have all the answers, but I've compiled a list of things that worked for me:
1. TELL EVERYBODY. If you don't know anyone in publishing, chances are good that someone you know does. A great source of publishing contacts is through your local librarian. My local librarians liked Steam Train Ride and took it to the county's Children's Book Coordinator. The Coordinator wrote me a wonderful note and said she knew a retired children's book editor who might give me advice. It turned out that the editor was semi-retired, working part-time as a field editor. She told me, "I'm not making any promises, but I'll take a look at your manuscript." She was the editor who sold Steam Train Ride to Amy C. Shields at Walker & Company.
2. READ BOOKS, MAGAZINES, AND NEWSLETTERS ABOUT WRITING AND SELLING MANUSCRIPTS. To make a sale, it's important to learn how to write and submit professionally.
3. RESEARCH YOUR BOOK'S MARKET AND MAKE SURE THAT YOUR BOOK HAS SOMETHING DIFFERENT THAT SETS IT APART FROM ITS COMPETITORS. Subject Guide to Books in Print and Subject Guide to Children's Books in Print are great starting points, especially for non-fiction writers. Publishing is a business and publishers only buy books that they think will sell. When I came up with the idea for Steam Train Ride, I looked through Children's Books in Print and couldn't find any photoessays about steam trains for 3-7 year-olds. Finding my niche helped me persevere with my project and helped to make the sale.
4. JOIN A MANUSCRIPT CRITIQUE GROUP. If you can't find one, start one! I couldn't find a children's critique group in my area, so I started my own group, Lakeside Writers for Young People. We now have eight loyal, supportive, and committed members.
5. ATTEND WRITER'S CONFERENCES. Conferences are wonderful places that provide inspiration, information, and a chance to make contacts.
6. WRITE OR CALL FOR PUBLISHERS' CATALOGS. You can save a lot of time and money by researching publishers' catalogs before sending out manuscripts. Every publisher's list has its own style, and you will have the most success submitting a manuscript that complements a publisher's list.
7. READ! Reading is fun, and it's also a great way to check out different publishers and your competition. I take out so many children's books from my library that the librarians joke, "You're great for circulation!"
8. PERSEVERE! I'm embarrassed to admit that there were many times when I was ready to give up. Book publishing is such a competitive field with so many wonderful and talented EXPERIENCED authors that it is often difficult to see where you fit in. BUT, if you have a great manuscript that you believe in and are willing to work hard, your chances of getting published are excellent. Perseverance does pay off!