Publishing Is Publishing

This Fourth of July, I watched the fireworks from the exotically landscaped grounds of a ritzy Malibu mansion overlooking Santa Monica Bay. I was admiring an Anna’s hummingbird perched in a tree that could have been invented by Dr. Suess when a beautiful woman I’d never met before came up to me to find out how to get her children’s books published.

“They rhyme,” she told me. She had written them together with her three children, whom she homeschooled.

She seemed sweet, one of those amazing moms who can take charge of all children present (in this case, at least twenty of them)—supervising them in the pool, sunscreening them on a schedule only she knew about, braiding hair to keep it out of faces, correcting their behavior toward one another, taking one to the bathroom, moving them en masse to the trampoline, seeing to it every last picky eater among them got something to eat, keeping track of the dog—and all the while initiate and maintain extended conversations with various of the adults present.

“Well,” I said. “I don’t have any experience whatsoever in children’s books. I write nonfiction for adults.”

“Yeah, but I heard you write, um, like, spiritual books.”

I nodded.

“And they’re published, aren’t they? So they’re, you know, regular books, right? Like, you can buy them in bookstores? I mean, publishing is publishing, isn’t it?”

It intrigued me that she was seeking my advice at all. I was such an oddity at that party. Visiting from Oklahoma. Not rich. The only woman present with grey hair. Not at all the sort of person someone like her would go to for advice about anything—except maybe birdwatching. I seemed to be the only one at the party paying attention to the magnificent hummingbirds and house finches and hawks whooshing around us.

But she was right, I guessed. Publishing is publishing. I recommended she get the latest edition of Writer’s Market.

“Did that already,” she said.

“And I think I’ve seen a special Writer’s Market just for kids’ books.”

“Got that too. Read it cover to cover.”

“Then you know what to do. Write a proposal that has all the parts they ask for and send it out to agents listed in the book who represent the sort of thing you’ve written.”

“You mean a query letter?”

“Yes, that too. I mean, for publishing adult nonfiction, you’d need a book proposal, but maybe with kids’ books you can get everything you need to say said in your query letter. Send it to agents who seem in the same place professionally as you are—that is, just beginning your career as a writer.”

“But don’t I need to copyright my stuff first? I mean, they could just steal my ideas.”

I said I didn’t think copyrighting was necessary. Why would an agent want to steal her ideas? “Agents make money from selling your book to publishers,” I told her, “not by stealing ideas and writing books of their own. They get fifteen percent of whatever you make. They want you to make money.”

She seemed unconvinced.

“Well,” I said, “Just do whatever it says to do in your children’s Writer’s Market.”

“I did all that,” she said. “So what do I do now?”

“You wait to hear back. And then, if you don’t get any takers, you revise and do it all again with another list of agents. If your stuff is good, eventually you’ll find someone who wants to represent you.”

“But how long should I wait? I mean, it’s been a few weeks already. Isn’t there anything else I can do?” This woman was a doer. As we spoke, she was rearranging the bowls of dips and crudités that the pool-wet children had left in disarray.

“No,” I told her. “Just write. Revise. Submit. And wait. That’s all I know about how to get published. Unless it’s different with children’s books. Which I’m guessing it isn’t. I mean, publishing is publishing, right?”

So what do you think? Is all publishing the same? If it’s different, how is it different? If it is the same, how is it the same?

14 Replies to “Publishing Is Publishing”

  1. That was fun, Patty. Amusing conversation. That lady sounds like a mixture of a few different people who’ve asked me similar questions. Don’t ya love it? : ) I mostly suggest they attend a Christian writer’s conference like Mount Hermon, or buy the MP3s. No matter what genre they choose, they can learn a lot about publishing and make oodles of friends and connections. MH even has a special children’s track. I also tell children’s writers about the SCBWI conference. It’s not a Christian conference, but it is specific for their genre.

    Here’s a little tidbit that’s been helpful specifically for children picture book writers. I’ve met several who think they need to hire their own illustrator in order to get their stories published. If they want to go with a traditional publisher, I tell them not to waste their time. Traditional publishers almost always have their own illustrators. Well, that’s my two cents.

    1. The woman really had pretty much memorized Children’s Author’s and Illustrator’s Market, it seems, so she already knew about not needing to worry about the illustrations for the book. Indeed, she told me about that, and it was news to me. What seemed really odd to me was that, having informed herself better than most aspiring published authors do, she nevertheless thought that it should all go differently for her than Writer’s Market set forth: that she wouldn’t really have to put together any sort of proposal for her book, that a response would be immediate, that I might somehow be able to tell her something that would preclude her having to wait, etc. The magical thinking of the wouldbe author, I guess.

  2. Hey, Patty. Several things struck me with your post.
    #1 It intrigued me that she was seeking my advice at all. I was such an oddity at that party. Visiting from Oklahoma. Not rich. The only woman present with grey hair. Not at all the sort of person someone like her would go to for advice about anything

    You sell yourself short. I know that it is not cool to respect older people now-days. But smart people want to glean from the experience of others. And to this woman you represented what she was aiming for.

    #2 Patience is hard. For all of us. We want to DO something. We want to shake the bushes and make something happen.

    1. Hi Sharon. Oops. I uninitentionally misrepresented matters. I meant not that I was older than everyone else (although I was older than this woman was). There were lots of older and surely wiser ones there than I was. I was just the only one present who looked as old as I am, which is sort of unusual in California.

      But yes, patience is what it’s about. And being able to conceive of publishing as a business venture like any other. You present what you have to sell in the most professional light you can and then wait for people to want it.

    1. Thanks for this! I was worried I didn’t really have much to say. Or anyway, to use publishing speak, not much takeaway. Just a little vignette. But I’m glad you liked it!

    1. Thanks! While I can’t offer the magic spell aspiring writers often seem to expect from me, I do try to offer the advice I would have liked someone to have offered me.

  3. This was a great way to spell it out to us. I needed to hear it, but don’t have to like it.

  4. Thanks, Patty. You hit the nail on the head. People sometimes think it’s about packaging or who you know or what agent you have, but in reality: If it’s good, it can and often will sell (though not always, sadly). Publishing really is publishing. And that means waiting for months and months sometimes until someone says your baby is pretty.

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