So... can you actually make good money writing a kids' book?
Let’s start on a high: well, of course you can make good money – there are thousands of children’s book authors, worldwide, many of whom are making a very comfortable living. The trouble is, many also aren’t, and the “aren’t” pile is probably the largest! Let’s have an honest chat about how you ensure you make it into the right one of these two categories!
This article will cover the following 10 topics:
Is my children's book REALLY good enough to get published?
Does it need to be perfectly edited?
Who manages the illustrations?
How do I actually get it published?
How much will I earn $$$?
How many books can I expect to sell?
How do I know if my publisher is ripping me off?
Should I submit to more than one publisher?
What if I get rejected?
And… what if readers leave bad reviews?
And so, let's begin...
1. Is my children's book REALLY good enough to get published?
Firstly – and to be blunt – if you have not published a children’s book before, you shouldn’t make this assessment on your own. That would be naïve. It’s not to say your book isn’t amazing, but you should get others to assess this too. You don’t need a world-class children’s author to “make the call” for you, but you should get a bunch of avid readers you know to give you their honest thoughts. If you have 10-odd people telling you they love your story, then you’re more than likely onto something. Conversely, if you can read between the lines (pun not intended) and ascertain that the majority of people aren’t really digging it, maybe it’s time to try a redraft?
Bear in mind, you might write (what is ultimately the same narrative) a good ten times over before you’re happy with it. And that’s the good thing about children’s books – they really don’t take that long to write. I recently finished an average length novel, which I’m working through the publishing process for… it took me over a decade to write and be 95% happy with. Don’t give up when you know you’re onto something.
It’s no secret, too, that first time authors have an especially hard time landing publishing deals. We’ve all heard the stories of now-famous writers getting repeatedly rejected by arrogant publishing houses (J.K. Rowling’s tale of rejection is surely the most well-known!).
How can I make my children’s story good enough to be published?
A handful of tips, though – try to ensure your children’s story ticks most of these boxes (this is the mental checklist I’ve used so far):
- It “feels” adventurous: children are wildly imaginative/creative so you need to ensure your story plays into this.
- You can easily imagine how to support your story with illustrations: illustrations can absolutely make or break your children’s book – if your story doesn’t feel like something that can easily be visualised, it might be too hard to engage little readers/listeners.
- It’s different/unique/special/funny or even characterful/meaningful/impactful: your story probably won’t be all of these things, but it should be 50% of them. And, much like determining whether it’s good enough overall, you shouldn’t make this assessment on your own. Ask other readers to tell you how it made them feel. Listen to their feedback and try to work it through your story where it’s logical to do so.
- It has an accessible main character (a protagonist): young children like to really put themselves in the shoes of your character/s. If you have too many characters swarming around the narrative (or one that’s too hard to “grasp”), it’s really easy to “lose” your little readers. Keep it simple. You can have a “unique” character, but typically not more than one actively driving the story.
- The language has a flow or rhythm: your book absolutely doesn’t have to rhyme, but it does need a level of fluidity to the language. We have tested this extensively: books with weaker sentence syntax and less harmonious language just don’t retain the attention of children like books that seamlessly flow. Yeah, there are exceptions, but not that many. This is REALLY hard to get right, and often the difference between a world-class children’s book, and one that’s just “pretty good”. I spent a long time perfecting the language in Remembering Mother Nature. I have been writing poetry for two decades, but never to suit anyone but an adult audience. I knew how to make words flow, but doing it in a more simple, accessible way is much harder.
- If you’re instilling a “message”, do it covertly: children’s books that educate and inform are everything – the whole Ethicool brand is built on them – but the STORY must always come first. Don’t lead with your message. You need to gently weave it into the story and also help the message gain traction and meaning through the illustrations. This, again, is not easy. You pretty much won’t nail it on the first pass and that’s completely ok. Just keep redrafting until you’re happy.
2. Does my children's book need to be edited perfectly?
Hmm, it needs to be pretty darn close. There are several grammatical standards that can be followed, which only serves to complicate things even further! I recommend following the grammatical practices of the Modern Language Association (MLA Style). I studied this thing cover to cover during sub-editing training at university… I reckon I remember 10% of it, at best – but that 10% is enough to satisfy worthy adherence to “good grammatical practices”.
If you submit a children’s story for publishing that is littered with grammatical errors, a trained eye will see them before they’ve even really started reading, and it might mean they park your story before giving it a fair chance.
This is another one of those things that takes time and patience. For kids’ books, I would discourage paying a professional editor (unless you’re convinced that you’re really bad at grammar), as these books are so short and have less room for mistakes. Adult novels are a WHOLE different story, but that’s for another blog, and another day…
3. Who manages the illustrations: me or the publisher?
This is a loaded question and also really hard to answer. If you publish via Ethicool, we like to do the whole lot… not because we want to take control, but because we’ve worked really hard to create a shortlist of world-class illustrative talent, who are also sensibly priced. It’s literally possible to pay tens of thousands of dollars for illustrations (many big names charge $20-30k and more for illustrating kids’ books), but this is just silly and we don’t see the value in it, as the story is the real star at Ethicool. Yes, these people do amazing work, but there are many more emergent freelancers who are equally as good – and often more readily available for work.
Conversely, if you’ve produced a children’s book and had the illustrations done yourself, this is also ok. I would just recommend that, if you’re submitting it (whether to Ethicool or any other publisher), that you include an illustration-free manuscript in the submission as well as an illustrated one. This is because the illustrations can change the story and some publishers will want to make a “text-only” assessment of the calibre of your work.
To round out: if your publisher is handling illustrations, they should be paying for it, too.
4. How do I actually get my children’s book published?
Oh, gosh, maybe this should have been question one? Short answer: you avoid a big-name publisher if you want things to move quickly. Ha!
So, I don’t want this article to “bash” our much larger competitors, but I do want to happily call out the fact that they’re a little pompous. In their defence, they can sometimes receive thousands of submissions in a week alone, meaning, oftentimes, your story getting noticed is a lucky dip… they might not even read it… and you probably won’t hear either way for several months!
Rather than write paragraphs on this topic, it’s probably simpler to use another checklist. If you’re getting ready to submit, you should cover off the following things:
- Review my items against point 1 in this blog (!).
- Edit, check grammar – drink coffee – edit, check grammar… then repeat (again…).
- Lay out your submission page-by-page: this can help to visualise to others how you envisage the actual story will flow in print. I.e. don’t just send one page with a huge blob of text; instead, mimic the layout of the final book.
- Include a cover page/letter: it should say a little bit about you, but more about the purpose or intent behind the story. With this, you’re trying to demonstrate your thought process to the publisher. When they read the story, this should then cement everything. When writing a novel, you typically include a synopsis – you needn’t go this full-on for a kids’ book, obviously. If your publisher doesn’t care about “you” and this summary page, you’re talking to the wrong publisher.
- Submit to more than one place – don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
- Avoid using an agent until you’ve been knocked back a few times: why pay someone else (who’ll ultimately do very little in the process – sorry, agents, but you’re often from a bygone era) until you’re sure you need help?
- BE PATIENT: even small publishers may take a few months to respond. It’s ok to follow-up on your submission, but once is probably enough.
5. How much will I earn as a children's author?
Well, who wouldn’t want to know this, right? Commissions generally hover around $1.00 – $1.50 per book (often split equally between the author and the illustrator). It’s generally somewhere in the middle.
“Ok, hang on… if a book is like $20 RRP, how do I only make a fraction of that?” I hear you… And it’s because printing, marketing and distribution are darn expensive and time-consuming. It’s also because most books pass through a couple of organisations (all of whom take their cut) before they’re in the hands of the final customer.
Ethicool is slightly different. We sell directly to the customer. Unfortunately, it doesn’t mean we make much more profit margin, though. Why? Because we print sustainably, our production costs are many multiples higher than most publishers, who aren’t too concerned about the environmental impacts of their processes. We’re looking to address this more as we scale up increasingly over time and our unit prices come down.
Right now, we still pay more than anyone we’re aware of, though: our commission is around $1.50-$1.75 AUD per book.
How much you’ll earn obviously depends on how many books you sell! To give you an indication: a children’s book that gets some traction in market, such as Remembering Mother Nature can comfortably sell several hundred thousand copies in a year. When a book is first launched – and assuming it’s a good one! – setting a target of 500-1,000 copies per month is probably a sensible starting point. Some books will do way more than this… and, sadly, some will do WAY fewer than this.
I’ll let you do the maths from here!
6. How many children's books should I expect to sell?
See point number five!
7. How do I know if my publisher is ripping me off?
Finally, an easy one! If you’re getting paid under $1 per book, you are likely being underpaid and should run a mile. It’s that simple. There might be some exceptions to this, but I can’t really think of any right now. Frankly, if you’re going to make under a dollar a book, it’s hard to justify the huge amount of effort required to complete the publishing process. It’s not easy and you deserve to be appropriately compensated.
8. Should I send my children's book to more than one publisher?
Unless you’re really in love with a particular publisher – and if it’s Ethicool, you know, we understand! – submitting to two or three outlets is very much worthwhile.
Ultimately, once you’ve got your submission all sorted, it’s not hard to flick it around to more than one email address, is it?
It’s worth me asking, too: are you worried about your copyrights? You probably don’t really need to be… someone would have to be monumentally stupid to steal YOUR words and take them to print (and you’d inevitably find out anyway), but for peace of mind, I would ensure your name is on every page of your submission.
If you don’t hear back within four months, too, you can consider the deal is off. Well, some publishers might even take six months to respond, but honestly, who wants to work with someone who’s that slow at doing their job?
9. What if I get rejected?
So, you probably will get rejected. More than once. And, that’s actually good – well, sort of. If you can manage to get feedback as to why your book didn’t make the cut, you can use this to improve it for next time. Some publishers’ feedback is just rubbish, though, to be perfectly honest with you. More often than not, they “don’t have time” for writers whom they’ve chosen not to publish, so their feedback will be token and likely not something tangible you can act on.
You might get lucky, though, and receive some solid pearls of wisdom. If you do, make sure you understand them and act on them. Look, whilst publishers are typically a bit arrogant and annoying, they do know what they’re doing, and it’s their job too.
Now to the hard part: if you’re rejected more than five times, YOU need to consciously decide whether you want to keep pushing. It can become pretty draining emotionally. The worst thing is (as the J.K. Rowling example shows us), rejection doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a bad writer.
I can’t really give you advice on what to do with this one. But I will say: you’ll feel worse in the long run if you give up! Maybe it's time to come up with a new idea?
10. What if readers leave bad reviews?
Come on, now… you GOT published – you can’t have it all! You WILL get some bad reviews. Ironically, some bad reviews aren’t a bad thing, either. If you can learn to be light-hearted, you might even get a laugh out of them. You can probably also use the feedback to further refine your next masterpiece!
Every single author gets some negative feedback. With children’s books, though, it is less likely, so that’s yet another positive to not writing a longer adult novel.
Hmm, so that took me a couple of hours to write, and it really only covers a FRACTION of the process. If you want to know more, check back in to our blog often and I’ll share more and more pieces of honesty about this very enigmatic industry.