Publishing Children’s Books: An Interview with Maggie Smith-Beehler

maggie smith

Maggie Smith-Beehler is a freelance writer and editor, award-winning poet and author, and former college-level creative writing and composition instructor. With 14 years of professional writing experience and 10 years of editorial experience in educational and trade book publishing, she has worked for such publishers as the Junior Library Guild, Darby Creek Publishing, and McGraw-Hill.

Maggie, I very much appreciate you agreeing to answer some questions for PrettyRedShoes. Could you tell us a little bit about your work experience in the field of children’s book publishing?

I sort of fell into it, honestly. After earning my MFA in poetry from Ohio State, I took a teaching job as the Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, and when that one-year position ended, I moved back home to Columbus. I wasn’t sure what I would do next. I ended up interviewing for an assistant editor position with Darby Creek Publishing, a boutique children’s book publisher. I got the job. The parent company of DCP also owned the Junior Library Guild, a children’s book subscription service for librarians. The JLG editorial offices were headquartered in New York—and still are—but as an editor for DCP, I also worked for JLG.

For Darby Creek, I worked closely with our brilliant editorial director to develop the books. I read and responded to the “slush” (unsolicited submissions from writers), requested revised proposals or samples from prospective authors, and worked one-on-one with prospective authors to develop viable projects, including editing manuscripts and coordinating revisions. I reviewed and approved page proofs. I was also glad to put my writing skills to good use there, crafting and editing cover and flap copy, catalog copy, and marketing materials.

For the Junior Library Guild, I read all of the trade books selected by the editors in New York (approximately 264 titles per year, in galley/pre-pub form) and wrote and edited promotional and descriptive copy on each title for print and the Web, including a summary for each book, catalog copy, and general marketing collateral. It meant a lot of reading, a lot of writing, and a crash course in publishing trends for grades pre-K through 12.

I stayed with the company for two years, working for both DCP and JLG, until taking a position as an editor for an educational publisher. That was almost 10 years ago. Since then I’ve worked in educational and academic publishing (as opposed to trade book publishing), first as an in-house editor and now as a freelance writer and editor.

What is the accepted format for submitting to a children’s book publisher? Should the writer submit a proposal or send the full story? Is there a certain format, and is sending a cover letter with a biography standard?

My best advice, and this applies to any submission of any genre for any publisher, is to do your research. Look at the company’s website. It likely lists guidelines, and if it does, you should follow them. If guidelines are not available, use your best judgment. For example, if the manuscript is brief (say, for a picture book), send the whole thing, along with a professional cover letter that tells the publisher a little bit about who you are and any previous publications or special credentials you may have. (If the book is a nonfiction book about primates, and you’re a zookeeper, you should certainly mention that.) If the manuscript is longer (say, with multiple chapters or sections), I would send a few chapters or sections, and be sure to explain the purpose and “arc” of the whole book in your cover letter. If the publisher is interested, you’ll be asked to submit the whole manuscript for review. (To this end: Edit your cover letter and manuscript. Then edit it again. Then have a friend edit it. You might have a fantastic idea, but typos and grammatical issues will send a signal that you’re not someone who should be taken seriously.)

When you go through a slush pile of submissions or proposals, what makes a certain children’s book stand out over all the others?

First of all, don’t underestimate the power of a clean, streamlined, well-written presentation. Go with a basic, readable font (Times is the go-to, but I prefer Garamond). No Comic Sans. Use black ink on standard 8.5 x 11 white paper. No binders. No plastic cover sheets. Nothing cutesy.

Make sure the bio tells enough but not too much. (The editor won’t care that you like to crochet or fix cars or that you’ve won the local chili cook-off ten years running.) Also, look out for clichés, both in your manuscript and in your description of it. Publishers are looking for the next thing, so if you describe your work in a way that feels stale, the editor reading the slush won’t have a difficult time placing it in the “no” pile.

Most of all, again, do your research. Read a lot of children’s books so that you have a sense of the market, because the publisher certainly does. I was always impressed when a writer would a) Assure me that no other book exists on the topic, or b) Mention that other books exist but then go on to detail some of the ways that this book is better, more comprehensive, more exciting, and so on. Publishers are always thinking about the competition for a book. There’s no sense in publishing something if the information (or plot, in the case of fiction) is already out there—unless this book can do something those books can’t.

Are there any common, fatal mistakes made by first time writers?
Yes. See my advice under #2 and #3 for how to avoid many of them.

I have read that a writer should submit their children’s book for consideration without illustrations. Is this true? If so, why is that?
In most cases, yes, this is true. The exception is the trained artist who’s written a picture book. If you’re a writer, however, and you’ve written manuscript for a picture book, submit the manuscript only. If you’re lucky enough to survive the slush, the publisher will choose the artist. (Just remember: You know your artistic ability. Does it measure up to your own favorite picture books? In the slush pile, a viable manuscript can be sunk if paired with poorly rendered drawings.)
Once a children’s book has been accepted for publication, does the writer get a say about the illustrations?
It depends on the publisher—and on the writer. You’d better believe that big-name writers have a lot of pull when it comes to the art in their books. But what about the rest of us? I’d like to believe that the majority of publishers are open to input and are respectful of an author’s wishes. However, when push comes to shove, the investment (and, therefore, the financial risk) is the publisher’s.

Here’s a piece of related advice: Do your best to maintain an honest, professional, respectful relationship with your publisher. I know you’re passionate about your book. It’s your baby, and you’ve spent a lot of time and effort on it. But if you’re lucky enough to have a book published, you’d like to have the shot at it again, and you certainly don’t want to come across as difficult to work with, stubborn, etc.

Are there any types of publishers that new writers should avoid?

Yes. They’re commonly called vanity presses. You should never (nevereverevereverever) have to pay to have a book published. Some presses may charge small reading fees to consider your work (though many will read unsolicited submissions for free), but no reputable publisher makes you pay to have your own work in print.

Are there any children’s book storylines that are considered cliché in the industry and therefore almost always rejected?

Although some plotlines have been done a million times—the coming of age story, the losing and regaining a friend or significant other story, the journey (both literal and metaphorical) story—as long as they are compelling, well-written, and brought to life, they’ll continue to be published. Why? Because there’s something about them that rings true, something that speaks to the universal human experience. And because, above all, we enjoy reading them.

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