by Laura Backes, Publisher, Children's Book Insider, the Newsletter for Children's Writers
Editors always plead with authors to research the market before submitting manuscripts. This makes sense--it cuts down on the number of inappropriate submissions an editor may receive, and presumably will lower the chance of a manuscript getting rejected. But how, exactly, does one research a market that produces thousands of new products each year? I suggest a systematic, three-part approach which works for book and magazine publishers. This involves studying a publisher's overall list, individual books or issues, and their writers' guidelines. It doesn't matter which part you do first as long as you cover all three. (Note: Illustrators can use this same system to research potential illustration markets and then send for artists' guidelines.)
* Overall lists.
Book publishers have two lists: spring and fall. A magazine's "list" is comprised of a year's worth of issues. To get a sense of what each publisher does, read industry newsletters such as CBI, attend writers' conferences, and consult Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market (published annually by Writer's Digest Books). Note which publishers cater to the audience for whom you want to write, both in age group and subject matter. Send for these publishers' catalogs, generally free for a 9 x 12 self- addressed, stamped envelope with two to four first-class stamps (bigger publishers=bigger catalogs). For magazines, get the most recent issue and then study back issues at the library. Many publishers also have web sites that feature their current lists, though I find it's easier to study and compare material if you have a hard copy.
But what if you receive several catalogs from large publishers and they all look the same? Then it's time to read the fine print and find the differences. Does HarperCollins seem to have an abundance of fiction picture books for ages 5-8? Then they might not be buying much for this age group for the next couple of years. Has another publisher just debuted a line of nonfiction chapter books? Maybe your chapter book on whales is just what they need. Do certain publishing giants tend to repackage classics from known authors rather than books from new writers? Pick another publisher who isn't afraid to feature new talent. Narrow down your number of potential markets.
* Individual books or issues.
Go to a bookstore or library and actually hold books from your potential publishers in your hands. Look at the vocabulary and sentence structure, the style of writing, the pacing of picture book stories. For magazines, note length and subject matter of fiction and the slant on nonfiction topics. Though you don't want your book to be just like someone else's, it must fit in with the overall taste of the editors from each company, and the general tone of a publisher's list. Narrow down your markets once again.
* Writers' guidelines.
Now it's time to send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to each publisher asking for writers' guidelines. Follow the submissions procedures in the guidelines exactly. If you submit a manuscript or query letter more than a month after receiving guidelines, call the publisher to verify that they are still open to submissions. Once your manuscript is in the mail, try to put it out of your mind and start writing something else. And be assured that all your research means your work is most likely headed to where it will be eagerly read.
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