How to Publish a Children’s Book: Reflections From a New Author
After Human Body Learning Lab was published, many friends opened up about their dreams of publishing a children’s book. How did you publish a children’s book, Betty? What are the steps to getting started?
Publishing is a long, humbling, and often lonely process…but it’s also very fun and rewarding! These days, new authors have many options when it comes to publishing “kid lit” (kids’ literature)!
To demystify the process, I’ll simplify the key steps and explain how I got the chance to publish my first children’s book.
How to publish a children’s book and become an author
First things first! Let’s learn about the industry. Here are the 2 main paths to publishing a children’s book as well as the pros and cons.
1. Traditional publishing
The vast majority of books in libraries, schools, and bookstores are produced by traditional publishers.
Often called “the big 5”, the largest publishers are Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon and Schuster, Hachette, and Macmillan. These large publishing houses have many imprints (smaller publishers) as branches of their company. There are also other reputable medium and smaller publishers (see chart at the end of the post).
When an author signs a contract with a publisher (or an agent who servers as your broker), the publisher helps the author create, edit, print, distribute, and market the book. Traditional publishers are also responsible for finding the right illustrator for each children’s book.
Since traditional publishers take on the financial risk of production and promotion costs, they are selective about working with new authors. This leads to the main drawback of traditional publishing: authors are often get rejected for years before publishing their first children’s book.
These days, many authors publish children’s books on their own. In other words, self-published authors find their own illustrators, editors, and designers. They also manage the printing, distribution, and marketing of the book.
Self-publishing can be great adventure for someone who likes to be hands-on with all of the steps. It might also be the best option for niche writers who might not otherwise get accepted by a traditional publisher – or anyone who is eager to publish without waiting.
Although self-published authors have a lot of control over the production process, overseeing all of the responsibilities can be overwhelming. In addition, the author bears the burden of all costs and risks. Unless the author is well-known in their niche, getting the book into schools and libraries can be much more challenging.
However, if self-published authors have a large platform and a good connection with their target audience, this can be a potentially much more financially rewarding option. Companies like Amazon have also made the self-publishing process more accessible, affordable, and attractive for new authors.
Research children’s book categories
Understanding the main types of children’s books will help you focus on the target age, reading levels, and word count as you write.
If you have a protagonist in your book, keep in mind that book characters are usually around the same age or a couple years older than your target reader. research the various types of children’s books.
- Board books (age 0 to 3; 0 to 100 words): These durable baby and toddler books have mostly pictures and few words.
- Picture books (age 3 to 8; 250 to 500 words): These books dominate the children’s book market. These books have full page illustrations with a few sentences per page.
- Early readers (age 5 to 9; 1500 to 2000 words): As children learn to read, these books are great for building stamina, fluency, and confidence. Simple sentences and paragraphs are paired with supporting illustrations.
- Chapter books (age 6 to 10); 8,500 to 12,000 words): For children who are ready for longer books, these books have short chapters, a simple plot, and few illustrations*.
- Middle grade (age 8 to 12; 25,000 to 50,000 words): These novels for fluent readers are typically a couple hundred pages with more complex, kid-friendly plots, and few illustrations*.
- Young adult (age 12 and up; 50,000 to 75,000 words): These long novels tend to have adult themes and dramatic plots.
*Note that graphic novels and non-fiction books for big kids and tweens have plenty of rich illustrations!
As you work on your draft, you’ll need to research books in your genre. Within the main fiction and non-fiction genres are several sub-genres:
- Fiction: Contemporary fiction, fantasy, fairy tales and fables, historical fiction, mystery, science fiction, horror
- Non-fiction: Biography/autobiography, history/science, self-help
Understanding genres will help you visualize where your book will sit in a library or bookstore shelf. It’s helpful to think, “If readers like X book, what other books might they like?”
Here is Human Body Learning Lab in good company with related children’s books!
Determine your publishing goals
Most children’s book authors are not able to make a livable income from the advance and royalties. You have to truly love and believe in the work and have low expectations about money.
Before you publish, it’s important to ask these big picture questions:
- What’s your motivation for writing a children’s book?
- What are your long-term writing goals?
Dive deep and consider more specific questions:
- Are you hoping to broaden diversity and representation in kidlit?
- Are you an expert who is passionate about helping children understand a complex topic?
- Does your imagination drive you to share creative and entertaining ideas with kids?
Since the publishing process is so humbling, it’s important to pen down your motives.
This will help you see the light at the end of the tunnel, no matter which publishing path you end up pursuing. It will also help you weigh the pros and cons of traditional versus self-publishing.
Common questions about children’s book publishing
How long does it take to publish a children’s book?
The time frame is so variable and depends on whether the author is self-publishing or working with a traditional publisher.
From contract to bookstore release, traditional publishing typically ranges from 9 months to 2 years. Of course, this does not include the many months to years spent writing the book!
Indie publishing is much more speedy; books and ebooks can be published within a few months of writing.
How do you publish a children’s book the traditional way?
If you’re curious about traditional publishing, these are the main ways publishers connect with new authors.
- You pitch your manuscript to an agent who then pitches to publishers. This is the most common scenario for children’s book authors.
- You pitch your manuscript to a publisher directly. Large traditional publishers usually do not accept un-agented submissions. However, smaller publishers and academic presses will accept proposals directly. This is usually stated on their website.
- You write for large media outlets or your own website and social media. Then an agent or publisher discovers your work and invites you to pitch a manuscript. This is common for celebrities. But it’s also possible for regular people like me!
From pediatrician to author: How I published my first children’s book
Publishing journeys always begin before the first draft. During college and medical school, I loved making summary sheets for my science classes and sharing them with friends and classmates.
In more recent years, I worked for a large medical education company and would get nerdily excited about creating clinical vignettes, explanations, and visual diagrams for doctors-in-training.
Meanwhile, every conversation with a young patient at the hospital and my own children at home was an opportunity to make learning relevant and meaningful. In 2016, I started drafting ideas for Human Body Learning Lab, and the book was published in November 2022!
Human Body Learning Lab is the first children’s anatomy book with kid-friendly science facts, practical health tips, hands-on activities with household materials, and beautiful diverse photographs and realistic images.
All of this was inspired by my experiences as a pediatrician, medical writer, parenting/education blogger, and homeschooling parent.
When I first started drafting and doodling ideas for Human Body Learning Lab, I was also working on another passion project.
I ended up intermittently pausing the science book ideas while focusing on my bilingual parenting website, Chalk Academy. I never imagined that our family’s language journey would grow into an encouraging, worldwide community. (Huge thank you if you’ve been reading my work since then!)
In 2020, when schools shut down at the start of the pandemic, I really wished I had finished writing that human body book. Coincidentally, Storey Publishing (an imprint of Workman / Hachette Book Group) reached out to me! My children adore their beautifully crafted and interactive books, so I was incredibly excited and honored.
I am forever grateful to my friend Agnes of hello, Wonderful for recommending my Chalk Academy work to Storey Publishing. In turn, Storey trusted my extensive experience with medical writing and educational content creation.
The actual publishing process took more than 2 years from my first conversation with Storey Publishing until book launch day.
During the peak of the pandemic, I powered through my manuscript while homeschooling my children. Often, my most productive writing happened in the middle of the night, the only quiet time when my kids were asleep.
I’ll share more about my manuscript writing, formatting, and organization process in a separate post…Stay tuned for the details! 🙂
If you’ve read Human Body Learning Lab, please leave a rating or review on Amazon! This will help bookstores introduce the book to more parents and teachers.
If you’d like to learn more about the book, take a peek inside Human Body Learning Lab here!
How to publish a children’s book
Believe it or not, the summary above is just the cliff notes! When you’re ready to write and propose your book, publishing expert Jane Friedman has an amazing chart – basically a roadmap for authors. (Note: I did not mention hybrid publishing in my summary as I have not heard of any positive feedback from children’s book authors.)
If you’re having trouble reading the small font, Jane Friedman has given full permission to download the chart. Then you can zoom in on all of the details.
More tips on how to publish children’s books
I’m forever thankful to Harold Underdown, Jane Friedman, and many other authors who have candidly shared their publishing journey and insights! If you’re serious about publishing a children’s book, I highly recommend the following websites:
I hope this overview was helpful and not too daunting. Feel free to ask any other questions below, and I’ll try my best to answer! Cheering you on!