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Writing and the Children's Book Market

Around 10,000 new children’s titles are published in the UK every year. Chris Kloet, Editor-at-Large at Walker Books, suggests how a potential author can best ensure that their work reaches the bookshop shelves.

The profile of children’s books has never been higher, yet it can be difficult for the first-time writer to get published. It is a diverse, overcrowded market, with many thousands of titles currently in print, available both in the UK and from elsewhere via the Internet.
Children’s publishers tend to fill their lists with commissioned books by writers they publish regularly, so they may have little space for the untried author, even though they seek exceptional new talent. Your work will be vying for attention alongside that of established children’s writers, as well as titles from celebrities and the offerings for children from established writers for adults, who seize the opportunity to widen their audience.

Since every new book is expected to meet its projected sales target, your writing must demonstrate solid sales potential, as well as strength and originality, if it is to stand a chance of being published.

Is your work right for today’s market?

Literary tastes and fashions change. Publishers cater to children whose reading is now almost certainly different from that of your own childhood. In the present digital age, few want cosy tales about fairies and bunnies, jolly talking cars or magic teapots. Nor do they want anything remotely imitative.

Editors choose original, lively material – something witty, innovative and pacey. They look for polished writing with a fresh, contemporary voice that speaks directly and engages today’s critical, media-savvy young readers.

You might consider approaching a literary agent who knows market trends, publishers’ lists and the faces behind them. Most editors regard agents as filters and may prefer submissions from them, knowing that a preliminary critical eye has been cast over them.

Picture books

Although a story written for this format should be simple, it must be structured, with a compelling beginning, middle and end. The theme should interest and be appropriate for the age and experience of its audience. As the text is likely to be reread, it should possess a satisfying rhythm (but beware of rhymes). Ideally, it should be fewer than 1000 words (and could be much shorter), must offer scope for illustration and, finally, it needs strong international appeal. Reproducing full-colour artwork is costly and the originating publisher must be confident of achieving co-productions with publishers overseas, to keep unit costs down. It has to be said: it is a tough field.
Submit a picture book text typed either on single-sided A4 sheets, showing page breaks, or as a series of numbered pages, each with its own text. Do not go into details about illustrations, but do note anything that is not obvious from the text that needs to be included in the pictures.

Younger fiction

This area of publishing may present opportunities for the new writer. It covers stories written for the post-picture book stage, when children are reading their first whole novels. Texts vary in length and complexity, depending on the age and fluency of the reader, but tend to be between 1000 and 6000 words long.

General fiction

Many novels for children aged 9–12+ are published, not in series, but as ‘standalone’ titles, each judged on its own merits. The scope for different types of stories is wide – adventure stories, fantasies, historical novels (increasingly popular), science fiction, ghost and horror stories, humour, and stories of everyday life. Generally, their length is 20,000–40,000 words. This is a rough guide and is by no means fixed. For example, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels weigh in at 600–750+ closely printed pages, and publishers now seem more willing to publish longer texts, particularly fantasies, although the market is presently overloaded with hefty trilogies.
Perhaps more than in other areas of juvenile fiction, the individual editor’s tastes will play a significant part in the publishing decision, i.e. they want authors’ work which they like. They, and their sales and marketing departments, also need to feel confident of a new writer’s ability to go on to write further books for their lists – nobody is keen to invest in an author who is just a one-book wonder.

Teenage fiction

Some of the published output for teenage readers is published in series but, increasingly, publishers are targeting this area of the market with edgy, hard-hitting novels about contemporary teenagers, which they publish as standalone titles. There is also a current vogue for ‘young adult’ novels that have a crossover appeal to an adult readership. Indeed, recent award-winning titles such as Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials sequence, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, have all been published in both juvenile and adult editions.

Non-fiction

The last few years have seen fundamental and striking changes in the type of information books published for the young. Hitherto the province of specialist publishers catering for the educational market, the field has now broadened to encompass an astonishing range of presentations and formats which are attractive to the young reader. Increasingly, children who use the Internet to furnish their information needs are wooed into learning about many topics via entertaining and accessible paperback series such as the Horrible Histories published by Scholastic, and highly illustrated titles by publishers such as Dorling Kindersley.

In writing for this market, it goes without saying that you must research your subject thoroughly and be able to put it across clearly, with an engaging style. Familiarise yourself with the relevant parts of the National Curriculum. Check out the various series and ask the publishers for any guidelines. You will be well advised to check that there is a market for your book before you actually write it, as researching a subject can be both time consuming and costly. Submit a proposal to your targeted publisher, outlining the subject matter and the level of treatment, and your ideas about the audience for your book.


If you found this article useful, you might want to take a look at:

Writing for children: Tips and Advice

Writing for children: Getting Started

Write for children