Catherine Austen books for young people

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"Her writing cuts straight to the heart."

(The Globe and Mail)


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So You've Written a Book...

Authors are often asked for advice on getting a book published. Here's my (book-length!) answer to one young writer. If what you've written is shorter than this letter, submit it to one of the magazines on my Young Writers' Publications List.

Dear Young Writer,

It takes enormous discipline to turn a love of writing into a novel, and you should be proud to have achieved that. If you have revised and polished your novel to the best of your ability, it is natural to take the next step of trying to get the manuscript published.

ccbc logo First things first. If your book is for children or young adults, I recommend buying the Get Published package from the Canadian Children's Book Centre. As well as advice, the package includes a list of traditional Canadian publishing houses that accept unsolicited manuscripts (those submitted by writers, not agents). It costs about $20.00.

Many traditional publishing houses will not consider manuscripts by children. Young writers are typically less experienced as readers and writers and, like anyone just beginning to learn their craft, they likely need more time to practice and improve before they produce publishable work. Publishing houses are swamped with manuscript submissions from beginning writers of all ages, so many houses adopt an age policy simply to reduce the number of beginners' manuscripts they receive.

The age policy can serve the interests of young writers themselves, too. Once a writer submits her work to publishing houses, her novel is no longer judged as the work of a child. It is judged in comparison to the thousands of other manuscripts received by the publisher, including manuscripts from much more experienced and already successful writers. It is extremely rare that a young writer's work can compete well, so waiting to submit her work until she is older can actually save a young writer years of rejection, and encourage her to concentrate on learning her craft and take pleasure in it.

rejection stamp Getting published by a traditional house is difficult, and trying too soon can be frustrating. We want young writers to love writing, to be proud of their work, and to write to their very highest potential. A series of rejection letters does not encourage these attitudes. So think carefully about whether the work is ready for publication, and whether the writer is ready for rejection. (Almost all first novels are rejected, usually many times, before they find a home.)

Should this consideration keep a young writer from trying to publish her work if she is sure it is ready for the reading public? No. Some writers craft exquisite books even as teenagers. (And there are publishing options that avoid traditional houses, for those writers who are not yet ready for fierce competition but who want to see their work in print.)

If you are confident in your work, there are four general approaches you can take to publishing:

  1. Submit it to traditional publishing houses.

    Not only do traditional publishers pay authors for their work according to standard rates, but they provide an experienced editor to work with the author to improve the manuscript before it is published (this can take a year or more). The publisher will also provide book designers and copy editors to make the final book as attractive as possible. And the publisher will handle the marketing and distribution of the book - getting it into stores and libraries, submitting it to reviewers, promoting it at book fairs, and publicizing it in every way possible.

    Because this is the ideal option, it is the most difficult to achieve. A first step is to go to a library or bookstore, find books similar to yours in theme, length, and audience - there will be lots - and note who published them. Then look up the publishers' websites and, for those that consider unsolicited manuscripts, send them a 1-page query letter describing your novel and asking if the editor would consider it. You will then have to await responses to your query letter. (This can take weeks or months.) If an editor asks to see some or all of your novel, you would send the manuscript and wait some more to hear if the editor wishes to acquire the book. (This can take weeks or months, too.)

    One of the harsh realities of writing is that for every 1,000 manuscripts sent to traditional publishers, only 1 or 2 are accepted for publication. Of the rejected manuscripts, probably 80% are simply not written well enough to publish. But the other 20% are good stories rejected for other reasons - perhaps the subject does not suit the publisher, the book is too similar to something else they are publishing, or the editor simply does not fall in love with the story. (Even Harry Potter was rejected 12 times before it found a home.) So although this is the ideal route, it is often a long road.

    In general, new writers will have the best chance of success with smaller publishing houses. The big houses usually only accept agented work or submissions from writers with books already on the market (and doing well).

    You will find a list of Canadian publishers for young readers, with links to their websites, on the website of the Canadian Children's Book Centre.

    You can find a similar list of American publishers for young readers on the website of the Children's Book Council.

  2. Get an agent.

    If you find an agent who falls in love with your novel, she or he will work hard to sell the novel to a traditional publishing house on your behalf. A good agent has lots of contacts in the publishing world. He already knows what type of story suits which editor, so he carefully selects which publisher to show your novel. However, a good agent will want to submit the best manuscript possible, so she may ask you to revise your manuscript (several times, perhaps) even before submits it to a publishing house.

    You can find lists of agents with a simple online search. However, the more research you put in up front, the more time you will save in the end. Visit a library or bookstore, find books like yours, and check the acknowledgements page. If the author has an agent, she will thank the agent on that page. Note the agents' names and look up their websites to make sure your manuscript is suitable before inquiring with them. If so, send a 1-page query letter describing your book and asking if they would consider it.

    Unfortunately, finding an agent is almost as difficult as finding a traditional publisher. If you go this route, keep in mind that anyone can call themselves a literary agent, and there are people out there with no qualms about taking advantage of a writer's desire to be published. You want an agent who has worked in the publishing industry and loves books, someone who has already sold books for their clients. A reputable agent does not charge any fees to consider your work - they earn their money only on work they sell - so take that as a general guideline.

    There is a website designed to warn writers of shady agents and publishers. Before you sign anything with anyone, check them out on Preditors and Editors.

  3. Self-publish your novel.

    There are many self-publishing companies that will help an author edit, design, and print a book, but the author must pay for these services. There are also some authors who desktop publish their own work and mail out copies from home. It's easy these days.

    There used to be a fierce bias against self-published books, and you will still find many readers, editors, and authors who work with traditional publishing houses who frown upon self-publishing because there is no gate-keeper in the industry judging which manuscripts "deserve" to be published. But the bias is lessening (partly, sadly, because so many small publishing houses have closed in the past twenty years so traditional publishing options are dwindling).

    It is true that anyone can self-publish, including writers whose works are not very good at all. And it is true that many self-publishing houses offer poor editorial services, or none at all, so poorly written manuscripts become poorly written books. And it is too true that self-publishing usually leaves distribution up to the author - it is up to the writer to get the book into reviewers' hands, to sell the book to librarians and teachers and bookstores, to physically get the book out to readers. Because of these things, the average sales of self-published novels is less than 100.

    But there are some excellent books being self-published, too, and some have gone on to be huge successes. For many writers, self-publishing is their best option: those who write for a niche audience and have little chance of selling their work to a traditional house; those who've written a book they want to share with family and friends but don't care about reaching a wider audience; or those who just want to see their story in print and don't want to face years of rejection from traditional publishers.

    I have never done any research on self-publishing because I'm an old-school type of writer. But the websites I list at the end of this letter will tell you more about it.

  4. Publish your novel electronically rather than in print.

    The information is out there; just look for it.

There are many organizations that can help you explore all of these options. The Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators might be the first one to approach. They publish all sorts of advice for their members, plus lists of agents and publishers, and they have discussion boards where members can exchange information and even manuscripts for advice and comment. 

You can find more organizations on my Useful Links Page.

Janice Hardy's Blog gives another writer's response to this question, with lots of good advice. Mahalo: Learn Anything (peppered with ads you might best ignore) and Wiki-How both offer useful information on preparing a manuscript for submission and approaching publishers.

There are entire websites that can help with all aspects of improving and publishing your work. Start with The Purple Crayon

And there are many helpful books on my Resources Page.

I know this letter just points you in the direction of more research, but I don't know of any way to avoid that on the road to publication. Learning how to research is part of being a writer. So get to it.

I wish you every success with your work.

Best wishes,

Catherine

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