A few years ago, for reasons I now consider to be wrongheaded and half-assed and very poorly thought through, I decided to dive headfirst into the world of children's publishing. I made this decision right after my wife told me she was pregnant. I think now, in retrospect, that I used my impending dad-hood as an excuse to abandon just about everything I'd been doing up to that point, in hopes of being invigorated by a new "career." I'd been a professional illustrator/cartoonist for years, producing a syndicated comic strip, covers and editorial-type illustrations for weekly alternative newspapers. And I was periodically able
But I was bored, and looking for an out. Since I had a kid on the way, why not write and draw kids' books? Just like that, it was decided. From that moment on, all my creative energies would be directed toward becoming a professional children's picture book author and illustrator. That would still pay the bills, right? It would certainly be more lucrative than cartooning, right?
I soon discovered that, if you're not a big-time celebrity like Billy Crystal or Jamie Lee Curtis, children's publishing can be a notoriously tough nut to crack. Even a small publishing house can receive as many as 5,000 submissions in a year.
But I was already a working professional, and I was certainly willing to do the legwork. So I researched the industry. I read I don't know how many children's books. And I wrote—and rewrote and rewrote and rewrote—what I thought was a pretty solid picture-book manuscript, which I then sent to all the big publishers. While doing this, I told myself that even if this first manuscript didn't set the world on fire, I'd keep plugging away. I'd write manuscript after manuscript until I had a book contract: I am the Little Engine That Could.
Not long after, "impending dad-hood" became plain "dad-hood." And now, three years later, my son's birthday is just around the corner, and despite my pigheaded—and almost laughable—perseverance, I've yet to sign a book contract. Out of the nine children's manuscripts I've written, six have been roundly rejected by all the major publishers, and I'm waiting to hear about the other three. I still do illustrations for a living although I've retired my weekly comic strip. And I never paint anymore, as people with extra money no longer exist.
In the past three years, I've discovered that everybody and their grandmother (and their grandmother's second cousin) has a "really great" idea for a kids' book. And because I've devoted so much time and energy to breaking into this industry, they often ask for a pointer or two. Since a list of Breaking Into Children's Publishing Do's is sadly beyond the scope of my experience, I've instead compiled a list of Don'ts. So, for what it's worth, here is my amassed knowledge from the past three years:
Don't think about how much time everything takes. In the kids'-book industry, everything takes exactly forever and not a single millisecond less. A publisher's response time to your submission can be anywhere from three to 12 months. And hardly anybody uses e-mail, so it's all about writing formal letters and licking stamps and camping out by the mailbox and thumb-twiddling. After three years, your thumbs will have been twiddled down to pathetic nubs.
Don't move into a nicer, more expensive house based upon what a Scholastic editor says. Although a Scholastic editor may claim to love your first manuscript and ask whether you'd be interested in working on a few revisions with her, do not move into a nicer, more expensive house simply based upon her interest. That would be pretty stupid. Because there's a good chance Scholastic will soon thereafter have, as the editor will put it, "a changing of the guard"—after which your manuscript will, with some regret, be shown the door.
Don't tell your wife everything. Say you're talking on the phone with a prominent Simon and Schuster editor, and he happens to compare your work (favorably) with that of the guy who drew Where the Wild Things Are, and predicts that you and he (the editor) will have a long and industrious relationship working on picture books together, and then even goes on to discuss exactly how much money you will be making. It's best to keep this conversation to yourself. Because your wife will be ecstatic at hearing this news and consequently talk you into having a second child that you will now, at last, be able to afford. So when the Simon and Schuster editor—for unknown reasons—stops taking your calls a few weeks later, both you and your wife will become more frustrated and disappointed than ever. And your wife will be pregnant.
Don't act too bewildered when an editor tells you he really loves your manuscript . . . well, he loves it except for the main character, the plot and the ending. Just nod and pretend to understand.
Don't take anything personally. If, say, the editorial director of a big publishing house contacts you out of the blue and asks if you're interested in brainstorming with him for a possible farm-related picture book—a farm book, he specifies, with the potential for sequels (!)—but said editorial director subsequently never responds to any of your e-mailed farm ideas (well, responds just once, but only to say that he's very busy, and to promise he'll get back to you next week), really, don't take it at all personally. Just take those farm ideas and use them to write your ninth (and probably best) manuscript.
Finally: Don't let constant, repeated rejection seep into your bones. You're the Little Engine That Could, remember?
When I mentioned that I didn't have a book contract, I sort of lied. I actually have a book coming out next March. It's called Planet of Beer, and it's an oversized, full-color collection of a bunch of my weekly comic strips. I'm really excited about it. But—as you can probably guess from the title—it's not exactly a book for kids.
Brian Sendelbach lives in Boise, but this article originally appeared in the Baltimore City Paper.