Whew! You didn't know you had it in you. But you did it. You worked diligently. You persisted. You ignored the concerned looks and questions from your friends and loved ones. You hid yourself in the back room of your house or the quiet corner of a coffee shop for months and months. And now you have in your hands a beautiful baby book. It's perfect. (And nobody better tell you different.)
First of all; congratulations. You've made it farther than most. Take a deep breath. Get cleaned up. Take yourself to dinner. Actually, take someone else to dinner. You need human interaction and that someone else probably needs reassurance that you haven't forgotten about their existence. Order dessert. Put it on my tab. Forget about the book for a few nights.
Feel better? Great! Now what? Take another deep breath. It’s decision time.
Some baby books are beautiful. Most are not. They need work. Are you ready to hear that your baby book is ugly? Are you prepared for someone else to judge your precious creation and tell you that it’s terrible? That it’s the Quasimodo of baby books–gifted with heroic intention, but cursed by lackluster form?
If all you want is praise, have your friends read it. Send it to your mom. Beg an old English professor to skim it over. But here's the thing. Everyone who cares about your feelings would rather lie to your face than tell you that your book sucks. You worked long and hard on your baby book and your loved ones don't want you to be crushed.
But you're not like that at all. You really, really want to know the truth. Because you want to grow as an artist. You want to improve your craft. You want to be a success story. Okay. Keep reading. But I warn you that this is where the warm fuzzies stop.
With a very few exceptions, businesses exist to make profits. And the publishing industry is most definitely filled with for-profit businesses. Those businesses happen to sell, among other things, books. And books, like any mass-produced commodity, need distribution channels, which include bookstores, websites, E-readers like Kindle, or you could even try to distribute it yourself via a pallet of self-published books in your garage.
Assuming you want the benefits of a massive distribution network, you need to arrange to have your baby book distributed by some sort of publisher. And traditional publishers have the strongest relationships with booksellers across the world, ties to the film and television industry, and lots of really smart, caring people (editors, designers, publicists and more) who can help you get your baby book into the hands of hungry readers.
Publishers want to publish books that will sell well. Literary agents want to represent books that will sell well. If your baby book isn’t ready (i.e. won't sell), the industry will happily ignore your presence. Sad but true. But, if you're confident in your baby book, let's go find that traditional publisher to distribute it.
(But, Fred! What about self-publishing? Haven’t you heard about that one guy/girl who self-published, sold a bajillion copies, and now has a major motion picture on the way?) Yes. And I also hear about people winning the lottery, getting struck by lighting, or falling off cliffs while taking selfies. They’re called outliers, and statistically they are bound to happen. But it’s rare and impossible to plan. (But Fred! Can’t I be an outlier too? My book is THAT good!) Yes. Yes you can. Please stop reading this article. You’ll be a millionaire by next Thursday. I’m sure of it.
Okay, whew. I think I got rid of the folks with unrealistic expectations. Let’s you and I keep going. So, you’ve finished your book, you’ve let go of the idea of being an overnight success, and you’re genuinely interested in the long, slow path to a career in publishing.
Step one. Get a list of literary agents or editors for major publishers and visit each of them at their offices. Make sure to arrive unannounced and try to schmooze your way past security so you can monopolize the time of anyone that makes eye contact with you. If you can't get past security, look up editors' photos online and wait outside the building till they go out to lunch. Then perform an impromptu theatrical reading of your manuscript as they walk by. Its a sure-fire way to catch their attention. Unfortunately this kind of behavior is sometimes called 'stalking' and also attracts FBI agents. So on second thought, don't do any of that.
The tried and true way of finding out if a publisher has an interest in publishing (distributing) your book is by querying them directly or querying through a literary agent. There's a ton of information out there about how to query, who to query, etc.; and I'll let you look that up on your own. The problem with the querying process, especially for newbies, is that you're not going to get much feedback. They're not going to tell you if your baby book is bad or how to fix it; they're just going to send a form rejection letter. And nowadays even those are becoming less common.
An actual, genuine great first step to becoming a published author would be to find a critique group. There are thousands of online and in-person critique groups around the world and there will certainly be one focussed on the genre that you write. (For example, I belonged to a critique group that only works on picture books, and later joined one that discussed middle grade novels.) Chances are that your critique group will teach you that you have some great writing strengths, but even more opportunities to grow. I promise all of my critique partners to be their "frienemy," and to give them honest feedback intended to help them achieve their goals. I expect the same from them. We've all become partners in each others' success, and the longer I stick with them the more relevant their feedback becomes. My writing gets better and better because of their criticism. And sometimes they tell me a manuscript is good enough or "ready" to start looking for a publisher. I am now reasonably confident that my baby book is not ugly, and may in fact be beautiful.
Another brilliant place to get started is at a writers conference. If you write for children and young adults, I highly recommend the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. Never in my life have I met such a friendly group, happy to share ideas and information, and ecstatic to see you succeed. What can you expect from one of these conferences? You're going to listen to a lot of speakers and participate in workshops. Those speakers are going to be published authors, literary agents, and publishing representatives. They're either the people you want to be, or else they're the people you want to meet. You show up to learn and make friends, not to sell. If you corner an agent or editor and start talking their ear off about your baby book, you've probably missed your shot. BUT… If you pass them between sessions and casually mention the thing you appreciated most about their keynote, they might engage you in conversation. And then you have a real opportunity.
And my favorite part about going to conferences is the chance to sign up for a paid critique. You get to sit down, one-on-one, with either a published author, an agent or an editor; and you get to talk about your baby book! It's what you've been waiting for and it's a total "moment of truth" experience. The person critiquing your manuscript is going to tell you how they see your book fitting in the market and what it might need to find a home with a publisher. In some instances, it could possibly be love at first site, and an agent or editor will take an interest in representing or purchasing the rights to publish your book. I've seen it happen many a time. Unpublished writers graduate to published authors at these conferences.
Now here's the hard part. What if you did all that and nobody liked your book? Every published author I know, myself included, has a drawer full of rejection letters and bad critiques. But, if you're serious enough to make the investment and humble enough to take the critique seriously, you will grow. Those who grow, blossom. And those who blossom get picked. The difference between failure and success is a single attempt. There's just no way of knowing if it will be your first attempt or your fiftieth.
So don't be upset if your first baby book is an ugly one. Mine was. There was this one-winged angel and a kid that had never been born and a crown hidden in the desert. Yikes. It was bad. But, here's what Betsy Bird writes in the School Library Journal about my eleventh or twelfth manuscript, which became my debut from Penguin USA:
"THIS is how you write a picture book. It is amazing. The kid perspective is spot on from start to finish. Keep tabs on Koehler. He’s one to watch."
This year, I’m celebrating the release of my eighth book, with number nine on the way and even more prospective contracts floating about in the mist.
Raise your hand if you think I got here without doing everything I mentioned above. If it can happen to me, a redneck small town kid with ZERO connections to the industry, it can happen to you. It's hard. But it's worth it if you're serious.
So to recap. Take a deep breath. Reward yourself for your hard work. Prepare yourself to find out that your first, second, or third baby book may be ugly. Learn. Grow. Make friends. And keep making baby books until each one is beautiful.
See ya on the bestseller list!