Ask Tania: Non-Fiction Picture Books--where do I start when submitting to publishers?

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Dear Tania
My question is about approaching publishers with non-fiction picture books. I'm aware how to submit fiction picture books, but is there a difference with non-fiction? If I was interested in writing a book about a person in history, should I go full throttle, researching meticulously, honing my text and sending off a fully-polished manuscript, knowing that all that research could be of no use if the ms is rejected?

Hi, Emma,

A girl after my own heart--I adore non-fiction PBs! And I most particularly love books on people from history. I'm busting to know who you want to research; might have to ask you privately (sorry readers!).

But to your question. The very first thing you need to tell yourself when it comes to dedicating the endless hours to researching and penning a non-fiction book is this:

Not a single minute nor single word will be wasted. 

Even if the book is never published, every moment you put into that work is a precious and vital part of your author journey. It's what will make you qualified to write--and good at writing--this type of book. You have to tell yourself this, Em, otherwise writing in this genre will send you stark raving mad from the perceived grief at 'losing' that time and effort and resulting words.

It's never easy to create something, especially something lengthy (as is often the way with this genre) without guarantee of publication, but it is the reality for most writers. No author wants to write a word that becomes lost, but we don't need to grieve lost words that never make it to print. They really are invaluable feathers to our bow. They're not a sacrifice. They're an addition to our skillset.

And also remember that words don't have a time limit. Many an author (me included) has had older work published years down the track--with a bit of honing and updating. As market needs and trends shift and change, one book idea presented in 2023 may receive a more positive reception than it did in 2016.

As you progress with your career and have first books published, you'll be in a better position to have work commissioned and approved before creation, so things will change.

This happened with This is Captain Cook and the National Library of Australia. We discussed the concept for the book and I received contract before commencing. This is because I'm a house author, so the same thing happened for Australian Kids Through the Years and other books.

Australian Story was the book I first approached the Library with--way back in 2010. I met an author who was published by the NLA, I asked her advice on approaching their children's publications team, I did so, I had a meeting with the children's publisher and the rest is history (literally!).

Two Options

So, there are two ways you could approach the creation of your book.

Number one. You could simply fall into it, begin it and dedicate your heart and passion to it, regardless of outcome, and in the knowledge that whatever happens, you're learning invaluably. Along the way, you could begin researching appropriate publishers and their submissions processes.

Number two. There's nothing stopping you from approaching publishers who publish in this genre, and asking them if your book would be of interest to them. Some publishers are happy to receive a book outline only, particularly when it comes to non-fiction books which can sometimes be more comprehensive and time-consuming than fiction (at least in terms of research and authentication).

If the subject matter is of interest to them, they may be willing to look at the work as you go along and perhaps contract you part-way through. This is entirely dependent on the publisher, for each is very different, and things will change as the publisher goes through their own changes, and works through their annual list. 

Remember, some publishers may respond to this request, some may not. Many have really strict rules (out of sheer necessity) around submissions and submission queries, so don't take it personally if you hear nothing back. Just move on to someone else.

Here's a great article on writing non-fiction query letters.

Look at publishers who have an established series of books in the style you are thinking of. You could always approach them to offer your idea, if it would fit well with the current series.

There's no harm in trying! You never know your luck. Just ask!

The other thing I would do--and I strongly recommend this to all emerging authors--is get industry involved. Network. Make friendships. Go to festivals and conferences and publisher events, and MEET publishers face-to-face. Get to know them. By doing this, you could eventually enjoy marvellous opportunities, like being able to sub directly to a commissioning editor, without having to go through the usual processes. This will up your chances of being contracted prior to commencement of your work.

Also know that you're not alone. As I've recently begun illustrating books, I have several on the go with no contract, and have no way of knowing if they'll ever be contracted. Just because I'm with several publishers doesn't mean they'll take on these books, and some of them don't even publish this type. So I'm in the same boat as you when it comes to finding a home for them--and knowing that I may not ever find that home.

But I simply must create them. If I don't, I'll burst! And I have to reconcile myself to the possibility that all this work may be for nought but skillset enhancement.

You're not alone.

Em, I wish you every success with the creation of your historical Opus. If you love the subject matter and feel passionately about it and do it well, there's every chance it will be snapped up by someone eventually, even if you have to finish it and shop it around. And, as annoying as it sounds, if no one takes it, at least you'll have a priceless addition to your skillset.


PS: I hope the following writing tips help you on your journey!

Writing Tips for Children's Non-Fiction
  • write about something or someone you have a personal passion for; if you have zero interest in a topic, it WILL show, no matter how cleverly you write it; also, you want to enjoy the work!
  • define your readership age and adjust text to suit; what interests you as an adult may be of nil interest to kids; keep it age-appropriate
  • look for other books on this same topic--is the market too saturated? Who else has done this type of book? How can you make it different/stand out? What is unique about your version?
  • STEM topics are particularly sought after in non-fiction, and since history has been added to the junior school curriculum in Australia, it has become even more popular with publishers
  • consider contacting and subbing to educational publishers or other organisations like state libraries, museums and universities (who often have their own publishing programmes), and the CSIRO
  • don't be tempted to fill a market gap unless the subject matter is of deep interest to you 
  • remember that non-fiction can absolutely be as creative as fiction; think outside the square
  • never believe non-fiction plays second fiddle to fiction; when it comes to kids' books, non-fiction actually outsells fiction
  • keep an eye on world events, current affairs, anniversaries, etc--as your book idea may correlate with an upcoming something-or-other; publishers love that
  • read read read everything you can on your topic
  • don't underestimate the power of film, books, documentaries and imagery when completing your research
  • research tools include books, encyclopedias, newspapers, magazines, photographs, biographies and other books, sites such as Trove, Ancestory, census, radio and television archives, national libraries, museums, universities, national archives and research institutions, as well as talking directly to people, and of course--the internet in general
  • when it comes to the internet, you must use government or other official sites, and pay particular attention to authentication; remember, although it can be your greatest ally, the internet is also renowned for spouting rubbish and falsities
  • you will want to cross-reference and verify any research (most especially internet research) at least three times ... more if the reference is obscure
  • if something sounds fandangled, it probably is
  • keep comprehensive notes on ALL of your research sources, including any links!
  • know that even the most meticulous research can falter, especially as new light is shed on historical events; for example, in one of my books, I talk of the lamington being made for Lord Lamington, a governor in Queensland--a story that has been touted and authenticated for well over 100 years, but new research shows the cake was more likely made in honour of the Lord's wife, Mary Houghton Hozier (fun fact: Lord Lamington allegedly referred to lamingtons as 'those bloody poofy woolly biscuits'--more evidence they were probably NOT made in his honour!!)
  • there will always, always be someone (with nothing better to do) who will try to refute anything you write; don't let this put you off--history records are far from infallible and conflict will always appear (especially as new information arises)
  • enjoy every single, incredible moment of discovery--get set to laugh, to cry and stare into the distance in a state of wonder; fact truly IS stranger than fiction

See all the questions so far


Linda Carpenter said...

Great post! I just finished my first non-fiction PB, already researched for two more topics.
Many thanks!

Tania McCartney said...

A pleasure, Linda - and good luck with your book!

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