19 Feb 2012

How to get a children's book published

On Feb 19, 2012, I sat on a panel with the amazing Jude Isabella, the entertaining Claire Eamer and the incomparable Jim Becker. Together we presented: Keep Out! Kids Only: How To Morph Your Science into a Whiz-Bang Book for Kids .

We had a respectable number of attendees (probably around 60), all of whom were interested in how to write for the children's market.

Jude explained the magazine side of the business, while Claire covered the information/research portion of the panel. Jim, the genius behind the Smart Lab brand of toys and the best-selling book/kits you often find at Costco, walked the scientists/journalists through what makes a successful product.  I spoke about the business end of publishing and things you need to know when trying to get a book to market.

Below is the text and some of the slides from my portion of the presentation.

My name is Shar Levine and I write hands-on science books for children.  My writing partner Leslie Johnstone and I have together written over 60 books, so it’s fair to say that we have some experience in creating books that publishers want to buy and that kids want to read.

If you are interested you can check out our web site: www.sciencelady.com for a listing of books.

It is extremely difficult to sell a book, especially these days.  Publishers are looking for something unique.

Here are some simple steps to follow if you want to write a science book for children.
1.  Who will buy this book?
It is really important to know who your book will appeal to. If the topic is focussed on something very esoteric, chances are the publisher won’t be interested in the book.
Ideas that sell- fills gap in curriculum  - anniversary of da vinci’s birthday
Ideas that won’t sell – sun spots

2.  What is the market for the book?
Is this book only for kids who live on the east coast of the United States or can the book be used by children in Canada, the US, Europe and Australia?
Idea what works- Snowy Science
Idea that won’t work- Science of Sand

3.  Who publishes this kind of book?
Approaching a publisher who specializes in Picture Books and not information books is a waste of everyone’s time.  Do your research and check out standard guides like Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market.

4.  What is the competition for this book?
Again, do your research. Go on Amazon and see what similar books have been published.  God forbid- go to a library.  Talk to a teacher and ask what science book needs to be written.  And if you want to write a book on a subject that has a ton of books i.e. Magnets, then you have to find a different spin.

5.   Why are you the person to write this book?
Just because you are a notable scientist or a well known journalist, doesn’t mean you know how to write a kid’s book.  Remember you will be using little words for big concepts and you may only have 100 of those words /page to get this information across to the reader.  The trick is to tell the child just enough facts that won’t confuse them or conflict with the science they will learn in high school.

Which is easier for a child to understand?

In order to maintain the shape of a flexible membrane within a rigid plastic container you must first increase air pressure within the membrane while simultaneously allowing air to leave the rigid container. When the rigid container is sealed this produces a partial vacuum inside the plastic container. The shape of the membrane is retained due to the higher external air pressure relative to the vacuum inside the plastic container as long as there is a sufficient difference between the pressure within the membrane and that within the container

Or this?
How can you blow up a balloon, leave the mouth of the balloon open, and not have the balloo deflate? Try this!

6.  What do you have that other writers don’t have?
Publishers don’t like to spend money. The more you can offer by way of images the more appealing your proposal might be to them. For example: we’ve done 10 books on microscopy and 3-d electron microscopy because we have access to microscopes.

7.  Do you know the rules for hands-on children’s science books?

Let’s start with something simple: which of the following cannot be used in an experiment for children:
1. Rubbing Alcohol
2. Eggs
3. Matches
4.  Microwave oven

The answer: all of the above.

Writing for children is completely different than writing for an adult market. There are rules here that you need to follow, no matter how absurd you may think they are.  It doesn’t matter that your child gets eggs from the fridge, can use a knife to cut a piece of bread or can nuke popcorn.  In writing a science book for young children- 6-12 you have to be extra cautious with all materials and instructions. You need to be aware of things you can and cannot do and if your list of “do’s and don’ts” looks like something created by a litigation lawyer, you know you have a problem.

NOTE: Just because something is really cool in a lab setting does not mean you can do this at home.

The case in point: The Electric Pickle.  This activity is amazing in a controlled lab setting and when it is performed by someone who knows what to do. At home you might kill yourself if you do this incorrectly.

8.  What are the concepts, vocabulary and materials appropriate for the grade level?
Let’s take acid rain as an example. I had a terrible time with a group of grade 4 students when they were examining acid rain. They asked what would happen if they got caught in an acid rain storm. I told them they would get wet. They presumed all “acid” would burn your flesh off.  Too many sci fi movies.  So I had to explain “acid” which then led to pH and the science of acid and bases, which was way above their grade level.

9.  What other things do you need to consider when pitching or writing a book?
Generally you have to use things that are universally available around the world, but you cannot call them by their trade name.  So Saran Wrap, is plastic wrap, Kleenex is facial tissue, Joy is dishwashing liquid.  If you are photographing these for an activity you must block off all identifiable logos and markings.

You will need to write short sentences, with exact word counts.  If you publisher says you have 200 words / chapter with a DYK or sidebar of 20 words, that’s what you need to submit.

Try not to date the book. A great example of this is one chapter in Science Around the World, where we said that someday flat screen tvs would be everywhere.  If you are sending photos for a book, no T-shirts with logos or writing.  No slang.

Always have an equal number of girls to boys and make sure the girls are active and not passive in photographs or illustrations.  Also include children of different ethnic backgrounds and if possible a child with a visible handicap.

When adding sidebars, try to find as many examples of women scientists as possible.  Also cite research from universities for leading edge sidebars. A great source of information is New Scientist or ScienceDaily.

10. Swallow your pride or stand your ground?

One publisher we worked for created books for Sam’s Club and Walmart.  In the Southern US, they didn’t like “evolution”.  So the agreed to term was, “over time”.  Sometimes you suck it up and cash the check.

11.  How do you woo a publisher?
In the case of pitching to someone like Jim, find an add-on that can come with the book.  We did that with the Ice cream maker, the microscope, and the 3-D books becker. For Wild Planet we created all the science activities to be used with the Mega Dome. And the Summerville House, I designed WormWorld and the Papermaker.

12.  What is the best advice?
Be ahead of the curve.  Don’t pitch a book that is a spin-off of a highly successful one, do something new.  You can also partner with an established author. This is something we’ve done several times and it has been a fabulous experience for everyone.

We just finished our first enhanced Ebook that included video and audio and we have two more in development.  Again, come complete with a very comprehensive outline, a sample chapter, a pithy pitch and a compelling reason why you should write this book.

Good luck!


1 comment:

Donna Martin said...

Thank you for providing some great tips on what to keep in mind when writing in the science field. I am a beginner writer and blogger (http://www.donasdays.blogspot.com ) and can use all the help I can get!