Today we get to hear from the editorial side of children’s publishing. A huge thank you to Thomas Nelson who so willingly offered interviews and advice for aspiring children’s writers!!
Tell us a little about yourself!
My name is MacKenzie Howard, and I’ve been with Thomas Nelson for just over three years. I’ve got a wonderful husband who is a high school teacher and basketball coach and two crazy little dogs.
I love acquiring and dreaming up book ideas for children as well as working with authors and delving into manuscripts. The best thing about the children’s division is the variety of projects we get to handle—fiction, non-fiction, Bible storybooks, picture books, board books, and others.
Even though I’m sure no day is “typical”, can you tell us about what your “day at work” is like as a children’s book editor?
You are definitely right that no day is typical! 🙂 It really depends where my projects are and what my priorities are for a given day or week. When I’m close to printer dates, it can be hectic getting proofs finalized and off to the printer—especially if projects overlap. Those days involve a lot of shuffling proofs off to freelancers, checking, working with design, and rechecking. Other times I’m working on the front end of manuscripts and early edits, managing freelancers, working up proposals for new products, researching the market to find new products, or handling our submissions. Some days I’m doing just one thing, but others I may be doing all of it.
On the website, you list Kids Fiction and Tween Fiction. For you, what is the distinction between those two?
Kids’ fiction could be anything from a board book story to an early reader chapter book. Tween fiction is for the nine to twelve age group. For example, in the secular market, Junie B. Jones would be for kids, but something like Harry Potter is geared for nine to twelve year olds.
What makes a picture book manuscript stand out to you? What do you look for?
Picture books are an extremely tough market these days. They don’t just don’t sell like they used to, and because they’re sold at a higher price, we have to be extremely selective. We see a lot of very sweet stories, but the market is so competitive, that just doesn’t cut it anymore. Things that would make a picture book stand out in addition to a great story line would be an author platform or a subject matter platform. And unless you’re a professional illustrator, never include artwork.
What about kids/tween novels? What do you look for in those stories?
Right now, I’m specifically interested in action/adventure novels for the nine to twelve market. In any genre, I look for a strong, engaging plot and well-developed characters. Characters are particularly big for me as an editor but also as a consumer. I can stick with a great character even if I’m not in a fast-paced part of the story. Another thing that is important for us is Christian content. That can work on several levels. The plot doesn’t necessarily have to revolve around an explicitly Christian theme, such as a young boy’s search for Christ, but we need the stories to be from a Christian worldview and have some sort of edifying, redemptive message. It may be about a boy’s search for treasure, but through that he learns about God, prays for safety, etc.
We also do allegory, although at the moment, I’m not really seeking out fantasy. It looks to be trending down right now. One thing that is hugely popular is dark fiction. This can be tricky for kids, but if I see something that works with our values, I’m open to exploring it.
Tell us a little about YA Non-fiction. What do you look for in those submissions? Any particular needs in this area?
Right now we’ve got a strong line of YA non-fiction from our Revolve team that covers a good breadth of topics. But I’m always open to a great idea. Girls read much more than guys, so that’s good to keep in mind. But, if you’ve got a great message that will reach teen guys and get them reading, I’d love to find it. Two important questions I’d ask are: 1. Is your topic relevant to teens today? 2. Do you have a platform to reach them?
What’s on your wish list as far as books go?
Like I said, I’d love to find a great action/adventure series that would appeal to both boys and girls. Thirty-nine Clues is a very fun series in the secular market right now. I love that it’s a grand, fast-paced adventure tied to a very intricate mystery, but I also love that it’s fun and educational.
My goal is always to first reach children for Christ. I believe there’s a statistic that 80% of conversions happen before the age of twelve, so that’s a huge mission for us. Secondly, I want to educate them and make them more well-rounded individuals so they have an awareness of culture, history, science, and society. And finally, I want to inspire them and entertain them.
Is there anything you see way too much of?
We see a lot of picture book or storybook submissions, which like I said, is a tough market. Today, it takes more than a good story to reach consumers.
Are there any common problems/mistakes that you see in the manuscripts you read?
We don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts, but in anything, it’s important to make sure it is clean! Typos happen to everyone, even editors, but the cleaner your manuscript looks, the better.
What percentage of your children’s books are written by authors that you’ve already been working with? Are there areas you’d be open to submissions from “new to Thomas Nelson” writers?
Probably ninety percent or more of our titles come from authors who have worked for us before or who have worked in other Nelson divisions, but we’re always open to new talent.
Many agents will not consider children’s writers, so are there agents that Tommy Nelson does work with that you might recommend writers to look into? Any other ways to be considered?
Mike (Hyatt) has also done a post on agents, and several of these do work with children’s authors:
Describe your dream author:-)
My dream author works hard, is responsive, meets deadlines, and is open to feedback. It’s really like any relationship; you want it to be healthy with lots of communication and mutual willingness to work together for the best possible outcome. You have to be, as one of my college professors used say, willing to sometimes “kill your darlings.” You may think you’ve written the best scene, but if your publisher or your editor is telling you it isn’t working, you’ve got to be open to change.
I’m really blessed to work with a lot of great authors. I’ve built some great relationships, and we have a lot of fun working on books.
Any other advice you’d like to share with authors who write for children?
Study the masters! Study all-time best-sellers like Margaret Wise Brown and Dr. Seuss and study what is currently popular. Know what works and why. Read bestseller lists like the New York Times and the ECPA lists. Read books on writing and attend conferences if you are able. Read blogs like Michael Hyatt’s and other industry leaders. Spend time with children and research the market. Commit to finding an agent or research which houses accept unsolicited manuscripts. Here are a few more resources that may be helpful:
If you are interested in having your stories published by another Christian publisher, we recommend a book called The Christian Writers’ Market Guide 2009 by Sally Stuart. This book includes writer’s guidelines and submission procedures for all Christian publishing houses that do accept unsolicited manuscripts. You can find it on Amazon here:
You can also visit Sally’s Website here:
If you need help writing a book proposal, we recommend Mike Hyatt’s article, “Writing a Winning Book Proposal.” You can download it here:
And whether you’re pitching to a house or an agent, have a healthy confidence in yourself and in your work. Never tell them you have the next Twilight or Harry Potter but know you’ve done your homework and have produced a quality writing worthy of review.
Thank you MacKenzie!
Keep the questions coming! We’ll do some more focus on Children’s/YA later on:-) Don’t forget – you can also join the “Writing for Kids & Teens” Group at My Book Therapy where we can delve deeper into this special area of publishing. See you there! ~Sarah