From the outside looking in, publishing companies are a hive of book-making magic and mystery! But what actually goes on behind the scenes? 

Like agents, all publishers work slightly differently. Factors such as size, ethos and type of publisher all play a part.  However, this Question and Answer style article sets out to shine a light on some of the roles in the publishing industry and some of the most Frequently Asked Questions. 

To make the article as easy to follow as possible, it has been split into the following sections: 

  1. Submitting to publishers
  2. Working with publishers
  3. After the project


What themes are hot topic at the moment, and which ones are now exhausted?

Themes of kindness and community will no doubt be much-needed in the current climate. Editors are always on the lookout for humour and I expect escapism will be even more sought after. Own Voices texts are also on people’s agenda, and rightly so. In terms of what’s exhausted, I’ve heard environmental books are a hard sell unless you’re coming at them from a completely new and different angle, which is always the struggle with picture books. There are so many writers, writing from the same creative pool… but don’t give up hope. Your next idea could be ‘The One!’ 

Can you send work directly to publishers?

Most publishers only accept solicited submissions, which means a submission that arrives via a literary agent. Independent publishers, which are often smaller companies that are not affiliated with larger publishers, sometimes accept unsolicited manuscripts or open their submissions for part of the year. It’s a good idea to follow publishers you like on social media to keep abreast of announcements and to also check websites for the most up to date information, including competitions, courses and mentoring opportunities. 

Are publishers looking for ‘polished’ texts or are they happy to work with a writer if they like a story?  

Once a text has been acquired, there’s almost always another round of edits from the publisher, either before or after the offer. Generally, publishers are happy to work on texts and edit them if they really love them enough, although I think this is rare at a debut stage. It’s important to make sure the texts you send out are as polished as possible, so that it’s nice and easy for the publisher to say ‘yes’ and make an offer. 

Should you submit a picture book text with illustrations if you are the author only? 

Unless you are an author-illustrator, there is no need to submit drawings alongside your text. It is a good idea to include a few choice illustrations notes if your text requires them, but these should be minimal and only be used if they are essential to the story. It is the publisher’s job to find the perfect illustrator for your project. They will have a clear vision for the type and style of illustration that will best compliment your words. The illustrator might be someone they have worked with before, or the team might commission a sample. 


How much editing happens after a book is acquired? 

This varies greatly from text to text. Sometimes a story might only need a couple of tweaks. Other times, there might be more significant edits required, like a revised ending, a character change or change of title. However, these are usually agreed prior to signing contracts, so there shouldn’t be any big surprises. Once a text is ready, the illustrator can then work their magic. Sometimes small changes are made at subsequent stages to allow for the interaction of words and pictures in the story.

Do you get to choose the illustrator for your picture book?

Often the editor will run sample illustrations past the writer, but ultimately the decision lies with the publisher. Sometimes people worry that they won’t like their chosen pairing or that the tone and style might differ from what they had personally envisaged. It’s important to remember that the publishing team will want your story to be the best it can be and finding the perfect illustrative partner is all part of their expertise. Your publisher will want the project to be a big success and will most likely have communicated their vision when the offer was made. In my experience, your words are in great hands. However, if you’re deeply uncomfortable with a decision, then you must speak your mind. 

How closely do you work with an illustrator?

Finished picture books are a duet between author and illustrator – both have an important part to play. But surprisingly, the author and illustrator don’t usually connect directly during a project. The creative and editorial teams will oversee the development of the book and send layouts, roughs and finished artwork between the relevant parties for approval. Most of the time, a writer can expect to liaise with one named editor. It’s uncommon for the author and illustrator to communicate directly. (Although, after the project I often send a sneaky, personal message thanking them for the work!)

How long is an average picture book? 

Writing to 12 spreads is a good place to start. Sometimes a publisher might use one of the end pages to make a 13thpage or a book might be published with 11 double pages instead. In addition to these options, a publisher can add extra pages. For example, a story could be told in 14 spreads or more, but this will inevitably make a project more costly and could impact the budget and profits, which are carefully balanced. If you’re a celebrity author or an established writer, there might be room for more flexibility. 

The finalisation of paginations usually comes when a text is plotted out into roughs for the illustrator by the creative team, so there is no need overly worry. However, thinking in terms of 12 or 13 double pages when you write and submit can show a publisher you’ve thought about page turns and pacing and help with structure. Looking at how similar picture books are laid out might be helpful. 


What happens at book fairs such as Frankfurt and why does so much hang on them?

When you sign a picture book contract with a publisher, you are most likely selling them the rights to publish your story in all languages. International rights are almost always the only way to make a highly illustrated book to work financially, which is why so much hangs on them. The colour printing and large sizes make picture books expensive to make, so splitting the printing costs between international publishers brings the price down and makes them viable. This happens when they get printed – publishers will literally print all the illustrations for every edition and then print the different translations on top!

The rights team will take your text to big fairs like London, Frankfurt and Bologna, where publishers pitch picture books and try to get people to join them in these big print runs. However, rights teams will be selling all year round so they’re not the be-all and end-all.

What makes a story commercial?

Does your picture book have a ‘big’ concept that can be communicated in one line? A clear hook can make a picture book easy to pitch, easy to market and easy to sell, making it commercial. Commercial stories tend to be fun and make you smile and are often less lyrical. Lyrical texts tend to be paired with softer artists and aimed at an international market.

What can an author do to maximise sales once a book is published?

Events certainly help to raise a profile of a book. These can be done in person or online, live or recorded. You may want to organise some sort of launch. It’s worth getting in contact with your publisher as sometimes they can support you with this and contribute to costs. 

If events aren’t possible or aren’t your cup of tea, a blog tour can be a good way of spreading the word. Certainly, sharing reviews or running a giveaway on social media doesn’t harm and the sales team will be grateful for anything you can do to interact with readers, encouraging sales. A publisher will be able to offer more support and advice here, but it’s a good idea to think in advance about what you’re prepared to do and comfortable with. 

Whether you’re submitting to publishers, have signed your first deal or are further down the line, I hope these Questions and Answers were useful. 

Clare is a children’s writer and primary school teacher from Devon. She writes fiction and non-fiction picture book texts – sometimes funny and sometimes lyrical. Her first book was published in 2015 and she currently has books in development with Little Tiger Press, Quarto, Andersen, Nosy Crow and MacMillan. She also writes for the Maverick Early Readers scheme. You can find out more about Clare on her website http://www.clarehelenwelsh.com and by following her on Twitter @ClareHelenWelsh

Clare is also our Writer in Residence for the Hub, and teaches our online Picture Book course.