It's a Bunny-Eat-Bunny World: A Writer's Guide to Surviving and Thriving in Today's Competitive Children's Book Market

It's a Bunny-Eat-Bunny World: A Writer's Guide to Surviving and Thriving in Today's Competitive Children's Book Market

by Olga Litowinsky


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It's a Bunny-Eat-Bunny World: A Writer's Guide to Surviving and Thriving in Today's Competitive Children's Book Market by Olga Litowinsky

The business of publishing books for children has changed monumentally over the last decade. Large companies have merged and grown, while well-established imprints vanished one after another. In this tough climate, it's becoming harder and harder to break into the industry. Olga Litowinsky has interviewed to children's book editors, agents, and experts in the field and shares their up-to-the-minute advice about what editors are looking for today. Armed with this insider information, aspiring writers will be able to distinguish themselves and succeed in today's highly competitive marketplace.

It's a Bunny-Eat-Bunny World gives invaluable guidance on how to write and submit a manuscript, revealing what is most important from an editor's point of view. Expanding on her previous book, Writing and Publishing Books for Children in the 1990s, Olga Litowinsky includes tips on how an author can edit, market, and publicize his or her own work, with new information on how to deal with agents, editors, contracts, and writers' rights. This no-nonsense guide is the definitive resource for all children's book writers–novice and veteran alike.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802775238
Publisher: Walker & Company
Publication date: 05/01/1901
Pages: 218
Product dimensions: 5.97(w) x 8.97(h) x 0.68(d)

About the Author

Olga Litowinsky has worked on both sides of the editor desk; as a former executive editor of children's books at Simon & Schuster, and as an author of eight books for children and one for adults, Writing and Publishing books for Children in the 1990s, also published by Walker & Company. She divides her time between Brooklyn, New York, and Martha's Vineyard, in Massachusetts.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Bunny Also Rises

* * *


When one door is shut, another opens.
—Miguel de Cervantes

Born during the Great Depression, I grew up in an immigrant family in Newark, New Jersey, and longed to be part of the small-town world shown in movies like The Music Man or performed in now-forgotten radio shows like Henry Aldrich. My mother loved the way Mrs. Aldrich called, at the beginning of each show, "Hen-RY! Henry AL-drich!" It wasn't too different from the way she called her children to come home from the streets where we roller-skated, played hide-and-seek, stickball, and marbles. Later, most of my generation moved to the suburbs in pursuit of the American dream as exemplified by a white frame house with a picket fence on Elm Street. No matter where they live, parents still call to their children the way Mrs. Aldrich and my mother called to theirs. Nonetheless, an era has ended.

    Historians agree that people living in the twentieth century witnessed more changes than people in any other period of human history. When my father, who was born in 1887 in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, arrived in Newark in 1907, he saw horses everywhere, even pulling buses full of people. There were no radios or refrigerators, movies or vacuum cleaners, television or automatic washing machines. Only the rich had telephones. But he lived long enough to drive a car down superhighways while Sputnik beeped overhead.He observed more changes than he could have ever dreamed of—and so have we in our lifetimes.

    One important change, which we take for granted, is that high culture became accessible to ordinary people through the expansion of a system of free public libraries that began at the end of the nineteenth century.

    Books had arrived in the English colonies with the earliest settlers on the Mayflower, a number of men had private libraries in their houses, and university libraries served students. As early as 1731, Benjamin Franklin founded a public subscription (not free) library in Philadelphia, with similar institutions arising in Boston; Charleston, South Carolina; Newport, Rhode Island; and New York. These libraries already had some books appropriate for children on their shelves, including classics like Aesops' Fables (1484) The Arabian Nights (available in English by 1712), and Mother Goose (translated from the French around 1729). As time went on, books like Alice in Wonderland (1865), Little Women (1868) and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) joined them.

    However, most books for children written before the twentieth century were either religious like Pilgrim's Progress (1678) or didactic like The Book of Courtesye (1497). The latter book, from the great English printer William Caxton, described how a well-bred English child ought to behave. In addition, many of the books, such as Robinson Crusoe (1719-20), had originally been published for adults; although children read them, they skipped the dull and difficult parts, and special children's editions expurgated material deemed inappropriate for young readers.

    The first publishers were either printers like Caxton or booksellers like John Newbery (1713-67), who was one of the first to publish books especially designed for children. (The Newbery Medal—for the best children's book of the year written by an American—is named after him. It is awarded by the American Library Association.)

    British illustrators like Walter Crane, Kate Greenaway, and Randolph Caldecott emerged in the nineteenth century with their drawings of cheerful people, flowers, action scenes, and animals. Advances in printing made color drawings possible. (The Caldecott Medal—for the best illustrated book of the year—is named for Randolph Caldecott and bears a reproduction of a drawing by him. This medal is also awarded by the American Library Association. Its winner and the winner of the Newbery Medal are both chosen at the association's midwinter meeting.)

    Still, with some exceptions, there was quaintness and unreality in many of these books, which tended to portray childhood as a universally happy time and gave children sentimental tales about fairies and elves.

    It is perhaps significant that 1900 saw the publication of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, the story of a mischievous bunny remarkably like a real child. This was the same year Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams was published in Vienna, heralding a new century with exciting ideas in psychology, education, and child development.

    The public library system continued to expand, and by 1900 more than nine thousand libraries could be found around the country in rural and urban areas. Some libraries began to open children's rooms, and elementary and secondary schools also started to establish their own libraries. By 1915, the American Library Association had set up a school library division. It was not long before a number of librarians and other women (it was mostly women) decided children needed more books to enrich their minds and imaginations, books that were not textbooks, books that were not religious, trendy, or commercial. Dedicated librarians convinced publishers that a market was waiting for new books written and illustrated especially for children. The first trade children's book, or juvenile, department was opened in 1921 by Louise Seaman at Macmillan. This marked the beginning of modern children's trade book publishing, which set the standards for the books still being published today.

    A few male publishers, whose families owned the firms, put the children's book departments in offices at the back of their quarters and let the ladies publish all the books about bunny rabbits they desired. At other houses, children's books like Felix Salten's Bambi (1928) were published by the adult department. It soon became clear the "bunny books" were profitable, and juvenile departments opened at other firms.

    Working in harmony with professional librarians like Anne Carroll Moore of the New York Public Library, the editors and librarians had high standards. Seaman of Macmillan, May Massee of Doubleday and Viking, and others wanted to publish literary, intelligent, and truthful books that would appeal to all children. They wanted the best artists to illustrate them. The librarians wanted the same things, and 95 percent of the juvenile books were sold to school and public libraries. Devoted to children's literature, the Horn Book Magazine began publication in Boston in 1921 with Bertha Mahoney as editor. And in 1929, the first children's book club, the junior Literary Guild, began to send selected books to children all over the country.

    In those days, most people in positions of power in the United States were white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, and upper middle-class. Since the librarians (and the publishers) were of similar background, the books they published were largely about and for middle-class children and their concerns. Many of the most highly regarded titles, such as Wind in the Willows, The Story of Doctor Dolittle, and Winnie the Pooh, came from England. In spite of their origin, these books transcended class boundaries. Of universal interest, with unforgettable characters, settings, and ideas, they appealed to all children, not only in the United States but around the world—which is what the best books do.

    Talented people have long flocked to and from the United States to create new lives or to escape political troubles. Writers and artists like Wanda Gag from Czechoslovakia; Kate Seredy from Hungary; and Ludwig Bemelmans from Austria added a continental flavor to the predominantly Anglo-Saxon menu of books. William Pène du Bois's father was an American artist who moved to France, where Pène du Bois was educated. This was the golden age of children's books, which many say began in the United States in 1929 with the publication of a hopeful tale born on the eve of the Great Depression, Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag.

    Kate Seredy, who had fallen on hard times in the 1970s, declared in a letter to her publisher that her books—and those of other juvenile writers—had kept the Viking Press afloat during the Depression. This was true, and Thomas Guinzburg, the owner of Viking, acknowledged it by sending her an advance on her royalties to help her.

    TO their amazement, publishers had found that juvenile books sold well even though jobs were scarce, people were standing in bread lines, and the banks were bankrupt. It was not only books. All forms of entertainment—especially the movies—did well as people looked for ways to forget their economic woes and the horrors of World War II. In the 1940s Walt Disney movies thrilled families with versions of favorite children's books and stories, such as Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi and Ferdinand, a pacifist tale about a bull, by Robert Lawson.

    Commercial lines of books—the ancestors of today's mass market titles—for children were also available. Literary quality took second place to action-packed, often garish, stories in the form of the dime novel or series books like the Horatio Alger stories with stereotyped characters and cliffhangers at the end of every chapter.

    The most enduring and successful "fiction factory" was that of Edward Stratemeyer, who, as owner of what became known as the Stratemeyer Syndicate, published hundreds of books from Tom Swift to the Hardy Boys series under a variety of pseudonyms around the turn of the century and later. Howard R. Garis and his wife, Lillian, wrote most of the Tom Swift and Bobbsey Twins books—he could write a book every eight or ten days. Leslie McFarlane, who used the pseudonym Franklin W. Dixon, wrote most of the original Hardy Boys books.

    When Stratemeyer's daughter, Harriet, protested that her father wasn't publishing books for girls, he said, "Girls don't read." Harriet proved him wrong by starting the Nancy Drew line of mysteries, which were written by Mildred Wirt Benson under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene. Benson said in a National Public Radio interview in 1993 that Nancy was perfect, a fantasy creation who never made a mistake or had any flaws. Nancy Drew is still going strong, as are other, newer lines of series books, mostly in paperback editions. The stock complaint now is that boys don't read!

    As the century grew older, children had access to comic books (Superman was born in 1936), radio, movies, television, video games, and computers. When each new temptation to put down a book arose, so did dire predictions about the death of high-quality books for children. Yet juvenile publishing, though it has changed a great deal from the days of Louise Seaman, remains a strong and vital industry.

    In the first half of the twentieth century, the editors at the major publishing houses founded a reading empire that is to be envied. As the editorial staffs grew, young women joined them straight from college, without becoming librarians first. The editors gave the youngest children picture books with first-rate artwork, in black and white and in color. Many of these are still on the shelves of libraries. Fiction for older children, including marvelous books of folk and fairy tales, opened up the world and gave readers an enviable vocabulary. Books satisfied curious children by providing accurate and up-to-date information about science, history, and other nonfiction topics. The first winner of the Newbery Award, in 1922, was The Story of Mankind by Hendrik van Loon, a writer born in the Netherlands. For the first time ever, thanks to the free public library system in the United States, nearly all children had access to books of poetry, humor, fantasy, and realistic fiction as well as up-to-date nonfiction written especially for them.

    This trend continued to the end of the century. By the year 2001, no longer was the juvenile publishing field dominated by white middle-class women. Editors actively sought out writers from minority groups, and the 1970s saw a flowering of multicultural literature. Children's book writers and editors today come from many classes, races, religions, sexual preferences, and national backgrounds. Old taboos about sexual activity, street language, and controversial subject matter began to fade in the 1960s, though censorship and informed concern about what is appropriate for children remained alive.

    However, the most serious threat to the continuation of the library-centered tradition was the discovery that children's books made money, or "Children's Books Mean Business," a slogan from the 1980s. Large corporations bought and absorbed small publishing houses; the family firms nearly became extinct. As Craig Virden, president and publisher of juvenile hardcovers and paperbacks at Bantam Doubleday Dell said ruefully in Publishers Weekly, "Forget quaint and old-fashioned children's book publishing. 'Bunny eat bunny' has become dog eat dog." The profits and prestige have improved, so men head many children's departments today and must answer to executives who hold M.B.A.s, not degrees in the liberal arts.

    We all know about the many babies born since 1990, a peak year for births. Parents—and grandparents—eagerly buy books for children; schools emphasize reading. Yet, paradoxically, in the 1990s many writers began to wonder whether they had chosen the right career as publishing houses reduced their lists, cut back on staff, and shut the doors to unsolicited manuscripts. Some venerable houses even vanished.

    In spite of the changes, this is an excellent time to be a writer for children if you cast off old ideas. A time of transition is never easy, but neither is it a disaster. It is a time to take up the challenge of new markets and new ways of doing things.

Table of Contents

Part I: Background
1. The Bunny Also Rises The Beginnings of Children's
Publishing in America3
2. Multiplying Like, Well, Rabbits The Growth of
Paperback Books for Children12
3. Mr. McGregor Buys a Suit Juvenile Publishing Becomes
Big Business21
4. What's Up, Doc? The Changing Marketplace33
Part II: Foreground
5. Hop to It! Where to Find a Publisher47
6. Quick Like a Bunny Tips for Writing Picture Books57
7. How Does the Garden Grow? Writing Fiction70
8. Bunnies in the Money Should You Write a Series?87
9. Inside the Fence How to Edit Your Own Work101
10. Secrets from the Carrot Patch How to Submit a
11. Bunnies to the Rescue Dealing with Agents, Editorial
Consultants, and Editors134
12. Splitting Hares Contracts, Copyright, and Writers'
13. The Tail End Your Part in the Production Process160
14. Bunny Goes to Market Publicity and Promotion182
15. Who Needs a Rabbit's Foot? What You Can Do to Market
Appendix: Important Addresses213
Suggestions for Further Reading216

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