By Archana Atri
As children are becoming more discerning readers, hungry for a greater variety in books, the kidlit space is expanding and creators of children’s books are working at responding to their demands.
In this context, a panel discussion was organised by SCBWI, India at the Reading Caterpillar Library, Nizamuddin, New Delhi on 9th February to exchange notes on editorial submission etiquette . The panellists were Sayoni Basu of Duckbill, Sohini Mitra of Penguin and Tina Grover Narang of Harper Collins India. The discussion was moderated by Tanu Shree Singh and the audience comprised of new and aspiring authors of children’s books.
The moderator asked the following questions of the panellists:
Question : Talking about books for children, what is length or word limit you look at in the different categories i.e. picture books, chapter books for early and middle grade readers, and YA books?
Answer: For picture books, Tina Narang said that the word limit could be from 0 to 1000 in about 32 pages; for chapter books, for early and middle grade readers, it could go from 4000 to 7000 words; and for YAs, 24000 to 32000 or maybe even more.
Question: How should one decide which publisher to pitch to? What are publishers looking for>
Answer: Sayoni Basu said that this is rather subjective, depending on what the publishing house’s focus is and if they are open for submissions. To figure this out, one should look at the books that a publisher has already published and also look at the guidelines posted on the websites of different publishers.
Question: What are some of the guidelines to follow for manuscript submission?
Answer: The best practice would be to email, with a covering letter and the manuscript or chapters of it, and a synopsis as attachments. Most publishers do not accept hard copies any more. Absolutely no Facebook or Whatsapp submission! Some authors have recently begun to use the services of agents to manage the submission process.
Question: What should debut authors say about themselves?
Answer: Write about your publishing history, if any. Give a short synopsis of the book. Definitely no grammatical errors in the covering letter. It should be properly proofread and edited before submission.
Question: How long should one wait for publishers to revert?
Answer: The publishers usually specify how long a response may take, this is usually a maximum of three months. Sohini Mitra said that this might be shorter, maybe even a few days, depending on where the publisher is at with the projects they have on hand. All three said that they look at each submission and do revert. So one shouldn’t presume that a delayed response, or even a prompt one, means that the manuscript has been returned unread. Reminders may be sent if one doesn’t hear from the publisher after the specified length of time, but it is perfectly find to send them.
Question: Can one send a manuscript simultaneously to more than one publisher?
Answer: All three said yes, but insisted that authors be honest in pointing out that they are making multiple submissions. Each submission must be addressed to the publisher and not cc’d. Needless to state, that the covering letter be addressed to the right person and that basic checks of linking correct name of person to the publishing house must be taken. It must be customised to the requirements of the specific publishing house being addressed, and not a generic, ‘one size fits all’.
Question: Should the author take their manuscript to an editor before submission to a publisher?
Answer: The panellists said that there is no need to take the manuscript to do so. Unpolished manuscripts are all right. Authors should keep writing and self-editing till they are convinced about the submission.
Question: Should illustrations be handed in with the manuscript?
Answer: Sohini Mitra said that this isn’t essential since once they identify the theme, then they go for illustrations. Sometimes the author’s illustrations might work and this might be even more cost effective for the publisher since they don’t have to pay for the hiring of an illustrator. For a picture book, the strategy for illustrations will be more comprehensive and obviously different from that for chapter books. Sayoni Basu said that Duckbill doesn’t want illustrations to be submitted with the story since there is a difference between textual and visual imagery. The two work separately and they just want to look at the words initially. Also, there is an unspoken hierarchy of sorts which favours the author, so it is better to give each of them a free rein in their respective spaces. She did, however, mention the book, ‘I want to pee’ which was written and illustrated by two siblings who were completely in sync and so their submission was accepted. But, on the whole, publishers prefer just a manuscript.
Question: Especially in the context of chapter books, are there any themes that you stay away from and any that you would you explore?
Answer: Tina Grover Narang said that they just look for a charming story. And that they prefer to look at the story and not a theme, especially for chapter books for early readers. Sohini Mitra said that they look at a story in terms of its readability for children. Sometimes it may be series-based. They also like to introduce branded authors or different characters / personalities to different age groups. Sayoni Basu was very succinct “ No sex, no violence, no explicit themes, no ‘greater learning ‘ in the book”. The discussion then veered towards banned books. The three panellists pointed out that, sometimes, children may enjoy certain books which are a strict no-no for schools, parents, and other ‘deciders’. And publishers may have to bow to these dictates and change words or illustrations to make them more acceptable to the adults.
Question: When making submissions for chapter books does one submit the whole book or some chapters?
Answer: All agreed that three chapters, at the most, were acceptable and these should be sequential, from the beginning, not picked randomly from different parts of the book. If the publisher likes the submission then they will ask for more.
Audience questions for the panellists:
Question: Would publishers recommend other publishers to spirants?
Answer: Some might, but it is not the norm. That’s the journey aspiring authors have to take if they believe in their story. Rejection from one doesn’t mean that they should lose hope. They should work on the critical comments made and go to other publishers.
Question: In this context, how does self-publishing work?
Answer: Self-published books might work, and if they do well then a publisher might agree to take them on later. Sayoni Basu mentioned Nandhika Nambi who had self-published her first two books and then approached Duckbill who published her third book, which went on to win many awards. Tina Grover Narang added that contrarily, a self-published book may be rejected by a publishing house but that the writer should try to understand the reasons for the rejection and see it as part of a learning process. Going by the traditional route is definitely easier because once the story is taken on by a publishing house they bring to bear their expertise and experience in ensuring that the book gets proper support and reaches the right audiences. It is, therefore, recommended that aspiring authors go through an established publishing house.
Question: How do you judge what children would like?
Answer: Sayoni Basu said that publishers have to take an imaginative leap. At times they too may not know which book will ‘click,’ or even why. And even though it might be labelled a children’s book it should have the capability of being enjoyed by readers, irrespective of their age. Tina Grover Narang pointed out that literature festivals and school visits may indicate what children will like.
Question: If an author has written a series and goes to a publisher for one part of the series, can they go to another publisher for the rest of the series?
Answer: There maybe a clause built into the contract with the author wherein the publisher has all rights or there may be an options clause. Sayoni Basu said that Duckbill however, does not hold back an author – “They will come back to us if they want to”.