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Can You Make a Living as a Children’s Book Writer?

open letter

Kids’ stories greatly impact us growing up and are central to our literacy journey. They entertain, teach, inspire, and create memories. From quaint classics by Beatrix Potter and James Barrie to wacky amusing adventures by Dr. Seuss and Roald Dahl to modern IP empires by Joan Rowling and Suzanne Collins, books on the shelves define generations. Maybe your favorite author has inspired you to follow in their footsteps by turning your life around, or perhaps you want to create a book you wish you could have read in your formative years – it doesn’t matter. What does is that you love writing and want to do this for a living. Can you?

“Hey, if I can write my paper exploring symbolism in The Wind in the Willows on 12 pages, I sure can come up with an engaging story for 8-year-olds to read, can’t I?” Not necessarily. In this post, we will discuss what it takes to become a children’s book author and how one can make a living from it.

Should You Become a Children’s Author?

Your reason for choosing this career is central to your success. If you want to make kids happy, inspire their curiosity, and touch their lives with your stories, you must write. If you are imaginative and regularly come up with ideas for characters, places, and adventures and want to share all this with the world – you definitely should try.

However – and everyone remotely to do with children’s literature will tell you so – you shouldn’t get into this if you expect to earn good money (cue sad trombone sound).

“Wait, what? How about gazillions made from YA screen adaptations? How about decades of royalties that your descendants running your estate will live from?” The cases you probably think about definitely exist. However, they are unicorns – a summit of a huge mountain. As a rule, writing for children is a labor of love, so if you thought you could quit your day job to write about cute talking animals full-time, I advise you to pause and weigh all pros and cons.

How Much Money Is There in Writing Stories for Kids?

How much you can make depends on many factors, including whether you already have any successfully performing books published previously, trends in the market, type of publisher, age group of your target audience, etc. Let’s assume you are a hopeful first-time writer and look at the numbers.

For example, you have written a picture book of about 32 pages. You can either self-publish or go to the publisher. Self-publishing will include either paying the illustrator, designer, editor, and marketing specialist to set your book nicely and promote it or being a one-man army and doing it all yourself. A publisher will take all that upon themselves, which is usually a more suitable route for a newbie author.

Then, again, there are several types of publishers. There are vanity publishers that will charge you anything from $5,000 to $20,000+ to publish your book with no distribution services. This means no guarantee of earning that money back. You will have to put in hours of work and effort to find customers. If you retail your book for, say, $20, you will need to sell 1,000 copies just to break even.

Then, there are hybrid publishers that might charge you the full price of publishing your book or share the cost. Their advantage over vanity publishers is that they are more involved in distribution. They also offer higher royalties than traditional publishers – up to 40%. For example, you pay $10,000 to a hybrid publisher to illustrate, edit, set, and publish your book and retail for the same $20 a copy. With a 40% royalty, you will need to sell 1,200 copies to make your money back.

With a traditional publisher, you don’t have to pay. A publisher takes all the expenses involved in publishing your book upon themselves: editing, illustration, setting, marketing, distribution, etc. However, it will mean much more modest royalties, typically 2%. Why so little? Because publishing – especially publishing children’s books – is very expensive. Apart from all the costs we have mentioned earlier, there is percentage discount distributors expect to get from a publisher, which can be as high as 85%! This means that from each copy sold, only 15% of the price will get back to the publisher. With 10% of the book’s worth going to offset the production cost, the publisher receives about 5% of each copy sold back as profit. Now your 2% royalty doesn’t look so shabby, representing 40% of the profits, even if it’s only 40 cents off each $20 book.

How Can You Earn as a Children’s Author?

Okay, whichever publisher you choose, those royalties should definitely crop up to make a decent sum, right? Well, it depends. Most picture books sell, on average, around 5,000 to 10,000 copies and go out of print in two years. This means that with 2% royalties, you will earn somewhere between $2,000 to $4,000 for a book in its lifetime. That’s if you secure a traditional publishing contract – and only about 1% of writers succeed at that. Even if you keep the books coming, it hardly looks like a living wage. Are there any other options?

Some publishers will give an advance for your manuscript, especially if you have other published books that sold okay. Then, there are royalties as high as 3.5% to 6% off each copy, but you can begin to earn those only after enough books are sold to cover your advance. A typical advance depends on the type of book. Here are the approximate numbers from 2015:

Picture books are created for preschool children of 3 to 8 y.o. and are generously illustrated. They can be given to kids when they only begin to read. A typical advance is $6,000 – $12,000 (of which you will usually split 45%/55% with the illustrator if you are not the one making the pictures for the book).

Chapter books target 6 to 10 y.o. kids with longer attention spans and more advanced reading skills. They may or may not be illustrated. A typical advance is $5,000 – $12,000.

Middle-grade books target middle school children of 8 to 12 y.o. and focus on adventures or age-appropriate problems. A typical advance is $8,000 – $20,000.

YA fiction is enjoyed by readers of 12 and above and includes various genres: adventures, romance, sci-fi, mystery, fantasy, action, etc. Famous examples include paranormal romances like The Twilight Saga and dystopias like Hunger Games and Divergent series. A typical advance is $12,000 – $30,000.

Still doesn’t look like you can afford to write for a living? Well, the good news is that you don’t have to rely on book sales alone to constitute your income. There are some other ways related to writing that can earn you money: school visits, teaching writing classes, online courses on platforms like Skillshare and Masterclass, editing, ghostwriting, critiquing and reviewing services, illustration – and even opening a publishing business once you get to know it from within.

However, for most kids literature writers, being an author is the passion project that brings them joy and satisfaction (especially the appreciation of their work by children), while the bulk of their income comes from some other, steadier job.

Case in Point: Meet Bethany Roberts

Bethany Roberts is a children’s book author most known for her Holiday Mice series – rhyming picture books beautifully illustrated by Doug Cushman. She also writes about rabbits, cats, monsters, dragons, and, of course, children themselves. She explains her love of animal characters by the ability to exaggerate and allow them to do things in a book that child characters couldn’t. Another aspect is that animals are multicultural, so every child can relate to them. This shows how well Bethany understands her audience. How did she learn so much about children, and what made her want to become an author in the first place?

That’s why I chose her as an example. Her way into the literature is illustrative and typical. She writes because she loves storytelling. She read a lot of books as a child and used to invent stories to entertain younger peers in her neighborhood, so the role of the storyteller came naturally to her. She also has a passion for words: “I love to play with words – the rhymes, the sounds.”

However, even though Bethany always wanted to be an author, this wasn’t her first career still. Before she began writing books for kids, she used to work as a teacher and children’s librarian, with both roles giving her plenty of opportunity to learn what children are like, what they are interested in, and what brings them joy and entertains them. By Bethany’s admission, story hours were always the favorite part of her job.

Then she started a family and had children of her own, giving her another opportunity to read children’s books, tell stories, and learn. “I think I learned the most about writing from all that reading,” – reminisces Bethany. This, by the way, is the most popular piece of advice from any writer: before you begin writing, you must be an avid reader. This gives you fodder for thought and analysis – not only from a storytelling perspective but to study all the nuances that come into creating a story.

Staying at home caring for her children and having an encouraging and supportive husband also helped her, giving her time and space to pursue her passion. This isn’t always as idyllic as sitting in a garden and jotting down ideas – it can be hectic, especially if you already have a contract for another book and deadlines to keep up with. Bethany cites one time when she wrote about Mice throwing a birthday party… in the middle of organizing and hosting a child’s birthday party. Here is another valuable lesson – write what you know and find inspiration in your daily life. According to Bethany, she writes about the things she likes and that are important to her: “warm, cozy families, friendships, seasons and holidays.”

What else can an aspiring writer learn from Bethany Roberts – a published author of dozens of kid’s stories? “Don’t give up! Rejection is a part of the process.” Writers, pouring their hearts and souls into their creations, tend to be sensitive, but to succeed in this field, Bethany advises getting “a bit tough and just keep at it.” She adds: “I think some talented writers give up too soon.”

It definitely becomes easier when you already have a couple of published books and established connections with editors, agents, illustrators, etc., but your books and ideas will still be rejected – and it’s okay. Rejection letters and revision requests are inevitable, and you should learn not to be discouraged by them.

How to Start Writing for Kids?

If all this didn’t discourage you, you must be committed and have what it takes to become a children’s book author: love of writing and determination. However, there are some additional steps that help:

A degree in English, Literature, Journalism, or a related field

Getting a Bachelor’s in English, creative writing, communication, etc., will allow you to develop your writing skills: grammar, editing, critical thinking, and style. If you already pursue another major, consider taking additional classes in world literature, storytelling, and journalism to improve your skills and learn more about the field. Some colleges even have professional writing courses, where they teach you to study the market, manage manuscripts, and submit draft proposals to publishers.

Knowledge of the market and your audience

Ongoing research is a part of the job. You will need to know current trends, themes, styles, types of stories popular with publishers, etc. This should include not only browsing children’s sections in bookstores but reading extensively to understand what attracts the audience – this includes both stories and illustrations. While you study the books, make a list of their publishers – it will come in handy when you are ready to submit your work.

Finding your niche

Although knowing the market and its trends is vital, simply following them can only get you so far. If you just emulate successful examples, you end up as average at best. That is not the way to convince publishers. What you need is to find your own niche. Look at what sells, but also notice what’s absent which could have been selling. Here is where direct knowledge of your audience will be exceptionally helpful.

What do the children of your target age group find interesting that isn’t typically explored in the literature written for them? Maybe you know a topic that you believe is worth talking about but is ignored in child’s literature? Many books for children focus on positive things and rarely address struggles. Yet fear, loss, grieving, anger, and other emotions are also important. Maybe you have an idea of how to talk about a particular difficult feeling in a way that is appropriate and accessible for kids – be the first one to bring that up!

Creativity and originality

Coming up with unique characters, stories, settings, and plot twists isn’t as easy as it sounds. However, thinking creatively and finding ways to look at familiar things from different perspectives can help you make an original spin, even on established tropes and archetypes.

For example, everyone knows the story of the first Harry Potter book being rejected again and again. Among the criticisms was the “unoriginality” of it. A boy as a main character seemed very old-fashioned in the era of the nineties’ “girl power” feminism (“What, again? We need more female role models, more feisty girls!”), an orphan in the unloving home was a cliché, a boarding school as a setting seemed very tired and parodied to the ground, being a staple of pre-World War II British literature aimed at school boys, and even the concept of “school of magic” wasn’t new.

However, Rowling’s original idea was to create a series of long-form novels for children that would “grow” along with the readers, with each part being more complex than the previous one and addressing more challenging issues – and it worked brilliantly.

How to Succeed in Children’s Literature?

Is there some sort of secret ingredient to success? Any magical tips? Our heroine Bethany Roberts says that after years of teaching writing for children, participating in writing groups, and getting to know the industry from the inside out, she has found that writers making it through to a successful publication follow the “three Ps” rule:

Priority – taking what you do seriously. Make daily time for writing. Make space in your home dedicated to writing.

Practice – learning and growing. Writing is always about progressing and honing your craft.

Persistence – any result takes time and many rejections. Don’t give up.

Meanwhile, here is what might help you along:

Join a writing community or club – with regular exercise, you will hone your writing skills, and constructive feedback from your peers will help you progress and meet your writing goals.

Participate in writing contests – it’s one of the ways to get your work out there and be noticed among publishing industry professionals. Did you know that the first book of the YA Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer, Cinder, was written during NaNoWriMo? It’s only one example of many bestsellers.

Write and submit all types of work – explore and try new genres: short stories, poems, essays, to book publishers, magazines, websites, professional journals, etc. Any published work boosts your author portfolio, builds readership, and helps to create a network of connections in the industry.

Achieving success as a full-time writer for children is extremely difficult, but it doesn’t mean you should give up on your dream. There are those who successfully support themselves through writing, and even if it’s not an easy way to make a living, it’s a worthwhile life, rich in many other ways. Watching your characters come to life, seeing how your stories change young people’s lives, and receiving delighted fan mail is nothing short of magical.

Elissa Smart Elissa Smart
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