My 12-part guide to writing and publishing picture books for children
All going well, a publisher has fallen in love with your story and has made you an offer. Congratulations! The publisher has sent you a contract and you’re ready to sign.
Now, I won’t say much about contracts – primarily because I am not an expert on such matters – but I will say this: before you sign, read through the contract very carefully. I believe I have a reasonable comprehension of the written word, but legal documents and contracts are pretty much gobbledegook to me. If you’re in the same boat, it is a great idea to have someone knowledgeable look over your contract – preferably a lawyer with book publishing expertise, a publishing consultant or your literary agent. You need to understand what you’re signing to avoid conflict and disappointment in the future. Most traditional publishers are very reputable and they’re unlikely to try to trip you up with sneaky clauses, but you may have different expectations to what is on offer. An expert can help you fathom your contract and negotiate terms.
Saying that, as a newbie author, you don’t want to make waves or cause trouble. If you’re being nitpicky about your contract, you may well scare your publisher off and the whole deal could collapse. It is fine to question the details, but don’t make unreasonable demands or become self-important. You could do more damage than good.
The Australian Society of Authors (ASA) provides some valuable information about contracts on their website, plus they have a Contract Assessment Service in partnership with the Arts Law Centre of Australia. Take the time to visit the ASA website and consider becoming a member. The ASA is the peak organisation for writers and illustrators in the country, and they can aid and advise you at any stage of your writing career.
ADVANCES & ROYALTIES
A royalty is a portion of the sale amount of each copy of the book, paid by the publisher to the author (and/or illustrator), in exchange for selling their work. Usually in Australia, this means 10% of the Recommended Retail Price (RRP). So, for example, if you are the author and illustrator of your book and the RRP is $25, you can expect $2.50 from every sale. If, however, you are the author and an illustrator has been contracted to bring your book to life, you can expect 5% each; that is, $1.25 from each sale. And, if you have a literary agent, remember that they will earn 15% of the sum total of your royalties. Don’t begrudge that amount: a good agent will negotiate better deals for you and find you publishing opportunities. They earn their keep!
Now, to advances. The bad news first: don’t believe the hype about life-changing advances — it is possible, truly, but it rarely happens, especially in the world of children’s picture books. Advances are usually modest sums, designed that way to protect both you and the publisher.
‘Why, why?’ I hear you cry. Well, the answer is this. An advance is simply an amount of money paid in advance of sales. That is, the publisher pays you, the author, an amount of money before your book is published – to secure and sweeten the deal – and that amount will need to be paid back to the publisher through the royalties you earn on book sales, before you earn another cent. It is a loan, if you will, and while you are not bound to pay back the full amount if book sales flop, everyone is happier if you do. Ideally, your book ‘earns out’ your book advance and continues to sell many copies, paying both you and the publisher, as well as the bookseller and your agent.
Advances are usually calculated on how well the publisher thinks your book will sell. Many factors come in to play here, including: how well known you are and the size of your author platform; the scale and reach of the publisher; the current market trends and more. Advances range from a few thousand dollars – most common for a new author signing with a small publisher – to those jaw-dropping amounts you’ve read (and dreamt) about.
An advance won’t likely be enough to pay the bills while you work on your book, readying it for publication. You will probably have to work a regular job until you’ve forged a successful writing career – and then some. Which reminds me of something I recently read: People confuse the terms ‘published author’ and ‘famous author’. They imagine once you’ve been published, you are also rich. (Check out Ian Irvine’s ‘The Truth About Publishing’ article on his website, where you’ll find that info and lots more. It is very illuminating and wryly funny, too.) I don’t mean to burst your bubble, but you need to become a best-selling author to create wealth, or you need to make publishing books just one part of the bigger picture of your wealth strategy.
‘Wealth?’ you say. ‘You do it for the love of it, don’t you?’ Well, yes, you do it because you love it and, no, absolutely not. You do it, presumably, because you hope to make a career of it, and earning a decent wage is an essential part of every career. You naturally want your work – your time, skill and craft – however much you enjoy it, to bring you financial reward. And, if it does not, I guarantee that you will eventually need to change your plan (unless, of course, you are independently wealthy or some such thing). I have known authors and illustrators who simply cannot afford to continue working on books. It is a sad thing to see – a beautiful creative soul with enviable talent set aside their passion.
Talking about money is neither ‘dirty’ nor ‘materialistic’, even if you are a children’s picture book author. Enjoy writing, do it because you love it, but be realistic and find ways of making it viable. Treat it as a business. Dream into achieving best-seller status, for sure, but don’t bank on it.
Even after writing the above, I confess, I too persist in imagining a highly profitable writing career. I have been working at it for over ten years, now, and I will continue to do so. I am determined and driven, as well as something of a dreamer. If you are too, I’ll see you at the post.
As always, wishing you the very best of luck.
If you found this post helpful, you may like to read other posts in the series: My 12-part guide to writing and publishing picture books for children. I will publish the posts over the coming weeks and announce them on Facebook and Instagram, but if you want to make sure you don’t miss a post, subscribe to my newsletter for free.
My 12-part guide to writing and publishing picture books for children:
Part 1: Know and love your readers
Part 2: Ideas and inspiration
Part 3: Character, theme, rhythm and rhyme, and all of that writing stuff
Part 4: Who’s who in the zoo (writer, illustrator, editor, designer, publisher)
Part 5: Editing and storyboarding
Part 6: Illustration
Part 7: Traditional publishing or self-publishing
Part 8: Submitting your manuscript — the slow business of traditional publishing
Part 9: Contracts, advances and royalties
Part 10: PR — book launch, web presence, book talks and more
Part 11: Who are you and who do you want to be?
Part 12: Resources