Children’s Writers Confab: Carving a Career in Children’s Books

by Oisín McGann

In the beautiful surroundings of the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Sarah Webb chaired a panel, with myself and Sheena Wilkinson, on issues affecting the creators of children’s books.

After some short introductions, Sarah opened by saying that when she’d put out word of this talk on social media, the feedback had been that most people wanted to hear about contracts, advances and royalties, and she emphasised that we’d be focussing on practical matters for professionals. Sheena then took us through a breakdown of her typical week, though she said in her career, it was hard to call anything ‘typical’. She mixes her time between writing, doing events, teaching on the creative writing course in Trinity College and she pointed out that she was also benefitting from support from the Royal Literary Fund. For any writer, grants and residencies can offer vital support.

Despite being a celebrated and accomplished writer, the income from her books is not enough to live off, so she supports herself in a number of different ways. She explained that she’d made substantially more money working as a teacher than in her best year as a writer. There is no such thing as a normal day; living as a full-time writer, for her, meant always having to make sure she had more than one stream of income.

Sarah and I had similar stories to tell; while we’ve both benefitted from big book deals in the past, and have numerous books published, Sarah does regular events, but also makes part of her living from teaching courses, organising events and running festivals – she is the Family and Children’s Programmer at the International Literature Festival Dublin. I also do a lot of events, teach courses, write various things on commission, I take on projects and residencies, and I still do some freelance illustration work. Even in a year where you might make enough from your writing to get by, you hold on to those other streams of income for when you might need them again.

This brought the talk onto earnings, and how much a writer might expect to make from their book, particularly in the advance. The advance is effectively a loan against your potential royalties (though you don’t have to pay it back if it doesn’t earn out), and it varies from one book deal to the next. Sarah had done an informal survey, and said that an Irish publisher might offer an advance of anywhere between 1,000 and 3,000 for a novel, while a UK publisher could offer 1,000 to 15,000. There are much hyped deals that can go much higher than this, but these are rare. Little Island was the only publisher that was open about their advances, as they offer a standard €750 for a novel. This small advance does mean that it earns out quickly, and you start getting royalty cheques earlier.

Royalty rates can vary quite a bit across the industry too, with hardback or trade paperback earning an author 10–12%, but mass-market paperback earning only 7–8%. Many contracts break these down into even further categories, and another thing that can catch people out is the difference between royalties being calculated on the cover price, and on the net price (after the publisher’s costs have been covered). Illustrators do not always earn royalties, even on heavily illustrated books – though they should – and in picture books, the royalties should normally be divided 50/50, recognising the importance of the illustrator.

Authors can expect royalties to be much higher on ebook sales, because the costs to the publisher are much lower. A publishing contract that is solely for ebook rights, or print-on-demand, might not offer any advance at all, but the royalties can be anywhere from 25% to 50%.

A typical print run in Ireland would be 3,000–5,000 copies, while the UK publishers would be more likely to print 10,000–30,000, not including print runs intended for foreign markets.

We each spoke about how we’d got our agents – which is much like approaching a publisher, though you’re aiming for someone who wants to sign you on as a writer, rather than for an individual book. Having an agent isn’t essential in the Irish industry, but it is if you want to be picked up by any of the major UK or US publishers. It’s also important if you want to sell, and keep control of, foreign rights.

Finally, though we were running short of time – there’s always so much to say! – we spoke about events. These are becoming an increasingly important aspect of making a career in children’s books, and demand a professional approach, both in your performance – and it is a performance – and in how you charge. We pointed out that you have to go and see how other writers and illustrators do it. Watch how storytellers weave a tale in front of their audience. And while it’s understandable that every writer needs to start somewhere, we urged people to never work for free, both for their own sake’s, and to avoid undervaluing the profession. It has become another means of selling our writing, and we have to take our trade and our audience seriously. The organisations that make up Words Ireland have established rates and these are a great starting point.

All in all, this was a very satisfying event with an enthusiastic and engaged audience. We hope what we had to offer was of value to the people who came to listen and take part, and I want to thank Words Ireland for asking us to present the panel.