Is the Best, or the Worst, Time for a New NF Writer?
Here’s my sense, it is the worst in the sense that the world of children’s books has split. A few companies do mainly or entirely nonfiction, often in series. On the other hand, most of the houses that create the picture books, and YA novels, and lavish pop-up or facsimile books that you see in chain book stores, do very little nonfiction. I don’t have any experience with breaking in to the nonfiction houses, but as a general rule you should look at what they have published, check out their websites and other materials to see what they are looking for — for example, do they carefully match national educational standards, or scope and sequences, do they use lexile rankings, how heavily illustrated are the books, do they rely on experts to vet the books — and then make sure any book or series you pitch accords with their publishing program. If you are proposing a photo illustrated book, check into where the kinds of images you have in mind can be found, and what it would probably cost to use them. While no one would expect you to take out your digital camera and send in snapshots, if you have an "in" with a photographer or institution (your local zoo, marina park, eco-travel agent…) you obviously should both send in samples of that work, and mention if the relationship will allow you to get those great images at a lower rate.
The good news is that you will be contacting a publisher whose business is nonfiction — the bad news is that they are likely to have covered the standard topics already, they may be reluctant to tackle single books, and don’t expect to make much money on any one book.
With the other publishers, the ones whose books you see in the chain bookstores, again, look at their websites, see what they have published recently, and measure your proposal against their books. If they do NF, is it linked to an institution — if so, you are not likely to be able to break into that series.
All of this brings me to the Best of Times issue. Right now, the major bookstore publishers are out of touch with the schools, and teachers in schools are out of touch with major publishers. There is a wide gap between those two parties. What you can do is gather knowledge — visit schools, talk with teachers, ask if you listen in on some classes, see what materials are being used, and how, and what teachers do and do not have. The more expertise you have about nonfiction and young people, the more you can be a bridge, the more you can offer that neither publisehrs nor teachers now have.
I say this because this coming week my wife and I will be meeting with New York City schoolteachers to talk with them about a book we are writing. Even the prospect of the meeting helped us to reshape the book — instead of just looking at our research, we were looking at our audience. I’ll report back as the week goes along.