My picture book series, the Little Elephants’ Big Adventures, is coming out soon! (Fingers crossed that 2020 doesn’t change that.) These books were a work for hire collaboration with Purdue University that began way back in 2016. There are six books in the series (so far) and the first three will be coming out soon.
Any time I mention these books I get three questions:
- What is Work For Hire writing?
- Why should I do work for hire writing?
- How do I get work for hire contracts?
Work for hire writing can be a great way to get books published while earning income. For newer writers, it can also be an excellent learning experience.
So to celebrate some actual good news in 2020, I thought I’d answer these burning questions for all the kidlit writers (stuck) at home.
What is Work For Hire Writing?
Before the 2020 pandemic gave us the acronym WFH (Work From Home) kidlit writers used the acronym WFH to mean Work For Hire. (Anyone else get confused when this hashtag #WFH popped up everywhere?)
The process for traditional publishing and work for hire is a bit different.
Traditional publishing process
- Concept: You develop the concept.
- Writing: You write the book based on your concept.
- Getting a contract: You query editors with your manuscript. If they like it, they’ll offer you a contract for publication.
- Editing: You’ll work with the editor to perfect and polish the manuscript.
- Pay: You get paid on royalties. How much money you make depends on sales. Many publishers will give you an advance. You don’t get any more money until your books earns more than the advance. (I.e. if they paid you $5000 as an advance, you wouldn’t get another check until the royalties added up to more than $5000.)
- Marketing: Your job isn’t done! You need to help with marketing so your book can sell well. (So you can earn money.)
Work For Hire process
- Concept: The publisher develops the concept.
- Getting a contract: Usually, you send a portfolio of work to educational publishing houses. If they have a project they think is a fit, they will contact you and offer you a contract.
- Writing: You write the book to the publisher’s specifications.
- Editing: You’ll work with the editor to perfect and polish the manuscript.
- Pay: You get paid the contacted amount to write the book, whether it sells 5 copies or 5 million.
- Marketing: Not expected (as much), since it won’t increase your pay. (But it’s a good idea anyway.)
Why should I do work for hire writing?
Both of traditional publishing and work for hire publishing have advantages and disadvantages. Whether work for hire writing makes sense for you, depends on your goals:
Work for hire writing is great if…
- You want to get published more quickly. Querying traditional publishers can be very time-consuming. Often getting a work for hire contract is faster.
- You want to begin earning money for your writing. Because getting work for hire contracts is often faster, you can begin earning money from your writing more quickly. Your pay is also guaranteed as long as you complete the contract, even if the book doesn’t sell well. Once you have books published, you can also make money doing school visits.
- You want to gain writing and publishing experience. All writers have to go through an apprenticeship period where you build your skills. Work for Hire gives you a chance to gain valuable skills and experience on the ground.
But some things to be aware of…
- Publishers have more creative control. They determine the book topic and set guidelines that the writer must adhere to. You do have room for creativity within those bounds, though.
- Most WFH books are for the educational market. That means they are usually nonfiction or biography. It also means that your books will be sold directly to libraries and schools and won’t be in bookstores.
You don’t have to choose just one type of publishing. Many authors do a bit of both, including me. I’ve gained a lot of experience from my work for hire books, I love the product, and I got to earn money doing it.
At the end of the day, you have a published book no matter how you got there.
So how do you get book contracts?
How to get traditional book contracts
With traditional publishing, first you write your manuscript and a query letter. Then you research publishing houses to find the ones that are open to submissions in your genre.
Follow each publisher’s guidelines to submit your query. Usually that means emailing the query and a sample of your manuscript.
Some writers will get an agent first (through a similar process). Then the agent queries publishers for them.
The Book by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and The Children’s Writers and Illustrator’s Market are great resources.
My traditionally published books
Goodnight Jesus followed the typical traditional publishing process. I emailed my query letter and manuscript to my publisher. The editor liked the manuscript, but thought it needed some revision.
Once I revised, she took it to the publishing board. The approved the book, and it was under contract!
I Pray Today was very similar with one exception: I didn’t have to revise before she took the manuscript to the publishing board. I learned a lot in the four years between submitting those manuscripts!
How to get work for hire book contracts
Usually, writers send out portfolios of sample work to publishing houses that publish WFH books. If they’re working on a book and think you’re a good fit, they’ll get in contact.
Writing for the Educational Market: Informational Books for Kids by Laura Purdie Salas is a must-have resource. It explains the process in much more detail.
My work for hire books
My work for hire contracts did not follow the normal course.
Before I was a writer, I was a grad student in Cognitive Psychology focusing on Psycholinguistics. (Translation: I studied how thinking and learning happen in the brain, with a specific focus on language.)
While I was a grad student, I made friends with a postdoc who was researching early childhood learning – a field that has a lot of overlap with my area of study.
Fast forward six years to 2016 and I’m a freelance writer, about to publish my first children’s book. He’s a professor at Purdue working with others to study how preschool kids learn math through picture books.
He was looking for someone to write a series of picture books based on their research. Being both a kidlit writer and having a degree in a related field made me a bit of a shoo-in. He approached me and asked if I’d be interested. Of course!
The first three books of the Little Elephants’ Big Adventures series are coming out this month. Writing those went so well, that they invited back to write more. So far I’ve written nine books with the Purdue team and crossing my finger that we’ll get approved for six more.
Doing good work gets you more work
While I didn’t get my WFH books in the usual way, it boils down to much the same thing:
- Your writing ability and expertise get you book contracts. My friend already knew my writing ability and my expertise. Normally, you would have to convey this through your portfolio.
- Make them excited to invite you back. Be professional. Be kind. Work hard. Be easy to work with. (But you don’t have to be a pushover.)
- Marketing your work helps to sell books and it can also lead to future opportunities. We live in different states, but my friend knew about my writing work because we stayed connected on social media. (Again, marketing means being interesting and helpful, not overwhelming others with hard sells.)
So there you go, everything you need to get started on the path to work for hire writing. What other questions do you have?