How a Nonfiction Book Is Born

by Carol Hinz
Editorial Director, Millbrook Press

For today’s Nonfiction Monday, I thought it might be interesting to talk about where nonfiction books come from. You see, there’s this stork who flies over our building and drops off bundles of bright and shiny books. . . . Well, actually, it has nothing to do with a stork.

Origins: As you might guess, authors regularly approach us with book ideas. For picture books, the author generally submits a full manuscript. For longer nonfiction, we often receive a proposal. The proposal tells us what a book will be about and typically includes a sample chapter as well as a full outline.

In some cases (particularly for series nonfiction), we come up with a book idea and then go about finding an author to carry out the idea. The idea may be based on current trends, a suggestion from a librarian, or filling a hole in our list.

Once in a while, we suggest a topic and an author will run with it.Clock Struck One cover That was the case for the recent book The Clock Struck One: A Time-Telling Tale. We proposed the topic of time to Trudy Harris, and she came up with a delightful riff on the “Hickory Dickory Dock” nursery rhyme. It tells the story of a chaotic day in the life of a mouse, a cat, a farm family, a hen, a swarm of bees, and several other animals. (I should point out that this book is cataloged as fiction, but it has a great nonfiction explanation on the final pages that gives an overview of how to tell time, using both analog and digital clocks.)

And once in a blue moon, I read an article in the New York Times, think the topic might make a good children’s book, and six months later an author comes to me with a proposal for a book on that exact topic. That very book comes out this fall, and I’m looking forward to sharing more about it! (If you’re curious, no, the book isn’t actually about ESP, though we do have a book about that topic too.)

Gestation Period: Book publishing is not known for being particularly speedy. A giraffe’s gestation period is 15 months, and a book’s gestation period may be even longer. (How did I learn that giraffe fact? By editing a book about giraffes, of course!)

Right now I’m starting to look for books that Millbrook will publish in spring and fall 2013. If a topic is particularly timely, we can do a book in perhaps 9-12 months from when the author turns in the manuscript. On rare occasions, a publisher may produce a book more quickly than that, but it’s race.

What takes so long? In short: editing, fact-checking, revising, finding photos or finding an illustrator and then giving the illustrator enough time to create the art, proofreading, designing—and doing all that while simultaneously working on a number of other books.

Do you have questions about other aspects of creating a nonfiction book? Just leave a comment!

3 thoughts on “How a Nonfiction Book Is Born

  1. Amy

    Great post! As a children's non-fiction writer, this information is helpful and timely for me!
    Thanks for sharing and for hosting Non-Fiction Monday!
    ~Amy O'Quinn

  2. sally apokedak

    What a great post. Thanks!

    I just reviewed a PB biography for 7-10 year olds with about 1300 words.

    I recently read a fascinating article from an old magazine about a man who I don't think has had his story told to children yet and I'd love to try to tell it for him. Can you tell me what the word limit would be for a PB bio aimed at second to fourth graders And, if you have time for one more newbie question—how many sources does a biographer have to have before she can include an incident in her book?

    If you don't have time to answer, don't worry. I can research this. I just thought since you asked… 🙂

  3. Carol Hinz

    Hi Sally! Good questions. It sounds like you're thinking of a slightly longer picture book bio. You might want to check out Bad News for Outlaws, which has a word count of around 2,300. Beckoning is another longer picture book we've published, though I'd guess the word count of that one is closer to 1,700. (Not counting an author's note and other back matter.)

    As a general rule, it's good when you have at least two sources that confirm an incident. However, that may not always be possible. A person like Salvador Dali made up a lot of stories about his life, and in a case like that it's best to be honest with readers about the fact that there are things we're not sure about. For some books, you may want to find an expert to review your manuscript to make sure that what you're saying is in line with current scholarship. I hope this helps!

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