"Writing for the Educational Market" with Kim Griswell

Thursday, May 16, 2002

Moderator is Kristi Holl, web editor of this site and author of 24 books for children and teens, plus l50+ articles for adults and children. Kristi also taught writing courses for fifteen years.

Kim is Kim Griswell, former Senior Editor of Bookbag magazine and Book Development Manager at the Education Center, Inc. Kim contributed to such works as The Preschool Superbook, The Best of Teacher's Helper Literature (4 books), and 100 Terrific Tips for Reaching Reluctant Readers. Kim also writes for children. Recent work includes a four book series for third through sixth grades called Short Stories for Reading Aloud.

Names in blue are viewers who had questions.

Interviews in the Professional Connection room begin at 9 Atlantic/Canada, 8 Eastern, 7 Central, 6 Mountain, and 5 Pacific.

Moderator: Good evening, everyone! I'm Kristi Holl, your moderator, and I'm here tonight with Kim Griswell, who knows about "Writing for the Educational Market" from both sides of the desk. As former Senior Editor of Bookbag magazine and Book Development Manager at the Education Center, Inc., Kim edited and helped write over 50 supplementary educational books. She also writes for children. (Recent work includes a four book series for third through sixth grades called Short Stories for Reading Aloud.) Welcome, Kim!

Kim: Thanks, Kristi! And greetings to everyone from the Pacific Northwest!

Moderator: How did you get started writing, Kim?

Kim: I'd have to say I really started as a reader. My mom taught me to read before I ever started school. Pretty soon, I'd read everything in the children's section. Back then (I'm giving away my age) you had to have special permission to check out books from the adult section. I managed to get that from the librarian, and soon began gobbling up books from the rest of the library. But I didn't know that an ordinary person, someone like me, could be a writer. I thought I'd be a teacher, or a nurse! When I was about 20, someone who'd received a letter from me told me I was a really good writer. That gave me the urge to pursue writing as a possible career.

Moderator: How did you specifically get into educational publishing?

Kim: Well, the first thing I ever wrote for an educational publisher was a craft idea. I submitted it to Good Apple and it was accepted. But I hadn't really thought of pursuing educational publishing. I wasn't a teacher, at least not at the "right" level for the field. I actually taught at the university and community college levels. So it was what I'd call a "fortuitous fluke" that I ended up in educational publishing. I was teaching a children's literature class, and I got a letter in my box from The Education Center, Inc. They were looking for people to help with the startup of a new magazine, The Mailbox Bookbag. It would cover the best children's literature and offer teachers creative, fun ways to integrate it into the curriculum. At that time, I wanted to make the move into publishing from academia, and I wanted it to have something to do with children's literature, but it couldn't be in New York City (children's publishing mecca) because of family obligations. This opportunity seemed perfect. I applied and was hired as the Senior Editor right off the bat. What an opportunity!

Moderator: As a writer, did you always choose topics of interest to you personally, or were the topics assigned to you?

Kim: When I first started out, I chose my own topics. I wrote fiction, short stories and novels. I followed my own interests only, which is not very market savvy, is it? After I'd been an editor, well, that totally changed my way of thinking about topics. I began to pay more attention to what editors were looking for. These days, most of the topics are chosen by editors, at least in part. Sometimes the editor might have a general topic, say science, and I get to choose the particular thing I want to write about within that broad category.

Moderator: When you wrote the children's books, how did you decide what to write about?

Kim: The book I just finished is called Carnivorous Plants. I wrote it for Kidhaven Press, which is part of the Gale Group. The editor sent me a list of the topics they were covering, and I got to choose the one that most interested me.

Moderator: I know that very soon you'll be taking on another role with a well known publisher whom I happen to love! Can you tell us a bit about that?

Kim: Certainly! I'm very excited about this opportunity, despite the fact that it means I have to pack up a U-Haul and move back across the country. I'll be heading off around the third of June to join the staff of Highlights for Children, where I'll be the new Coordinating Editor, working with wonderful folks like Chris Clark, Kent Brown Jr., and Rich Wallace. What a treat for me!

Moderator: Wonderful people! Kim, in the past, you've worked as an educational publishing editor. What kind of background do educational publishers look for in writers?

Kim: Many educational publishers look first for teaching experience at the grade levels for which they publish, but they also look for good writing skills. They need writers who can make complex topics seem easy and fun for kids and teachers. But as I've mentioned, I was not a teacher. And that was a bit of a drawback in some ways. What saved me with The Education Center was that I have five children of my own. They figured I must know something about children!

Moderator: Does an educational writer have to be a teacher in order to write for this market? Did a teaching degree in your credentials help you get sales, since you did have a degree?

Kim: A teaching degree definitely helps with many publishers, but not all publishers will look for that. It really depends on the type of writing you are doing for them. If it's supplementary educational material (teaching ideas), then it helps a great deal to have not just a credential, but a number of years of classroom experience at the level for which you want to write.

Moderator: Are there any "taboo" subjects writers should avoid with educational publishers? Since most of their material goes into schools for teachers or children, is there a certain "slant" the writing needs to take--or avoid?

Kim: Definitely, but that too can differ from publisher to publisher. In general, violence is taboo. Religious topics are often taboo, since teachers are supposed to stay away from those. What I advised my own writers was to keep the teacher in mind. An educational writer is in a sense telling teachers what it's okay to present in a classroom. If the teacher might get into trouble with parents or the administration, for example, by using a book someone thinks teaches kids that witchcraft is okay, then an educational writer needs to think twice before writing about that book. Some publications are liberal about those things; others are very conservative. The key is to know the publication or publisher you want to write for and ask questions if you aren't sure if something is okay. When I first began to write for an educational publisher I really had qualms about what I felt was a lot of censorship. That kind of offended the free-thinking writer part of me, but once I realized that a teacher could actually lose her job because of something I recommended, I knew what was at stake.

Moderator: Are there specific vocabulary lists that writers must use?

Kim: Once again, it depends on the publisher, but often, yes. The lists might differ from project to project. Often the Dolch list of sight words is used, but I most often rely on the Children's Writer's Word Book put out by Writer's Digest Books. I really like the format they use. You can look up a word and find out which synonyms are appropriate at each grade level (up to grade six). And readability scales, like the Fry scale, are often used.

JaciRae: Where do you get the Dolch list you mentioned?

Kim: Well, I got mine from my publisher, but you can probably find them online. This is where it helps to be a teacher! I'm betting they get these in textbooks and their education material.

JaciRae: Are there educational publishers that publish material for home school teachers or Christian schools?

Kim: Yes, there are publishers with that specialty. Right off the bat, I can't think of a name though. And some major publishers have imprints that are specially for home school and Christian schools.

GjolboeCreations: This sounds like a very narrow market. Are there any opportunities for well-educated, well-written articles by writers who are not educators nor have a teaching degree?

Kim: I think it's actually a much broader market than one might suspect. That's because there are so many different types of writing within what I'd call the educational market. For example, there are publishers like Sundance who do lots of leveled reading books, both fiction and nonfiction. You don't need a teaching degree to write those, just good writing skills.

Moderator: Kim, in your opinion, what IS the best way to break into educational publishing?

Kim: It can depend on what types of writing you want to do. If you want to write supplementary educational materials, say for a magazine like The Mailbox, which is the number one teacher magazine, then the best way to break in can be with a single idea sent in for a specific section, like Kindergarten Cafe. Once you sell a few individual ideas to an editor, then you can query her about doing entire units. On the other hand, if you want to write leveled reading books, like those I mentioned earlier, then the route is similar to trade books. You should sell some magazine articles or stories first to build your credibility as a writer. Then approach an educational book publisher with a query letter outlining your skills and areas of expertise.

MBVoelker: What are "supplementary educational materials"?

Kim: Those are things that a teacher will go to a teacher supply store to buy. They "supplement" the required textbooks she uses. They can be any number of things, but often they are fun, easy-to-do ideas for teaching basic skills. They might also be things like novel units. A novel unit would take a book like Harry Potter and give the teacher ideas for using it in the classroom. The ideas might include science, social studies, or math connections, or they might go into the more literary aspects, like the mythology that the book is steeped in. Books on individual authors are another type of supplementary material. For example Scholastic has a book on how to teach using Mark Brown's books. Then there are books like a series I worked on at The Education Center, which gives preschool and kindergarten teachers ideas for using books during different times of her day: story time, snack time, center time, etc.

dickman: So, if I have a favorite book series that I am of course not the author for, it is possible to write and sell "novel units" to help teachers and students discuss the books?

Kim: Yes, it is. First, go to a teacher supply store and see if someone has already done that book. You'll find that a number of publishers do novel units. Scholastic, for example, and there's even a company called Novel Units that specializes in those. They are usually quite short, though sometimes a whole book is done on a novel, like Harry Potter, which is just a phenomenon.

Moderator: What kinds of material (an overview) do educational writers create?

Kim: There's really a lot of different materials. Of course there are the textbook publishers who do the basic texts that schools actually use. Then there are companies like The Education Center, Frank Schaeffer, and Evan-Moor (to name just a few), who do supplementary materials such as those just discussed. There are companies that do books for the school/library market, like Lucent Books and Kidhaven Press. These are often nonfiction books which are very useful to teachers and popular with librarians (and kids). And then there are the leveled readers, like Harcourt, Sundance, and others do, which provide books for kids at specific reading levels. That's just a bit of what book publishers do, but there are also magazine publishers who do magazines like The Mailbox (The Education Center) which feature teaching ideas, or Learning, which now features book and product reviews targeted to teachers, or magazines like Teaching K-8 put out by the Highlights company, which can be more academic in tone, as well as magazines like Book Links, which are popular with both teachers and media specialists and do things like units on books about nature, or about math, or about butterflies, whatever topic might interest a teacher. The opportunities are really endless, I think.

Moderator: Thanks for all the specific publishers' names, Kim. Can fiction writers write for educational publishers? If so, how?

Kim: Yes! Fiction writers can write for educational publishers. As I mentioned earlier, I began as a fiction writer, and still am much of the time. Educational magazines often use fiction stories, short plays, and poetry, and many of the leveled readers produced by educational book publishers are fiction. I recently worked on a series of books called Short Stories for Reading Aloud. These were almost all fiction stories targeted for specific grade levels and I went through SCBWI to solicit writers for the project, as well as writing many of the stories myself (fun, fun, fun!) So there are definitely opportunities for fiction writers, though they might never think of educational publishers for their work! I think of Charlesbridge as an educational publisher, and they do both fiction and nonfiction, including those very popular M & Ms counting books.

MBVoelker: How does a nonfiction book for the "school/library market" differ from any other nonfiction book?

Kim: I'd say the biggest difference is that the series of books are developed in-house by the editors. For example, my Carnivorous Plants book was a part of Kidhaven's Nature's Predators series; the topics were chosen in-house. The specs were all set up, including word counts, number of chapters, etc. And then writers were hired to produce books to those specs. Most often this kind of nonfiction book is part of a series, whereas trade book publishers do single titles.

GjolboeCreations: Do the trade magazines ever use personal essays/opinions (if relevant to teaching)?

Kim: Oh, yes! There can be funny things, like crazy things seen in a classroom or serious things, like how a teacher deals with discipline problems successfully. If you're a teacher, then these are often written as first person essay type articles.

Moderator: Do educational publishers want complete manuscripts?

Kim: Some will look at complete manuscripts, but most often they prefer queries, both for books and magazine articles.

Moderator: What should a freelancer do to get an assignment from an educational publisher?

Kim: To get an assignment, put together a packet that includes copies of some of your published work. What I've done is include different types of writing. For example, some book reviews, some ideas for using books in the classroom, a couple of ideas for classroom cooking or other activities, maybe a fiction story or two--just a few different things to show the range of your writing. And then a cover letter describing your experience, your education, your areas of expertise, and of course if you've had teaching experience of any kind, including workshops. Let them know about that. End by saying you'd be interested in being considered for any upcoming projects that match your experience.

Moderator: How do educational publishers differ from trade publishers?

Kim: Mainly in their audience. Instead of considering children their primary audience, their audience is the teacher first, and then the child through the teacher. They focus on helping the teacher do her job. Education is their focus, not entertainment, as it is with many trade publishers. They are in it to make money, of course, but it's not about the big commercial book (the bestseller in the classic trade book sense.) It's about providing what the teacher wants and needs. If they do that, then they make money.

GjolboeCreations: Must copies of your published work be educational, or will editors consider other work as writing examples?

Kim: It helps if you have something to show them that's educational, which is why I suggest doing a few teaching ideas to get you started, but it doesn't have to be, especially if you write nonfiction. Any article you've written can be a good example of your writing. Since some of them do fiction books, then stories or excerpts from fiction works can also be good to include.

Moderator: You've already mentioned many publishers who publish educational materials. How does a writer know what subjects publishers are looking for?

Kim: Well, you can always look at guidelines in market guides like Writer's Digest or Children's Book Market (put out by the Institute) and many of the publishers now have websites. One of the things I recommend most is go to teacher supply stores and thumb through the books. You'll see what kinds of books different publishers produce. You can also find educational sections in big chain stores like Borders and Barnes and Noble. And you can check out the website for EdPress online.

Moderator: What is the market for educational materials?

Kim: The market is broad, as I mentioned before. If you mean what is the market for a writer, then it's any number of publishing companies. Some small ones have very targeted lines, and some huge ones like MacMillan do all kinds of things, from supplementary books to textbooks.

Moderator: Should you stick to subjects that the publisher is already doing, like a series, or can you propose other topics?

Kim: If you go the route of sending a query packet for assignments, then you'll be writing to their topics. You might also see a series being published that you think you'd like to write for in a teacher's store and could then propose that you be considered to write the next book, suggesting a possible topic. For example the Scholastic series with the teaching ideas for Mark Brown books now has a number of titles, many which have been suggested by freelancers (Kevin Henkes, for example). But some publishers want fresh ideas, for single books and for series, and will appreciate well-developed queries or proposals.

Moderator: How you actually "land a job" writing for an existing series where many authors write the books? What's the procedure in approaching an editor?

Kim: Pretty much what I described before. Submit your samples, include a query letter and tell the editor which series you're interested in writing for. Then you may be asked to do an outline and sample chapter to show how well you can conform to their style.

Moderator: Do you think an educational writer needs a specialty?

Kim: I think it can be helpful because it gives you credibility in a specific area. Some writers stick to science, some to math, some to English, etc. But one can also be a generalist (which is what I am) and still build a career in the field.

Moderator: How does educational publishing compare in terms of pay?

Kim: It can compare favorably, or not so favorably, depending on which company and what kinds of material you write. For example, at the lowest end, you might only receive a gift certificate for merchandise for a single teaching idea. As I recall, I got the choice of a twenty dollar gift certificate or ten dollars in cash when I sold my first idea to Good Apple many moons ago. But the way I see it, is that has paid off in spades over the years! There are some teaching magazines, like Scholastic Instructor that pay very well for articles. And The Education Center pays well for complete teaching units for magazines. Probably the biggest difference in pay is that most often you will be paid a flat fee for all rights. That means they may give you $5,000, for example, to write a book. And that's it. That's all you get. And the rights all belong to the company. A few companies do pay royalties (a small percentage of the sales), but that is the exception. And when you're talking about educational material, the sales numbers aren't all that high. Selling 10,000 copies of a book is very good for supplementary materials, whereas it's a disaster for a trade book. So the writer is often better served by the flat fee than by royalties.

Moderator: What are some benefits (and some drawbacks) of writing for the educational market?

Kim: Personally, I think the biggest benefit is knowing that you are helping to educate children. Another benefit is that it can be easier to break in, and once you do and get your name out there, then the editors WANT you to write for them. You don't have to beg someone to publish your work anymore, if you're good at it. The main drawback is that if you want to write for children, you're actually not quite doing that, at least not directly. Often, the children will never know who you are, and if that' s important to you, then this can be a drawback. But there are some educational writers who do connect with children as an audience. Janice Van Cleave who writes science books comes to mind. And series writers who do a lot of nonfiction titles can "make a name" for themselves with children as well as with teachers.

Moderator: I'm sorry to have to interrupt here, but we're out of time. Kim, thank you for sharing your expertise with us tonight and showing writers how they, too, can break into this market. And best of luck in your new position with Highlights!

Kim: Thanks so much for inviting me! And thanks for your good wishes!

Moderator: Do come back in two weeks when we'll have with us Fred Bortz who will be talking about "Integrating an Eclectic Writing Career." How can you balance the need to build a writing career with the need to continue earning enough to support yourself? Fred Bortz faced that problem when he decided it was time to leave the stresses and comforts of earning a salary for the joys and uncertainties of freelance writing. It took him six years of trial and error to find the right balance of freelance work to do just that. He's planning to share with us trials and mistakes to help YOU avoid them when you decide you want to make the break. So be sure to return in two weeks for this helpful and inspiring talk. And now, good night, everyone!

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