A to the Q is an ongoing series of posts in which I answer questions I've received from blog readers, workshop students, and others about writing and navigating the waters of children's publishing. My aim is to share what I know and spark your search for even more information.
Q: Help! Can you define the different children's book markets?
Great question — I assume you're talking about the children's trade book, mass, and educational markets? Here's what I think I know about distinguishing among the three!
These books are sold primarily to bookstores, distributors, schools, and libraries. They're considered more "literary" in nature, and thus are the more expensive and widely reviewed titles. They typically come out first as high-quality jacketed hardcovers before being released as high-quality paperbacks, but these days some trade books do come out in paperback only.
Current bestselling authors in trade books include Stephanie Meyer, Kate DiCamillo, Cornelia Funke, and any celebrity-picture-book-authors-of-the-moment. Trade books generally stay in print for a minimum of two years (unless that has changed with the market downturn). Most trade-book authors are paid an advance against the royalties from future sales, and they hope, of course, that their books stay in print and earn them royalties indefinitely.
These books are seemingly sold everywhere, including bookstores, superstores, members'-only discount stores, overstock stores, supermarkets, and drug stores. You'll find books by popular mass-market authors in schools and libraries too. Mass-market books are less expensive to produce and buy, and original releases are usually designed as rack-friendly small paperbacks or jacketless hardcovers (think Golden Books).
Series such as Magic Tree House are sold through mass-market outlets. A mass-market publisher may release hundreds of titles per year, while a trade publisher will release a much smaller list of, say, 25–50. Very popular trade books often get distributed later as mass-market titles.
Note that trade and mass-market book publishers look for the same basic things: fresh, original, well-written fiction and nonfiction for all ages from infant to young adult. But each publisher has its own budget, marketing strategy, and niche to fill. It would be impossible to get more specific about what each market wants to see from writers because the next step in delineating that is to narrow it down to what each individual publisher wants. (That's where your own market research comes in!)
Books for the school-and-library/educational market:
Books in all categories can potentially be sold to this market. Trade books are often offered to this market in both their original paperback versions and in retooled versions featuring reinforced bindings. A reinforced binding is a sturdier, pricier version of a jacketless hardcover. Distributors sell single copies and classroom sets of single titles or themed sets. Volume purchases by libraries, schools, school districts, and even entire states receive special discounts.
Some school-and-library publishers specialize in either fiction or nonfiction, and most specialize further by sticking to general topic areas, such as history and biography, issue-based explorations, myths and folktales, special-interest picture books, and so on. Writers are typically paid flat rates for these projects, but some publishers do pay advances against royalties. Also, some school-and-library/educational publishers occasionally — or always — hire book packagers (also called development houses) to hire and work with writers. When your client is the packager and not the publisher, you can expect lower pay rates and tighter schedules.
I hope I've answered your question. As a companion piece, you might also be interested in this post about children's writing genres.