So far in this series on How to Write an Alphabet or ABC Book, I’ve covered the ins and outs of researching publishers and doing the necessary preliminary work so you know what kind of book will be most marketable, and I’ve talked about how to choose a specific niche or angle for the topic of your ABC book. Today I want to look at the particular words you choose that will comprise the alphabet in your book.

I always suggest, when starting from a clean slate in choosing your words, to make one long list of every possible word you can think of that deals with your topic. Let’s say you’ve decided to do an ABC book on sea creatures. Write down every creature, big and small, you can think of that lives in the seas and oceans. Don’t over think your words at this point. It’s important to have as many as possible to work from. I also recommend never leaving the house without some way of taking notes when you’re out. You never know when that perfect word is going to pop into your head!

After you have compiled a sizable list, organize it by letter.  Then identify those letters that have few, if any, corresponding words. For those letters that are lacking ideas, search through both children’s books and adult books on your topic. Check out the glossaries and indices of those books to identify potential words. Even look at other alphabet books on your subject for ideas.

For difficult letters, like Q or X, try to find other ABC books by the publishers you want to submit to, to see how they treat such letters. Some publishers are lenient and will allow authors to use words that merely have that letter in it, as opposed to insisting that the word start with it. Other publishers are not so lenient. You’ll need to know ahead of time what your potential publisher prefers.

Next, assuming that you have at least a few words to choose from for each letter, you’ll want to first eliminate all words that are not age appropriate. Again, this will depend on the target market for your publisher. Alphabet books can range anywhere from 4-8 years old–and even older,  if the book is a two-tiered style, which I discussed in Part 1 of this series. But the difference between a word that’s appropriate for a 4-year-old is much different than what’s appropriate for an 8-year-old. Find out what your target audience’s age will be, then grab a children’s word book that lists words by age or grade to determine which words will be best for your book. A very popular and excellent book for this is the Children’s Writers’ Word Book by Alijandra Mogilner.

Once you have narrowed your list to only age-appropriate words, you then want to choose those that aren’t as commonplace. For example, when picking words for our sea creatures book, instead of going with “shark” for S, what about “sand dollar” or “sea turtle”? For the youngest of readers, you don’t want to get too far away from what they already know, but it’s always good to introduce new words and to pick words that may not be expected. One easy way to do this is to think specific. Instead of “S for Shark,” how about “L for Lemon Shark”? Or “G for Gray Whale”? Going specific may also open up new possibilities for those tougher letters.

Now that you have a workable list of words (for some letters you may still have several words to choose from), you need to work those words into simple sentences, descriptions, or definitions, depending on the format of your book. That’s what I’ll be discussing next week. See you then!

As my Part 2 follow-up to researching potential publishers for your ABC book, today I’d like to discuss how to choose a topic for an alphabet book.

At first glance, coming up with a topic isn’t all that hard. The difficulty comes in choosing just the right angle for your topic. A lot like writing a magazine article, you need to find a niche for your topic that will make it unique, interesting, and of course, marketable. For example, writing an ABC book on food has been done a million times, but what about foods from around the world, where each letter could stand for a food from a different country?

Finding such niches can be challenging, and writing an alphabet book that is now constrained to such a niche is even more challenging. By doing so, however, you’re giving a publisher something fresh and unique, which is what everyone is looking for.

To start this process, I recommend looking at recent ABC books on the market (within the past 5 years). Find out what’s selling and why. This is a good question for your local librarian! While researching books, ask yourself (or your librarian) questions such as: Are most of the current ABC books rhyming or written in verse? What are the most popular topics? Is there a current trend (like having 2-tiered books for different reading levels), or does anything go? What is the typical word count range?

The answers to these questions will ultimately affect how you will structure and write your book. Many of these answers will come from the individual publisher’s guidelines as well, especially when it comes to word count and rhyme vs. verse.

When choosing a topic, look at other popular children’s books, aside from ABC books, to get ideas as well. Discover what some of the current themes are. One good example of this is the environment. Regardless of which side of the political fence your views fall on concerning being green, one thing you can’t deny is that the topic is showing up everywhere, even in children’s books. Take advantage of such popular topics and use them as a basis for your alphabet book. Just because you don’t see a book on a particular topic doesn’t mean that the topic has been rejected by publishers. It could very well mean that no one has thought to write about it yet!

In general, the more specific you can get with your topic, the better. Instead of animals, choose a particular category of animals, such as those that live in a certain region, or those you might find at a zoo. Another general rule is to think globally. More and more, publishers are trying to reach an international audience, or, at the very least, are trying to pull their readers into a global awareness. The more you can include other cultures and regions around the world, the more marketable your book will be viewed by publishers.

It’s important to spend adequate time researching your potential topic to make sure you can actually write a complete alphabet book on it. “A” though “D” may be easy, but what about “X” through “Z”? This, of course, is the downside of choosing a too-specific topic. But that’s where more research comes in, and that’s what we’ll talk about next time. After all, if these books were as easy as ABC, everyone would be writing one!

I was hoping to be able to cover the choosing of specific words this time around, but it will have to wait until next time!

Pardon the cliche, but writing alphabet books is definitely not as simple as ABC. I do think it’s very rewarding, however, probably because of the sense of accomplishment it brings when you’re able to meet the challenge. I also think writing ABC books could be the most fun I’ve ever had writing.

For those children’s writers out there who want to try to tackle this niche, I’d like to lay out 5 important steps I’ve learned along the way as I’ve attempted to construct my own ABC books for publication (I currently have a few in the works, but haven’t polished any enough to market them yet). Because the first step is lengthy, but very important, I will only cover this one in today’s post.

1. Research publishers

It’s tempting to think that you could just dive into an ABC book without much regard for where you’ll send it when you’ve finished. But publishers nowadays are rather particular about their alphabet books.

Your first step needs to be scouring the market guides for children’s book publishers who buy ABC books, and then determine what style of book they prefer. Unfortunately, I’ve found that not all publishers list alphabet books in the list of books they acquire when they submit their information to a market guide. That means you’ll have to dig deeper.

You can either do an internet search with combined key words such as “alphabet books,” “publishers,” “writers guidelines,” or you can identify some specific publishers and go to their websites to see if there are any alphabet books listed. If you don’t see any alphabet books on a publisher’s site, don’t bother querying them. There’s a reason that the publisher has decided not to carry them.

Once you determine which publishers do have alphabet books, you want to look at the style of those books. Some publishers may carry several different types of ABC books, while others may have one distinct style that all their ABC books follow. Based on the style they use, you may decide that particular publisher is not a good fit for you.

I remember coming across one publisher who did all their alphabet books in a two-tiered format, where one page of the two-page spread is to be read at the child’s level, by the child, while the other page contains more detailed information that is to be read by the parent. I knew that I only wanted to write to the child, so I bypassed that publisher.

You may also discover that some publishers only carry rhyming ABC books, while others never buy rhyming ABC books. Others may have ABC book series–animals, weather, transportation, etc. that your book would have to somehow fit into. All this to say that researching potential alphabet book publishers is crucial unless you have extra time on your hands to waste in writing a book that you won’t have a publishing audience for.

Once you’ve compiled a list of publishers that (a) purchase alphabet books and (b) have a style of ABC book you want to write, you then need to check their submission guidelines. They may have specifics on what they are currently looking for in regards to alphabet books. For instance, if you learn that a publisher produces ABC books in series, you can find out if they are open to a new series of themes or if you must write a book within a current series.

This information isn’t always available on their website, so you may need to query the editor, or even shoot him or her a quick email asking if they’re open to new series ideas or if there’s any particular ABC book they’d like to see for their upcoming book list. You may or may not get a response, but what I’ve learned is that it never hurts to ask. If they don’t answer you, nothing lost; if they do answer you, you typically will gain some real nuggets of information.

Once you’ve done your publisher research, you’re ready for Step #2, which is choosing your topic.

I’ll take a look at that and Step #3 (picking specific words) next time.

 

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