Breaking into Educational Publishing

Have you ever thought about diversifying into educational publishing and non-fiction, but don't know where to start? Anita Loughrey reports on tips and suggestions from a panel of top authors and publishers at the recent SCBWI conference. 

On the panel sharing their thoughts about writing fiction and non-fiction for the educational market were Juliet Clare Bell (SCBWI member and author), Rebecca Colby (SCBWI member and author), Steve Rickard (Ransom Publishing), Sophie Thomson (Pearson Bug Club) and Kersti Worsley (OUP). 

It was a fantastic panel and Clare Bell did an excellent job of keeping everyone to time as they had so much information to share with us. I think the most significant thing for me was Clare’s and Rebecca’s advice on how to break into the non-fiction picture book biographies market. We were told to look for non-traditional approaches and think who might commission us to write a biography - charities, museums, art galleries, organisations like the National Trust, etc. I know for a fact the charity, Skin Deep Behind the Mask (SDBM), is looking for children’s writers . Would they be interested in a short biography about a significant person with a skin disorder who did amazing things?

They also suggested approaching US publishers as they are particularly looking for biographies at the moment. They suggested we make ourselves familiar with the US common core standards. It struck me there must be so many SCBWI members who have researched historical figures for their novels. They could turn their research into a short, fun biographical picture book and this is the opportune time to do it.

We were advised to concentrate on a main event and not make it too general. Clare and Rebecca stressed the best non-fiction tells a story and the best fictional picture books include drama, page turns, beautiful language, rhythm, repetition, even rhyme. The approximate word counts to aim for are:

• 3-6 years – 500 words
• 6-9 year – 800 words
• 10+ - 1200 words

These are average word counts and do not include the back matter and bibliography.

The words of the editors on the panel echoed what both I and Louie Stowell, who works and writes for Usborne, told SCBWI members at the recent London Professional Series. I have summarised what the editors on the panel said:

Kersti Worlsey told us ideas for OUP’s books are generated in-house and they commission authors directly, or via their agent. All their series, such as the Oxford Reading Tree, are produced after a lot of in-depth market research. They often work on 24 - 72 titles in a reading series at a time. They will send their authors a brief summary of their requirements and the authors submit a 200 word synopsis. They do not ask for the complete story in the first instance as they want to check the synopsis fits their needs before-hand.

They try out a lot of authors for each project but it is invitation only. They have to be a talented writer, flexible and be able to fit the purpose of the series. They should also have an awareness of children’s educational needs and knowledge of phonics. If the author is taken on they may be asked to revise their synopsis and they have about three weeks to complete the manuscript. This manuscript will often be sent back with suggested changes. There is always a valid reason for the changes. They never accept unsolicited manuscripts or ideas for their reading series. Payment is usually 3-5% royalties, or if commissioned on a flat fee 50 words may receive between £100-£200. Well known, agented authors may receive an advance of up to £1000.

Pearson publish the Bug Club primary reading scheme for ages 4-11 years in over thirty countries. Children’s engagement is their number one priority. Sophie Thomson told us authors are sent a loose brief which includes, age group, number of pages, word count, things to include and to avoid and are invited to submit stories, non-fiction text and synopsis ideas. The best fit author will then be commissioned to write the text on a flat fee basis, which could range between £800-£8000, depending on how well known an author is and the word count of the book. Sophie said it was approximately £3 a word for a 500 word story. The selected writers will be sent a very tight brief with chapter by chapter story outline. The timeline and payment is agreed prior to the main delivery. Sophie’s top tip was to be flexible and view it as a challenge.

Pearson also have a bank of illustrators with portfolios on file. They usually choose their favourite and ask them to draw characters from the story to see if they fit the desired style. They are then given a storyboard on a flat fee basis ‘work for hire’.

Ransom publishers again worked in much the same way commissioning writers and giving the general topic areas to their writers. They pay royalties only, but they are considerably higher than OUP at between 5-10%. Steve Rickard stressed that writing high interest, low reading age books requires a very different skill many writers have not got. All their writers are excellent and Ransom only commission the best. They are different to Barrington Stoke who only commission established authors who make big sales in the book shops.

Having written for the high/low Star Struck series for Ransom Publishing, under the pseudonym Cathy West, I understood how getting it right educationally is only the start. The books are aimed at reluctant and struggling readers so topic, look and feel drives the reader’s choice. Steve also pointed out there are two customers the teachers/librarians and the kids. Ransom aim to produce books children want to read.

I still feel NOW is the best time to break into educational fiction and non-fiction, as there is a new national curriculum. Publishers want books and online material to meet the needs of each level description in every subject area. For ideas and more information you can view the latest curriculum here.

Anita Loughrey writes educational fiction, non-fiction and teacher resources for a wide range of publishers. She also has a monthly column in Writers’ Forum about authors and their research. She does school visits and runs workshops and seminars on writing for children. You can find out more about Anita on her website.


  1. Thanks, Anita. I loved that session and I hope we can do more. I'm blogging about breaking into creative non-fiction picture books on Friday over at Picture Book Den. It's a very exciting time to be writing true stories for children...

  2. I was sorry to miss this session at the conference so it is great to read such a detailed write-up. Thanks, Anita x

  3. This is a really interesting and informative post, thank you Anita. The advice to think about non traditional approaches is useful but my impression from reading the three publishers' comments is that they don't take unsolicited submissions. So do you go through the same process as you would with a non educational publisher and check who is open to submissions?

  4. Great sumamry - I was sorry to have missed this session too - thanks for sharing x

  5. Thanks Anita - this was a really good panel and it has led me into realms that I've not been before!

  6. Read this article if you need some useful tips or ideas to write your own bibliography.


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