Unlocking Success: How a Theater Critic Obtained Contracts from Traditional Publishers

Nancy Churnin

Nancy Churnin writes children’s books about people that inspire kids to make a positive difference in the world and encourage kids to be heroes, too. Dear Mr. Dickens, the story of a woman who spoke up to Charles Dickens, won the 2021 National Jewish Book Award, a  2022 Sydney Taylor Honor; and is a Junior Library Guild selection.

Among her other honors: Junior Library Guild, National Council for the Social Studies Notables, Silver Eurekas, Mighty Girl lists, Sakura Medal finalist, Notable Book for a Global Society, Anne Izard Storytellers Choice Award, the South Asia Book award, and starred reviews. Nancy, a former journalist and theater critic, lives in North Texas. You’ll find free teacher guides, resources, and projects on her website at nancychurnin.com 

Nancy Churnin

Nancy Churnin

Multiple Awards winning Traditionally Published Children's Book Author

Welcome to the “Your Launch Story” blog series! We would love to know your experience in approaching traditional publishers and literary agents. What steps did you take, and what advice would you give to aspiring authors?

[NC] My early efforts in reaching out to traditional publishers resulted in rejections. Many, many rejections!

I joined a group called the 12X12Challenge (https://www.12x12challenge.com) in 2013, run by Julie Hedlund. It’s a supportive writing community that gave me the opportunity to submit one manuscript a month to an agent.  I had been studying craft and working on revisions with my critique groups, focusing on my picture book biography of William Hoy.

I sent it to the July agent, Karen Grencik of Red Fox Literary, and she got back to me in less than an hour saying she wanted to send it to publishers! That was thrilling.

So, the first piece of advice I would give aspiring authors is to find your support group, look for opportunities to submit to agents and publishers (conferences and workshops also provide opportunities) and to work on your craft so that you are saying what you want to say in your stories.

I would also add that you must be resilient, have a sense of humor, and be a lifelong learner. Because the first set of submissions that Karen sent out for me in 2013 all came back with rejections, too. But what I focused on was that these were nice rejections – regretful rejections – with notes about what was and wasn’t working.

And that is my next piece of advice. Focus on progress. I had made progress. These kind rejections with helpful notes were an improvement over the form rejections I was getting before. Instead of getting discouraged by the notes, I thought deeply about how I could use them to revise and make my story stronger. I woke up at 4 in the morning with a sudden epiphany of how to tell the story and I stayed up and wrote it.

That’s another piece of advice –

if you’re lucky enough to get a breakthrough moment of inspiration, write it down then and there because otherwise you may forget it.

After more tweaking and polishing, I sent that to Karen and she sold that version of The William Hoy Story to the very first editor she sent it to – Wendy McClure, who was then at Albert Whitman & Company. I now have 12 books out, 6 more coming out and 3 more under contract for a total of 21 so far, with more manuscripts out on submission. I still get rejections, but I use those rejections as learning opportunities to consider how I can make my stories stronger.

A final piece of advice: patience. I’ve had some stories scooped up right away and others take years to find homes.

Sometimes the problem is how you’ve told the story. That’s something only you can solve. But sometimes the problem is that you haven’t found the right editor who understands and wants to champion your story. Editors that reject you because the story doesn’t speak to them are doing you a favor by freeing you to find the editor who is as passionate about your story as you are.

So don’t worry about the rejections. They are part of your progress, pointing you where you need to go.

How important is building a strong author platform when approaching traditional publishers or literary agents? What are some effective strategies to establish an author platform?

[NC] These days, with traditional publishers having limited budget for marketing campaigns, they really appreciate authors and illustrators who will work hard to spread word of their books. Even if they do have strong marketing departments, they appreciate authors who are willing to do interviews and participate in panels that they set up.

The first thing I believe most publishers will look at is whether you have a website where readers can go to learn more about you and your books or, if you’re pre-published, other helpful book-related matters.

I build my website, nancychurnin.com, after my first book, The William Hoy Story, was acquired. It was up and running before the book came out so people could follow my progress, my events, find my teacher guide and resources for this book and then with the books that followed.

Publishers also appreciate authors and illustrators that are active on social media.

I am on Facebook at Nancy Churnin and also at Nancy Churnin Children’s Books, on Twitter @nchurnin and on Instagram @nchurnin

Another strategy for people who don’t feel comfortable going it alone is to join or form a kidlit group where you can boost and share each other’s books.

Sometimes the groups are linked by similar interests or book types or by books coming out in the same year.

Could you discuss the role of a literary agent in the traditional publishing process? What are the benefits of working with a literary agent, and how can authors find the right one for their needs?

[NC] A literary agent is essential for submitting to big publishing houses. Having your work submitted by an agent also makes it more likely that you get a timely response – but not always. However, there are also a great many publishers that don’t require agents. In fact, some agents prefer not to work with some small publishers because the advance is so small for all the work that is involved with negotiating the contract.

Keep in mind that there are many different kinds of agents and it is important for you to find the right one for you professionally and emotionally.

‣ There are agents that are known as editorial agents because they will give you editing notes and help you get your manuscript ready for submission.

‣ There are agents that not editorial and will send your manuscript out if they like it and won’t if they don’t.

‣ There are agents that have a vision for your overall career and will guide you in terms of what you write and who you work with.

‣ Other agents will look to you to tell them where you would like to send your work and follow your lead in terms of what kind of career you want to have.

‣ Some agents are with small agencies and their main work with you will be to sell your manuscripts.

‣ Other agents are with big agencies that may also provide marketing and promotional support or even offer support in selling rights that have not been reserved by the publisher.

One of the reasons I like working with my agent is that our missions and personalities align. Karen and I share the goal of putting beautiful and important books into the world, books that inspire children, that build empathy, that encourage thought and wonder and break down walls. Karen doesn’t get rattled by rejections and her greatest concern is which publisher will do the best by a book.

What are the key components of a compelling book proposal that can capture the attention of traditional publishers or literary agents? Any tips or insights on how to craft a standout book proposal?


I haven’t written book proposals because editors require full manuscripts, rather than proposals, for picture books and board books.

I did write two chapter book biographies but no proposals were required; instead I discussed my approach with my editor over the phone. So I am not the best person to answer this question.

‣ I can tell you that in any query letter for any manuscript, the important thing to do is write something about your manuscript that grabs the editor’s attention, give a brief synopsis including genre of book and word count, compare your manuscript to two or three other existing books (and explain why yours might tap into similar markets while being unique), explain why you are uniquely suited to write this story, give your credentials or describe your expertise, be friendly and don’t go on too long!

A good query letter should be one page or less.

‣ If you are writing a proposal for middle grade, it is my understanding that you would need to describe the proposal and provide a sample chapter and a synopsis of the other chapters. However, I recommend you consult with someone who has done this.

In terms of marketing, how should authors prepare themselves for a traditional publishing journey? What marketing efforts should authors engage in, both pre- and post-publication?

[NC] If you don’t have a website, create one.

‣ If you don’t have books to offer yet, offer something else that would be of interest to people looking for children’s books.

‣ Perhaps you could include a blog with interviews of children’s book authors. Or reviews of children’s books. Or crafts.

‣ Think of what you as someone who loves children’s books would like to read and offer that to others.

‣ If you are on social media, share links to your blog or website to help spread the word.

‣ Get to know your local independent bookstore owners, your local librarians, your local community of writers.

‣ It is so important to have a network of support.

‣ If you are published or soon-to-be published, reach out to local newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations.

Finally, think about your book topic or subject and seek out an organization that would have special interest in your book topic or subject and reach out to them. Perhaps your book can be used as a fundraiser for them.

What are some effective marketing strategies authors can implement to promote their books when working with a traditional publisher? Are there any specific platforms or techniques you recommend?


Your traditional publisher’s marketing team usually focuses on getting your books in the hands of reviewers, into conferences, and submitted for awards, all of which is very important.

‣ What you can do is find ways to connect to your local community, to the larger writing community through groups and organizations you join, and, also to people or groups that may have a special interest in your subject.

‣ For instance, when I was trying to spread word of The William Hoy Story, I reached out to the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame, where he was a member and did a presentation there.

‣ I reached out to the Ohio State School of the Deaf, where he had graduated, and to the Texas State School of the Deaf, because I live in Texas, my friend Steve Sandy, who had helped me research this book, had attended the school, and I knew they might have a special interest in this Deaf hero.

‣ When I wrote Dear Mr. Dickens about Eliza Davis, a woman who had written to Charles Dickens and asked him to write more fairly and compassionately about Jewish people, I reached out to The Charles Dickens Museum in London. The museum now has an educational program using Dear Mr. Dickens to teach children to be aware of signs of prejudice and to speak up against prejudice when they see it..

What was the most rewarding moment for you during the launch of your children’s book? Can you describe the feeling of seeing your work in print and sharing it with young readers?


[NC] Having books in the world is like having your heart live outside your body. Each book contains a piece of me – the best part of me – that hopes it can bring light and joy and hope and courage to kids when they need it most.

‣ I can’t point to any one most rewarding moment. There have been so many! I will never forget though when a mom came up to me asking me to sign The William Hoy Story, telling me that this was her son’s favorite book.

‣ I was happy to sign and asked her why it was his favorite. “Because he has Type 1 diabetes,” she said. “Seeing William Hoy achieve his dreams makes him believe he can, too.” I will never forget that moment. It still makes me cry.

Did you encounter any surprises or unexpected obstacles along the way? How did you adapt and overcome them?

[NC] I was surprised by how much responsibility the author has for marketing.

‣ I was always prepared to promote my books, to help spread word about them. But I thought that would be in addition to a high existing level of promotion.

‣ I learned the hard way, in the beginning, that bookstores are wonderful but they don’t have a magic wand that will conjure their busy patrons for your presentations.

‣ The bookstore’s part of the job is to make you and your books available, but YOU have to rally the community.

‣ I am happy to see a strong turnout, but I never assume that there will be one and I always do all I can to build awareness of my appearances.

‣ At the same time, I will add that if even despite all efforts, the turnout is small, I am grateful for each person who does show up and you can be sure they get my full presentation, attention and appreciation!     

Could you highlight the main differences between traditional publishing and self-publishing? What factors should authors consider when deciding which path to pursue?

[NC] In traditional publishing, you are working with a team to collaborate on a book. When you self-publish, you ARE the team or you direct the team.

‣ I like traditional publishing because I enjoy working with and bouncing ideas off others. I want the support of a great editor, an art director, an illustrator.

‣ I want to do what I do best, work on the manuscript, and leave those other vital tasks to people who are brilliant at what they do.

‣ I also know that when I am traditionally published, my book will be reviewed by professional reviewers and, as a result, be considered by librarians and be eligible for children’s book awards.

‣ Those reviews and awards also help in getting librarians and teachers interested in booking you for school visits.  If I am traditionally published, I am paid an advance and royalties and do not make any expenditures beyond what I need to do for research and my own personal marketing ideas and efforts.

‣ If you self-publish, you are investing and believing in your vision for your book and must have absolute confidence that you know exactly how you want it to be since you are taking on the job of publishing and overseeing all the other jobs or doing all the other jobs yourself.

‣ If you self-publish you also take a financial risk since you have to pay for the publishing and anything that goes along with it. However, if your book is successful, you will also reap more of the financial rewards as traditional publishers keep most of the earnings of traditionally published books.

‣ There are instances of self-published books that have done extraordinarily well.

‣ Peter Rabbit was self-published by Beatrix Potter, who knew exactly how she wanted her book to look. She certainly knew better than the traditional publishers of her time! That can still happen.

‣ I know many authors that happily self-publish their books exactly the way they want them to be.

However, I believe that in general, sales of traditionally published books are greater than sales of self-published books largely because traditionally published books have the advantage of being reviewed, being considered for library acquisition, being considered for presentations at library conferences and more book festivals, although there are book festivals that focus on self-published books.

In terms of creative control, how does traditional publishing differ from self-publishing? What are the pros and cons of each when it comes to maintaining artistic vision and decision-making authority?

[NC] In traditional publishing, editors are very respectful of authors and illustrators. They won’t change things without your permission. At the same time they will give you notes. Sometimes lots of notes!

‣ Traditional publishing editors see themselves as partners in the process of the book’s journey.

‣ Traditional publishing editors are intermediaries between the authors and illustrators.

‣ Editors give notes to both, allowing authors to make comments or illustrators to make suggestions. But traditional editors are behind the wheel.

‣ In self-publishing, you are behind the wheel. If you are working with an illustrator, you are talking with that illustrator directly, giving your notes for your vision.

‣ As a traditionally published author, I appreciate the opportunity to give notes which I give mainly on matters of factual accuracy.

‣ I don’t see myself as a visual artist, so I am grateful to have the editor and illustrator run with this part of the book. I have known authors who have strong ideas of how their books should look.

‣ Sometimes they are thrilled because the illustrator knew or even went beyond what they had hoped and sometimes they are in tears because the illustrator did not create what they had envisioned.  

What are some common misconceptions or myths about traditional publishing that you’d like to debunk? What should authors realistically expect when going through the traditional publishing process?

[NC] Some people think that once you are traditionally published, that you are set. They think you are earning a lot of money, that you are getting a lot of marketing support, that it is now easy for you to sell your next book.

‣ Advances are often modest and so are royalties. Many authors supplement what they earn from advances and royalties with other jobs or with paid presentations.

‣ You do get marketing support from a traditional publishing house, but you are expected to do a lot on your own.

‣ Finally, one sale doesn’t guarantee future sales. If your book sells well, that increases an editor’s interest in looking at your new work, but each new work has to stand on its own.

‣ Also, it’s important to get familiar with the work at different publishing houses. They each have different missions and styles and a good fit for one may not be a good fit for another. 

Lastly, based on your experience, what final advice would you give to authors considering traditional publishing? Are there any important factors or tips they should keep in mind before embarking on this journey?

[NC] Join a group of authors with the same goal so you can support and encourage each other through the journey.

‣ Be happy for those that break through and learn from their experiences. Have patience and persistence. Stay focused on the quality of your work. It is about the journey, always.

‣ A rejection is not a failure, but something that you can learn from.

‣ It is a moment on the path to publication. Just as the hero or heroine of your story faces challenges on the way to achieving a dream, you, as an author, are a hero or heroine on the way to achieving your dream of publication.

‣ Enjoy the ride even with all the ups and downs. Relish the adventure.

‣ Take notes so you can share them with others as they start or need support on their journeys.

If you don’t give up, and you commit yourself to growing and getting stronger, you will get there. And once you’re there – on to the next book!

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