From time to time, I've had people email me asking for advice on publishing a picture book -- a story book with lots of illustrations for young children. I almost always tell them the same thing, so I thought I'd post my answer here.
I hate to be discouraging but children's picture books are about the hardest books in the world to get published. Most publishers (think: in particular, Catholic publishers) don't like to do picture books for three reasons:
1.) color printing still remains very expensive, and the price of coated paper which is required for good color printing continues to rise. Because of this, even picture books by famous authors and illustrators have short print runs and quickly go out of print. Remember this: not only is it hard to get published by a big publishing house: it's hard to keep your books in print! Since authors get paid royalties only as long as their books are still in print, this means it's hard to make money on picture books.
2) a book with illustrations means paying both an author and an illustrator (even if the author does his own illustrations) - hence a double cost to the publisher. And the hassle of working with two parties - author and illustrator - is a large disincentive to them. Publishers always want to pick the illustrator, so offering to illustrate the book yourself, even for free, doesn't necessarily solve this problem for the publisher. Don't offer to find your own illustrator for the book, unless the publishers ask you to. Most publishers prefer to work with artists they already know and contract with, not an unknown.
3) and this last one is a biggie -- EVERYONE thinks they can write children's books, so publishers are flooded with submissions and, as an unknown author, you are competing with many, many more people (including already-estabilished picture book authors, and celebrities who've written a picture book for their kid) for a very few slots in a publisher's lineup. Because of this last factor, many agents won't even accept picture book manuscripts: they inundated with so many of them. Remember, the fact that picture books are short and appear easy to write means that lots of other people are trying to write them too.
So what is a first-time author to do?
First of all, understand that you are better off trying to get published by writing magazine stories with few illustrations or grade-school books that are mostly text. There is less cost and competition in those areas. Don't underestimate the magazine market: if you have a string of stories published in high-quality magazines like Cricket or Hilights, a publisher or agent might be impressed enough to give your manuscript a look. As a personal example, I only was able to get my picture book, Angel in the Waters, published after I had two young adult novels and about thirty magazine and newspaper articles published.
Self-publishing is an option that is becoming more affordable now, if you can find a quality illustrator for your work. But remember you will be shouldering all the marketing and promotion costs yourself, and that can be a lot of work.
But if you just want to have some copies of your own book for friends, families, or a ministry, self-publishing is a great option to pursue.
Either way, expect to pay at least a few thousand for a good illustrator, if you want a good product.
Which brings up the point that picture books are all about the pictures. Make sure your story really needs pictures. If you study professional picture book guidelines, you'll notice that each page of text should be paired with a page that describes your suggested illustration.
In my experience, most amateur picture books have far too much text, far too much verbiage, and their picture descriptions are way too vague.
As an exercise, try visualizing your story WITHOUT words. Map it out on scrap paper, minus all the words. Then only include the words you need to tell the story. If your imagined picture shows a little girl running joyfully to her dad's arms with a big smile on her face, then your text should NOT say: "Margaret ran joyfully to her dad's arms with big smile on her face, and said 'Daddy I love you!'"
What about just:
"I love you, Dad!" said Margaret. (Illustration: girl runs joyfully to dad with a big smile on her face)
Let the pictures tell the story!
So that's my two cents. If you really want to get your picture book published, consider joining www.SCBWI.org - the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. They are a great networking professional organization and they have great contacts in the established industry. The dues are worth it, and the local groups are great too. They'll connect you with other authors like yourself, and their conferences are very helpful places where you can have the chance to meet and talk with agents and publishers.
Hope at least some of this is helpful to you! God bless your work!
Peace and good