I started writing about publisher information this morning and realized I skipped a step. It's day 8 and I have 9 publishers confirmed to send samples to. I've crossed many more off my list, but why?
Reading about each publisher is one thing, but you've got to know what style of illustrations they're looking for, what your own style is and what areas you want to illustrate in the first place. I illustrate everything from picture books to non-fiction nature books, but I'm especially interested in middle grade spot illustrations and book covers for stories that feature cultural diversity. I'm not going to send middle grade book cover samples to a publisher that only prints picture books or illustrations of realistically drawn people to publishers who prefer cartoony animal stories.
Where to start - In the end it's always the impression I get from seeing what a publisher publishes that gives me what I need to make a decision. From reading the description in CWIM (Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market) of the subject matter they print, my mind tells me that Barefoot Books is totally right for me, but visually, for the most part, my style isn't a match.
Catalogs - I don't like to accumulate catalogs, so I don't generally order them from publishers. If I happen to see one at a conference that is a good match, I will grab it. The ones that work best for me are the publishing groups with many imprints under their umbrella. Having all the imprints from one publisher in one place helps me get a handle on who belongs where. I don't keep the catalogs past a couple years. Yuck. They're dust magnets and there's no reason to keep outdated material. If I find something I need to keep, I rip it out and file it. This might be a publisher statement that sums up their "house" or a book cover that really speaks to me.
Bookstores and Libraries - I search online or in bookstores and libraries whenever possible. I happen to love books (That's a no brainer isn't it?) and looking through piles of books with great illustrations is really enjoyable. Check out the bestseller tables at the bookstore in all categories that pertain to you, but, in your excitement, don't forget to see who actually published the books. After a while, you'll start to get the "flavor" of each publisher. Some are more broad in style than others. You don't have to stick with bestsellers either. Not everything will be a bestseller. When I'm perusing, I gravitate toward colors, illustration style and fonts on the covers and spines that are similar to my style.
Digital - More and more publishers are offering catalogs to download - mostly smaller publishers. Publishing groups tend not to go to the trouble of having individual catalogs for each division. Having a digital catalog isn't the same as having physical pages to thumb through, but I can usually get the jest of whether my illustrations are right for them within a quarter of the catalog. I download catalogs and toss them right away when I'm done. I can always go back and get another one if I need to. I don't want dusty old catalogs filling up my computer either!
Websites - Bigger houses often have their books cataloged on their websites, but if they have many imprints, it's not often that I see them divided up that way. They are usually lumped together into one big listing and then divided by age group. Hopefully you'll be able to find the name of the imprint somewhere near the book title.
Publisher Blogs - Still not sure about a publisher? If they have a blog, check it out for the latest in what they're doing. What are their awards, new projects, innovations?
Amazon - Sometimes I have luck searching under a publisher name in Amazon. Sometimes not!
Magazines - The library and bookstore are also great places to look at children's magazines to find a match to your style. You can also order sample copies from the publisher. It's worth ordering a sample if you find a good match.
If you're still not sure if your work is right for a particular publisher, ask people around you for their impressions. Or it could be that your style isn't quite defined enough to be able to tell yet. Don't expect a publisher to see what you're capable of creating down the line by showing them a sketch from life drawing class. You've got to show them...now. For me, that meant getting to work on my portfolio.
Good luck out there!
UPDATE - WEBSITE CATALOGS - Simon and Schuster has digital catalogs available on their website for all of their imprints. They are very well organized. (I like Simon and Schuster a lot. ) I have not, however, found any illustration submission guidelines anywhere on the website...so far...