How to Write Early Readers and Chapter Books

This question about how to write early readers and chapters book on the blog comes from Mary:

I have a PB manuscript that I’m thinking of turning into a chapter book. I’ve noticed that I haven’t seen many agents listing chapter books as their interest. Do agents represent CBs or is it best to approach editors directly? Also, is it difficult to sell a CB as a single title, or are editors mostly interested in series?

I’m going to expand this question to include another little-discussed market, the early reader. The reason I don’t usually talk about early readers or chapter books on the blog is because I don’t really represent them, and neither do a lot of my colleagues. As Mary has noticed, there aren’t a lot of agents hanging out their shingles and asking to see early reader or chapter book submissions.

Before I talk about why that is, I’ll define both markets so we’re on the same page.

how to write and publish early readers, how to write and publish chapter books
CLEMENTINE is an example of writing great chapter books for young readers.

How to Write and Publish Early Readers

Early readers are the earliest “chapter” stories that a kid can get. They’re very short in terms of manuscript length (1,500 words max) but are broken up into either chapters or vignettes that will give the reader the feeling of reading a book with real chapters in it. Your target audience for these is kids ages 4 to 8. Early readers feature a smaller trim size, some the size of or slightly bigger than a paperback novel, and can go from about 32 to 60 pages. The font size is smaller and they feature spot illustrations in either color or black and white instead of full color throughout, like a picture book.

Some examples of early readers: LING AND TING: NOT EXACTLY THE SAME by Grace Lin (Little, Brown, 2010), the HarperCollins I Can Read! books, and the Random House Step Into Reading books. You can usually find them on spinner racks in the children’s section of your local independent bookstore. If you’re at all curious, go and get your hands on some. As you’ll see, early readers have strict guidelines for vocabulary and sentence structure and are graded so that kids can develop their reading skills and move up a ladder to more independent reading. Even if you think you have a great early reader idea, it has to be a very precise fit for a publisher’s established vocab/sentence/word count guidelines.

How to Write and Publish Chapter Books

Chapter books are for more independent readers who are making the bridge between picture books and early readers and middle grade. Some bookstores designate these as for kids 9-12 but I would say readers are mostly 6-8. Manuscripts can range from about 5,000 words to about 15,000 words, max. Since your audience is still developing its reading skills, you have more of a wide berth in terms of vocabulary and sentence structure, story and character. Younger chapter books will be simpler, but you can get pretty sophisticated for older chapter books. Trim size resembles paperback books and finished books tend to go from 100 to 160 pages, with black and white spot illustrations throughout. Some of my favorite chapter books are CLEMENTINE by Sarah Pennypacker and illustrated by Marla Frazee, the IVY AND BEAN series, written by Anne Barrows and illustrated by Sophie Blackall from Chronicle Books, and the fun GERONIMO STILTON and THEA STILTON books from Scholastic (in full color!). If you’re at all curious about chapter books, do pick some up and take a look. They’re a very quick read!

The Market for Writing and Publishing Early Readers and Chapter Books

Now, the reason I don’t talk about them a lot is because early readers and chapter books are a really tough market right now. Writers have some luck doing I Can Reads or Step Into Reading as work-for-hire for the big publishers, but writers and agents haven’t had a lot of recent success with pitching independent creations and getting an early reader or chapter book series going.

One reason for this? The word I just used: series. If you look at an early reader or even a chapter book, you’ll see that their spines are tiny. When you’re fighting for space on early reader or chapter book shelves with DORA THE EXPLORER licensed early reader #798 and 30 of its closest friends, your tiny spine isn’t going to stand out. It’s been proven that series sell better than stand-alones, so that’s where publishers are turning for these markets.

Obstacles to Writing Early Readers and Chapter Books

So why don’t publishers give new writers a series? Well, a debut writer is untested and they won’t have a lot of sales power to their name yet. And, truth be told, early readers and chapter books are not lucrative for publishers. These books have very low price points: about $3.99 to $6.99, unless, of course, they’re published in hardcover. Most are published on cheap paper, about the same quality as a mass market paperback (what you’d find in the grocery store checkout aisle). They’re not big profit-turners. And why would a house spend a lot of money and marketing launching a new series from a debut writer when they won’t really stand to gain from it? Cynical, yes, but this sector of the market is very cynical right now.

While early readers and chapter books are a down market right now, they’re not an absolutely closed door. However, writers hoping to tap this market need to be very familiar with language, vocabulary, sentence structure, reading levels, and all the other strict guidelines in effect for these books.

How to Start Writing Children’s Books

For my money, I think it would be easier to make a debut as a picture book writer in this market. And that’s saying a lot, since picture books aren’t exactly selling like hotcakes, either. I don’t look at submissions for early readers or chapter books unles, of course, someone has the next CLEMENTINE character. As it happens, one of my clients is developing a potential idea for this market (the only way I would really touch it right now), and so I’ve been doing a lot of research lately. These tricky little books are certainly on my mind, but I don’t recommend that they be on yours.

It’s not all about picture books and children’s novels. I provide editorial services for early reader and chapter book writers, too.

Manuscript Length: How Long Should a Children’s Book Be?

ChristaCarol asked this question of how long should a children’s book be via email. I thought I’d answer it for everyone, since it really is on people’s minds. I almost hesitate to get into this discussion publicly but, well, that’s never stopped me before. 🙂

I have a question about your opinion on word count in YA fantasy. And this may be one of those subjective things that drive us all nuts, but my manuscript is at 90K, which I’d thought (for a Fantasy) was high, but okay. A wonderful agent who offered to critique the query through a contest mentioned she would pass on the project just because of the high word count. Is this done often? Should I be scared? Should I go back and find a way to chop out 10K? Another writer mentioned just querying it at 80K even if it’s 90K, but I’m not sure, wouldn’t this dirty up my integrity or something?

This is a great question. I love getting publishing myth/rumors that I can confirm or deny. Now, ChristaCarol is astute when she mentions that this might be one of those subjective things that drives us all nuts, because… this is one of those subjective things that drives us all nuts.

how long should a children's book be, children's book manuscript length, manuscript word counts, picture book word count, middle grade word count, chapter book word count, early reader word count, young adult word count, literary agent word count
That’s a lot of words. How long should a children’s book be? Probably not this long.

How Long Should a Children’s Book Be?

I can give you two answers. First, the cute and fuzzy one: As long as the manuscript and the story has earned every single one of those vital and carefully-chosen words, the word count doesn’t matter. There are those very rare exceptions where I see a word count in a query, have a mini heart attack, but then the author convinces me that each word is necessary and I agree whole-heartedly. If given enough reason, people (and that includes editors and agents) will read long books.

Now for the more practical, everyday truth. Personally — and this sounds extremely crass and judgmental of me, I know — the lower your word count, the more I like you, right off the bat. For example, right now, I’ve got about 150 queries and 8 manuscripts in my queue. And that’s from, like, the last couple of days. That’s a lot of words for me to read. When I get a query for anything over 80k words that sounds really cool, I groan a little bit inside.

Word Count Can Be Flexible

It’s not the word count, per se, because, if something sounds cool, I really do get excited to read it. It’s that I have so many other submissions on my plate, so I half-dread loving it a lot and having to read all those 80k words. And if I take it on, I’ll have to read those 80k words over and over again as we revise. It represents a big time commitment. I realize this is arbitrary and perhaps lazy of me but… welcome to the world of a very busy agent. Sometimes, we have these thoughts.

There are times, though, (and these are the rule, not the exception, I find) when an inflated word count isn’t earned, isn’t awesome, isn’t because every word deserves to be there.

Manuscripts That Are Too Long

I usually find that first-time fantasy, paranormal or sci-fi authors are the worst offenders. They craft a redundant manuscript full of lavish description that moves at a snail’s pace. Then they send it to me and proudly say that there are 155k words and that it’s the first in a trilogy. I read the writing sample and see paragraph after paragraph of dense text with no breaks for dialogue or scene. These are the high word count manuscripts that are problematic.

Because, clearly, the author hasn’t revised enough. And if I tell them what really needs to happen — that they need to lose about 50% of their words — they’ll have an aneurysm.

But, truthfully, if your word count is anything over 100k in children’s, it better be higher-than-high YA fantasy. And all those words better be good. Cutting words and scenes and “killing your babies,” as I like to put it, is one of the most hard-won revision skills any writer can have. And it usually comes after you’ve done lots and lots and lots of revision in your life. Many debut authors haven’t yet learned how to make — and enjoy — this type of word sacrifice. It shows.

The Problem With High Word Count Manuscripts

Now, there’s also a real reason I usually balk at manuscripts with a high word count, besides my own busy inbox and the fact that most really wordy manuscripts reflect a lack of polish and revision. So, as we’ve already established, a lot of my highest word count submissions come from debut authors. For editors, debut authors are an exciting but fundamental risk. They’re untested in the marketplace, they could potentially lose the publisher a lot of money.

Words equal pages and pages equal money in terms of production costs. Longer books are also heavier and bigger, so the publisher will have to invest more in shipping costs and warehouse space, which all figures into their bottom line before they even acquire the book. (All editors have to guess how much money their house will have to spend to publish this book and how much earning potential the book has. They have to put it together and present it to their team before they can make an offer. It’s called a Profit and Loss Statement or, in my mind, The Spreadsheet of Terror.)

The more words a manuscript has, the more expensive it’ll be to turn into a book. So editors will frown if I try to send them a really long book from a debut author. Their investment in this book will have to be much higher and, these days especially, there’s less chance they’ll take that kind of risk on a debut. So I have to think about that when I think about representing a longer manuscript, too. I’m here to sell your many words, not just enjoy them by myself. 🙂

Ideal Manuscript Length for Children’s Books

As ChristaCarol says, there are different accepted word count limits for different genres and age groups. This is the part I hesitate to do, but I will throw my hat in the ring and suggest some maximum word counts for different types of projects.

How long should a children’s book be?

  • Board Book — 50 words max
  • Early Picture Book — 300 words max
  • Picture Book — 700 words max (Seriously. Max.)
  • Nonfiction Picturebook — 2,000 words max
  • Early Reader — I’d say 1,500 words is the max.
  • Chapter Book — This varies widely, depending on grade and reader level. 15,000 words max.
  • Middle Grade or MG — 35,000 words max for contemporary, mystery, humor, 45,000 max for fantasy/sci-fi, adventure and historical
  • Young Adult or YA — 70,000 words max for contemporary, humor, mystery, historical, romance, etc. 90,000 words max for fantasy, sci-fi, paranormal, etc.

Now, again, these are just estimates I’ve gathered from my experience. (Disclosure: Early Readers and Chapter Books are not my personal forte.) If a manuscript goes over the maximum that editors usually deal with, there has to be a damn good reason.

The Problem With Early Middle Grade and Tween

Let me also address right now that I’ve been seeing some queries for “Early Middle Grade” in the 7,000 word range. No, no, no. That’s too tiny. Middle Grade, even Early Middle Grade, beings at around 15,000 words minimum. But this does bring to light that there are all sorts of gray areas. Upper Middle Grade. Lower YA. The sometimes-mocked label of “Tween.” So word count is a tricky wicket. How about this? If you’re worried that your book is too long and you sometimes dread doing yet another revision because there’s so much of it to read… cut!

And know that some agents do automatically reject manuscripts because of their length. I’m not quite there yet but, if I do see something over 80k, it has to work pretty darn hard to convince me that all those words are necessary.

Do you need help bringing your manuscript word count up or down into an acceptable range? I am happy to be your developmental editor and suggest ways to expand or cut your work in a way that preserves your manuscript’s integrity.