Learn to Write Children’s Books

Want to learn to write children’s books? Picture book ideas aren’t always the best fit for the picture book format. Sound confusing? Read on!

learn to write children's books
Sometimes manuscripts can fit into either the picture book or short story category. Literary agents are only interested in the former.

“This isn’t a picture book, it’s a short story.” Ah, the picture book or short story debate! This is a comment I make to writers often, and it’s a heartbreaking one, at first, but one that is encouraging if you really think about it. Often, I receive picture book submissions that are nice, well-written, tell a story or have a nice poem in them, and are, overall, pleasant to read.

But are they a picture book or are they a short story that’s more suited for the magazine market than the book market?

Learn to Write Children’s Books: Matching an Idea with Format

I assume that adult nonfiction editors see this issue all the time. They get proposals for nonfiction picture books that are too narrow in scope or too limited in audience and they suggest that the author pursue it as a nonfiction magazine or how-to piece instead. (Check out how to write nonfiction children’s books for more.)

That’s never something a writer wants to hear, of course. But it is good editor or agent feedback. That means the reader found something in your writing style that’s good and they liked your idea…they just don’t think you can carry an entire book with your concept.

I see this a lot in my picture book submissions with clever poems, poems about an object or character rather than an event, and stories that are just too specific to be universally appealing. The picture book market is really, really, really (seriously) tough right now. Editors are looking for the most universal, marketable, trade-oriented picture book ideas right now. Sure, they want quirky and funny, but they also want character-driven stories that have a dramatic arc and are also something that the most possible readers will relate to.

If Your Picture Book Has Ever Been Called “Quiet”

So if I get a poem about swirling leaves in autumn, that might be too quiet and not have a character or story to drive it. Or if I get a story about a character who just couldn’t tie her shoes, that might be really character-driven, yes, but without a lot of story to back it up.

Maybe I receive a character-driven story, but it’s about a family who lives on a maple syrup farm in Vermont (I just came from Vermont for a conference and LOVED IT!). That’s lovely, has a story, and has characters, but it might be too niche to appeal to a wider audience, and might be a better fit for a magazine (maybe for an autumn issue) or a regional press that could publish a very specific picture book and get it to a more targeted audience (say, Vermonters or maple syrup enthusiasts).

The most frequent question I ask myself, when looking at picture book ideas, after I see that the writing is publication-ready and of a certain level, is: Is this a story that will appeal to a wide market?

If not, I suggest that the author try another market, like magazines or a regional/small/specialized press.

How a Publisher Chooses Which Picture Book Ideas to Publish

The other ruler I use in my head is the fact that a picture book is about a $50,000 investment for a publisher. An agent told me this figure once and it has always stuck with me. What goes into this investment? This is obviously a simplified example with simple math, but it’s worth paying attention to.

The $50,000 investment covers the author’s advance, the illustrator’s advance, the publisher’s overhead costs that pay the editor and designers who work on it, the costs of production, producing test copies and f&g’s, marketing, etc. (How much does an editor cost?) And that’s before publication. Once the book is ready to sell, there are other costs, per copy, once the book is actually being printed, shipped, distributed, warehoused, and put on shelves.

A magazine has a much lower financial investment for each piece they publish. Sure, they pay much less money to run your piece and you’ll never get to see it fully illustrated or see royalties from it, but the magazine is also much more likely to buy your piece and do something with it than a publisher who is looking at that $50,000 figure in their minds when deciding whether or not to acquire your work.

Learn to Write Children’s Books and Get Published

In today’s really difficult picture book market, I am forced to look at stories like this, too. While I naturally have a more literary, more obscure, more quiet sensibility based on what I grew up reading, I’m seeing some quieter and more literary projects rejected once I go out on submission with them, so I have to look at commercial considerations. I have to think: “Is this a $50,000 picture book idea?”

If it’s not, it very well could have a life in print…just maybe in a magazine or with a regional publisher. The good thing about magazines, also, is that you only use certain rights when you publish, and you may be able to exploit that same story in other markets or the book market once it has been published in a magazine. Lots of food for thought for writers looking to learn to write children’s books.

A great place to see some magazine markets for children’s work is the  Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market, published by Writer’s Digest Books. Tons of magazines and smaller presses are listed there for your perusal…and submissions!

It would be an honor to be your picture book editor, and I can help you address the picture book or short story question before you submit.

31 Replies to “Learn to Write Children’s Books”

  1. An interesting post, with some interesting points. However, one member of my critique group writes almost exclusively magazine stories, and she has pointed out that magazine stories have a very different “feel” and writing style from picture books – she points out differences in time frame, number of characters, and language, to name a few. So are you saying that some people who think that they have written a PB have actually written a mag story instead, or are you saying that some stories intended as PBs just aren’t quite “there” enough for the PB market, and that the authors should consider rewriting them for submission to magazines? Or both?

  2. Thanks so much for this post, Mary! I am going to start asking myself the same question about my own pb manuscripts. Is it a $50,000 story? If not, do more work before submitting.

  3. Ishta — You’re very right indeed. I should have been more clear on the work that does need to be done after you decide you have a magazine piece on your hands. Stories certainly do need to be adapted for the writer’s intended market.

    But I am saying that yes, some writers who do not perhaps know the markets as well do think they’ve written a picture book when, in fact, their story would better be suited for a magazine market, and yes, on your second point, too, that some stories would do best as adapted for magazines.

    I did not intend to communicate, however, that stories in magazines are of lesser quality. I just think that some stories are not right for the mass market and would have a better life elsewhere.

  4. Mary Ann Duke says:

    It’s a 1,450 “bridge” book. (vocab. & math level-4th-5th grade.) I was asked by a publisher to add a math element to the original MS. I’d submitted. I did and eventually they rejected it. Recently I submitted it to another pub. and was told it was “too regional.”

  5. You’ve got some gems of wisdom here for aspiring authors. Thanks for sharing this info. I hadn’t considered it before now.
    Have a great week!

  6. Thank you Mary for a very useful post. I have a lot of WIPs and some of them lend themselves more to magazine stories than picture books. That is something that takes a bit of time and distance between you and your manuscript to work out.

    Two things I look for to see if it is one or the other is the illustration potential and the re-readability. Does it have a good hook? I have noticed that at least two of my manuscripts are just cute stories and one of those will be going in a magazine soon (fingers crossed).

    I was asked to turn it into a play and I added a song and bingo it is no longer a short story/picture book it is a play for a magazine. I have another story I can imagine being a play too. It is sometimes hard as a writer who is dreaming of publication to think outside the box. All these other outlets are credits too.

    It is quite scary to think that someone is paying $50,000 dollars for your story to be on the shelves.

  7. I have one PB I wrote just so I could enter the 2008 Cheerios New Author contest. I thought it would be fun to enter, but didn’t honestly think I’d win anything. It surprised me when my manuscript won a first prize!

    Since then I’ve wondered if it would have done better had it been a rhyming PB (the grand prize winner’s story that year rhymed). I know not all PBs rhyme, but it seems the majority do.

    I now have rights to submit the PB I entered in the contest, so I’m wondering what the chances of a non rhyming PB manuscript are in today’s tough market . . . or does it not matter if it rhymes as long as it’s a good enough story for a wide market?

    Also, how do you know if your PB manuscript is a $50,000 story (that number is scary)?

  8. Insightful comments Mary. As a storyteller who makes up yarns, I have struggled with trying to take what is a short story, and modify it to be a picture book. I’m rarely happy with the results and have queried only a few. PB and short stories are not the same, and I have great respect for those who write publishable PBs.

  9. Bill Sautters says:

    Thanks for your insight. I have a background in business so I can appreciate the ROI required in publishing which necessitates a broad market appeal. I submitted to your agency a few weeks ago and after reading your post it could apply to my PB.

  10. For picture books, I suggest that writers make a spread sheet with the number of pages a picture book would have. When they put their own text in the spread sheet, they will see whether it will work or not, how the page turns and spreads work with the text, and if there are enough visual changes for the text to be for a picture book. If they still aren’t sure, they could take a couple of picture books and type the texts into spread sheets to get a feel for the rhythm of published picture books.

  11. Very interesting.

    Is this a $50,000 story? Yikes! Is anything I’ve written worth a $50,000 investment?


  12. It’s certainly not hard to believe that PB start up costs (prior to print etc) would come to at least $50k. An illustrators advance could easily be over the $10K mark, and the Author? not sure what a typical advance for an Author would be. Of course, if they are both well known and published, I am sure the advances would be much, much higher. (then there is all the in-house overhead. So, it would certainly add up fast.
    I’m wondering if this is all translating to publishers taking on even fewer first time Authors and Illustrators then even before Mary?
    Are Publishers tending to stick with and even approach name Authors/Illustrators to work up a pic book?
    I could be imagining this but it seems there are more “fabricated” pic books on the store shelves then ever before. I’m getting a sense that Editors are approaching Authors or more so even the Illustrators, to do a pic book, as opposed to taking on a submitted pic book?
    As for new Pic Book ideas with universal appeal, or at least new twists on an old idea… rats, “Fancy Nancy” has already been done (to death:) I guess I will have to go back to the drawing board!

  13. Illustrator usually gets 60 percent and author 40 percent, I believe, when it comes to picture books. Picture books cost a lot because they’re usually hard cover and four color, and you need art for every page. It has to be really good (great) and it has to be exactly what they’re looking for. Magination Press spent three months reviewing my PB ms, but in the end, the editorial committee declined it because even though they liked the humorous story, it didn’t have enough psychological depth for what they publish for kids. It just wasn’t their thing.

  14. Very interesting post. I definitely don’t think that what I’ve done is worth $50,000. I’m sure it would be considered too “regional” as well. The more I learn about the way things work in publishing the more frustrated I get. It doesn’t seem like enough to have a great idea and product.

  15. My comment is for Joan… First of all, congrats on winning 1st place in the 2008 Cheerios contest. I’ve entered the 2010 contest. Wish me luck!

    In re: to your comment about whether you should write a rhyming PB… I’ve written two adorable rhyming PB, and they never get published. I recently delved into the meter issue and realized why they probably didn’t get published. I can read the same sentence 10 times and get a different meter count five times. If meter is hard for you, maybe you won’t want to try your hand at rhyming just yet. My stories rhyme, but I’m not sure the meter is correct.

    Good luck! I’m going to go find your 2008 winning entry now.


  16. I’ve written what I believe is a picture book for pre-school and kindergarten which is a humorous look on loosing a tooth. I’ve laid it out for 29 pgs. of text (approx 950 words) and pictures including placement for double spreads. Besides my normal critiques I have also had a kindergarten teacher read it to let me know if it is appropriate and with enough context to appeal to that age range. Is there anything else I am missing or should consider before researching for a publisher?

  17. Mary Ann Duke says:

    I don’t get it. Why is maple syrup in Vermont too regional or too niche and not for a wider market? As an educator I think the entire world (or at least the U.S.) should want to read and know about other states and their products. If it’s a well-written picture book, why not?
    I am from Florida. I know about alligators. I wrote a PB about them and was told by a publisher that it was “too regional.” Don’t children in New York want to know about the swampy, alligator poacher-infessted Glades of Florida?

  18. A $50,000 investment should make any publisher picky. And me, too. Thanks for the perspective.

  19. If you believe you have thought of a brilliant idea for a picture book, and you’ve written a well-crafted and engaging story, you don’t want to then let that story down with mediocre illustrations.

  20. Ellie Langford says:

    So much good information here. Thanks everyone.

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