How to Write Early Readers, Easy Chapter Books, and Chapter Books

This question about how to write early readers, easy chapter books, 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 easy 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.

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CLEMENTINE is an example of writing great easy 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), 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. (For more general information on children’s book manuscript length, go here.)

How to Write and Publish Chapter Books

What are chapter books? Dig in! 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 (some will call them “easy chapter books”), 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 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. Most writers are still wondering what are chapter  books instead of writing them. 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, Easy Chapter Books, 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 unless, 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.

How to Write a Picture Book Query

There’s a picture book query question that comes up a lot. All of your query letter for picture book questions, answered here!

picture book query, query letter for picture book, children's book query, picture book query letter
All of your picture book query questions answered here, so you can write great children’s books for these kiddos!

Melanie phrases the question quite well:

I have a query letter for picture book question about the slush piles. Due to the extremely short nature of the manuscripts do you always read the entire manuscript for picture books or do you base it on the picture book query letter with them? It’s my impression that since whole manuscripts are sent for picture book queries the letter is more of a cover letter, rather than trying to hook interest with a bit of the plot because the entire thing is there with the letter.

Melanie is completely right. Since most agents ask that the picture book manuscript be included in the submission, writing a really meaty query letter for picture book, especially for that short a manuscript seems a bit silly. When I see a picture book query done well — and when I write my own picture book pitches, in fact — it’s usually very simple.

Picture Book Query Sample

I’ve had a book by Katie Van Camp and illustrated by Lincoln Agnew called Harry and Horsie on my recommended reading list for a while. It’s an example of a great picture book with an outside-the-box friendship hook. If you haven’t picked it up yet, I’m sorry for you, because you’re missing out.

picture book query, query sample, picture book literary agent
The basis for my picture book query sample.

If I were writing a query for HARRY AND HORSIE, it would read something like this:

Harry and plush toy, Horsie, are the best of friends. One night, Harry is trying out his bubble-making machine when one of his bubbles swallows Horsie and hoists him into outer space! Harry has to rescue his best friend — and go on a wild space adventure — before returning safely home.

A quirky picture book with a great friendship hook, spare text and retro-style illustration, HARRY AND HORSIE is sure to blast your imagination into the stratosphere! This is a simultaneous submission. You will find the full manuscript of XXX words pasted below (or “enclosed”). I look forward to hearing from you and appreciate your consideration.

Easy peasy. No need to write an elaborate picture book query letter. Just present the main characters, the main problem, and the resolution, then work in a hook (“great friendship hook,” above), and sign off like you normally would with a novel query. This is the perfect query letter for picture book formula.

How to Get A Picture Book Literary Agent

The picture book query should be short and compelling. Then just paste the picture book manuscript. If you are an author/illustrator, include a link to an online portfolio where the agent or editor can browse your illustrations. Do not include attachments unless the agent requests to see more illustrations or to see a dummy. Be prepared to show additional picture book manuscripts, because agents will frequently want to see more than one. (More thoughts on writing great children’s books, including read aloud picture books here.)

If you’d like personalized help with your own picture book query, or your entire manuscript, hire me as your picture book editor.

International Settings in Fiction and Books Set Outside the US

This question about international settings in fiction is one I got on the blog a few months ago. It’s about writers who either live outside of the US or books set outside the US, or both:

How do editors and agents feel about writers from other countries? I live in Canada and write using Canadian spelling and grammar. My latest young adult story is set in Canada so I have kept to the Canadian standards. However, I’m afraid that agents will see that and wonder whether or not I know basic grammar.

Do American agents consider the location of the story and/or it’s author when reading a manuscript? Do they require American spelling and grammar? Would an agent in the states consider taking on a story set in another country or would they prefer to change the setting to an American city?

international settings in fiction, books set outside the us, writers living outside the us
Feel free to pull us into another location, but writing books set outside the US has a few unique considerations.

International Settings in Fiction, and the Far-Flung Writers Who Craft Them

I get this question a lot, actually. And some people may not love the answer, though it isn’t coming from my personal beliefs. I’m talking about international writers and books set outside the US and how they are perceived in terms of marketing a manuscript to agents and/or editors for the American audience. I’m not giving my own personal views about how the world should be. I’m not making commentary on American culture. I’m not saying that this is the only opinion on the issue. But an undeniable bias exists toward American settings in today’s kidlit. That is a fact. (How do I feel about that personally? That’s not what this post is about.)

If you want to shop your international settings in fiction it in the American market, or write as an international creator for the US market, adhere to American grammar and spelling standards. I see tons of submissions from around the world and am very familiar with what is standard usage in other countries. I give writers the benefit of the doubt and assume they know basic language rules, so don’t worry about your Canadian usage branding you as illiterate in our eyes.

However, I also know that you will have to adhere to American standards if you manuscript is acquired in America. The best way to avoid a heavy line edit later on is to Americanize your manuscript before you submit to American agents or editors. You know what’s coming … just get it over it.

I see a lot of Canadian writers. They usually set a story in the place they know best, usually their Canadian hometown. However, international settings in fiction for novels published in the American market usually tend to be more … exotic. The novel by P.J. Converse, SUBWAY GIRL, out from HarperCollins, is a romance intertwined with the bustling subway lines of Hong Kong. The Stephanie Perkins romance, ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS, out from Dutton this fall, is set in … bien sur … Paris.

Books Set Outside the US: Canada Edition

Not to offend our dear friends up north, but for Canadian settings, I have to ask: is it 100% essential that the story is set in Canada? Is the Canadian setting absolutely crucial to the story? Does the whole thing fall apart when you take the story oot of Canada? I’m not sure American kid/teen readers will understand the nuances and glories of Canada.

It doesn’t have the sexy allure of France or Brazil or Morocco in American popular culture. I read a lot of children’s literature and have yet to come across a pocket of stories set in Canada. Now, I don’t know if that’s the setting’s fault or if I’m not reading the right books or if it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, but the general lack of Canada-centric books in the US kidlit market makes me a little less eager to submit project set in the Great White North (unless the Canadian setting is absolutely imperative to the action of the story, as I’ve mentioned, and the book is completely amazing, of course).

International Settings in Fiction Must Be Essential

The setting has to be absolutely instrumental to the story. Novels are about choices the writer makes. If you’re just setting something somewhere just because, that’s not a strong choice. If you set a story outside of the average American reader’s frame of reference and you want to publish in the American market, one or both of the following must be true: first, it must be a location that the reader will be thrilled and excited to vicariously visit (think about action movies…they’re always set in some exotic world destination), second, it must absolutely be crucial to the story. You can’t have a Mayan story without some mention of Mexico, for example. (This is the same advice I’d give for historical fiction in children’s books, by the way.)

This is a tough market. Editors don’t care where you’re from, but they do care about your work being able to attract the maximum number of readers. If you want to publish in the US market, your best, strongest bet, would be to cater more to American readers in terms of location and grammar/spelling. I believe in giving your work the biggest possible chance at publication, and if you can make these changes without wrecking your story, it might be smarter.

Either way, I don’t think a lot of agents will penalize a writer for being located internationally or for writing international settings in fiction right off the bat. It’s all about the writing and the story, at the end of the day.

Struggling with details of  your novel, like setting, character, plot, or voice? I work with clients every day as a developmental editor, including many writers based internationally who are looking to publish at home or in the US market.

Picture Book Ideas: Picture Book or Short Story?

Picture book ideas aren’t always the best fit for the picture book format. Sound confusing? Read on!

picture book ideas, picture book or short story, what literary agents look for in a picture book, how to publish a picture book, how to sell a picture book, writing a picture book manuscript
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?

Picture Book Ideas: 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.

That’s never something a writer wants to hear, of course. But it is good feedback. That means the reader found something in you 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. 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.

How to Publish a Picture Book

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 picture book writers.

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.

Self Publishing Considerations and How to Self Publish

I have never talked about self-publishing on this blog. Of course, I have many thoughts on how to self publish, but they’ve largely been hidden. Why? Because some people who self-publish usually use gatekeepers like agents and editors as an excuse, like we’ve literally driven them to Lulu.com with our cruelty. We are The Man. We keep literary geniuses down. So they circumvent The Man and self-publish. Since I’m The Man, what do you really expect me to say?

self publishing, how to self publish
Ready to forge your own path to publication and self publish? Some thoughts on how to self publish and if it’s right for you.

Self Publishing Considerations: Is It Right for You?

What finally got me to articulate myself on the topic is a fantastic Salon article. This is the closest I’ve come to reading my own thoughts about self publishing.

The average person has no idea what lurks in slush. The writers querying agents obviously think their stuff is up to snuff, or they wouldn’t be querying. Even so, most slush is not ready for human consumption. Why? Because writers are notoriously erroneous judges of their own work. A lot of them think they’re ready for “prime time,” and that is often not the case. It is my informed opinion — having read what most people call their polished work — that most self published books, unless professionally edited beforehand, will read like my slush pile, not like the New American Literature.

Most of the time, when you get a rejection, it is really saying, “This isn’t ready for publication yet.” (Learn about at types of agent rejection here.) The questions going through my head when I evaluate submissions are: Is this saleable? Can I sell it? If the answer to one or both questions is “no,” I reject. If the answer to both is “yes,” I’ll pursue the project. It’s really no more complicated than that.

I do have to say one thing in defense of self publishing: it is a very useful tool for people who have a niche audience or their own book sales channels. Ideally, both. These are the types of writers who should be learning how to self publish. Most traditional publishers may not do “niche” projects (not a large enough target market to justify general trade publication). If you have a book about a very specific subject, say, a kid with heart disease, and you also have access to the American Heart Association’s mailing list, for example … you might be successful at zeroing in on your target readers through direct sales.

Looking to Self Publish for the Wrong Reasons

But most people wondering how to self publish don’t have a niche book or a good marketing strategy: they want to target the mass market. They have a project that would appeal, in their opinion, to everyone and anyone. And self publishing a book intended for a trade audience is where these would-be authors get in trouble. Because reaching a mass audience — casual readers — when you self publish a mainstream fiction project is very difficult.

From now on, I’ll be talking about these people self publishing. The people who don’t believe what editors and agents keep telling them: their work isn’t ready. Just because a shortcut and a loophole exist, doesn’t mean you need to use them. And just because you use them, doesn’t mean you’ll get the same results as people who publish traditionally (your book distributed in stores … readers for your work … reviews … sales … any kind of profit).

The Internet disproves a simple, old-fashioned idea: “If you build it, (throw it up on Lulu or Amazon or any of these other websites) they will come.” Readers will not come. They have too much other stuff on their browser. It’s just like trying to get your band discovered by putting up an mp3 on MySpace. Every other band is putting up their mp3, too. (Not that MySpace is relevant anymore, of course.)

The Internet is flooded with content. As a reader, my time and psychic space are limited. I seek only the things I’m looking for or already know about. I don’t go trolling for complete unknowns just to check out a new ebook, and I certainly would never pay money to try random self published wares.

How to Self Publish the Smart Way

But it’s not my job to sway anybody from wanting to self publish. All the people who want to self publish, should. We clearly disagree on a few key issues and I, as The Man, have better things to do than argue. When folks actually self-publish, they’ll figure out firsthand how difficult it is to get their books in the hands of readers. It’s also one thing to self publish once you already have a reader base, like Kindle evangelist Joe Konrath, who now has Amazon releasing his books, but quite another to rustle up some hungry eyes as a rank debut. But if you’re wondering how to self publish and your book is a good candidate, you should check out the Self Publishing Blueprint, a very comprehensive course full of great information.

The decision, in my opinion, is this: do you work through the rejection, finesse your writing craft, earn traditional publication and make the dream come true in a big way, or do you find a loophole and “publish” your work to a very limited audience? It all depends on what will make you really feel like you’ve accomplished your goal. I’m a writer in my spare (ha!) time. And I want to target the mass market. I would never, personally, self-publish. To me, a self-published version of my work wouldn’t be an achievement. It would just be a printout of my manuscript bound between two thicker pieces of cardboard, and about as fulfilling as my pile of scratch paper. Blogger Christoper Keelty goes as far as calling self publishing, “selling your failures.” (Thanks to Colleen Lindsay for the link.) There are agents who will consider self published projects, if they have gone on to sell big (like, thousands or hundreds of thousands of copies). But very few literary agents and publishers will look at self published projects. They prefer to focus on bringing something to market for the very first time.

Sure, there are exceptions. Joe Konrath’s success with bringing his existing readers to a new format has been noteworthy. And there are self published books for the mass market that have sold huge. Christopher Paolini started out self publishing, and Fifty Shades of Grey is everyone’s prime example.

And you know why I know about these exceptions? Because they’re news. They’re rare. The other hundreds of thousands of self published books? They’re unvisited websites and unopened boxes in somebody’s garage that I don’t really need to know about. I’d rather work with the writers who are approaching me to pursue traditional publishers, and focus my attentions there. There is a lot of talent in the world that’s worth being found and developed. I wouldn’t be an agent if I didn’t think so.

But like I said, I’m The Man. You’re either with me, or you wish you were with me. 🙂 (And I’m a cheeky Man, at that.)

For a client’s firsthand experience with how to self publish, check out this self publishing case study.

Many of my clients either want to self publish or have self published in the past. No matter your goals, I’ll work with you as a self publishing editor to help you arrive at the strongest possible project for any market.

 

Ebooks, E-readers and the Kidlit Market: A Short Version

Erinn recently wrote in to ask:

With the iPad selling 1 million in a month, how will the e-readers change children and YA literature? I’ve notice there hasn’t been a whole lot of YA ebooks, not as many as “adult” books. Has the e-readers revolution effected the children literature market?

Great question, but complicated. As you can guess, this is a hot topic at the agency and one us publishing people, inside publishing houses and out, discuss all the time.

The first part of the puzzle is the e-reader user base in kidlit. It isn’t as big as the e-reader user base among, say, business travelers who download the latest business or financial nonfiction while they’re on the go. Even though teens are really into gadgets, most are also on budget and can’t afford to be early adopters (they’re also notorious for breaking stuff or covering it in duct tape and Sharpie marks). According to a survey done by TeenReads.com and Publishers Weekly late last year, only about 5% of teens get their books electronically.

Overall, it’s important to remember that ebooks account for only about 5-10% of the market share in all of publishing, but they WILL account for much more in the near future…so that’s why everybody is freaking out about them now, and rightfully so.

Lots of people predict that ebooks will kill publishing, but that’s a very dramatic and outsider view of the issue. Insiders have many more specific concerns. What’s one particular head-scratcher from behind the scenes? Well, rights issues in this sector are a huge area of discussion right now. I don’t get into rights issues a lot here because many of them are really nitty-gritty and you don’t need to worry about them until you start actively selling your projects with an agent. However, this is an interesting glimpse into the ebook debate.

Let’s say you wanted to make a YA book more attractive to teens by embedding exclusive content or a link to a YouTube video from the author. Or you wanted to enhance a picture book by giving it animation or voice or video components. One problem: which right is that?

A book, from an agent or publisher’s perspective, isn’t one whole thing as much as a bundle of different subrights that can be sold. Does tweaking the original content in a digital format fall under the “ebook rights” category? (“Ebook rights” have traditionally included the right to publish an unabridged version of the product in ebook format…basically a digital version of what you’d find on shelves, with nothing extra.) Is it “multimedia rights”? “Enhanced” or “abridged ebook rights”? (I don’t know if this has gotten any widespread traction since there’s different precedent at different houses. You can have “abridged audio rights,” for example, to publish an abridged version of a book in audio format, with additional materials or music included in the recording, but not a lot of “abridged ebook” so far.) Per Kristin Nelson, the film industry defines “ebook rights” as not including any extra content.

Or how about this…what if a book was published way before ebooks, way before Internet, way before Kindle? It was published in such distant prehistory that there’s no ebook language in the contract. Does the publisher have the right to publish an ebook version because they published the print version in a time before ebooks, or does the author hold their ebook right (and the ability to sell it)?

A lot of people have different answers to these questions. That’s the problem. Some publishers are trying to argue one way or the other, some agents are on a different side of the fence, but there’s no industry standard yet. Some publishers still haven’t even agreed to the widely-accepted ebook royalty standard, though most are in accord.

So the cool thing about ebooks for the kidlit market especially — that you can add content and give the book all sorts of whiz-bang digital appeal — is in murky rights territory right now. And not a lot of teens are adopting e-readers yet. Picture books are be a natural fit for the e-reader market (Color! Sound! Motion!) but, for many, the device itself is a barrier to entry. What parent would give their toddler a brand new iPad to gnaw on? (They certainly can’t have mine…)

This answer will change very quickly, though. It’s very much an ongoing and in-depth discussion and this is merely a quick glance into an issue that’s here to stay.

Know Your Category

This post is all about how to identify genre and determine which book genre or publishing category you’re writing in. I’d like to preface this post by emphasizing that I’m not trying to stifle your creative genius. I’m really not. But, as I’ve said before, you should probably learn the rules before you break them. At no time is this more true than when you’re trying to decide what age range you’re writing for in children’s books. I’m going through some submissions right now and the writers seem to be confused about how to identify genre. This happens a lot and it just means one thing: you haven’t done your market research.

how to identify genre, book genre, book category, children's book category
You fit in somewhere. The trick is figuring out where, before you write that 5,000-word picture book.

How to Identify Genre in Children’s Books

Now, one thing to clear up. A lot of writers don’t know the difference between book genre and category when it comes to children’s books especially. Book genre is stuff like fantasy, historical, paranormal, etc. Book category is the age range you’re writing for. With this post, I’m going to talk about the latter, mostly.

For example, and this is from my own imagination, not a recent submission: what do I do with a 5,000 word fiction picture book about world politics? Or a 5,000 word middle grade about a baby puppy who goes on a naptime adventure? Or a 300,000 word YA starring a talking salmon? Maybe a 10,000 word YA about a character’s messy divorce?

If all of those examples weren’t immediately funny to you, you need this post. When I speak at conferences, I tell people all the time that booksellers will not build you your own shelf at their stores just because you want to do something different. Learning how to identify genre also means learning the rules of the publishing market.

Take picture books as a fine example. Most editors are very specific about what they want these days (and, frustrating yet liberating, there are always exceptions to the rules, but don’t aspire to be one of them right out of the gate). They want highly commercial character-driven (but with plot!) picture books that clock in on the short side, usually under 700 words for fiction.

How do I know this? I talk to editors all the time.

But how might you, if you weren’t a) me, b) reading this blog or c) talking to lots of editors, know this, too?

Active Tips for How to Identify Book Genre

Go to the bookstore. It’s a master class on book genre. Head to your local indie or chain store and see what’s on the shelves. Don’t worry about muddying your artistic integrity by looking at other books in the same vein as yours. (I’ll have to post on this, I have lots of thoughts as both a writer and agent and they’re pulling me in separate directions!) You’re just doing market research right now. What do you see? I’m guessing you’ll see a lot of commercial, character-driven (with plot!) picture books that are on the short side.

That’s what publishers are buying from creators and that’s what bookstores are buying from publishers and that’s (ideally) what customers are buying from bookstores. That’s the market.

So if you can tell your story in a highly commercial way (know that this is subjective), base it on a strong character and plot, and in 700 words or fewer, why tell it another way? Why try and write a 5,000-word international political drama and call it a picture book? Why write “YA” about an adult character? Why try a 5,000 word “novella” when the MG books on shelves are between 25,000 and 55,000 words? That’s book genre all out of whack.

The children’s market is unique in that the audience is on a pretty structured developmental scale. Sure, there are 4 year-olds who are reading (or being read) Neil Gaiman, like my friend’s kid (bizarre and perhaps inappropriate but she seems to love it). And there are reluctant readers who are constantly frustrated because the books they can read are all about younger characters. But, at least in theory, kids develop on a scale so their books need to have certain lengths, content requirements and vocabulary levels. Not only is there not much precedent for a sociopolitical 5,000 word picture book on shelves in the bookstore, but there’s no audience for it in terms of the target picture book readership (3-5, 5-7). Same for the 10,000 YA with an adult protagonist or the anthropomorphic epic or the short MG about a baby animal.

In Book Genre, Know Your Audience

When you sit down to write, be super clear about what you’re setting out to do. Check out my post on manuscript length. Make sure your manuscript fits guidelines for the age range that you’re targeting. Make sure your protagonist is someone who people in that age range would care about. Make sure your subject matter is equally interesting. You won’t find practical concerns like these in the adult world, but you will find heaps of them when you’re writing for children, just because children are always in flux.

If you feel a bit clueless about what you’re writing and what category it fits into, spend an afternoon at a bookstore. Seriously. It could be the most valuable three hours you ever spend and it will teach you more about the market than I ever could. There’s just no excuse for me to be seeing some of the submissions that people cook up. And I wouldn’t be seeing them, guaranteed, if some authors didn’t take the time to learn their category, embrace it, and write within it. Why? Because that’s what editors are buying. Because that’s what bookstores are buying. Because that’s what readers are buying. It’s really very simple.

P.S. — Yes, my punk rock teenage self would rail against this recommendation to stay inside the lines, category-wise. But I figure that getting published is hard enough. Why stack the odds against you by turning out that 5,000-word PB or that adult protagonist YA?

Struggling with book genre or publishing category? I’m a manuscript editor with deep experience on the publishing side of things, and I can help you hone your pitch and your project to the market.

Comp Titles: Comparing Yourself to Other Writers in a Query

Kristen asked the following comparative titles or “comp titles” question a few weeks ago about a post I did on how to write a simple, compelling query. Here goes:

What about jumping straight into the query synopsis after the “Dear (Agent)” salutation, and sticking the “I am seeking representation for X” at the end? Also, I’ve been adding a sentence that goes something like this: “(Book title) will appeal to fans of (author) and (author)” — is this type of comparative titles analysis a pro or con?

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“I’m basically like all of these comp titles … but better.”

The Scoop on Comp Titles

Let’s get the easy answer out of the way first. This is your query. The order of the sentences that comprise it is completely up to you. Personally, I like to know genre/word count/basic stats on the manuscript up front, that way I don’t read a query out of context and then get surprised that the author was actually describing a 100,000 metafictional picture book (hyperbolic on purpose) when I thought they were talking about a YA fantasy. It just helps me get my marbles all in order as I’m reading.

Now, on to the stickier part. As for drawing comparisons to other authors, you can do that all you want, but make sure it’s true. 🙂

Someone can say comparative titles like, they’re J.K. Rowling crossed with Sarah Dessen until the cows come home, but I’ll be the judge of that. Rarely are people ever truly excellent at objective self-evaluation. Most people want to write like a Sara Zarr or a John Green or a Holly Black or a Neil Gaiman or a whoever, precious few actually do. In fact, drawing these kinds of comparisons is something I might do when I’m pitching your work to an editor. If you compare yourself to someone, your writing is excellent and I completely agree with your comp titles, you’ll make that part of my pitch easier!

So yes, theoretically, an author can take a looong step back, figure out exactly who their comp titles are and where they’ll fit in the market, let me know, and then we’ll dance into the sunset of publication hand in hand. More often than not, however, the kind of writers who draw comparisons between themselves and others (namely Rowling, Meyer, Brown and Patterson) are self-aggrandizing and delusional and don’t stand a chance of finding an analogous author because their writing is only comparable to one thing: drivel.

As with most things to do with publishing and the craft of writing, if you’re going to do it, make sure you do it well, and that includes comparative titles. That’s good advice for pretty much anything, I think.

Wondering how to pitch and market yourself? I do query letter editing, which includes advice on comp titles, if you’re getting ready to submit.

Writing in Different Genres or for Multiple Audiences

I got a great question about writing in different genres the other week from Gisele:

I had a random thought this morning–do agents typically prefer to represent writers who write in multiple genres (like YA, MG, picture books, etc.) or authors that focus on one or two? Are there advantages or disadvantages to writing in different genres or sticking to one? Or, does the issue depend on the agent?

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If you write for multiple genres, you may have more career juggling to do.

Writing in Different Genres as a Career Path

As an agent, considering a client’s career trajectory is part of the job. We make sure the author has the kind of career they want, we help them choose their next projects, we position them in carefully chosen ways to editors and houses.

I know that a lot of writers want to write in multiple genres or for more than one audience within the juvenile market. Luckily, kidlit lends itself well to this. In adult publishing, it’s harder to go from a hard-boiled mystery, say, to nonfiction investing “how to.” In children’s, it’s a bit easier to transition from middle-grade to picture book to YA, if your voice is flexible enough and you’re familiar with the particulars of each audience.

There are about as many different answers to Gisele’s question, however, as there are agents. Some people believe that a writer should stay with one market audience and establish themselves with a few books before switching. This type of agent will argue that John Green, for example, who has published four contemporary/realistic YA novels, can now switch to another market. There’s a lot of good rationale here.

A writer should consider writing at least two books in a row for one audience before switching markets and writing in multiple genres. The benefit of this is that you’ll establish a readership and build a reputation. Once you’ve got a foundation in one market, you’ll start getting a sales record, too, and it will be easier to attract a publisher for that picture book you’ve always wanted to write. (If you’re having trouble identifying your genre or category, start here.)

How to Pull Off Writing Multiple Genres

Others don’t see the harm in diversifying. Some suggest market-hopping openly, others might suggest a pseudonym. The conventional wisdom is that you don’t spread yourself thin over too many houses and that you don’t compete with yourself. That means, you shouldn’t sell two fantasy MG novels to two publishers and have them both come out the same season, for example, or any other countless permutation of this scenario. As long as your publishers are happy with your schedule and the variety of projects you’re doing, you’ll be okay.

Personally, I’m happy to work with someone who wants to diversify. At the point where we’re planning career strategy, it really will go on a case by case basis. It’s very difficult to generalize about this. The one constant with everyone who writes across markets, though, is the talent and aptitude to do so. If a writer has a truly excellent picture book and an amazing YA that they want to bring to market, what could possibly be stopping them? Surely not me.

It will be a bit more challenging to sell to multiple publishers for multiple markets right from the beginning, sure. Even if you have sold one or two books already, those books aren’t out yet and you haven’t established a sales record for prospective future publishers to consider. And each time you pick a new market, you’re basically starting from scratch in terms of the money they’ll offer, especially when you’re at the beginning of your career. But such are the growing pains at the start of every journey.

If you want to start diversifying right from square one in multiple genres or establish yourself and then branch out, I will personally welcome the adventure of charting the exact career path you want. For every published writer, though, their career path and the markets they break into will be on a case by case basis between them and their agent.

Have diverse writing interests? My editing services cover many different genres and categories, from children’s book to memoir to fantasy.