Here’s a picture book query question that came up during my webinar and also from Melanie:
I am wondering about picture book queries in 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 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 for that short a manuscript seems a bit silly. When I see picture book queries — and when I write my own picture book pitches, in fact — I keep it 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 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.
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 blast your imagination into the stratosphere! This is a simultaneous submission. You will find the full manuscript of XXX words pasted below. I look forward to hearing from you and can be found at the contact information listed below my signature.
Easy peasy. No need to write an elaborate 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.
How to Get A Picture Book Literary Agent
The 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.
I’ve had requests to write more about picture books, so I will try and fold more posts along these lines into the rotation.
If you’d like personalized help with your own picture book query, hire me as your picture book editor.
Last week, I announced the sale of a particularly adorable picture book: BLUE & EGG by Lindsay Ward. BLUE & EGG is the story of a bluebird in wintertime Central Park who wakes up to find a snowball in her nest. Friendly Blue thinks the snowball is an egg who has lost its way. Blue flies all over New York, first trying to find Egg’s mother and then, when no mother shows up, enjoying the sights that the big city has to offer and developing a quirky and unexpected friendship. But then the inevitable happens, and spring comes. Not to worry, though! When Egg eventually melts, a lovely flower grows in its place.
Here’s a sample sketch of Blue, with Egg:
I love all my projects, and I love all my clients, but this project has had a very special place in my heart ever since Lindsay first mentioned it last winter. You see, Lindsay is the first client I took on as an agent (apparently my offer phone call went semi-competently, as she did not realize this until recently). And BLUE & EGG is the first picture book dummy that we worked on together where I think Lindsay’s blend of art and writing craft really rose to the next level.
Lindsay queried me originally with a project called PELLY AND MR. HARRISON VISIT THE MOON, and an existing relationship with publisher Kane/Miller. (Her first illustrations with them come out this fall. The book is A GARDEN FOR PIG, with text by Kathryn Thurman…it has a great gardening/fall/harvest hook and the most adorable pig you’ve ever seen…pick up a copy in September!) We sold PELLY to Kane/Miller and it will be her author/illustrator debut in 2011.
Lindsay went to work on other picture book dummy ideas. In the meantime, I got a copy of Lindsay’s portfolio, helped her design some postcards, and went to editors, designers, and art directors everywhere to tell them about her work. As Lindsay and I tried to rustle up illustrator jobs, she churned out one dummy that I thought was especially charming. After a fairly lackluster submission round, though, we decided to go back to the drawing board.
I urged Lindsay to revisit BLUE, which had been a rough idea for about two years. “What about that wintertime Central Park book?” I nagged. We worked on some text for it and went through four or five revisions (Lindsay will probably tell you it felt like more). In terms of text and story craft, I think Lindsay finally hit the sweet spot of poignancy, sweetness, charm, emotion, and character development that is a perfect fit for her art. I was over the moon. She came up with a dummy very quickly, and seeing it for the first time brought tears to my eyes. She’d nailed it.
Lindsay says, of the process:
The process of creating a dummy for Blue has taken almost three years. Writing has always been the hardest part for me. The images come naturally. I can visualize a book long before I can articulate the story, which is the one thing that never changed about Blue. The visual aesthetic of Blue was pretty established in my mind from the very beginning. I just had to figure out Blue’s story.
I wanted to tell a story that was universal through Blue. Blue is naïve and hopeful throughout the story and that is what I love so much about her. She never gives up on Egg. I think that is something very relatable for kids.
Just as we were finalizing the dummy, the submission for BLUE came out of the, well, blue! A chance lunch encounter with Nancy Conescu, who had just come over to an Executive Editor position at Dutton, an imprint of Penguin, sparked a connection. And then a quick offer. Here’s what Nancy had to say about BLUE:
When I saw Lindsay’s dummy for the book, after having seen samples of her work online, and read through her text, which was alive with personality, I just knew I had to have this book. I was so touched by the idea of a bird mistaking a snowball for an egg because, naturally, we all know what inevitable fate a snowball faces. But even so, Blue’s spunk and good spirit came through.
I love the way Blue immediately names her newfound friend Egg and totes it to see the many sites of NYC, never seeming to mind that Egg doesn’t have very much to say. And then when egg melts, as heartbreaking as that is, we see the flower that arrives in her place and Blue’s willingness to welcome Flower too. The story speaks about friendship, loss, acceptance, and hope on so many levels.
In terms of the art, Lindsay has this wonderfully warm collage art style for her characters set against detailed architectural scenes that I could see kids poring over for hours. And I thought the pairing of her two styles made the book both accessible and sophisticated with a lot to connect with and see. She had paced the text very nicely and had even thought to include gatefolds that showed all the places Blue and Egg went together.
I knew I was holding onto a gem of a story, and I emailed Mary about a half an hour later to say I wanted to pursue Blue. I feel very lucky to be Lindsay’s editor.
As it happens, this story ends with another perfect first: Lindsay is Nancy’s first picture book acquisition as she builds her new list at Dutton! Here’s what Lindsay says:
I am lucky enough to have an amazing agent (I know Mary hates that I just wrote that) find a home for Blue with Nancy Conescu at Dutton. I am very excited about my new relationship with Penguin and cannot wait to begin bringing Blue and Egg to life.
Finally, I’ll leave you with a few thoughts about the art. Lindsay’s big pleasure with BLUE & EGG will be rendering the characters against a detailed New York City landscape, in her trademark cut paper and sketch style. Here’s what Lindsay has to say about the illustrations:
Visually, I wanted to create a book that included a lot of architecture while also having the stark contrast of Central Park in the winter as the backdrop. I primarily work in cut paper and mixed media, using stamps, paint, and pencil. I prefer this medium because it allows me to take an image and break it down into layers of shapes and pieces and then figure out a new way to put it back together.
Here’s a parting image of Blue in her nest:
You can find more of Lindsay’s portfolio on her website, LindsayMWard.com. Look for BLUE & EGG (title subject to change) out from Dutton in Spring 2012.
“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?
How to Tell If You Have a Picture Book or Short Story
I assume that adult non-fiction editors see this issue all the time. They get proposals for non-fiction books that are too narrow in scope or too limited in audience and they suggest that the author pursue it as a non-fiction 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 books 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 a picture book, 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 Manuscript 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 story?”
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 2010 Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market, published by Writer’s Digest Books and edited by Alice Pope. 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.
If you’re like many people writing pictures books, you might wonder how to get an illustrator for your children’s book project. Robert recently wrote in to ask the following:
Is it ever possible for an author and illustrator to collaborate and then submit to agents/publishers? I know it’s not the norm and I know having my best friend illustrate my books makes me look amateur. Here’s the thing: we are true collaborators from the beginning of the project to the end. He helps me invent the characters and even comes up with plot elements and I dictate to him exactly how a picture should look at times. I know publishers have their own in-house illustrators and that it is unconventional to say the least. But I couldn’t ever publish without him. Do you have any advice as to how we should proceed?
I get this question a lot at conferences.
How to Write and Publish a Picture Book: The Process
Here’s how the picture book pipeline usually works for authors:
Get representation for a text or an offer from a publisher.
Sell text to publisher.
Have publisher match your text to an illustrator.
See illustrations, have varying levels on input.
Here’s how it usually works for illustrators:
Get representation for your illustrations or get interest from a publisher.
Wait until a publishers has the right project for you.
Sign a contract to work on the project and turn in sketches and finishes.
Approaching Publishers With a Picture Book Project
Now, Robert wants to know what happens if a publisher is approached with a project that has both text and illustrations already in place, but from two people. (If a project with both text and illustrations came from one person, that person would be called an author/illustrator, and, in my opinion, art and text from a single creator would be a more compelling sale if both the art and text were really strong. Most of my picture book sales have been for author/illustrators.)
Note one inaccuracy about Robert’s question: major publishing houses (and even small ones) hire out illustrators, they do not have in-house artists. Most have in-house designers and art directors, but designers do not do illustration work. They work on putting together a book’s cover and packaging (unless it’s a picture book, in which case the illustrator usually provides the cover image).
The Risk of Hiring a Picture Book Illustrator
I say you run one big risk with this situation, whether you’re approaching an agent or a publisher: what if one component is better than the other? And since you have a close relationship with your co-creator and love the project as is, you may have trouble seeing that.
If you give somebody a package of text and art, that person will assume that this is how you want the book produced. They’ll see how you’ve executed the project and will have a bit more trouble imagining it any other way. So if you give an agent or an editor a complete picture book dummy with both text and art, and one or the other isn’t working, the agent or editor will think, “Gosh, I really wish the text (or art) was stronger, but I guess this is how the creators envision it, so I think I’ll reject.”
How Literary Agents Work With Author/Illustrator Projects
Of course, both text and art could be perfect, could work harmoniously together, etc., in which case the agent could offer representation to either or both of you and the publisher would issue each of you a publishing contract. And, of course, the project may not work as a whole, but a wonderful agent or editor with lots of vision could see each component part and imagine how it might work independently.
But I find, more often than not, that the situation Robert describes involves two people who may not be well-matched in terms of talent. And that’s the risk. If you’re dead set on publishing this project with your collaborator, that’s fine. But you could be cutting yourself off from the possibility of either selling the art or text separately — if you happened to be flexible. If you don’t happen to be flexible, it could mean not selling at all.
How Literary Agents Represent Picture Books
When I submit, I prefer to submit just text, just art, or an author/illustrator package by an author/illustrator client who has a great grasp of how their two mediums (art and text) play together. I would be reluctant, for the above reasons, to consider an author and illustrator team if the combination wasn’t perfect. I’d also be reluctant — again, unless I had a great match in mind — to pair a text with, say, one of my illustrators, and present both to the publisher.
The publisher has the final say in terms of which illustrator and which writer will compose a picture book. That decision has to do with the publisher’s own relationships, with the prestige of either creator, with how the publisher’s sales and marketing people react to either component, etc.
Keep in Mind When Publishing Picture Books…
In a market where picture books are not doing well and most titles are not getting picked up for distribution by the major chains, publishers often find themselves pairing a debut author with a name illustrator or vice versa to make the project viable. If you’re insisting on a debut text paired with a debut illustrator…you may not have the most compelling case.
My biggest bit of advice is: be flexible. If an agent or editor wants either text or illustrations from you, consider it. How willing you are to entertain other illustrators (or authors) for this project really could mean the difference between published and not.
Hire me as your picture book editor. I can provide art notes, too, if you’re thinking of submitting an illustrated project.
I’d like to preface this post by repeating 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. I’m going through some submissions right now and the writers seem to be confused. This happens a lot and it just means one thing: you haven’t done your market research.
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.
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?
Go to the bookstore. 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?
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.
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?
I have heard rumblings that the professional field is tired of picture books with moralizing storylines. Is this accurate? Does this signify a move towards content that is more realistic or edgy? Can you also expound on the much maligned, yet common use of anthropomorphic characters?
As for your first question, you are definitely correct. Publishers do not want a moralizing storyline or an explicit message. The best way to deliver a message is to create a vibrant character who goes through something in the plot and emerges on the other side a little bit (or a lot bit) changed, but their realizations should never be blatantly expressed. It must be the reader’s interpretation and understanding that does this work, not the author.
Remember when you were a kid and your parents told you to do something? Or they sat you down for a lecture? Remember how that made you feel? Yeah, today’s agents, editors, and kids don’t like that feeling either, so those books don’t get picked up. It’s your job to tell a story, not to teach or moralize.
As for the anthropomorphic thing, some editors are still looking for these types of stories, definitely. And there are people who can make an animal as realistic and engrossing as a kid character in a picture book. In fact, I love the picture book LITTLE BLUE TRUCK, which features animals and… a little blue truck as the protagonist of the story. But they have human attributes, they go through a big struggle or on a journey, and they come out all the better for it at the end. However, I think a lot of animal stories are written by people who are thinking back to their childhoods and the picture books that were available back then. This isn’t a bad thing, per se, but it does usually result in books that feel old-fashioned and out of touch with today’s market. Of course, there are reasons that animal books are classics. Look at THE VELVETEEN RABBIT, for instance, which still makes me cry, all these years later.
While this isn’t true for every editor, some of the editors and agents I know do groan when an animal hero comes across their desks. They have to have a very good reason for being an animal, I say, and it has to be crucial to the story. Otherwise you just might be undercutting yourself by today’s sensibilities and standards. If you want to write an animal story, try the animal as a child as well, just to experiment, and make sure you stay in either the first person or the close third so that the reader gets their inner experience as well as their outer conflict.
This answers a question that both Haylee and Siski asked a while ago, about what to send out or query with when you’ve got several projects kicking around your desk. Lots and lots of writers have multiple projects that they’ve completed. This is even more true for picture book writers, who may have 20 or more manuscripts.
The problem is, if they are beginning writers, those 20 manuscripts likely have some of the same issues. If I look at a manuscript that someone has queried me with and it lacks a strong character, for example, or a strong plot, or the voice is wrong, or there’s a lack of active language, or there’s no scene setting, seeing that the author has 19 more, hot off the press and ready to go, isn’t going to be a draw for me. If they were all written around the same time, or even before the one I’m looking at currently, they’re likely suffering from the same issues as the first manuscript.
Every time you sit down to write, you are getting better. You’re learning. Sometimes it takes writing an entire novel-length manuscript to teach you a valuable lesson about your own craft. And sometimes, that lesson won’t get published. Sometimes, in fact, it takes five manuscripts, ten manuscripts, twenty, for you to feel your way around the novel form. The same is true for picture books. In fact, it’s even more true. Picture books are deceptively simple and it is awfully hard to make a great one. Lots of people think otherwise, and happily churn out an entire slew of drafts. I think it’s more reasonable to see your early work and your early, prolific output as more of an exercise rather than a finished product. As such, I don’t want to see all of your exercises in my inbox. Some practice is better left for your eyes only.
If you get the itch to query and you’ve got multiple projects, query with your absolutely strongest one. I read thousands and thousands and thousands of queries and manuscripts. I can tell where an author is from looking at their work. Not every project — especially not the ones you wrote when you were still beginning and figuring things out — will sell. Show me only your strongest work. If I’m considering taking you on, I’ll be asking about your future projects and what else you have in mind, since those will more likely be even better. I will very rarely say, “Hey, do you have any problematic drawer novels I can sell?” unless you are a 12 out of 10 genius.
Agents really dislike it, actually, when people send a stable of their work on first contact. Pick the best one. If I want to see more, I’ll ask. This is especially pertinent to picture book authors. If I like the project they query with, I always want to make sure they have at least two more that I love before I take them on.
Bonus Tip: If you query an agent and get rejected, wait at least 6 months before querying them — of anyone — with a different project. Per my thinking above, the new thing you send me is most likely going to have the same issues that I noticed when I just rejected your first project. If you send out a project and it garners lots of rejections and little personalized or positive feedback, the cure isn’t jumping back into querying with a different project. The smarter thing to do would be to go back to the drawing board for a while and work on craft.
I’m a little late posting this but that doesn’t mean I’m any less excited. I’m so thrilled for my author/illustrator client, Lindsay Ward, and her first author/illustrator project, PELLY AND MR. HARRISON VISIT THE MOON. It’s going to be a really fun story… and gorgeous art, of course! You can visit her website here: Lindsay’s Bake Shop. I can’t wait until 2011. My first projects will be coming out then and it’ll be so fantastic to finally hold a client’s book in my hands and see them in stores!
This is the situation every querying writer is looking forward to: getting an offer of representation from an agent. Awesome. Now what? Well, I want to write several posts on this issue, but here’s the first thing you need to do… let other agents know.
Don’t let every agent you queried know — let only the agents who have responded with a partial request, a full request, or any other kind of encouraging sign, and have not given you their decision yet. The only exception is with a picture book submission, where you’ve queried with a full manuscript. Since you sent the full manuscript, contact all the agents you queried. Write them the following email and put “OFFER RECEIVED” in the subject line:
I know you’re still reading BOOK TITLE but I wanted to let you know that I’ve received an offer of representation. I’d like to see if you’re also interested in the project. Please get back to me by X day and let me know. I look forward to hearing from you!
Give the agent a week to respond. Within the day, you should hear back from agents. They’ll either say, “Yes, I’m still reading and will get back to you within the week” or, “You know, I should probably step aside at this point.” Then you wait for the agents who still want to consider to either bow out or toss their hats into the ring. But yes, let them know immediately. It’s not being pushy. Someone already sees the value in your work, so you can call attention to yourself in this situation.
I hope all of you get to experience this and have one of the most exciting weeks of your career so far!
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?
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.