Happy Release Day: BUGLETTE, THE MESSY SLEEPER

Today is the release day for BUGLETTE, THE MESSY SLEEPER by author/illustrator Bethanie Murguia. It’s out for Tricycle Press/Random House, and Bethanie has a contest going on over on her blog to celebrate, here!

Everyone go pick up a copy of BUGLETTE, and watch for the companion picture book, SNIPPET, THE EARLY RISER, coming from Knopf/Random House in 2013!

Congratulations Bethanie!

Manuscript Query Letter: You Need a Finished Book

I often get questions about sending a manuscript query letter…without having a finished book to go with it. This may seem like a “duh” question to writers who are familiar with the publishing industry, but everyone learns new things at different times and new readers are always showing up, so I am happy to repeat more basic information.

manuscript query letter, finished book
You need a finished book to present to agents. They won’t offer you a contract based on a slice of your writing.

Sending a Manuscript Query Letter? You Need a Finished Book

When you’re a debut writer looking to publish in children’s books, you will need a complete manuscript 99% of the time (especially in the case of my readers, who are primarily fiction writers). That means that you’ll need a finished book when you’re sending a manuscript query letter for:

  • Board book
  • Fiction picture books
  • Nonfiction picture books
  • Fiction early readers and chapter books
  • Same for nonfiction (though there are fewer of these on nonfiction shelves)
  • Middle grade fiction and most MG nonfiction
  • YA fiction and most YA nonfiction

The only exception to this rule is if you’re writing older nonfiction, like something for the middle grade or teen age range or a reference book/textbook. And picture books from author/illustrators will, of course, need to have a dummy attached with some art sketches.

(Picture book dummy: A sketch version of what the book might look like in real life, with the art and text blocked out on 17 spreads/32 pages. Two or three of the spreads should be rendered like they’d be in a finished book…this is called a “mock finish.” The dummy should convey quickly, with the sketches, and in more detail, with the mock finishes, what the book will ideally look like. If you’re curious about dummies, this explanation is a great resource.)

Selling On Proposal

I bet you’ve heard about a lot of authors selling something “on proposal.” That’s a lot more common with adult nonfiction, a business or diet book, for example, or a cookbook, than it is with children’s books. And in fiction, writers only sell on proposal if:

  • They’re an established author
  • They’ve sold multiple books to this editor before
  • The agent decides the project is really, really strong and wants to entice an editor with a partial
  • You’re working with a book packager and have only developed a sample before going on submission

If none of this applies to you or you’re just starting out with some fiction ideas, I’d urge you to forget the word “proposal” and work on your full manuscript. A large part of the writing craft is reaching the end and starting the revision process. There’s nothing like it. You learn more from finishing and revising than you did from just writing the thing out.

Plug Away and Finish

If you haven’t had this experience once or several times before trying to approach agents or editors, you most likely will not have all the skills necessary to get edited and published. So plug away and finish. (Check out my post on how to finish a novel if you need some inspiration.) Besides, a strong, finished book is a much more convincing sales piece than just a partial that could potentially fall apart in the execution. When you’re sending a manuscript query letter, having a complete project works to your best advantage and is a huge learning experience.

I provide editorial services to writers at all stages and skill levels. I’d love to help you develop an idea, finish a draft, or polish a completed manuscript.

How to Query When You Have Multiple Projects

Here’s a good question about how to query when you have multiple projects to submit. This one primarily applies to picture book writers, but is useful to novel writers who are wondering about requerying (if only a bit less relevant). Read on, everyone! Megan asks:

I’m wondering how to query an agent with different projects? For example, I’m in the process of sending queries for project A and writing project B. By the time I wait for agent responses to trickle in, I may be ready to query project B. Is it crazy to send another project to an agent who rejected me within 3 or 4 months? Am I just being annoying? Or, since picture book manuscripts can be written, revised, revised, revised, and polished faster than other genres, maybe this frequency for queries is expected?

how to query, requerying
When you’re requerying agents, how much time should you allow between submissions?

How to Query: Not Every Idea is Publishable

I tell my picture book writer clients — AND THESE ARE CLIENTS…people who’ve already cleared the “hurdle” — that one out of every ten of their picture book ideas/manuscripts is going to be saleable. Picture books are “easy” to write and generate and revise and get 700 or whatever words into shape, sure, but it’s infinitely harder to hit upon a winner idea. GOODNIGHT MOON was first published in 1947 and parents still read it to their kids every night, all over the world. Publishers are tightening their lists and, ideally, would love a book with that much power and longevity. In other words, everyone wants something that will backlist for eternity. It’s not easy. I would even argue that’s it just as hard to hit upon such a picture book idea as it is to write a publishable novel, especially in this current marketplace.

Personally, I balk a little when writers approach the “how to query” question with a little too much enthusiasm. It’s overwhelming when writers hit me up with picture book after picture book, even if some time lapses between attempts. The point is to evolve and go to the next level between picture book manuscripts. Every submission round to agents will bring you valuable feedback and insight. (If you get absolutely no personalized feedback, that’s feedback in and of itself. See my post on types of query rejection for more info.) Keep writing while you’re on submission, of course, but you should also, in my opinion, wait to see how a submission round goes before you jump back into requerying. You don’t want to give off the idea that you’re just churning projects out without stopping to learn and grow in between attempts.

Keep Your Currency With Agents High

Look at “how to query” from my angle. I have, oh, six picture book clients. They can all, in a good year, give me 10 manuscripts. That’s 60 manuscripts. Say I decide to just go out with them all (which I would never do). For each submission, I go out to about 8-10 editors at various houses. That would be between 480 and 600 picture book projects that I would send out. About 10 submissions a week. There are about 300 editors actively acquiring in children’s books these days (at the major, mid-size houses, and smaller houses), so even if I cast my net as wide as possible, I would still hit up every editor at least once, sometimes twice, regardless of whether they’re a good fit or even looking for picture books (if you want to know, that particular number of PB-hungry editors is at about 70-100). You also have to consider that, if an editor and I have a good relationship, existing projects together, or similar tastes, I will send to that  group of particular editors more frequently over the course of the year. Those editors — the ones I really love and want to work with — would probably get more like five or ten projects each.

Do you think all those editors are going to see my email or get my phone call and think, “Wow, I haven’t heard from Mary in a while, and I know she only goes out with projects she thinks are really top notch, so I am really excited to hear all about this one!” Absolutely not. They will most likely think, “Yikes, another call/email from Mary. What does she have for me this month and how quickly can I get it off my desk?”

Develop High Standards and Only Submit Your Best Work

I don’t go out with everything my clients give me. I have to be selective and keep my currency with editors high, so that if they see something from me, they don’t roll their eyes. The worst position you can be in, I think, is if someone gets an email from you and groans. So I’m selective. And I have extremely high standards for the work that I pitch to publishers. (just ask some of my impatient clients…and we all know how I feel about patience. Check out my post on how long does it take to publish a book for the full scoop.) You should strive to be this way, too, when you’re approaching how to query. That way I don’t groan when you’re requerying me for the second or third or fourth time that year.

If you want to take your destiny into your own hands while you wait, hire me as your manuscript editor and revise your way to the strongest project possible.

How Literary Agents Work With A Picture Book Author Illustrator

This post is for my picture book author illustrator friends out there, and the question comes from Siski:

I’d like to know more about agents and how they go about representing picture book illustration clients who also write. I read an awful lot about query letters for authors but how does an author illustrator query?

As we do with our authors, agents help picture book illustration develop their projects, work up a submission plan, and connect our clients with potential editors.

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How literary agents represent picture book author illustrators, and what they bring to the table.

The Picture Book Author Illustrator and Literary Agent Relationship

The nature of the editorial work is a bit different. I’ll be the first to tell you that I am not an artist. (Despite a very promising banana still life at age three that remains framed in my mother’s…closet. Ouch.) But my mom is actually a rather well-known fine art painter. I’ve spent my entire life around art and almost every fall, I would go on tour with her and hang out in even more galleries. I may not know how to pull what’s in my mind and get it down on paper visually, but I do know what I like (and what’s good) when I see it.

With author illustrators, I comment on issues of composition, image choice, character, expression, color, etc., but the art mastery has to be there before I sign a picture book illustration client. All of my illustrators came to books from being artists first, writers second. It is much easier to hone the picture book writing side of a creator’s craft (though it’s still very difficult to write a timeless, smash hit picture book) than it is to teach them art.

Not Everyone Can Be An Illustrator

That’s why I don’t recommend writers take up art and try to become illustrators. Unless you are gifted visually, it will be very difficult to compete with all the illustrators on shelves today or in BFA or MFA programs. People aspiring to picture book illustration should spend a few hours in the picture book section of a bookstore and see what the professionals are doing.

Even the most deceptively simple styles have a lot of artistry going on behind the scenes. Adding writing to an illustrator’s toolbox is a lot easier (and more feasible) than adding illustration to a writer’s.

So for me to take on an illustrator, I need to be wild about their illustration style and talent. They also need to have at least one really fun or commercial story idea that we can work with. If the writing isn’t stellar (yet), I know I can work with them just like I would my author clients in order to get things into shape.

If you’re more of a writer, don’t worry. You can still sharpen your picture book skills and submit a text only project.

How Picture Book Author Illustrator Projects Are Submitted to Publishers

Submissions work similarly with author illustrators, except I’m often sending out a full sketch dummy, anywhere from two to five mock finishes (full color renderings of sketches), and the manuscript text. I will either send this in the form of a physical, mail submission, if the art works better when you can spread it out in front of you and really dive in, or as a digital PDF file.

The other part of how I work with an author illustrator is trying to rustle up illustration work. This is very tough going for most agents, and most illustrators, because a lot of illustrator-project pairing is a matter of luck and timing. Not all editors are equally patient or talented when it comes to stretching their imaginations for either a text or an art sample.

This isn’t a slam on editors … far from it. Matching text to art is quite a skill, and that’s why some children’s editors don’t even have a lot of picture books on their list, because working with art isn’t something they love to do.

Some will see an artist’s sample postcard and, if it features a dog, think of their text that also needs a great dog character. A match is made! Some editors will leave a text sitting unmatched until the last possible moment, then see a great postcard that crosses their desk and…again, art alchemy! Others will fall in love with an artist, keep their postcards on hand or a link to their online portfolio in their favorites, and hunt tirelessly for the right text.

Selling a Book Is All About Timing

Most illustrators and editors swear that it’s all about when an art sample crosses their eyes. The right sample at the right time will get hired. Others think it’s about consistency…if they see an artist a certain number of times, they will start to think about them for jobs.

My job is to work with my artists to create the perfect sample image, portfolio, and postcards and then get them out there. For some clients, my colleagues and I do postcard mailings. I also do digital art mailings, the ABLA Artists of the Month email blasts that go out every month and feature two artists the agency’s client lists.

Editors love having both hard copy postcards and links to online portfolios, so we try to do everything we can to get picture book illustration jobs as well as sell the client as an author illustrator (get them a book deal where they do both and there’s no other name on the cover).

Build Your Picture Book Author Illustrator Online Portfolio

As for getting people exposed to your work: Yes, you do need an online portfolio, absolutely. It can be simple and you can pay someone to do it, but make sure you can update it easily with new images. I’d say you need about ten to twenty really strong examples of your characters, some micro scenes that focus really closely on one or two things, some macro that get a wide scope of action in one picture, some setting, some animals…really show off your range.

It can be difficult to break into the picture book author illustrator market, or it can be very easy. The takeaway is that agents and editors do prefer author illustrator projects by a wide margin. If you don’t have a dummy already, get to work!

I absolutely love working with author illustrators, and am happy to provide art notes. Hire me as your picture book editor.

 

Including Illustration Notes in Your Children’s Book Manuscript

This easily answered question about writing a children’s book manuscript and illustration notes in picture book manuscript format comes from longtime reader Siski:

I’ve got a story that absolutely requires illustration notes but I feel amateurish including them because I’ve read you shouldn’t do it when writing a children’s book manuscript. Should I try to rewrite the story without them?

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Less is more when it comes to illustration notes in picture book manuscript format.

Picture Book Manuscript Format

Just so we’re immediately clear, I’ll talk a little bit about picture book manuscript format. When you’re writing a children’s book, you’ll typically have your text on the page, with line breaks or white space to indicate page breaks as you envision them. Like this:

I am writing a picture book story.
I think it’s very fun.

I’ll include a page break in it,
So the lines don’t start to run.

You can even dictate page breaks in parentheses, like this:

(Page 1)

I am writing a picture book story.
I think it’s very fun.

(Page 2)

I’ll include a page break in it,
So the lines don’t start to run.

Well, when you’re writing and you want to convey something about how you see the page illustrated, you include illustration notes, usually in parentheses and italics. This is what we’re talking about:

I am writing a picture book story.
I think it’s very fun.

(Illo: Mary cradling her MacBook Air, beating out the meter of her story with her fingers.)

Writing a Children’s Book Manuscript: Illustration Notes

If you write picture books, you’ll hear a lot of opinions about illustration notes. Some people say they’re a no-no, others say to add them in. I’m in the middle of the debate on this one. The reason so many people advise against illustration notes is this: too many writers use illustration notes to micromanage.

For example, you’ll see illustration notes like:

(Illo: Sally has brown hair, glasses, and a blue skirt. She is skipping down the street with a red backpack in one hand, a lunch sack in the other, by a house with a green mailbox, while her braid swings to the left.)

Or the note will be too detailed in other ways. Or the writer will include an illustration note for every page. The list of illustration note misuses goes on and on.

Illustration Notes Note Do’s and Dont’s

The point of an illustration note isn’t to jot down every single thing that’s in your imagination. It’s also not to micromanage the potential illustrator. The point of an illustration note is to convey something to the children’s book manuscript reader that is not obvious from the text.

Only use illustration notes in your picture book manuscript if there is something integral to the plot that you want the illustrations to convey, but it’s not described or alluded to anywhere in the text. In other words, if I will be blind to something from just reading the text, use an illustration note to describe it, but really do keep them simple, spare, and few in number. The average picture book text will only need one or two, tops. An example of an effective picture book note:

I am writing a picture book story.
I think it’s very fun.

(Illo: Mary typing, blithely unaware that a monster is sneaking up behind her, claws bared.)

If you’re interested in a picture book editor with over ten years of experience, hire me to dig into your children’s book manuscript.

Breaking In as a Children’s Book Author Illustrator

Breaking in as a children’s book author illustrator is very desirable in today’s picture book market. If you have artistic talent and want to try your hand at children’s book illustration, read on.

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If you’re trained in art, make your debut as a children’s book author illustrator.

This question comes from Priscilla:

I have heard that an author illustrator needs to first “prove herself” as an author or an illustrator before being published as a children’s book author illustrator. Is this the case? What is your advice for an author illustrator on submitting a picture book when the text and images are dependent upon one another for meaning? As the Andrea Brown Literary Agency does not accept attachments with queries, a mock-up or dummy would be out of the question. But would an agent be interested in receiving written illustration ideas alongside a text query, or should the illustrations come later, only after an agent expresses interest in the project?

This is a great question, and one that might have a controversial answer. I am in the school of thought that picture books sell a bit more successfully these days, at least in my experience, if they come from an author illustrator: one person trained to do both text and illustration.

A Children’s Book Author Illustrator Is an Illustrator First

Furthermore, most of my author illustrator clients are trained illustrators first, then writers. I’ve done a lot more work with them on improving storytelling, structure, and writing. Because if the illustration quality isn’t there to begin with, there’s not a lot that I’ll be able to do, since my expertise is primarily in text.

A lot of the editors I talk to express interest in children’s book author illustrator projects simply because the whole package is there: the text, the art, the interplay of word and image, the design of it. Some agents and editors are more talented than others at imagining what kind of illustrations to marry to text and vice versa. Picture book texts that sell (and many text-only sales are still made, every day) and illustration portfolios that land on an editor’s desk are incomplete. They need their mate in order to become a book.

It’s up to the right editor and to chance to make the match between an author and an illustrator. Sometimes this alchemy doesn’t work. Sometimes texts or art bought separately take longer to get into production. It can get complicated. So if an editor buys a project from an author/illustrator, they have a tantalizing snapshot of what the finished book will be — right there in the dummy — and they know they’ll only have to work with and juggle one creator for the project instead of two.

How to Combine Illustration and Text in a Picture Book

This simplicity is, frankly, why I love working with a talented author illustrator. They also tend to have the best understanding of how text and image can combine to become greater than the sum of their parts, how word and illustration enhance each other.

For me, opening a dummy from a fantastic author/illustrator is like diving into a miraculous treasure trove. And that’s how it should feel. I’m extremely picky about author/illustrators, and do prefer to work with them over just illustrators or just authors, though I have those clients on my roster as well. This, of course, is just my personal preference.

Does, however, an author illustrator need to get their start as an author illustrator? That depends. If they have a fantastic picture book author illustrator project that is very commercial, it will probably sell, even though they are a debut talent. If they extend themselves to land a text or an illustration deal (the latter being more common) first, then they can enter the marketplace with some illustration credits, then move on to an author illustration combo. But I don’t think prior illustration credits are necessary to land an author illustrator book.

If you are most certainly not an illustrator, you are probably wondering how to find an illustrator for your children’s book, if you need one at all. I have a post that discusses this issue at length.

Client Case Studies

One of my clients, Bethanie Murguia, was an experienced illustrator but had no book credits to her name until she landed Buglette the Messy Sleeper from Tricycle Press. That was her first book deal and her author/illustrator debut. As it happens, I have sold two more books for Bethanie, and both of them will be author/illustrator projects. One other client of mine is on the cusp of becoming an author/illustrator debut with a medium-sized publisher (more details after we finalize the deal!). He is an experienced illustrator, and we finessed the text and story.

Another client, Lindsay Ward, was a trained illustrator who got her start on her own by sending out postcards to editors and art directors. From there, she landed a cover and interior spot illustration project for Doubleday Canada, and two illustration projects: The Yellow Butterfly from Bright Sky Press and A Garden for Pig from Kane/Miller. I was on board at this point and we were able to work up to an author/illustrator project with a smaller house (Pelly and Mr. Harrison Visit the Moon, from Kane/Miller), and then land her an author/illustrator deal with a larger house, the newly retitled When Blue Met Egg, out from Dutton/Penguin in Spring 2012.

So, you can break in to author illustrator-hood either way. And I don’t think it’s out of the question to land a children’s book author illustrator debut deal … at all.

How Do You Submit a Book Dummy to a Literary Agent?

Now, a lot of folks do have questions about our submission guidelines. We don’t accept attachments, so how do you send a dummy of your author/illustrator work? Simple. You copy and paste your query and the text of your picture book project (even if the text is dependent on illustration, we understand how that goes) and mention that you’re an author/illustrator. Then include a link to your online portfolio (every illustrator should have one, even those who are technically illiterate but could easily hire or ask someone, there’s really no excuse and you will get steamrolled by your competition if you don’t) where, ideally, we can see a few sample illustrations. If I like your art style, I will ask for the dummy, and then you can send the attachment!

My passion for picture book editing is alive and well. Hire me to edit your picture book manuscript and provide art notes on your dummy.

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!

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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 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 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.

Story of a Sale: Blue & Egg by Lindsay Ward

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:

blue-sketch-1_small

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:

central-park-with-blue_small_2

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.

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.