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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 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.

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!

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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.

How to Find an Illustrator for Your Children’s Book

If you’re like many people writing pictures books, you might wonder how to find an illustrator for your children’s book project. Does it behoove you to work as an author and illustrator team before submission, or can you submit your text only? I’ll discuss all of these issues here.

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Dissecting the colorful issue of how to find an illustrator for your children’s book.

This post was inspired by reader, Robert. He has already found an illustrator, and is wondering whether this helps his book project’s chances. He 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. First, let’s talk about the picture book publishing process. Then we’ll talk about working with an illustrator before submission. Finally, I’ll reveal how to find an illustrator for your children’s book.

How to Write and Publish a Picture Book: The Process

Here’s how the picture book pipeline usually works for authors:

  1. Get representation for a text or an offer from a publisher.
  2. Sell text to publisher.
  3. Have publisher match your text to an illustrator.
  4. See illustrations, have varying levels on input.
  5. Publish.

Here’s how it usually works for illustrators:

  1. Get representation for your illustrations or get interest from a publisher.
  2. Wait until a publishers has the right project for you.
  3. Sign a contract to work on the project and turn in sketches and finishes.
  4. Do revisions.
  5. Publish.

How to Find an Illustrator for Your Children’s Book

When you decide to hire an illustrator for your children’s book, you are, in effect, acting as publisher. That means you will have to find them, give them the specs for your project, and do art direction and offer feedback. Then you will present the entire project as an author and illustrator team.

But how to find an illustrator for your children’s book? There are many venues. The SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) has thousands of members who are illustrators. They post their portfolios on the SCBWI website, and then you can reach out to them individually. Picture book illustrators also keep individual websites and portfolios, so you can start Googling around to find artists. Ask for referrals at your local art school, if ther is one. Other places to find illustrators are art showcase sites like Deviant Art, or you can post a job on 99Designs, which I’ve personally used for some logo design and loved.

Working with a hired illustrator could be its own blog post, but these resources should at least get you started.

Approaching Publishers With an Author and Illustrator 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.) First, the collaboration should be stated outright in the picture book query letter.

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 and 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 and 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.

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.

Moralizing in Books

Here’s a question from reader Melissa about moralizing in books:

I have heard rumblings that the professional field is tired moralizing in books. 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?

moralizing in books, story theme
Moralizing in books: Are you trying to teach a lesson with your story?

Avoid Moralizing in Books

As for your first question, you are definitely correct. Publishers do not want explicit picture book lessons. 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 force a story theme on your readers.

Writing Animal Characters

As for writing animal characters, 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.

Are Animal Characters Integral to Your Story?

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.

Are you worried that your picture book isn’t hitting the right note? Hire me as your picture book editor and I’ll help you develop a story theme that’s compelling without the moralizing.

How to Approach a Literary Agent and Interpret Submission Guidelines

This answers a question that both Haylee and Siski asked a while ago, about how to approach a literary agent when you’ve got several projects kicking around your desk, and what to make of submission guidelines. 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. If this is the case for you, read on.

how to approach a literary agent, submission guidelines, how to get published, children's book publishing, query letter
Wondering how to approach a literary agent and what goes into the envelope? The submission guidelines are a great place to start.

How to Approach a Literary Agent When You Have a Lot of Ideas

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. Plus, if a writer is sending me that much, they’re not following submission guidelines. 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. (Querying multiple projects is quite a problematic way of how to approach a literary agent to begin with. Learn why.)

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. Per my submission guidelines, I want to see your single stronger project at first any way. Some practice is better left for your eyes only.

Submission Guidelines for Prolific Writers

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. Wondering how to approach a literary agent? With your best work, period.

Agents really dislike it, actually, when people send a stable of their work on first contact. I wish that was featured in more submission guidelines. 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. Some submission guidelines even say that. 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.

If you have a lot of projects on your plate, let me help you zero in on the ones with the most potential, especially you picture book writers. I guide writers through bigger picture questions all the time as a book editor.

WooHoo!

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!

pelly

When You Get an Offer of Representation

This is the situation every querying writer is looking forward to: getting an offer of representation. 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.

offer of representation, literary agent offer
You got an offer of representation: now what?

Literary Agent Offer: What About the Other Agents You Queried?

Don’t let everyone you queried know that you received another literary agent offer. 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:

Dear Mary,

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!

Author

Offer of Representation: Timetable for Response

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 in their own literary agent offer. 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 what it’s like to receive an offer of representation! Once you’ve crossed that hurdle, follow the link to read my post on questions you should ask your potential literary agent.

My editorial services aren’t just for manuscripts. I also offer confidential and discrete consulting services for authors who have questions about literary agents and career trajectory.

Copyright © Mary Kole at Kidlit.com