Top 5 Picture Book Publishing Tips from Successful Agents
In the past few years there’s been a lot of hand wringing over the state of picture books. One year ago today, the New York Times published this article about their supposed demise, which received considerable backlash—with good reason. The argument was overstated to say the least.
However, there has been a constriction in the market. As an author hoping to publish for the first time, it would be foolish to ignore it. Publishing houses are much more selective than they once were. In order to help new authors understand how to approach these challenges, I consulted with children’s book agents about what makes a successful picture book. Here are five tips to make a submission stand out.
1. Create an endearing character. Fancy Nancy, Skippyjon Jones, Pigeon, and Lady Bug Girl are all examples of characters that stand at the center of franchises. This is not so different from the YA and Middle Grade market, which also tend to find their sweet spot with characters and worlds that span several books. In a competitive market, publishers want to hold a consumers’ attention over many titles and create a property that bookstores will make space for.
2. Keep it short. Erin Murphy observes that the successful picture books she represents are less than 600 words. That is a good target length to shoot for in most cases (nonfiction picture books are a bit different). The trick is determining what to leave out. Just remember that there will be pictures, so you can omit a lot of description. This is, according to agents, where many writers—and particularly those used to writing longer fiction—go wrong. Mary Kole also points out that those used to a longer form may tend to be redundant. Think of your text in the same way that you might think about a poem with particular form requirements, like a regular line length. The condensed length of a picture book requires you to be extremely choosy and precise about language. However, just like a poem….
3. Don’t rhyme – or do it well. If you don’t feel comfortable rhyming -- that is, if you haven’t practiced this skill -- then please don’t use this as an opportunity to do so. Most of the bestselling picture books today are not rhymed. So rhyme if rhyming is your thing; otherwise don’t start now. Bad rhyme can sink a manuscript.
4. Don’t include illustrations or lots of illustrator notes. “This is the biggest and most common mistake new authors make,” says Tracey Adams. You don’t want your story to lean too heavily on something that has yet to be created. The text, even if it is spare, should be clear enough to stand on its own. And again, this is not the time or place to start learning a new skill, so don’t illustrate if you’re not an illustrator, and don’t use your submission as an opportunity to showcase your niece’s work. It will only make you look unprofessional and it’s an instant turn off to agents.
5. Write picture books because you have something to say that needs to be said in that format. As Emily Van Beek points out, “Just because they are shorter, doesn’t mean that they are easier to write.” Agents who still take on picture book manuscripts do so because they love them and they have confidence in them. These two qualities go hand in hand. You have to love what you’re writing. You have to have read lots of picture books and you have to be dedicated to practicing the skill in its own right, not just as something ancillary to the rest of your writing. It’s not simply short fiction. It’s a craft that deserves as much time and care as longer books.
While there are challenges facing picture book authors, keeping these points in mind can greatly improve your odds of being acquired. Build expertise in the format and the market. Look over publishers’ catalogs, poke around in the picture book section of your library and dedicate time to the peculiar craft of picture book writing. With the right approach, you will find a home for your manuscript.
Some Resources for Picture Book Writers:
Writing With Pictures by Uri Shulevitz
Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul
Children’s Writers and Illustrators Market
The Got Story Countdown
Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
Fuse 8: Top 100 Picture Book Poll Results (#1-101)
My blog: Tamson Weston Books
Thanks to everyone who shared their insights, in particular:
Mary Kole, Andrea Brown Literary Agency
Her blog: KidLit.com
Emily Van Beek, Folio Lit
Erin Murphy, Erin Murphy Literary
Tracey Adams, Adams Literary
Tamson Weston is a published children's book author and editor with over 15 years experience at several prestigious publishing houses including HarperCollins, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Disney Hyperion. She has edited many acclaimed and award-winning books for children of all ages. Tamson loves to collaborate with people and help authors, illustrators, agents and publishers bring projects to their full potential.
Among the authors Tamson has worked with with are Adam Rex, Mac Barnett, Robert Weinstock, Adam Gopnik, Jane Leslie Conly, Anne Rockwell, Deborah Hopkinson, Jen Violi, Alexander Stadler, Dan Santat, Florence Parry Heide, Dandi Daley Mackall, Brian Biggs, Marilyn Singer, Megan Cash and Mark Newgarden.
Tamson has an MFA in Writing and Literature. You can visit her website at www.tamsonweston.com.
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Tamson Weston: Picture Book Tips from Sucessful Agents
Tamson Weston Books. She's here to share some fantastic tips for picture book writers, and I couldn't be more thrilled. Our PB friends don't get enough attention around here!
Posted by Casey McCormick on Friday, October 07, 2011