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Tamson Weston: Picture Book Tips from Sucessful Agents

Please welcome children's book author and editor Tamson Weston to Literary Rambles. Tamson was most recently an editor for Disney Hyperion and now does editorial consultancy through 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!

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.


Natalie Aguirre said...

Thanks Tamson for your awesome advice. I'm not a picture book writer but found it fascinating. And I did try to write a picture book in rhyme once. My critique partners told me nicely not to. That's a good tip that you have to be able to do it well.

Kristy Prowse said...

Hi Tamson,
Great advice.
I write in rhyme but maybe I shouldn't?
I was just thinking this week - how many best selling PB are in rhyme... will have to do more research.
Any tips on agents who like rhyming PB's?

Tamson said...

Thanks, Natalie! This was a lot of fun to write and I'm happy to be able to contribute. House of Prowse: There are some editors and agents who have knee-jerk reactions to rhyming texts. But if you are skilled at rhyming, it can make for a really satisfying picture book. All The World by Liz Garton Scanlon is an example of a successful rhyming picture book.
As far as agents who like rhyming texts, I will have to do some more thinking on that.

Diane said...

Great tips and links to investigate. Thanks and have a great weekend! :O)

Scarlet Pumpernickel said...

Very interesting and excellent information. Thank you. If the word length for picture books is generally around 600, how are books with 1,000-2,000 words classified?

Steve MC said...

It is a lot like writing poetry. Little haikus. And it's not easy. I saw a documentary on Dr. Suess once, and it said he'd write 500 pages for a 60 page book, and throw out 90% of his drawings.

Jennifer R said...

Great post! It was great to see your list of five tips summarized so well. Thanks also for the resource links!

Angela Ackerman said...

I just started up a face-to-face critique group and this is PERFECT for one of the members in it! Huge thanks!!

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

Suma Subramaniam said...

Great picture book tips. Thank you very much for sharing this.


Theresa Milstein said...

Don't rhyme or do it well has to be some of the trickiest advice out there.

I'm going to share this post with my picture book writer friends. Excellent tips!

Joan Charles said...

Thanks so much for the great post. This is wonderful advice for beginners and beyond - with terrific resource links. I've found Ann Whitford Paul's "Writing Picture Books" to be especially helfpful.

Buffy Andrews said...

Awesome tips here. I really liked this: Write picture books because you have something to say that needs to be said in that format.
Never really thought about it like that before, but so true.

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Oh man, what a great post! Thanks so much for all of the information. :D

Tamson said...

Scarlet Pumpernickel (what a great handle): The longer ones are still picture books, it's just that the picture book market these days seems to skew a bit shorter. That said, it's a guideline, not a rule. And even if it were a rule, rules were meant to be broken! This stuff isn't gospel, but I think it will help authors feel less adrift in today's picture book market. I think following guidelines often helps ignite creativity.

S.A. Larsenッ said...

Fabulous advice! I'm on overload and glad to be. Thank you! Now to apply....

buch veröffentlichen wie said...

Interesting and important information. It is really beneficial for us. Thanks

Cheryl Velasquez said...

Thank you so much for sharing your expert advice. It was very helpful!

Marcie Colleen said...

Thanks for the post, Tamson! :)

Jackie Castle said...

This was really helpful. Glad I found this. I have a mss that's almost ready for submission, but as I haven't submitted many picture books, I'm still not sure about layout of the story when submitting. Or what to include in a submission. This helped answer some of my questions. Thanks.

DocG said...

Thanks Tamson for an uplifting and inspiring article. Most "coaching" articles these days are limiting and full of "thou shall nots," instead of what might be possible. I too write in rhyme and I am very good at it. Problem is, the agents and publishers hates it. I wish that I could at least find an agent who would be willing to give my manuscript a read. Such is life. Thanks again. Doc

Virginia Rinkel said...

Thank you for this article. It helps to have some advice from experts.