So You Want to Write a Picture Book...
Writing books for children is an awesome privilege.
The books we read when we’re little often leave the biggest footprints in our lives.
But as a business, children's publishing can be frustrating, slow-moving, and subjective. And, in addition to being highly competitive, it’s also one of the most difficult industries to break into — particularly picture books. Many literary agents won’t even take picture book authors as clients because they’re so hard to sell to publishers. The ones who do often will only take on authors who illustrate their own work. If you want to pursue publication, it's best to go in with your eyes wide open.
It took me ten years of working at it, and many many unpublished attempts before my first picture book, Sun Dog, was published in 2018. (I’ve recently written a blog post about that experience here).
My fifteenth picture book recently published in October, 2022 and I have six more scheduled for release by 2025. But I was a fledgling picture book writer once, too. It's a steep learning curve so, from me to you, here's some advice to get you started....
Know Your Format
As a general rule of thumb, traditionally-published picture book manuscripts are based on a 32-page model, and ideally range anywhere from 0 - 800 words. That range will vary from publisher to publisher but, for the most part, the fewer words, the better.
Avoid the quicksand trap of over-description – it’s one of the most common mistakes a new picture book writer will make. So, if your main character is a dinosaur, please don’t waste precious words describing him/her as ‘huge, green, and scaly with lots of sharp, pointy teeth’ when the illustrator will be showing all that (and more) with their artwork.
Remember: the best picture books are a perfectly-balanced collaboration between text and images.
Ask for Feedback
Once your story is as polished as you can make it, seek out critical feedback (from someone you are not related to). It goes without saying that your child/sibling/BFF/dad/neighbour/grandma will adore anything you write, simply because they adore you. Find someone impartial – preferably somebody who is very familiar with picture books and doesn’t care enough about your feelings to spare them – and encourage them to be honest with their comments. Or better yet, join a critique group with other writers who want to publish for children. The most valuable learning experiences of my career came from my participation in critique groups.
Publishing is an agonizingly slow business. One of the reasons for this is because stories often have to sit and simmer while editors consider the best course of action for a manuscript. Follow this example at every stage of revision. Put your manuscript away for a few weeks (or months) so you can come back and re-evaluate it with fresh eyes. Often, that bit of distance can be the most powerful tool in your writing kit.
Manage your Expectations
Picture books are a really tough sell. Many publishers require you to have an agent in order to submit your manuscript. And even for those writers with an agent, rejections will still mercilessly pummel your inbox (and ego) with cold-hearted regularity. But remember, even if your story doesn’t get published, it doesn’t mean it’s not good. It might just be a matter of bad timing, or over-saturation of that particular theme in the marketplace. I’ve published many books and received numerous nominations and awards, and I still get my manuscripts rejected all the time. It’s a non-negotiable part of the business.
Whether it ends with a publishing contract or not, enjoy the process of writing and creating. Whether your book ever gets traditionally-published or not, crafting the story is always the best part of the process.