Picture Books

Q: Do I have to be an artist to write a picture book? 
A: No.  Many picture books are written and illustrated by two different people.

Q:  Do authors and illustrators collaborate on picture books?
A:  If you mean do they sit down over a cup of coffee and hash out the fine points–in a word, No.  With the possible exception of some writers who are related to the artists who illustrate their work, the writers of picture books don’t collaborate directly with their illustrators.  Many have never even met the artists who have illustrated their work.  The picture book is a blend of art and words, mediated by an editor who works with both author and illustrator, fine-tuning both art and words, separately, to serve the story.

Q: How do I find an illustrator?
A: You don’t.  You just write a story that is so lively, evocative, humorous, quirky, lyrical, and worthy of illustration that it provides natural openings for imagery.  If it’s accepted for publication, you must trust that the publisher will find a talented illustrator who will create fabulous art for it. Trust is a big part of writing a picture book.

Q:  What if my book needs to be historically or culturally specific? Do I get any say in the imagery? 
A: You will need to discuss that with your publisher at the time your work is acquired.  Most publishers will be happy to learn of source materials that you can recommend or offer, that will help an illustrator research the background of your story more effectively.  Many publishers will also be agreeable to letting you see preliminary sketches as the illustrator develops them.  But remember that the artist is a professional too, and above all, that your role is not that of resident art critic!

Q:  Can I write illustrator notes into my manuscript?
A: If you do, make sure they are essential to the story, as, e.g., if the picture needs to contradict the words for the sake of humor, or if something needs to be shown as a surprise, that is to say something you have deliberately not mentioned in the text.  These are rare instances, however.  For the most part, I’d aim to write clearly enough that the emotional nuances or actions you want to see in the imagery are cued into your text.

I’ve heard from illustrators how annoying it is to get a manuscript laden with dictatorial directions from an author.  If you want creative, illuminating pictures to bring life to your story, you have to give the art some room to grow.  I even know of illustrators who cross off the author notes before sitting down to read the story.  I don’t blame them.  If you can’t trust an illustrator to read the spirit of your words, maybe you’re not trusting the effectiveness of those words!

Q:  How do I begin to write a picture book?
A:  First, read lots  of them, preferably ones that have been been published in the last 10 years.  Don’t try to write like Beatrix Potter, or even Dr. Seuss.  That’s been done already.  Get to know this market before you decide your story is perfect for it.  Find out who’s publishing what kind of picture book.  They come in many varieties–rhymed, unrhymed, free verse, prose, realistic, fantasy, with people and animals for protagonists.  To be a successful picture book, the story must be able to stand multiple readings. It must draw a child back again and again.   Compelling is good.  Lyrical is good.  Funny is good. Rhythm and pacing are essential.  Overly cute and sentimental can be the kiss of death. As my writer friend and colleague Sarah Ellis would say, “No sticky toffee.”

Q: Any tips for writing a picture book story?
A:  Cut to the chase.  No meandering beginnings.  Sufficient action to carry the story through changing scenes. Enough to make it work across 14-15 spreads to fit the most common format of 32 pages. Read, read, read what’s out there already, so you can see where your voice might fit into the conversation.  Read your work in progress out loud.  That’s the ultimate test for a picture book. Picture book story lives in the space between the words and the images, and that space is governed by the story being read out loud.  Remember also that picture books are most often intended to be read by adults to children.  Make sure there’s enough in there to sustain both a child viewer/listener and an adult reader through many repetitions.

Q: How do I know if my story is not right for a picture book?
A:  If it’s too long, or it raises more questions than it answers, or it has a sensibility more appropriate for an older reader, it may not be a picture book. If it all takes place in a single scene, it is most likely not a picture book.  If it’s all in conversation, without a stated or implied storyline that containes action. it might not work either.

Q: In what format do I submit  my picture book manuscript? 
A: The same as any other–double spaced, with 1 inch margins.  I personally don’t indicate page breaks at this stage, unless the story depends on it (e.g., if a page that turns in the middle of a sentence for surprise or humor).  If it’s in verse, double space the stanzas.  Before you submit it, however, I strongly recommend storyboarding to make sure you have enough for 32 pages, the length of a standard picture book.  Visualizing it in scenes also helps. (You will have 15 spreads or 14 spreads and a single to work with, more or less)

Do not illustrate it yourself if you are not an artist–no stick figures, no decorations.  Don’t laugh, this is serious.

Writing For The Children’s Market

Be aware that most of the information here is relevant to publishing in the U.S. and that the market may vary in other parts of the world.

Q: Do I need an agent to get published? 
A:  In general, all manuscripts submitted to legitimate publishing houses, whether sent in by agents or submitted directly by you, are read – except in those cases where the publishers state specifically that they will only accept agented or solicited material.  You will find this information in the Children’s Writers and Illustrators Market (CWIM, from Writers Digest Books, published annually) and in the newsletters of organizations like SCBWI and the Children’s Book Insider.  But many writers say it’s almost as hard to find a good agent as it is to find a good editor, and when you’re starting out, it’s not where your energy is best spent.  And a warning — avoid agents who charge you reading fees.

Q: What is SCBWI? 
A:  The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, scbwi.org  They have chapters nationwide, and several now in countries other than the US. They are the single most informative group you can join if you are serious in pursuing this interest.

Q:  Do I need to write for magazines before I can expect to have a book manuscript accepted? 
A:  Not necessarily.  In fact, writing for magazines can teach you a lot, but is in some ways very different from writing a picture book or a middle grade novel. Magazine credits might catch an editor’s eye, though. I have also found magazines to be a good market for some story ideas that just aren’t substantive enough for a book-length work.

Q:  Do I need to find an illustrator for my picture book manuscript? 
A:  No.  Unless you are an artist yourself (in which case you can submit your own illustration samples) the publisher will pair your work, upon acceptance, with an illustrator whose style and medium will suit your story.  Even if you are an artist, however, the publisher might still decide to use only your story, and get someone else to do the illustrations.  Do not indicate where you would like illustrations to be placed in your story, or what they should depict. The editor and the illustrator will need to make those decisions. If you are writing a picture book the scope for illustrations should be self-evident from your text.

Q:  Are my chances better if I submit to small publishers?
A:  That depends on what you’re writing. If your material has broad appeal, you might be better submitting to a large, mainstream house.  If it’s geared toward a niche market (storytellers, musicians, homeschoolers) many small houses offer specialized lists you might do well to become familiar with.  Either way, do your market research before submitting.  Literary Marketplace or Books In Print (available in most public libraries), marketing lists in writers’ periodicals, and most importantly, examination of books on the shelves of bookstores and libraries should tell you which publishing houses might be receptive to your work.

Q:  Do I need to copyright my work? 
A:  No.  Upon acceptance, the publisher will apply for a copyright.  Your contract terms will determine whose name that copyright is in.  If the terms are royalty-based (obviously the most advantageous) it will be in your name.

Q:  Can I submit to multiple houses simultaneously? 
A:  Time was when multiple submissions were frowned upon, but in the age of the computer, this is rapidly changing.  The convention is that if you are sending a story out to more than one publisher, you let everyone know that, with a line in your cover letter that says, “this manuscript is a multiple submission.”  This works on the honor system — you trust they won’t hold a multiple against you, they trust you’re telling the truth about how you’re submitting. In the end, if the work is strong enough, none of it will really matter. A few publishers still insist on single/exclusive submissions, though, so check your CWIM before you mail.

Q:  Must I enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope? 
A:  Yes, if you want your manuscript back, you must enclose one of the correct size to hold your manuscript with a sufficient amount of postage. These days some folks are starting to send out SASEs just for the response, with a note asking that their manuscript be recycled if it is not appropriate. If you do this, in order that you can better keep track of which manuscript is being rejected, I suggest you write the name of the house/abbreviated manuscript name in the bottom left corner of the SASE. Do not send loose stamps or money to cover postage.

Q:  Should I include a cover letter? 
A:  Most people do, though there’s no magic formula.  The cover letter should be brief, including the working title of the submission; why only you could tell this story; and maybe a couple of lines about it, rather in the manner of backjacket copy.  Don’t attempt to explain the story.  It must speak for itself.

Q:  How long should I expect to wait for a response? 
A:  Three months is a swift turnaround time.  Some publishing houses will send you a letter or post card acknowledging receipt of your manuscript, but others will not.  Some editors are slower to respond than others. If you have not had a response at the end of 3 months, send a polite letter of inquiry to the editor asking about the status of your manuscript. If you have still not heard at the end of 4 months, you are free to write to the editor — withdrawing your manuscript from consideration — and submit it elsewhere. You may or may not get your first submitted copy back, but for the most part, you need not worry.  If they liked it well enough to plagiarize it, they’d make you a publishing offer!

Q:  Once I’ve sold my first book, can I expect the same publisher to buy more from me? 
A:  Maybe, but there’s no guarantee of that.  Most work will be judged individually, at least until you are established — which might not be until you’ve got several titles under your belt.

Q:  What if I get a personal rejection? 
A:  If there is a penned note on a rejection, i.e. “Try us again” or some such, the proper response is a short, polite letter thanking the editor for his/her interest and expressing the hope that a new manuscript from you will better suit his/her needs (if you have a new manuscript, send it along with the letter. Do make sure, however, that it is appropriate for that publisher and that it is the best work of which you are capable.)         If you have received a personal letter, detailing some revision suggestions, but not promising a contract, the proper response is a letter to the editor thanking him/her for the time and interest given to your manuscript. Then consider the editor’s suggestions carefully. If you decide that your manuscript would indeed be improved by those revisions and do them, you are professionally obligated to send that manuscript back to that editor (no editor spends time to write a detailed editorial letter without expecting to see the manuscript again); be sure to mention, in your letter accompanying the revised manuscript, that you have followed the editor’s suggestions for revisions. However, if you decide not to revise the manuscript as suggested, do not plan to send it back to that editor. Send it elsewhere.

Q:  Should I query first? 
A:  Depends on the publisher.  Some only want queries, even for picture books.  Again, CWIM will tell you that.  It is generally a good idea to query a publisher before submitting nonfiction material. Query letters should include the subject matter, the age group for which you intend it, and how your book will be different from competing books on the subject.  Many editors want a query before receiving novel length fiction material. Some will wish to see an outline/synopsis and a chapter or two as well. All correspondence must be accompanied by a stamped, self-addressed return envelope.

Q:  Should I pay to get my work published? 
A:  Absolutely NOT.  Publishers who ask you to pay for publication of your work (called subsidy or vanity publishers) should be avoided completely.

Q:  How can I get a publisher to notice my work? 
A:  Study the field. Read all the children’s books you can lay your hands on.  Understand all the different forms within the field — picture books, readers, chapter books, middle-grade novels, young adult novels, nonfiction across the age range. Then work at making your writing the best it can be. It is a competitiive field.  However in my experience, (my work was pulled from slushpiles more than once), if you are good enough, and you write and submit frequently enough, you will be noticed.  Make sure you’re not submitting work that needs further developing.  Join SCBWI.  No special schooling or experience is required — but you must cultivate your skills, refine your craft, and develop the habits of a writer.  Write well, write often, and don’t hang all your hopes onto a single story.  Above all, if this is truly your dream, and you have the talent to pursue it, don’t give up.