Monday, August 6, 2007

Counting Pages, Words, and Advice

I have an interest in writing picture book texts and have heard mention of picture book formats that appear to be set in stone (8, 16 or 32 pages, no more than 500 words etc). Presently I am unpublished, but have a couple of manuscripts of this kind (~500 words) being evaluated (so far favorably). My question is, how hard and fast are these guidelines in today's printing houses? I recently submitted a third manuscript for evaluation (~900 words), to be told that it would be too long for a picture book. Now I don't even have to look past Dr Seuss in my son's book collection to come up with several -- of what I think of as -- successful picture books of even greater length than my MS. So have the rules changed recently, or are the longer style illustrated books (e.g. The Lorax etc) considered to be in a different genre? If so, which genre would that be?
Number of pages and number of words are not set in stone, but...

The number of pages:
Do you know what a signature is? It is the way printers bundle pages: there are 16 pages in a signature. Pick up a hardcover novel (they'll be easier to see in that binding). Look at the top or bottom of the spine. Do you see the faint separations between the bundles of pages? Those are signatures.
It is most economical to make your book's page count a multiple of 16, in order to avoid splitting signatures. It is slightly more expensive to halve a signature (8 pages), and a bit more expensive again to quarter a signature (4 pages). There is no eighth of a signature (2 pages), as far as I understand these things.
This is why most picture books are 32, 36, or 40 pages.

The number of words:
The first thing you should never do when comparing your manuscript to other books is using competition that's more than twenty years old. Come on.
That said, it makes an enormous difference how the text is formatted and what age group it is for. The Stinky Cheese Man is over 3,000 words long, but the text is broken up into short stories and the age group is mid-elementary. I can only guess that whoever offered you the feedback that your manuscript was too long meant that it was too long for the topic and age group. Alternatively, that person may have been wrong.


cynjay said...

I've got a mid-elementary level PB coming out with Clarion in the spring that is 1,110 words. Maybe yours was too long for the age group or the subject.

The book should be as long as it needs to be, within reason.

Deirdre Mundy said...

Also, sometimes a 900 word picture book mss can be too long because the author didn't leave room in the text for the pictures:

Bobby jumped out of bed, pulled on his red striped shirt, his blue polkadot pants and his long green shoes.

Too Long.

Bobby jumped out of bed and got dressed. (The ILLUSTRATOR is responsible for details like clothing, hair color, etc...)

So in a picture book MS, you can end up with something too long if you try to add too much description...

A picture book isn't just a story that has illustrations... it's a story that DEPENDS on the illustrations to be complete....

ae said...

Bobby jumped out of bed. He poked his head through the hole. No mother in sight. Then he safely slid the rest of him through the sleeves.

Anonymous said...

Sign out a hundred picture books from your library. Read them and stack them into groups...
1. lousy
2. okay
3. awesome
Take the "awesome" group and reread them when you are tired [to get the feel of a parent reading a bedtime story or an editor reading the slush after a wicked week at working on current projects]
Resort and reclassify if necessary.
Now... find your very favorite one and type out the text... word for word.
You now know how long your favourite book should be.
Go to a big chain bookstore and repeat with bookstore books, buying your favorite one.
This is a very good exercise. Also, judge a writing competition. You will quickly know what grabs your interest.

Alison said...

Another important thing to remember is that 32 pages doesn't mean 32 pages of text. Because of endpapers, front matter, etc., you generally have 12 spreads to work with. (As a rule of thumb -- there are some things that can affect that.)

You shouldn't divide your text into page breaks when you submit, but it's a good exercise to think about where the page breaks could be and whether there would be enough for an illustrator to illustrate on each page/spread.

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