Sunday, April 5, 2009

Cloudy with a Chance of Meaningless Terminology

Is a submission labeled as a "picture book" or "picture story book" that comes in at 2,000+ words dead on arrival? How important is this categorization? I feel like the word count is justified, and still leaves creative space for illustrations. I just want to make sure it gets a fair read. If it wasn't good enough, writing-wise, I could deal with that.
Know where I hear the term "picture story book" all the time? Authors.
Know where I don't? Publishers.

"Picture story book", in authors' minds at least, indicates a longer illustrated text. How much longer seems to vary per source, so it's very vague as publishing terms go. It's also kind of meaningless: do shorter picture books not have stories? Why couldn't you call Tuesday a picture story book, since the story is told in pictures? Is Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (890 words) a picture story book? Is Ivanhoe (6,022 words)?

After countless conferences, critiques, and pitch sessions, the impression I've developed (without making any assumptions about your work) is that "picture book" is a format, and "picture story book" is an excuse for not caring who's going to buy your book.

No matter what kind of book you're writing, you should always be thinking about your audience and your competition.

1. Audience
Let's just say for the purposes of this discussion (and leaving aside my own personal antipathy for the term) that by "picture story book" we mean a text in which not all of the plot points can be illustrated.

That means to me that this is a question of how old your audience is and thus how much patience and reading skill the audience brings to the reading.

The children who need a fairly high illustration-to-plot ratio are either (a) impatient listeners / pre-readers or (b) low-to-moderate fluency readers.

The children who don't need a fairly high illustration-to-plot ratio are either (c) listeners / pre-readers who have had a high exposure to read-alouds and have developed the patience and attention span for them or (d) high fluency (independent) readers.

Now here's the rub: there are fewer children in category (c) these days than there used to be, and the kids in category (d) tend to feel picture book formats are "for babies". So while I wouldn't say that longer-text picture books are "dead on arrival", they have to be extremely well targeted and thoughtfully written.

2. Competition
Which books published in the last five years have a format, word count, audience age, and author recognition level* like your book?

If you can find some published at reputable houses, great!

If you can't, that should mean something to you.

*Never use books by celebrities as competition! Never!
Am I right to suspect that writers with no publishing credits have a very, very small chance of landing an agent?
Thus it would be smarter to submit to editors/presses first?
No. The chances of landing a publisher from the slush pile are just as low.
If a contract were offered from a publisher, is there sufficient time to query and attract an agent?
If by "sufficient time" you mean a week, then yes. I would expect a response from any author I'd made an offer to in that time.


Sarah said...

I'd seen those two terms and wondered at the difference. This helps a lot. Thanks!

acpaul said...

I think that the children with HFA who are visually oriented might find a longer picture book appealing, so long as the pictures convey enough of the story to help them make the connections.

I have this problem with my son. He's intellectually beyond the shorter story books that are appropriate for (a) and (b) but is so visually oriented that he still needs the pictures.

With more and more kids being diagnosed HFA and Aspie, there might be an untapped market niche there.

Nancy Coffelt said...

"...and "picture story book" is an excuse for not caring who's going to buy your book."

Thank you, thank you, thank you. I know as writers that we feel the pressure of creating the next sliced cheese, but formats are formats.

I think that picture books aren't that far off from haikus. Even though it has a strict structure, there's a universe of creativity allowed within that structure.

And if you go into it accepting that picture books are difficult to write, you'll probably sleep better.

Christine Tripp said...

*Never use books by celebrities as competition! Never!

OK, that is interesting and why?
I don't have any celeb books in mind but just wondering?

Keith Schoch said...

As a fourth grade teacher and a strong advocate for picture books in the upper elementary grades and middle school, my first thought of audience is definitely that crowd which you categorized as d) fluent readers.

And you got it absolutely right when you said, "So while I wouldn't say that longer-text picture books are "dead on arrival", they have to be extremely well targeted and thoughtfully written."

It's those books, that are thoughtful and targeted, that I hold up to teachers at my blog and say, "These are meant for your students! These books can serve you well."

Keith at

Editorial Anonymous said...

Because celebrity authors get away with lots of things no author who has to trade on writing skill, audience insight, or taste would ever get away with.

Editorial Anonymous said...

Hmm, did that show how I feel about celebrity books?

Deirdre Mundy said...

For kids in group C (like my daughter) nonfiction picture books work OK, but for fiction she prefers chapter books with 800-1200 word chapters and pictures every 2 or 3 pages. (Magic Treehouse, Clementine, etc...)

Another thing to keep in mind about a 2000 word picture book designed to be read aloud...

It's tough on the reader. Take out a stopwatch. Time yourself reading your story out loud, as if to a child. Does is take more than 20 minutes to 1/2 an hour? Is your throat aching for water by the end? Is it effortless to keep up a read-aloud voice for that long?

Kids expect picture books to be read in one sitting, so make sure your book CAN be read in one sitting.

A huge plus of chapter books (magic treehouse, etc.) is that the chapters provide discreet breaks. And they end on cliffhangers, so the child is excited while they wait for the next chapter...

Just my 'Mom-opinion' of course. But the LOOOOONG PBs aren't something we buy. We check them out of the library, but they're not really a 'read again and again' thing at our house, simply because they're so grueling!!!!

Sarah Garrigues said...

I hear what you're saying. Although I recognize the different subcategories within picture books, when I query, I simply write 'my PB manuscript, X.' I agree those categories are more useful for writers trying to get a sense of their audience than for agents and editors. That's why in my queries, I call it a PB and more on, letting the premise and writing of the PB either stand or fall on its own.

I guess we can all just take Miss Snark's advice and "Write well, query widely. Ignore anything that says otherwise." If your 1000+ word is well written and you query widely, some agent and/or editor will recognize the great writing and pick it up, despite its length. What it might mean though is that you may face a lot of automatic rejections before you find that one willing to give your MS a fair read.

However, I must clarify a point here, before others jump on me. I am not suggesting that you write your first draft at 1000+ words and do not go back through (very thoroughly) to see if every single word is necessary to the plot and characterization of your MC. If there is a lot of fluff, then absolutely trim the draft down under 1000 words. But if it is tight, well written, and every word necessary, then I say go for it. It will be a long, uphill battle, but if you believe in your work, it's all worth it. Right?


Chris Eldin said...

I've always wondered about this too. But since my children are now older, and I don't write in this genre, I don't have to worry.

But, I do love "Sam, Bangs, and Moonshine." I think (maybe?) this would be considered a picture storybook? It's 40 years old, but I love the music of the words, and the pace of the story. Not sure how many words it was...definitely on the longer side.

Anonymous said...

Hi, this was my question. Thank you all so much for your feedback.

Does anyone know any good examples of longer-text picture books published recently?

Anonymous said...

Also, do you think the length is something I should briefly address/justify in a cover letter (i.e. how I think it fits into the market), or no?

Editorial Anonymous said...

I always refuse to do competition research for authors, because it's part of your job to do that research and the process of searching through the other books out there is a meaningful learning experience for you.
If you don't yet know of ANY recently published books that are similar to yours in audience age and word count, then you're REALLY not ready to publish.

Jo Treggiari said...

Am I right to suspect that writers with no publishing credits have a very, very small chance of landing an agent?


I'm a traditionally published author and I'm finding it very hard to find an agent.It's tough out there but fortunately there are lots of agents these days so it seems like it's a matter of perseverance above all else.

working illustrator said...

I used to hear the term 'story book' all the time from editors, etc. at SCBWI conferences to describe the books you're calling 'picture story books' although the term seems to have fallen out of favor lately.

They used it to refer to things like fairy tales told in picture book form: big format, color pictures but texts that are clearly intended for older or more sophisticated readers.

Several early P.J.Lynch titles fit this description, as do Gennady Spirin's books and the Anne Isaacs/ Paul Zelinsky Swamp Angel, which not only won a Caldecott Honor, but which will soon be getting a sequel.

Adam Rex's Frankenstein books are also broadly categorizable in this way. A little further afield is everyone's favorite genre-buster The Invention of Hugo Cabret which had already spent time on the NY Times bestseller list before it won the Caldecott.

All of which is my way of saying that it makes me a little nutty to hear all this talk of categories as if these things were as fixed as the elements on the periodic table. They're not. Terms change; requirements are absolutely inflexible... until they flex.

I understand that bookstores and libraries have to shelve populations, not individuals. But figuring out how to do that is their job, not mine.

The most interesting and creative work being done in our field right now is by people who aren't lining up with established formats: Brian Selznick, Shaun Tan, Adam Rex... even Kevin Henkes, who's a master of the 32-page picture book, has been doing all kinds of interesting things with smaller page counts.

Writing strictly to specification is a way to get ad copy, not art.

Literaticat said...

Am I right to suspect that writers with no publishing credits have a very, very small chance of landing an agent?

I would say "no smaller a chance than anyone else" -- personally, I'd much prefer somebody with no publishing credits to somebody with shite ones.

I said this before, but what the heck, I'll say it again: More than half of my clients are debut authors with ZERO publication history that I plucked from the slush. I have sold about 90% of them very nicely and have high hopes for the other 10%.

Worry about your writing, not your resume.

Sam Hranac said...

The kids I see reading longer picture books (those book having been published quite a while ago because of trends) tend to have two traits that stand out. First, they don't watch much TV. I am betting this increases their attention span. The second is that their education stresses beauty and artistry so that the images are still of interest, and possibly on many levels.

Makes for a small audience, I'm afraid.

Sarah Garrigues said...

Good point, EA, about the value of doing your own market research.

I have a PB manuscript that has a very specific topic. After writing the first draft (I did not want to be subconsciously influenced by another author), I searched for other PB on the same topic. I only found two (one of which definitely slants towards girls, which mine does not). Both PB had little to no online presence (i.e., no website, few if any reviews, etc). It empowered me to know that my topic has not, in my estimation, been well covered. But it is also a challenge to find an agent/editor willing to see the MS as having more than just 'nitch' market value, but mass market appeal. This knowledge has largely driven the focus and direction of my MS revisions.

Again, thanks for the insight.


Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) said...

If one somehow swam to the surface of the slushpile to an editor and got a "call-back," would it be better to fish for an agent in that week or ask a lawyer to look over your stuff?

Or have we not even seen the contract yet so we'd have to wait until something was in-the-hand before either would be useful.

(I like to imagine I'd be smart enough to just read a contact and figure it out, but I've been warned by any number of blogs and writers that that expectation is near fantasy.)

Judy said...

acpaul said...
"I think that the children with HFA who are visually oriented might find a longer picture book appealing, so long as the pictures convey enough of the story to help them make the connections."

This may be true; I have noticed that my grandson tends to 'read the pictures' and the captions that go with them in books, which he really enjoys...but he prefers non-fiction for that part of his reading. He is also HFA.

Lisa said...

"'Picture book' is a format, and 'picture story book' is an excuse for not caring who's going to buy your book."

Screaming YES from the appreciative choir.

Melinda Szymanik said...

Hi from the Antipodes

I thought 'picture story book' was more an academic term that helps those working with childrens literacy?

I 'choke' if I think too much about what the market wants when writing pbs, but I've read a lot of picture books over the years and I hope I've absorbed enough 'osmotically' to instinctively come up with the right tone, word length etc...

Anonymous said...

When looking into your competition, how does one find out the word count for any given published book to compare their own book to?

Editorial Anonymous said...

Look here:

working illustrator said...

Fuse #8 is doing a round-up of the 100 Best Picture Books of all time; those posts and this discussion have got me thinking about the issues of defining the picture book as a genre.

Lo, and behold, Fuse #8 has also had to deal with this question, since Shaun Tan's The Arrival was voted onto her list:

Don't miss the comments.

The whole series is dandy reading for anyone who's interested in actual examples rather than abstract criteria.

Hope Vestergaard said...

While I understand the imperative once you make an offer (and I think most authors would be eager to respond as quickly as possible), it seems rigid to absolutely expect a response within a week. A friend had an editor sit with a requested manuscript for months with no response to polite checking-in. Then the editor made an offer and was a little harumphy that the writer asked for some time to consider it. The friend had subbed it elsewhere in the meantime (due to the absence of any info from editor number 1) and needed time to give those editors and agents who had responded to her queries time to respond. It can take several days just to get an email read by a busy editor or agent. Maybe you don't mean this so absolutely, it just sounded a bit harsh.

joelle said...

- Am I right to suspect that writers with no publishing credits have a very, very small chance of landing an agent?


Really? I got multiple agent offers and signed with the most fantastic agent ever with no books published (some articles)and he sold my first novel. I'm not saying it was easy, it took me two years and a totally different book than I started querying with and over 40 queries, but it seems perfectly possible. I know quite a few writers pulled from slush by agents too.

For word counts, this website is a great help:

Christine Tripp said...

Hmm, did that show how I feel about celebrity books?

Kind of suspected that in any case... me too:)

I know of at least one picture story book that did make the grade but they are very few and far between. Picture books SHOULD be for the young and, if done well, entertain the parents reading them again and again and again....

I like to think of a pic book as the old Sesame St. Where, knowing parents were "trapped" in the same room with their child, they interjected a bit of adult only humour to the "skits".

The arguement from publishers is often, yes, we do have to provide an editor who basically re-writes the whole book for a celeb, but the name sells the books. I really wonder though, with all the extra costs and promotion of a celeb book, do ALL of them make the money back plus? Have the publishers ever off set the lesser celeb sales from the better known celeb sales and with that same money, would they have been able to publish some extrodinary best sellers by lesser known names, that would sell for a longer period of time?
The only NAME I can think of off hand, that is worthy and continues to make their publisher money, is Jamie Curtis. Her books are wonderful and her partnership with the illustrator WORKS. Other then that, those published from one year to the next, are never remembered.
I suppose though, we can't discount all the free publicity a celeb can get from major networks, that a regular publisher or author could not.
Not sure if I buy the excuse that the money from celebs spills back to "purchase" manuscripts from "regular" folk. Just don't see those numbers climbing.

suzanne.artist said...

I've never heard the term "Picture Story Book" but it sounds stupid to me, sort of like: Short Novel Story".

Oh, dear, let's hope you poor editors don't receive some submissions with that description in tow!

Suzanne in CT

David Dittell said...

If your story really needs both pictures and that word count, "picture book" will do.

If, as EA suggests, you've written a story that doesn't really need pictures and is aimed at an audience too old for picture books, consider editing so it works sans illustrations.

Kelly H-Y said...

So glad I found your blog ... such great insight ... honest and right to the point! Thank you!

CorySteeves said...

The next time I read a blog, I hope that it doesnt disappoint me as much as this one. I mean, I know it was my choice to read, but I actually thought you have something interesting to say. All I hear is a bunch of whining about something that you could fix if you werent too busy looking for attention.
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