What To Do With a Picture Book Manuscript

by Janet McNaughton

(This article originally appeared in Word, the newsletter of the Writers' Alliance of Newfoundland and Labrador)

    Competition for publication of picture books is fierce. Many publishers receive hundreds of these manuscript every month and picture books are expensive to produce. You will be competing with well established children’s writers who sometimes produce picture books for their publishers, such as Ken Oppel, whose last picture book, Peg and the Yeti, was shorted listed
for the Governor -General’s Award for illustration. Your manuscript will also by vying with the work of author-illustrators, primarily professional illustrators who also write their own texts. These visual artists  have the advantage of being able to present a publisher with a complete concept, something the writer should not try to do for reasons discussed below. Dr. Seuss is probably the best known author illustrator. In Canada, one of the most successful author illustrators is Roslyn Schwartz, of Mole Sisters fame. You might think anyone could write the simple texts that accompany such books, but the illustrations and complete package are major selling point.

    Given that the picture book market is so difficult to break into, it’s best to approach this genre armed with information. Because picture books are such a specialized market, you will want to send your manuscript to publishers who regularly produce this type of book. The Canadian Children’s Book Centre web site provides links to the web sites of dozens of Canadian publishers of children’s books. Browsing these sites will let you see what these publishers are producing. Virtually all post guidelines for submission, so you can tailor your submission to a publisher’s specific requirements. Web sites also have the advantage of giving you up-to-date information on who is currently accepting unsolicited manuscripts. Even publishers who specialize in picture books sometimes stop accepting manuscripts because their schedules are booked for years to come. Go to www.bookcentre.ca and click on the “Publishers’ Sites” bar on the left hand menu. For more detailed advice about submissions, the Book Centre also produces a kit called “Get Published” which sells for $23, shipping included. This kit provides advice which will make your submission more acceptable to publishers. To find out more, visit the Canadian Children's Book Centre.

    Acquaint yourself with the basic conventions of picture book publishing before approaching any publisher. Children’s book illustration is a sophisticated art in its own right. Don’t try to illustrate your own work unless you are a professional illustrator. Don’t try to find an artist to illustrate your work yourself. Most publishers have a stable of established illustrators they prefer to work with and selecting the style of artwork is the publisher’s prerogative. For these reasons, the picture book manuscript should arrive looking like any other manuscript, typed, double spaced on standard 8 ½ by 11 white paper. Do not attempt to indicate where you think page breaks will be. A reputable publisher of picture books will employ an in-house designer to make those decisions. That said, when writing your manuscript, you should know that all picture books are printed in 24 page or 32 page formats, due to binding conventions. The picture book may have as little as one sentence, or just two or three words per two-page spread. The absolute maximum for a two page spread is 200 words. The ideal text is shorter.  However good a 10,000 story might be, it won’t be accepted as a picture book because it won’t fit into this format. Many good stories are probably rejected for this reason alone. You can increase your chances of having a story accepted by providing a text that will fit into a picture book format and looks like a conventional manuscript.

    Good picture book writing has many of the attributes of good poetry. Because the words are so few, every one must be exactly right. More than most genres, the picture book will be read aloud, so attention to rhythm, alliteration, and onomatopoeia, the kinds of stylistic flourishes that allow a text to jump off the page, deserve special attention. The picture book will be read over and over, so a good picture book story should engage the adult reader as well as the child. It’s
impossible to overstate how crucial good writing is to the picture book.  

    Most beginning picture book writers think of fiction, but non-fiction picture books are an important part of the genre and are under-represented in the slush pile. Castles in the Sea, by Larry Jackson, is an excellent example of the non-fiction picture book. If you have specialized knowledge in an area that appeals to children, and you can communicate it clearly, the non-fiction picture book is worth considering. This is also one area where you may be able to contribute to the visual side of the book, as good quality photographs related to your topic would certainly be considered an asset by most publishers even if an illustrator is employed.

    While waiting to be published, you could enter the Writers’ Union of Canada’s Writing for Children competition, which has an annual deadline in April. Entries are limited to manuscripts under 1,500 words, written by those who have not yet been published in book form and do not have a publishing contract. Your $15 entry fee will allow you to compete for a $1,500 prize. The winner and top eleven additional manuscripts are submitted to a Canadian publisher. Some of these have gone on to become books. You can find more information on the TWUC Writing for Children Competition page.
     What happens when your picture book text is accepted for publication? In many publishing houses, the collaboration on picture book illustrations is between the illustrator and in-house designer. You may be allowed some input during this process, but be prepared for the possibility you may not. Good illustrations will enlarge the text, adding details suggested by the story. If you find you are not going to be consulted about the artwork and you have ideas that would enable an illustrator to enrich your text, communicate them to your editor.

    You will likely be splitting royalties with the illustrator. Instead of 10%, you will get 5% for example. PLR is also split 50-50, so that a picture book (like a book that has been translated into French) will earn you half a hit every time it shows up. Publishers also divided the subsidiary rights between author and illustrator. This may be done so that primarily visual rights go to the artist while primarily literary rights go to the author, but some rights may be divided arbitrarily. The main thing is to ensure that the division seems equal. In fact, of course, profits from the sale of these rights may benefit one partner more than the other depending on what’s sold.
    To see how one Canadian picture book was put together, from inspiration to finished product, visit the National Library of Canada’s Page by Page web site. The book used in this project, Zoom Upstream, was written by a well-established Canadian author, Tim Wynne-Jones, so many of the conventions that generally apply to the first time picture book author have been ignored. You will lnotice, for example, that the author chose his own illustrator, something a first-time author could not depend on being able to do.

    For any picture book author, the ability to read your work fluently and communicate with young children is important. School visits make up a good part of most children’s authors’ incomes. It pays to develop an engaging presentation which should include a dramatic reading of your work with visual props. Small children will automatically assume you wrote the story, drew the pictures and printed and bound the book yourself so prepare a brief discussion of how the book was put together. Teachers especially appreciate writers who talk about the editing process and how much reworking goes into even the most basic text.

    Like any other genre, the writer’s degree of professionalism is often a good indicator of success. Keep a stack of picture books by your bedside table. Learn as much about them as you possibly can. Figure out what works and what doesn’t. Take every possible opportunity to hone your writing skills. The path from idea to publication is often difficult, but the picture book can be a rewarding experience.

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