Getting the word count correct is a very important skill for anyone looking to publish picture books. Agents and publishers won’t accept manuscripts with high words counts. Distributors won’t select them for sales representation either.
Why? Long picture books don’t sell very well anymore.
Why Long Picture Book Manuscripts Don’t Work
Small Press United, an indie book distributor, has this in their Reasons for Declining information: “a children's picture book with pages that have large amounts of text no longer works as a picture book.”
Recent market surveys show that children age out of picture books at six, earlier than previous generations. Kids are moving up to early readers and chapter books younger than before. This in and of itself is a great thing. We have better readers! But it does raise a problem for picture book authors and publishers. We need to adjust our standards to match what children need and ultimately, what sells.
Authors also need to keep in mind the dual audience of picture books: the children hearing the story and the parent who reads it. Parents are the ones purchasing the books and reading them aloud until the child is old enough to read on their own. If there is one thing that drives me crazy during story time at night, it is a picture book that goes on and on and on. Those books often mysteriously disappear under the bed or at the very bottom of the book bin. As a parent, I won’t buy a picture book with a lot of text.
Picture Book Word Count: Here’s the Magic Number
For fiction or creative nonfiction picture books (not informational), the current word count goal is 500 words. Yup, that’s it.
If you are planning to traditionally publish, it is significantly more likely you will be successful if you stick to this word count. Yes, you can go to Barnes and Noble and likely find a longer picture book on the shelf. This book is probably either a classic or written by an established author. Stick to 500 words to increase your chances of acceptance.
If you are self-publishing, you do have some leeway but remember that you want to be competitive in the market with all the other picture books. You also don’t want your adorable-but-wiggly audience getting bored. Keep it under 1,000 but try to get closer to 500.
A Quick Way to Practice
If you write adult fiction, one of the best activities you can do to get comfortable with the 500 word format is to practice flash fiction. It teaches you to squeeze your entire story in a low word count and helps you focus on every single word, cutting anything extra.
If you are new to writing or are only interested in writing picture books, look for my next blog post: Five Tricks for Trimming Word Count in Picture Book Manuscripts.
Let’s start with the truth. Are you ready? It’s going to take time, dedication, and a lot of hard work. A LOT of hard work.
Great. If you are willing to put in the effort then let’s dive in! Learning how to write fiction professionally is like learning an instrument or a sport. You don't just pick up a basketball and are instantly Kobe Bryant. Everyone starts out as a beginner and works to get better. (So don't put too much pressure on your work when you are at the beginning of your journey.)
And like learning how to play the piano or flute, the more practice you do, the better you get. So writing often, as much as you can, will get some real momentum for your journey. That being said, writing professionally takes dedication and time, as well as some money to learn the craft. If you treat it like a light hobby, it will stay a light hobby. If you want to be a serious author, you have to take it seriously.
So what does that mean?
(1) Write regularly. Every day if you can. Set a manageable word count goal for writing sessions. Start with something you can achieve like 300 words. Don't wait for an idea to hit you. Creativity is a flow, like getting hot water out of a faucet. The ideas will come after you've sat down and started writing. You need to turn the water on first.
Also, silence your inner editor when you write. (You know, that voice that tells you your sentences are all wrong.) It won't be perfect when you write but just get it on the page. Focus on progress. You can fix your writing later but you can't fix a blank page.
(2) READ! Read lots of books in your genre, particularly recently published books as well as the classics. Read outside of your genre to keep yourself fresh and think of new ideas to bring into your writing. But read, read, read. This is essential for learning how to write. Take note of what works and what doesn’t.
(3) Learn craft. This is key. You can write forever but if you don't take the time to learn the skills, your writing won't get better. Watch webinars, read blogs, listen to podcasts...just immerse yourself in learning craft.
Read craft books; there are a TON of them. For picture books, I recommend Ann Whitford Paul's Writing Picture Books. A fun, energizing one for beginning authors interested in novels is Nathan Bransford’s How to Write a Novel. There are books on specific topics like dialogue, plotting, character...try and always have one that you are reading.
Join professional organizations, specifically SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) if you are interesting in children’s writing. You can find local organizations such as FWA (Florida Writers Association) as well as national ones like IBPA (Independent Book Publishers Association). Find your local chapter and go to their events. Which leads me to...
(4) Connect with other writers/authors. This was the best thing I did. I joined several local groups and started going to events even though I didn't know anyone. I made friends with authors, editors, publishers...it’s a whole community out there. A fun one. They answer all my questions and we support each other. You can also do this online. There are lots of groups on Facebook for writers. Just make sure the group is nice. Some people make themselves feel better by cutting others down and this is unfortunately true in the writing world, too.
(5) Get feedback. Join a critique group, in person is best but online works, too. Make sure the members know what they are talking about and are experienced writers. Enter contests and submit short stories. Sometimes you get critiques through those but the best feedback is when something gets published, then you know you're on the right track.
(6) Monitor your zen. Writing is a very emotional business and rejection hurts. Having a support system is key. Don't be too hard on yourself or your writing. Remember you shouldn't say anything to yourself that you wouldn't say to a fellow writer. So things like "this sucks/you suck" shouldn't be floating around in your head. Negativity can have a big impact on your writing so mind who you have around you and what you are telling yourself. Remember this is a continual journey so have patience with yourself and with the process.
“A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.” -Richard Bach
Lastly, one of the first decisions you will need to make is how you want to be published: traditionally or indie/self-published. There are benefits and drawbacks to both. Do some research and see which is right for you. This will guide your track forward.