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.