Your Picture Book Manuscript Questions Answered

Let’s talk a little bit about picture books—specifically about word count and illustration notes. Shout out to @pamela_kindred on Twitter. She came through when I asked for suggestions about what to write about this week. So, I’ll tell you a little bit about picture books. But please remember, this word count info I’m telling you is applicable right now and might not be the same in six months or next year or something—because publishing changes.

When I first got into the industry, about ten years ago, the recommendation was that picture book word counts should try to be <1000 words. And now? I’d say most editors whom I submit to are looking for around 500 words ±. I sent a picture book out on submission a couple of weeks ago that had about 158 words in it and the editors who got it were absolutely thrilled because of the low word count. And yet… there are other editors I know who say, “I really don’t care about word counts! If I love the manuscript, I love the manuscript.” And, to be honest, it really does depend upon what you’re writing. I sold a picture book biography a few months ago that had 1,500 words.

Right now, what I’m seeing the most movement on in picture books are manuscripts geared towards the very young crowd. So, keep that in mind. Low word count… and very young readers… which means you should also be thinking about content that very little kids would be interested in having read to them and that they will understand. The other day I received a well-written picture book submission that had the right voice for little kids, and a low word-count, but the subject matter was all about single-celled organisms… which actually could be pretty cool, but the story, the laughable moments and stuff, all presupposed a body of knowledge that a three or four-year old child just doesn’t have.

Picture book biographies can often have longer word counts, as can other non-fiction manuscripts. But again, you need to take into account what aged kid you’re writing for, what knowledge they already will have, what they will already need to know to understand what you’re writing, and if a kid that age will still be reading picture books. All of which depends upon your subject matter, the voice you’re using, vocabulary level, etc… Good ideas are great (and, for the record, good ideas are a dime a dozen) but what you do with your good ideas is another matter. And you need to be thinking about all of these things to make a picture book work.

Ok, now let’s talk about illustrations. If you’re not an author/illustrator (that is, if you are only writing the text of a picture book) you don’t need to find an illustrator. As a matter of fact, unless you’re collaborating and writing a story with an illustrator, finding one is a rooky move. It’s not only not necessary, but it shows you don’t know how the publishing process works. Publishers buy text-only picture books all the time, and then they find the illustrator that they think will work best for their vision of the book. Did you hear that? Their vision of the book. Because when an editor buys a manuscript, they have a vision. Which leads me to illustration notes…

This is what you need to know about illustration notes: only use illustration notes that you must put in for somebody to understand your story—and the less the better. When I read a picture book manuscript, I want my imagination to take over, and so does an editor, and so does a potential illustrator. So, don’t tell me in an illustration note that your character, Gordo the Great, wields a golden sword, and has long blue dreadlocks, and always wears a bowtie, unless the sword, the locks, and the bowtie, are integral to your story. Because maybe the amazing illustrator that the publisher finds to illustrate your story will want to make Gordo the Great a fish. (It could happen.) My client Ruth Horowitz and I were oh so very surprised when we first saw the illustrations from Blanca Gomez for Ruth’s picture book, Are We Still Friends, because we had no idea that Ruth’s characters Beatrice and Abel would end up being a bear and a mouse! Go back and re-read that book, and don’t look at the pictures, and you will see that nowhere in the text does it indicate that they’re a bear and a mouse. When I sent Ruth’s manuscript out on submission it didn’t have one illustration note. And you know what? The whole thing works! There was plenty of room for Blanca’s artistic vision to complement Ruth’s text, and the result is a very beautiful book.

Ok, now one of the specific questions on Twitter was about word count when querying a picture book manuscript. The concern was that if a picture book manuscript has a high word count, and you’re not sure what to edit out because you love it all, do you submit it anyway and pray, or pull out the potential best part of it. Guess what? I can’t answer that question! How can I possibly know the answer to that? But people, listen to me: if you don’t have other folks reading your work, critique partners, beta readers, a mentor, classmate, etc… go and get some right now! In my opinion, you shouldn’t be sending out work that has only been seen by your own eyes. And then, go kill some darlings. The only things that should stay in a manuscript (picture book or any other kind) are the things that make the manuscript great. If the word count is high but nothing can be trimmed because it’s all brilliant, then don’t trim it.

Another question was about whether a submission would be rejected if it wasn’t quite right or if agents might suggest edits if it was close, and just needed “small repairs.” Every agent is different, but the thing to know is that no agent is going to take on a manuscript unless they’re in love with it. And if they’re really in love with a manuscript, whether it’s the story itself or the writing or voice or whatever (hopefully all of those things), then if there are minor things that need fixing it’s probably not going to make a difference to them. That’s how I am, anyway.

I’m happy to answer your general questions about picture books down in the comments.

And stop back for some terrific guest bloggers in the coming weeks!




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8 responses to “Your Picture Book Manuscript Questions Answered

  1. Loved the information you shared here. Very insightful. Thank you.

  2. Oh my gosh, @LindaEpstein, you are my new favorite person! Thank you for answering every one the questions that had been rolling around in my head and keeping me up at night! 🙂

  3. Barbara Senenman

    This is a great post and I do have a question about illustrator’s notes. I understand illustrator’s notes should only be about something that’s absolutely necessary to the story. Is it okay to write suggestions to give the illustrator an idea of where I’m going? For example, in one story, the main character is reading a newspaper and it’s what’s in the newspaper that gets the character thinking. Is it acceptable to write “Illustrator’s Note- Santa is reading a trade paper about what holiday characters are doing on their time off. Suggested headlines….” This way the illustrator could come up with their own headlines based on where I was going with it. If they want to use mine fine, but they don’t have to. In another story, I was thinking of having the first part just be illustrations to set up the story problem. I wanted to write suggestions there as well.

    So, while I did write about two specific stories I was thinking about, my question is about how acceptable is it to write suggestions – For example, such as.?

    Thank you for your help.

    • The only “suggestions” should be things that HAVE to be in the illustration or the story wouldn’t be understood.

      • Barbara Senenman

        Thank you. Illustrators won’t need the samples or suggestions. A straight, important, “if I don’t tell you this detail, you wont get the story” note. I’ve got it.
        Love reading your Blogs!

  4. This is excellent, Linda. Thanks so much!

  5. Lots to think about! Thank you.