Monday, October 4, 2010
Sailing the Rough Seas of the Picture Book Market ~ Lori Calabrese
Sailing the Rough Seas of the Picture Book Market
By: Lori Calabrese
Are you a picture book author who has heard, “Cute story, but ultimately not right for us,” or the ever-so popular, “Rhyming books don’t sell?” If you’ve attended writer’s conferences and read numerous blogs, you’re aware of the fact that rough seas are churning in the picture book market. Few agents will even consider them and publishers aren’t plucking them out of the slush pile. It’s not impossible to sell a picture book by a newcomer, but there are many big waves one needs to conquer and authors need to be aware that the market is bad.
The market is overcrowded and competition is fierce. Attend a writer’s conference and you’ll meet numerous aspiring picture book authors, who are sending their manuscripts to publishers each month. Elana Roth, an agent with the Caren Johnson Literary Agency says in her blog post, The Picture Book Problem, “Most industry professionals (even those of us who LIKE picture books) have an automatic internal eye-roll at this point, because the bulk of the quality of these manuscripts is not stellar. They are on overdone topics, and don’t really add anything to an already-crowded market.” Even publishers who specialize in picture books sometimes stop accepting manuscripts because their schedules are booked for years to come, especially by well established children’s writers and illustrators such as Mo Willems.
A really great picture book is a difficult art to pull off, but many new children’s book writers flock to picture books because they think they’re easier to write than perhaps a novel that could take years. But truth be told, picture books are one of the most difficult to write. Since there are so few words, every one must be exactly right. Attention to rhythm, alliteration, and onomatopoeia must also be perfected. Since so many details go into writing a picture book, it’s important to realize many agents don’t have the time needed to perfect a manuscript. Michael Stearns, the founder of Upstart Crow Literary and an agent specializing in children’s books, says in his blog post, Agenting Picture Books vs. Agenting Novels, “For the agent (and editor, I’d wager), editing and responding to the picture book requires an artist’s heart and patience as well. It is rarely obvious in a well-written picture book draft what, exactly, is missing.”
However, one of the biggest problems with publishing picture books is money. “We can love picture books as much as we want, but they are ROUGH financially, and when I need to pay rent, that's not the best way for me to do it,” says Roth. Advances for picture books are low, production is expensive, picture books take years to produce and bring to market, and the shelf life of picture books has shrunk over the years. “Now, just as elsewhere, there is a big initial sales window in the chains, and then books are returned and a few copies placed spine out. So if a picture book doesn’t hit big initially, it will be difficult for it to build and gain ‘legs,’ as they say,” says Stearns.
Despite the picture book market being so difficult to break into, writers continue to send queries. But why? Many picture book authors fondly remember how a particular book shaped their love of words as a child and long to do the same for a new generation; a good author believes in herself and her story and knows there’s always a chance; and writers write for the sheer enjoyment, no matter what the market dictates. Fortunately, there are also small presses who are championing new voices and focusing on niche markets, allowing picture books to be shared.
So if you have a passion for writing picture books, keep a stack of them by your nightstand to read and re-read, learn as much about them as you possibly can, continue to hone your writing skills and know that smooth seas do not make skillful sailors.
About the author:
Lori Calabrese is an award-winning children’s author. Her first picture book, The Bug That Plagued the Entire Third Grade, was named Dragonfly Publishing Inc.’s 2009 Best Children’s Book. She writes for various children’s magazines, is the National Children’s Books Examiner at Examiner.com, and enjoys sharing her passion for children’s books at festivals, schools and events. Visit her website to learn more, http://www.loricalabrese.com/.
Be sure to stop back tomorrow for my book review of The Bug That Plagued the Entire Third Grade.