Monday, October 4, 2010

Sailing the Rough Seas of the Picture Book Market ~ Lori Calabrese

I am pleased to host children's author, Lori Calabrese today as The Bug that Plagued the Entire Third Grade buzzes through cyberspace.

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, and enjoys sharing her passion for children’s books at festivals, schools and events. Visit her website to learn more,

Be sure to stop back tomorrow for my book review of The Bug That Plagued the Entire Third Grade.


  1. Thanks for your article Lori. I'm afraid you're correct about the picture book market. But, there's nothing better than a great picture book. God bless.

  2. Wonderful post, Lori! That is so true! PBs are so hard to write and even harder to sell. I guess it comes down to writing from the heart (with passion) and do everything we can to make it perfect--or as perfect as it's humanly possible. Then, of course, submit in bunches at a time. Also, hiring a freelance editor who specializes in PBs help--a lot!

  3. Sounds like a tough market. I'm sure many authors are disappointed to discover their artwork won't make it into the book, either.

  4. interesting. Always wondered how hard it was to get into the picture book market. thanks

    ABreading4fun [at] gmail [dot] com

  5. Thanks so much for having me today, Donna. There are already such wonderful comments and suggestions from everyone. I know it's a fascinating topic to discuss.

    Kathy--I'm glad you agree there's nothing better than a great picture book. That's SO true!

    Mayra--Like you said, writing from the heart helps. If you have the passion for writing picture books, chances are you'll want it to be perfect!

    L. Diane Wolfe--Unfortunately, it is a tough market, and it's sad to see so many talented authors and illustrators not able to break in.

    I don't want this post to be all gloom and glum, though. Writing a picture book is an art form in itself and if you do have the passion to write them as I do, enjoy every minute and keep on writing!

    All the best,

  6. Lori, thanks for sharing about the picture book market. I found your post very interesting.

  7. Thanks for this informative post. I will not give up my dream of publishing a picture book. I will keep reading and studying and writing!


  8. This was so informative, and I still love picture books. We write because we love it and that is a good thing because the world of publishing can be long and frustrating. Writing from the heart for kids, that's my motto and if something I write is published, so much the better. Thanks for the article.

  9. Lori:

    It's wonderful to host you today.

    Thank you one and all for your interest and comments to Lori. Your support is appreciated!

    Best wishes,

  10. Very interesting post, Lori. Thanks for sharing it. I agree that selling a picture book can be a very long and difficult process, but I don't think anyone should ever give up on their dream. Keep writing and fine tuning and learning more about writing. And keep looking for new markets. A lot of selling a manuscript depends on finding just that right match between the publisher and the manuscript.

  11. It's funny, I was at an SCBWI-Carolinas conference last weekend (the end of September) and one of the agents there who participated as a presenter in the PAL intensive workshop is from Upstart Crow. He made it very clear that he doesn't do picture books as he doesn't have the eye or feel for them and that's not to say something stellar will fall on his desk someday - just his tastes are not PBs. This is a very difficult market to break since like you said - lots of mss are submitted on a daily basis for PBs and everyone seems to be saturated with them. Even open mic time at the conference showed we had about 14 of us who read something and of those 14, possibly 4 were non-PBs and the rest were PBs - so you can imagine what the readings were like - unpublished PBs with nothing to back it up - no illustrations, nothing to show as the story was read, which to me is key for the PB market - seeing the wording in pictures.

    Good posting, Lori. Thanks for sharing with us - E :)

    Elysabeth Eldering
    Author of the Junior Geography Detective Squad, 50-state, mystery, trivia series

    Where will the adventure take you next?

  12. What an informative article. I started with pbs, and have one on the backburner, but I've moved onto chapter books. I think they're a bit easier to sell, and illustrations (b&w are optional).

    Thanks for sharing this with us Donna.

  13. I just love reading everyone's comments. It seems everyone is unanimous--PBs ARE a difficult sell, but DON'T give up your dream if PBs are your passion.

    I couldn't agree more!! :)

    Thanks to all of you for sharing your thoughts.



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