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Current word count trends

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Melissa, that's exactly it.

Kids are reading chapters younger, but that doesn't mean they don't enjoy pictures anymore. And parents will read fewer longer books, but they still get read.

I've been told it's all related to the shift from school and library as the primary sales focus for picture books to trade as that focus because kindergarten students are reading chapters. But I still hear about picture books being used as mentor texts in K-2 classrooms, so I don't know. I think there is a complex socio-cultural phenomenon behind this shift. It seems reasons include teachers, parents, shortening attention spans and a few other things. But this could be a catch 22. Maybe parents are reading shorter books because that's what is available and this plays into the shortening of attention spans. I just hope the pendulum really does shift more toward the middle, where a book has the number of words it needs for its story--no more or less.
#31 - February 04, 2018, 08:29 PM
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I just got told this today. That 500 words is the max! It really puzzles me, because I thought "early readers" were more of an inside industry production (i.e. the big publishing houses prefer to do early readers with their own staff writers, rather than pay contracts to external writers)
#32 - February 19, 2021, 02:41 PM

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I just got told this today. That 500 words is the max! It really puzzles me, because I thought "early readers" were more of an inside industry production (i.e. the big publishing houses prefer to do early readers with their own staff writers, rather than pay contracts to external writers)

Partially true. Some are open to them. Some hire authors through their agents and some use book packagers. But some picture books are converted into early readers or, at least, work as both because of simple vocabulary and repeated elements.

500 words is a guideline. The key is to use only words that are necessary to show the story while letting the illustrator show everything illustrations can.
#33 - February 19, 2021, 06:40 PM
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I just got told this today. That 500 words is the max! It really puzzles me, because I thought "early readers" were more of an inside industry production (i.e. the big publishing houses prefer to do early readers with their own staff writers, rather than pay contracts to external writers)

Got the same situation recently. But I stuck at 600 words! I guess new trends are just unavoidable. We have to adjust
#34 - February 19, 2021, 08:27 PM

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The trend of super low word count picture books has been going on for years.  Think of how successful Mo Willems' picture books have been and his first picture book was published way back in 2003.   Publishers didn't want to miss out so they all hopped on the bandwagon.   Those who claim that fiction picture books can have up to 1000 words need to wake up and smell the coffee beans.  It's significantly shorter than that and it's been that way for quite a while now.
#35 - February 20, 2021, 07:34 AM

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I am jumping back in to point out that the "shorter" picture book "trend" goes back decades. Look at two classic picture books,  Where the Wild Things Are and The Snowy Day, both published in the early 1960's as examples.  Each is just a little over 300 words. Such books weren't recently invented. Typically such picture books are author-illustrator creations, though not always.

The long-term trend I DO see is this: As the children's trade market gradually shifted from libraries to bookstores in the 70's, 80's, and 90's, publishers increasingly had to cater to parents, who wanted kids to read "real" books. Parents want early readers and early chapter books. The picture storybook -- the format for those 1,000-word and up stories--has become almost extinct, with only Patricia Polacco able to publish in it anymore (perhaps that's a bit of an exaggeration).

Are there actually more of short PBs being published today than 50 years ago? I don't think anyone has actually done the research to determine that, but that has become what we all believe. For what it's worth, I see "longer" PBs, maybe 400-700 words, written by an author and illustrated by someone else, still being published. If you're a writer, look to those as mentor texts, not ones created by an author-illustrator.

#36 - February 20, 2021, 07:52 AM
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I think the difference seems to be that in earlier times, there was more of a mix of word count ranges for fiction picture books.  I still remember when "The Polar Express" was published in 1985.  That picture book has over 1000 words, but no one thought anything of that word count back then.  Nowadays, you don't have that mix of short and long word count fiction picture books.  It's just all low word count fiction picture books these days.
#37 - February 20, 2021, 08:37 AM

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For what it's worth, I see "longer" PBs, maybe 400-700 words, written by an author and illustrated by someone else, still being published. If you're a writer, look to those as mentor texts, not ones created by an author-illustrator.


This^, precisely. Most who lament the shorter word counts are writers only, fearing our contribution is disappearing. {I do think there are fewer PBs published that are not by writer-illustrators.} It has become more evident that  PBs are the illustrators and the illustrating writers' place to shine. But for those (like me) who don't illustrate, look to the published books by writers that don't illustrate as indications of the current publishing market. Yup, they're longer.

#38 - February 20, 2021, 08:50 AM
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Exactly, 217mom. No 1,000 word ones like Polar Express, but still some being published in the 400 to 700 word range, if you look. It's not just the 300 and under ones--though they do tend to be the ones that get prominently displayed, which may be part of the reason people have come to believe that that's all that is getting published...
#39 - February 20, 2021, 09:02 AM
« Last Edit: February 20, 2021, 12:30 PM by HaroldU »
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One more issue I run into, and what may be contributing to the 200-300 word books, is that so many agents are looking only for author/illustrators.
#40 - February 20, 2021, 09:58 AM

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One more issue I run into, and what may be contributing to the 200-300 word books, is that so many agents are looking only for author/illustrators.
  Yes.  I've noticed that as well!

#41 - February 20, 2021, 10:00 AM

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One more issue I run into, and what may be contributing to the 200-300 word books, is that so many agents are looking only for author/illustrators.

This! That's the trend that's most alarming. If you can write but can't draw, they're not interested!
#42 - February 20, 2021, 10:21 AM

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One more issue I run into, and what may be contributing to the 200-300 word books, is that so many agents are looking only for author/illustrators.
That's ALWAYS been the case, and in years past it was even more so than now. Used to be that no agent would represent a PB writng-only author, so you had to be a writer of MG/YA as well and then (only) your agent would also sub your PB texts. The commission was too low on text only advances & royalties. I didn't even consider looking for an agent until I knew I was committed to MG writing as well. Back then, PB were subbed directly to publishers without agents' intercession.
Times changed, and as more publishers closed to the unagented, agents took on to subbing their clients' PBs texts, though the author-illustrators were always preferred. But at least now if you only write PBs texts there are some agents looking for that.

As others have repeatedly said, writer must grasp the fact that picture books are the illustrators' media. They are art books with text, not stories with occasional art, such as were common in our childhood.

#43 - February 20, 2021, 10:22 AM
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As others have repeatedly said, writer must grasp the fact that picture books are the illustrators' media. They are art books with text, not stories with occasional art, such as were common in our childhood.

I'm still reading a lot of picture books and I'm seeing a lot of variety, from short to wordy, and many different types of pictures. My favorites are ones that are poetic, with lots of room to breathe, like those of Liz Garton Scanlon or Amy Krause Rosenthal (RIP) and beautiful art.

I didn't have any picture books as a child. We were told stories, of course, and I learned to read when I was 6 yrs old; the books had line art. I loved comic books (the tales were all Indian mythologies). When I look at some of the PBs published now with full-color pictures, they feel like priceless works of art in my hands. So rich! And it's the perfect marriage of words and pictures.
#44 - February 20, 2021, 11:24 AM
Little Thief! Max & Midnight, Bound, Ten Easter Eggs & 100+ bks/mags
https://vijayabodach.blogspot.com https://bodachbooks.blogspot.com

Thank you everyone for this fascinating discussion, I am just pondering this myself at the moment as I have written a new story and was thinking about how to make it shorter and shorter after realizing the word count standard now is no longer between 500-800 but much lower, to my dismay. I am an illustrator as well but I love words and I'm not very happy with this trend.
I do feel that this is hurting the child's ability to deal with more complex text and it doesn't prepare him as well to read "real books" later on, where there are no helping pictures.

I also feel that some children get much less out of such books and really need more words. Maybe this is true for kids that do have a longer attention span or that are not as visual. I see this with my son, he simply has no interest in such books although they are age appropriate for him and we always end up reading older classics which have a lot more text in them. 

500 words is a guideline. The key is to use only words that are necessary to show the story while letting the illustrator show everything illustrations can.

About this - I was wondering, is it really ok for the text to have so little descriptions of the action that it doesn't stand on its own? Especially when submitting to agents, and although I will include illustration notes and a picture book dummy, is it really ok for the story to not be understood from the text alone? And will the agents really take the time to work out the action from the little storyboard sketches...?

#45 - February 21, 2021, 12:22 AM
« Last Edit: February 21, 2021, 12:25 AM by yaara-c »

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You can always have art notes. Have you seen Linda Ashman's treatment of RAIN or NO DOGS ALLOWED? Check them out. She's a wonderful writer and teacher.
https://lindaashman.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/RAIN_Submission.pdf
https://lindaashman.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/No-Dogs-Allowed-Submission.pdf
#46 - February 21, 2021, 06:07 AM
Little Thief! Max & Midnight, Bound, Ten Easter Eggs & 100+ bks/mags
https://vijayabodach.blogspot.com https://bodachbooks.blogspot.com

Thank you so much, Vijaya, this is very helpful. Would you mind sharing your source for these? Was it her personal website or is there a place where I can see more documents like these?
#47 - February 21, 2021, 06:24 AM

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In the links vijaya pasted^ the manuscript reads very much like a truncated screen play  :wow
#48 - February 21, 2021, 08:10 AM
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It does read like screen directions! And hardly any words at all. Fascinating.
#49 - February 21, 2021, 08:44 AM

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Thanks, Vijaya.  That's a good example of art notes.

Tara Lazar also has examples of how she does art notes. Hers are a LOT shorter. She likes to call them action notes. https://taralazar.com/2019/08/05/art-notes-are-action-notes/ 
#50 - February 21, 2021, 09:40 AM
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Yaara, I discovered them on Linda's website: https://lindaashman.com/  and she has many more resources here: https://lindaashman.com/how-to-write-picture-books/more-resources/

My art notes tend to be very short. With one magazine piece, I actually sent in a drawing with crayons because a picture really is a thousand words.
#51 - February 21, 2021, 10:55 AM
Little Thief! Max & Midnight, Bound, Ten Easter Eggs & 100+ bks/mags
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Thank you Vijaya!
#52 - February 21, 2021, 10:56 AM

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Thanks for the links, Laurel and V. I really enjoyed them. Lots of great information.
#53 - February 21, 2021, 02:17 PM

I have been pondering the Linda Ashman manuscripts since Vijaya kindly shared them here.
I do wonder, can I use these as an example? How "typical" are they?
I noticed she uses the page numbers in her manuscripts, is that standard, or at least acceptable to do?
 
As I already worked out the page breakdowns (I am an author- illustrator) I would feel more comfortable using page numbers in the same way she did instead of trying to figure out how to present this as a story with paragraphs, if that makes sense.

Any advice on this would be most welcome!

Thanks
Yaara
#54 - March 24, 2021, 01:37 PM

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Since you're the person designing the book and doing the art and you'll submit a dummy, there is no harm in you paginating the manuscript. Some editors love it because it helps them visualize the final product. Some don't because it breaks of the flow of reading. It's just another indication of the subjectivity in publishing. But, again, this is part of the illustrator's and designer's roles anyway.
#55 - March 24, 2021, 06:07 PM
« Last Edit: March 24, 2021, 06:33 PM by Debbie Vilardi »
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Yaara, as an author-illustrator you'd be submitting both a manuscript and dummy (with rough sketches and perhaps a couple of finished spreads) so you don't need to indicate page breaks in the text portion. I know many editors like having paginated mss but that happens later in the process. Good luck!
#56 - March 24, 2021, 06:32 PM
Little Thief! Max & Midnight, Bound, Ten Easter Eggs & 100+ bks/mags
https://vijayabodach.blogspot.com https://bodachbooks.blogspot.com

Thank you Debbie and Vijaya! Very helpful and informative as always, I really appreciate all your help!:)

I'm getting a bit off topic here but I was wondering if you could perhaps refer me to somewhere on SCBWI or online with more information and / or samples of submitted manuscripts?
 I would like to see more examples except the ones that Linda Ashman shared.

I have found some information about this in Ann Whitford Paul's excellent book but she didn't include a sample of prose text. Also, I found other tips online that were partially contradicting with what she suggests to do which is why I'm a bit confused at the moment :D

Thanks again,
Yaara
#57 - March 25, 2021, 04:28 AM

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I haven't looked at the book in several years but they used to do a really good job. It's under SCBWI online publications: https://www.scbwi.org/online-resources/the-book/
#58 - March 25, 2021, 06:36 AM
Little Thief! Max & Midnight, Bound, Ten Easter Eggs & 100+ bks/mags
https://vijayabodach.blogspot.com https://bodachbooks.blogspot.com

Thank you Vijaya!
How silly of me, I already downloaded the new version of the book when it came out but completely forgot to look for what I need in there :D
#59 - March 25, 2021, 06:52 AM

Hi again,

I was wondering what are your thoughts on a word count of 454? Is that hitting the red mark or is still considered ok?
I really wanted to cut it down to 300-something but just couldn't do it. I has hardly any descriptions or actions, it's told in first person and is mostly dialog and the narrator's thoughts about what's going on. Also, 3 of the words are sound effects;D
Do they still count as words?
#60 - March 31, 2021, 05:37 AM

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