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Interesting Word Count Info

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I was in Nashville this past weekend at the MidSouth SCBWI Conference. Erin Murphy spoke, and in one of her talks, she mentioned that she had not sold a pb ms with more than 600 words in the last 3+ years.  :scissors: :scissors: :scissors:

#1 - September 19, 2011, 03:15 PM
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At my first page session of the June 2011 NJSCBWI conference, one of the editors said that the new ideal length is a mere 300!   Shorter is definitely in vogue, it seems.

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#2 - September 19, 2011, 03:35 PM
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600? 300? Sheesh!
#3 - September 19, 2011, 05:15 PM
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Think of some of the classics, such as Blueberries for Sal, Hucklebones, Little Engine That Could, etc.  They wouldn't make today!   :ahh
#4 - September 19, 2011, 05:21 PM

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600 seems like an awful lot to me - maybe that's because I'm new to PB writing. I have tried to keep mine below 250, the PB dummy which caught the attention of my (now) agent has only 80 (its a story, not a words and pictures book).

In the UK we have 'The Childrens Writers and Artists Yearbook' - I dont now if its available in the US but its a lot like the 'Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market' but geared towards the UK. In there it states that if you can write a PB text with under 150 words you're in a good position as writers who do this are in short supply but high demand (I havent got it in front of me but its something to that effect).

A shorter book is always appreciated here at bedtime... :hourglass:
#5 - September 20, 2011, 01:29 AM
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At a humor workshop (at the same NJ Conference) another editor touted a current pb bestseller which weighs in at over 1000 words. He said if it works it works. And many of his favorite humor books run longer and they consistently sell well.

Generally speaking 500 words is what we hear today, yet there are always exceptions and editors who are receptive.



#6 - September 20, 2011, 04:11 AM
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Yes, AE, I was at that session as well.   The book he was touting was Betty Bunny Loves Chocolate Cake.    It's a hilarious story, but definitely geared to older end of youngest reader set.   It is encouraging, though, that longer PB's are selling too.    Word lengths are just guidelines - it's the individual story and how you execute it that counts.   Winners can be any length.

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#7 - September 20, 2011, 05:32 AM
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Could it be that the decline in sales for the story picture books is what the editors are alluding to? The pure picture book will be less wordy, with a decisive advantage to those who illustrate as well as write.
They really are two different kinds of picture books, and the illustrated stories are out of fashion. Not with kids, (if you have kids, you’d agree) but with their parents who read (and are asked to re-read) to them. Editors must respond to the market.
Seeing some of the classics mentioned above ^, I can’t help but hope for a HP-like phenomenon for the world of picture book publishing. Before Harry Potter burst on the scene, editors insisted on shorter books, and many would not look at fantasy. After HP, writers feel they have to apologize for a middle grade that is below twenty thousand words. Now imagine a spectacular selling new story picture book that has 1,200 words. Commercial houses doors will fling open.
I’ve written both kinds of PBs. My comments are not about mine, but about the market observations here.
#8 - September 20, 2011, 08:16 AM
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Could it be that the decline in sales for the story picture books is what the editors are alluding to? The pure picture book will be less wordy, with a decisive advantage to those who illustrate as well as write.
They really are two different kinds of picture books, and the illustrated stories are out of fashion. Not with kids, (if you have kids, you’d agree) but with their parents who read (and are asked to re-read) to them. Editors must respond to the market.
Seeing some of the classics mentioned above ^, I can’t help but hope for a HP-like phenomenon for the world of picture book publishing. Before Harry Potter burst on the scene, editors insisted on shorter books, and many would not look at fantasy. After HP, writers feel they have to apologize for a middle grade that is below twenty thousand words. Now imagine a spectacular selling new story picture book that has 1,200 words. Commercial houses doors will fling open.
I’ve written both kinds of PBs. My comments are not about mine, but about the market observations here.


Wow, my husband and I loved reading to our daughter, and read to her until she was almost 10 (!), even though, of course, she had been reading herself for years by then (she still loved being read to). To me, 1,000-1,500 words was not too much!
#9 - September 20, 2011, 12:18 PM

Of course, a market will most likely always exist for longer pbs. I didn't mean to imply otherwise.

One of my main thoughts in sharing the info was that when it is already extremely difficult to have pbs accepted these days, why stack the odds even more against you by writing "long"? Just my two cents.
#10 - September 20, 2011, 12:56 PM
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Of course, a market will most likely always exist for longer pbs. I didn't mean to imply otherwise.

One of my main thoughts in sharing the info was that when it is already extremely difficult to have pbs accepted these days, why stack the odds even more against you by writing "long"? Just my two cents.

I understand what you are saying. I'm just surprised parents are too busy or whatever to not want to read more than 300 words to their own children.  :faint
#11 - September 20, 2011, 02:28 PM

 As a mom of three, who works from home, I understand wanting to reach for the shorter book. However, nothing will deter me from reading a well written pb with a great story, esp. If th word difference is 200 or so words.  I believe agents and editors are the same. Make it as concise as you can, clear as you can but don't beat yourself up if it's a certain word count after youve polished it to a shine. It's the story that matters, yo.
#12 - September 20, 2011, 03:27 PM
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...and the illustrated stories are out of fashion. Not with kids, (if you have kids, you’d agree) but with their parents who read (and are asked to re-read) to them. Editors must respond to the market.
Seeing some of the classics mentioned above ^, I can’t help but hope for a HP-like phenomenon for the world of picture book publishing....

You will not believe this, but I was telling myself this VERY THING today--even down to the part about an HP equivalent for the PB world.

Wow. Scary-spooky.  :ahh
#13 - September 20, 2011, 04:38 PM

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I understand what you are saying. I'm just surprised parents are too busy or whatever to not want to read more than 300 words to their own children.  :faint

As a parent myself, 'want' doesnt really come into it...my three year olds attention span will stretch only so far...We also have to make time to talk about the illustrations on each page, whats going on - he also likes to 'read' the story back to me when we've finished. I would rather read him a 200 word story that he can cope with/understand than just read 'at him' for the sake of saying I do. Thats why I said before that shorter book is always appreciated at bedtime.The length of the stories he reads will increase with his age and understanding - and I'm fine with that.

Maybe lots of parents think this way which is why publishers/agents are looking for shorter word counts?
#14 - September 21, 2011, 04:55 AM
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I always strive to tell as much as possible in as little as possible.

My next book comes out March 2012. It has 220 words in it.
#15 - September 21, 2011, 07:16 AM
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As a parent myself, 'want' doesnt really come into it...my three year olds attention span will stretch only so far...We also have to make time to talk about the illustrations on each page, whats going on - he also likes to 'read' the story back to me when we've finished. I would rather read him a 200 word story that he can cope with/understand than just read 'at him' for the sake of saying I do. Thats why I said before that shorter book is always appreciated at bedtime.The length of the stories he reads will increase with his age and understanding - and I'm fine with that.

Maybe lots of parents think this way which is why publishers/agents are looking for shorter word counts?

I'm thinking more of the 4-8 age range (which maybe isn't exactly PB anymore?).  When our daughter was 0-3 a lot of books were few-words board books, so they couldn't be shredded by said daughter.   :laugh
#16 - September 21, 2011, 07:48 AM

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I think it's also important to remember that the picture book market is skewing younger these days - just one more reason for the popularity of shorter texts. I do like the analogy of the picture book as a dance between text and illustrations. One should not overpower the other. So, while longer picture books exist and some sell (my next that comes out in October is around 700 words) I think the popularity of shorter texts has always been strong.
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#17 - September 21, 2011, 08:44 PM
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The info here is very helpful.  I am in the process of shortening a PB I'm working on.  I will keep this in mind.     

:frog: :frog:
#18 - September 22, 2011, 06:31 PM

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Thanks for this information.  I had been hearing editors really want PBs to be around 500 words or less.  But it was interesting to hear about the lack of sales for manuscripts that were over 600 words.
#19 - September 23, 2011, 11:14 AM

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I love picture storybooks and I wish the word counts would go back up to include them. So many great ones come in way over 1000 words: Miss Rumphius, Library Lion, The Bicycle Man, The Polar Express, Strega Nona, Farmer Palmer's Wagon Ride, all the 'Frances' books, etc.
#20 - September 24, 2011, 09:30 AM
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Yes, the market is skewing younger -- somewhat because parents want their kids to 'read' real books by kindergarden. So--easy-to-reads are the next step up from very young picture books. And story books, which appeal to kids 7-10 are not published much anymore. It is important to realize that newly published picture books are in competition from all of the fantastic longer picture books that have been mentioned on this list. The book has to be really, really special to take its place there.

In the days of 'longer' picture books when these classics where being published, very few short picture books were done. So, we are writing the 'classics' in that category today and future generations will have to compete with us.

My last 3 picture book sales have all been less than 200 words. My current book -- just going out to editors -- is 89 words long. And it is a complete story.

It is different. But short picture books can be wonderful.

 :yup eab
#21 - September 24, 2011, 09:49 AM

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I've been hearing this forever, but I've never sold a picture book under 600 words. The two I've got coming out in 2012 are about 870 words (Me and Momma and Big John, Candlewick) and about 980 words (My Heart Will Not Sit Down, Knopf). They're not aimed at toddlers, of course, but children ages 4 to 7 need picture books too.
#22 - September 24, 2011, 01:28 PM
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I understand all the reasons for short PBs, but do you think we are shortchanging our kids by limiting word count and not providing meatier stories? Maybe some  pictures need to be replaced by more words?
I have been collecting antique children's books for years, mainly for the illustrations. But since I have been participating in PiBoldMo this month, I started reading more of these books. I find that the books had some great, long stories and more sophisticated vocabulary.  As a teacher, I hated when they introduced the classics to the kids, BUT the condensed version. That is so wrong for many reasons. Shouldn't we be challenging our kids with longer stories?
#23 - November 03, 2011, 09:17 AM

Kattoo -- I love longer stories. I write them-- and I know lots and lots of other authors who do as well. Brilliant, brilliant stories by well-published authors. It is *selling* them that is the problem. The market niche for longer picture books is very, very small. A few publishers still do them. But most do not.

 :ladybug: eab
#24 - November 03, 2011, 11:35 AM

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Just read this article and it addresses the word count issue. Definitely some food for thought...

http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/slj/newsletters/newsletterbucketextrahelping2/892418-477/make_way_for_stories_theres.html.csp
#25 - November 03, 2011, 08:49 PM
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Thanks for the article Amy.  I did read it the other day, and that's what got me thinking about word count.  I understand that longer books are not selling, which is very sad. But I hope they do have a come back, and soon.
Kids are being deprived of good meaty stories at a young age.  They need to be challenged and intellectually stimulated.  We have already heard about college kids who are not really ready for college.
I am not saying 500 word picture books are not good enough, I think they are fantastic, and I commend those authors who can tell a story in few words. Not many people can do that successfully.
Maybe publishers need to be bolder and try different marketing strategies to get longer picture books back on the shelves.
#26 - November 04, 2011, 05:42 AM

I hope so, too. When they do come back poor editors will be buried under an avalanche of ms' that have been written in the past ten year and set aside for when the market turns. Maybe they know this, and that's why they durst not open the doors!! heh

But on a more serious note -- as the article mentions, the backlist for older, longer picture books is *very* strong. Those are the books a new ms must compete with, and the older books are a sure sell. They don't fade away like most MG and YA novels-- and there is limited shelf space. So....

blarg as my son would say! It is a difficult day for writers of longer pbs.

eab
#27 - November 04, 2011, 07:12 AM

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I think it all boils down to how old the child is. I agree with keeping it short for younger children. The book I just illustrated had a little over 300 words. It is intended for children 4 - 6. The book rhymes so it also becomes fun to read for parents too. Rhyming is always fun!
#28 - November 16, 2011, 07:52 PM

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