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What do picture book editors want (lately)?

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What have you heard?  Let's share with each other.  I'll start:

1. I've heard that almost all editors are looking for VERY short manuscripts because tired parents tend to read them at night and they don't want a lot of words.

2.  They want manuscripts tied to the curriculum.

3.  Humorous, not quiet mss.  Very child-centric not anything about adult issues.  (No retold folktales.)

4.  The want lovable characters that can be franchised and/or turned into series.

5.  They want refrains, repetition, or reader participation mss.

6.   The story should leave you with a warm, friendly feeling and make the child say, "Oh, read it again."

7.   No obvious lessons.

8.   No sad endings.  (I guess retellings of the Little Gingerbread Boy are out.)

Please share with your fellow writers.  I'd like to compile a general list here--not necessarily what specific editors want.
#1 - September 13, 2011, 05:45 PM
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I'll play....was at a picture book workshop with a Chronicle editor this spring.  Heard many of the things already on your list.  In addition:

1) Give the child power/control (to make decisions/choices)
2) Let the reader in on the secret or know the answer before or correct the MC (plays into both participation and letting the child be in control)

Great list!  Thanks for sharing!!

-Kellie
#2 - September 13, 2011, 07:02 PM
You're never too old to become younger. - Mae West

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Characters, characters, characters. So that there's potential for more than one, I guess, and all the branding possibilities that go along with creating a strong interesting character that kids can identify with.

Stories that parents will love, so clever humor and wit that goes right over most young kids' heads. (Forget the kids, it's all about the parents because they carry the cash, right?)

No quiet stuff. (Yawn. So bored of hearing that... On what basis did someone decide that quiet books were not cool anymore?)

Nothing that's similar to anything else out there (needs to stand out in 'today's competitive market'). But nothing that's TOO wacky/quirky either (too risky).


Am I sounding jaded? I feel a little jaded today.
#3 - September 13, 2011, 07:02 PM

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I'll throw in one more....twists/unexpected endings.
#4 - September 13, 2011, 07:04 PM
You're never too old to become younger. - Mae West

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Yep, those are all good.  Keep 'em coming.

(I don't know about the rest of you, but the mss. I write fail on one or more of those requirements.)

I've also heard they want ghosts--have any of you heard that? 
#5 - September 13, 2011, 07:20 PM
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Spare text that leaves plenty of room for the illustrator to share his/her part of the story.
#6 - September 13, 2011, 07:32 PM
« Last Edit: September 14, 2011, 05:29 AM by tammi »
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Diamond in the Slush: What Picture Book Editors Are Really Looking For

http://metro.nyscbwi.org/news/diamond/
#7 - September 13, 2011, 07:36 PM
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Wow, I think you've covered everything I was going to say.  I'll have to look through my notes again from the last conference to see if there's anything else to add.

Fantastic thread--thanks so much for starting it!

#8 - September 13, 2011, 07:42 PM

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Pb writers should consider their work a theater piece. Pbs are meant to be played.

(paraphrasing Allyn Johnston and Mo Willems simultaneously) :)
#9 - September 13, 2011, 07:44 PM
« Last Edit: September 13, 2011, 07:52 PM by tammi »
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Thanks, Tammi.  Those are great suggestions.  And I enjoyed the article.

Any more specifics?  Trends? 
#10 - September 13, 2011, 07:56 PM
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Tammi....I love that idea....a theatre piece.  Thanks for sharing that one!  
#11 - September 13, 2011, 07:56 PM
You're never too old to become younger. - Mae West

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A few words from an agent-lead PB webinar I recently attended:

PBs that lead the market are hip, unique, funny, quirky, character-driven with a great voice and heart (is that all?). They have multiple sales hooks. And they are short! As far as the length goes, she said editors are asking for “snappy text” which means less than 700 words but preferably less than 500.
#12 - September 13, 2011, 10:05 PM
BACKHOE JOE, HarperCollins, 2014
FAMOUSLY PHOEBE, Sterling, 2017
ALL IN A DROP, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019

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I was recently told "emotion"
#13 - September 13, 2011, 11:19 PM
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Great list, Ellen! And I liked the article, Tammi, especially since your book is mentioned!
I've read that interactive picture books are becoming more popular.
~Tina
#14 - September 14, 2011, 04:01 AM
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I recently heard that an editor is after a great reversal.

Example of a reversal is CHILDREN MAKE TERRIBLE PETS.

When Lucy, a young bear, discovers a boy in the woods, she's absolutely delighted. She brings him home and begs her mom to let her keep him, even though her mom warns, "Children make terrible pets." But mom relents, and Lucy gets to name her new pet Squeaker.
#15 - September 14, 2011, 08:34 AM
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I've tried to write reversal stories--they're not easy to write!
#16 - September 14, 2011, 09:09 AM
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I think the key with reversals is not letting the reversal become the book...still need to have a strong MC.   Peter Brown did another book with Lucy...
#17 - September 14, 2011, 09:23 AM
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another reversal pb:  AKR's BEDTIME FOR MOMMY
#18 - September 14, 2011, 09:25 AM
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Our Betsy started another super-duper thread.

One comment I got from a senior editor is to keep the balance of funny/poignant in check. He mentioned old Chaplin movies, like City Lights.

In other words, and we only have five hundred or less, make'em cry and laugh.
#19 - September 14, 2011, 09:53 AM
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Thanks, Mirka.  I'm a big Chaplin fan (and I've seen City Lights).

But in my own stories, I'm not too good at making 'em cry.  I'm better at the laugh thing.
#20 - September 14, 2011, 09:57 AM
« Last Edit: September 14, 2011, 09:58 AM by Betsy »
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Based on my experience with personal rejections lately and with hearing editors do a first-pages sessions at our local scbwi conference,
they want "freshness", they want books with broad market appeal (very hard to define), not of mostly regional or narrow scope, and
they are sick of reading stories reflecting an adult point of view.  Short, definitely very short.  Nobody has an attention span anymore! 
#21 - October 09, 2011, 10:54 AM

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all of the above - especially about keeping it short  and leaving space for the illustrator to 'tell' part of the story.
#22 - October 09, 2011, 11:34 AM

Here's my short list, based on comments on manuscripts and conferences I've attended--
Funny
Quirky
Emotional
Strong conflict and believable resolution
A character who grows and changes

On the issue of length, I've gotten mixed info--short is definitely a plus, but in doing requested revisions for an editor recently, one of my PBs actually got longer!  Haven't sold it yet, so we'll see.

Ellen
#23 - October 09, 2011, 03:53 PM
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I don't mean to put down these suggestions; I think that they're interesting and helpful.  But here is a cautionary note for pre-published writers about to push away from wonderful work that doesn't meet the criteria:

All but one of my PB's violate 4 or 5 of these criteria, depending on how you interpret the bit about refrains, how prominent the repetition has to be.  The books in question are with four different publishers, ranging from big 5 (or is it now down to 4?) to tiny.  Two of them aren't out yet, so some are quite recent sales.

It would be very sad if writers who are drawn to folklore decided that working in the genre was a waste of time when, in fact, retold and fractured tales are alive and well and selling (although certainly not as well as Olivia or Fancy Nancy, there's still room for them).  Or if stories that demand more words ended up stuffed in bankers boxes.  Or if stories with religious subtext and messages -- assuming no hit over the head with a hammer engraved with the words "and the moral of this story is" messages -- never got sent to secular publishers.

Over the years I've heard no anthropomorphic talking animals (my first book), no retold folktales (four books), no books with only adult characters (all the folktales and one non-folktale), no rhyme (I don't do these, but how many terrific rhyming books have you seen recently?), and all sorts of other prohibitions that are routinely violated by lots and lots of writers. 

OK, probably a humorless 4,000 word PB in which a talking refrigerator overcomes its fear of the leafy green vegetables lurking in its produce drawer thanks to divine intervention, written in mind-numbing iambic pentameter, is not going to jump out of the slush pile any time soon, but I think that if you read a lot of PB's and exercise reasonable judgment, you have a lot of room to be creative and follow your passion with an awareness but not a slavish dedication to producing what's supposed to be hot.

#24 - October 10, 2011, 04:42 PM
Ann Redisch Stampler

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I’m with you, AnnS. I’m only sorry that my five thousand word dancing elevator story is drawer-bound. :0
 
Betsy knows the score as well as anyone possibly could. I agree with the sentiment that you should, please don’t, write ‘to the market.’ But it is helpful to share what is being said here and there, to be aware of it, and then make your own mind. It's good to know if you're bucking the trend.
#25 - October 10, 2011, 06:23 PM
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217mom -- Agree completely, that's why I prefaced as I did.  Not in any way a put down of Betsy or of the suggestions; it's important to be aware of the info that editors are putting out there. 

My agenda is that I love folklore, and as long as I've been writing for children -- which started way, way before I was published -- I've been hearing that if you want to do folk tales, you're screwed.  (The OP is correctly reporting the info that's out there: that's the info.)  It's tremendously frustrating to keep hearing this, and to see people who love folklore trying to do something else on the assumption that their retellings will never find a home.  My feeling is that it's such a challenge to be published in the first place, you'd might as well deal with all of vicissitudes of submissions and rejections and rewrites in the service of work that you care about deeply.  Not with a sense of nanny-nanny-foo-foo, I'll write what I want and if you don't like my dancing elevator and his romance with a talking duck, the heck with you, my captive-audience nephew likes to hear it every day if I feed him enough candy bars, but with a desire to write the specific thing you're writing.

I'm not suggesting that writers who check out the market are selling out or lack conviction; I just want to reassure people who have conviction and are doing something that barely even touches on the 8 criteria that they're OK.  And to urge them not to stop doing what they're doing, or to lose faith in possibility that their book will find its way into print and find its audience.
#26 - October 10, 2011, 07:22 PM
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Today I got a long, detailed evaluation of a picture book dummy from an editorial service that I trust. I paid to have this done because I have gotten a lot of nice personal comments from editors and some conflicting suggestions when sending this one out. Basically, she said my book included too many concepts and I need to make it more simple and focus on one theme. Funny -- another dummy I've done has only 75 words, and I've been told it's too simple and that parents won't want to spend over $15 for such a story. I guess there's a happy medium?

The sad thing is that kids who're three and four can enjoy longer and fairly complex stories if someone is willing to read these books to them. At least the books are out there even if few new ones  are being published. I'm not sure I could have raised my children without the real Pooh Bear, Bill Peet's tales, and the 20-minutes-to-read Dr. Seuss books.
#27 - October 10, 2011, 08:52 PM
Sheila Welch,  author/illustrator. Don't Call Me Marda, Waiting to Forget, Something in the Air, The Shadowed Unicorn, Little Prince Know-It-All

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No offense taken at anyone's remarks.  All opinions are welcome on this thread.  I expect there to be contradictions.  

I've sold my share of retold folktales too, and my last three sales were rhyming pbs.  Nothing on this thread should be taken as cast in cement.  Thanks for reminding us of that, Ann.  I was hoping maybe, instead of a list of what isn't wanted, we'd concentrate more on topics and material that's of special interest these days.  

Like, for example, I did have an editor ask me specifically for pb ghost stories.  Not my thing, so I'm mentioning it here in case someone's inspired to write one. 

Any other topics someone's heard an editor mention?  (If it's not for you, share with your friends.)

Ann--love that talking refrigerator idea and the dancing elevator isn't bad either!
#28 - October 10, 2011, 11:03 PM
« Last Edit: October 10, 2011, 11:07 PM by Betsy »
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I just want to reassure people who have conviction and are doing something that barely even touches on the 8 criteria that they're OK.  And to urge them not to stop doing what they're doing, or to lose faith in possibility that their book will find its way into print and find its audience.

Spot-on, AnnS. Hear what the Mavins have to say, but (I agree) give back to the world what you consider to be real value. You have done it, and you know.
#29 - October 11, 2011, 09:42 AM
« Last Edit: October 12, 2011, 09:22 AM by 217mom »
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I heard an editor at our SCBWI conference last month say she loves Ninja stories.
#30 - October 11, 2011, 02:30 PM

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