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Current word count trends

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I know that picture books are getting shorter and shorter. I heard 600 words is the sweet spot. Now I'm hearing 500. Then I hear that if your story takes more words, then that's what it takes and just do it well. I've trimmed and trimmed  my ms and it's 718 words. Am I out of luck? Will the pendulum ever swing back to stories with more depth?

One note, my ms is an adoption story co-written with an adoption therapist to deal with issues that come up in families.
#1 - January 31, 2018, 11:39 AM

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Well, that story is more of a niche category. A publisher who is specifically looking for adoption stories would be more likely to be fine with a longer word count. The commercial stories should be shorter, but even then, sometimes you see longer ones.

JMO, but I'd say tell the story you need to tell and then see what a publisher who is interested in adoption stories says about the length.
#2 - January 31, 2018, 11:59 AM

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That word count is relatively high, but not so high as to make it a huge red flag. If the story is awesome and exactly what it needs to be, go with it. Send it out there and see what happens. And at the same time, keep writing more stories and pushing yourself to produce shorter ones too.
#3 - January 31, 2018, 01:22 PM
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Is your story nonfiction? I ask because nonfiction can be longer.

Tell the story in the number of words it needs, but make them the exact right words. (A critique group can be invaluable here. You'd be surprised at what you miss when looking at your own work.) Look for niche publishers for this type of story. Meanwhile write more stories in the current word count and hope they sell. Good sales will help your niche book too.
#4 - January 31, 2018, 08:28 PM
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It isn't nonfiction. It would be categorized maybe as "bibliotherapy."

Is 500 words really the new limit?
#5 - January 31, 2018, 10:17 PM

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From what I see, published picture books with separate authors and illustrators often run 500-700 words, while books by author-illustrators tend to be considerably shorter. That makes sense, when you think about it.

Question: are you sure you've written a picture book? I work with writers, and I often find that manuscripts that people are struggling to jam into picture book lengths are better suited to be early readers or even the core of a chapter book...
#6 - February 01, 2018, 08:11 AM
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Question: are you sure you've written a picture book? I work with writers, and I often find that manuscripts that people are struggling to jam into picture book lengths are better suited to be early readers or even the core of a chapter book...

Harold is spot-on, as ususal. My first three years of PB wrtiting, I was writing MG stories in disguise... I call those years "tuition."

#7 - February 01, 2018, 10:02 AM
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Is 500 words really the new limit?

It's not that new. At an SCBWI session I attended, the New York editor said, "Five hundred words!" In the sense of "that is your limit if you want a crack at a sale." That was 10 years ago. I've heard that 200-300 is closer to the norm now. However, some publishers outside the Big 5 will do them longer. Peachtree is/was one, though I don't know if that's changed. Your book does sound like it's aimed toward a niche market, and you may find a publisher there who will do them longer.

#8 - February 01, 2018, 10:33 AM
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It isn't nonfiction. It would be categorized maybe as "bibliotherapy."

Is 500 words really the new limit?

Sounds like a niche book. Have you looked at Magination Press to see whether your story would be a good fit?

Harold is right.

In addition, some PB mss are actually outlines of novels :grin3  And some are better suited as a magazine story. Good luck!
#9 - February 01, 2018, 10:44 AM
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Interesting comments. I submitted it to Magination Press a few years ago, but I've made changes since then. It's definitely meant to be read with an adult, most likely in a therapeutic setting.
#10 - February 01, 2018, 10:58 AM

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It's not that new. At an SCBWI session I attended, the New York editor said, "Five hundred words!" In the sense of "that is your limit if you want a crack at a sale." That was 10 years ago. I've heard that 200-300 is closer to the norm now.

200-300! Wow, that's short. I've been good at keeping my new MS under 500 words, but they still tend to be at least 400.

I feel like lately I have heard a couple of people in the industry suggesting that maybe PBs are going to start getting a little longer  now, but I can't remember where I heard that.  I kind of hope so: I don't think I have a gift for the very sparely worded stories that seem to be popular now.

#11 - February 01, 2018, 12:33 PM

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Don't get me started on child language development and the need for rich vocabulary and beautiful sentences and growing their verbal abilities through books...
#12 - February 01, 2018, 12:57 PM

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From what I see, published picture books with separate authors and illustrators often run 500-700 words, while books by author-illustrators tend to be considerably shorter. That makes sense, when you think about it.

Question: are you sure you've written a picture book? I work with writers, and I often find that manuscripts that people are struggling to jam into picture book lengths are better suited to be early readers or even the core of a chapter book...

Absolutely! An editor at Scholastic told me that my picture book was really a novel struggling to get out! It was finally published as a MG novel by a university historical press!
Thanks, as always, for your wisdom, Harold!

Aloha,
Tori :pizza :palmtree
#13 - February 01, 2018, 05:35 PM
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I feel like lately I have heard a couple of people in the industry suggesting that maybe PBs are going to start getting a little longer  now...

Oh, sweet Louisa May Alcott, I hope so. A lot of our kids' favorites--and mine--were the longer ones.
#14 - February 01, 2018, 06:44 PM
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I've also heard some say picture books will get longer again. The pendulum swings. But we'll see.
#15 - February 01, 2018, 08:55 PM
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When I was young, there were picture story books for older children ages 6-10.  Are they still being published or are they extinct?  Those books had 1000 – 3000 words.
#16 - February 02, 2018, 06:21 AM

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When I was young, there were picture story books for older children ages 6-10.  Are they still being published or are they extinct?  Those books had 1000 – 3000 words.

Very few and far between, Hopeful. But maybe they'll come back around.

#17 - February 02, 2018, 06:32 AM
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What Jayca said. By that age, teachers and parents want them in early readers, chapter books and middle grade.
#18 - February 02, 2018, 07:33 AM
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In addition, some PB mss are actually outlines of novels :grin3  And some are better suited as a magazine story. Good luck!

Yes. And this is something experience will help you figure out--and your critique group. Keep writing.

#19 - February 02, 2018, 08:08 AM
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Don't get me started on child language development and the need for rich vocabulary and beautiful sentences and growing their verbal abilities through books...
Shorter texts in picture books doesn't preclude that. Those longer stories (the 3000 word stories that Hopeful mentioned) are still getting published, but in a different format.

I like longer picture books, myself. But the shift from a library-dominated market to a bookstore/Amazon-dominated one means that the wants of parents drive much of what gets published for the picture book age group. We need to educate parents. Until we can do that, just understand that the market has shifted. Children's books today are different from what we grew up with, and as writers and editors we need to try to understand where we are.
#20 - February 02, 2018, 08:10 AM
« Last Edit: February 02, 2018, 08:13 AM by HaroldU »
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Back to the matter of the shrinking word count, I wrote a ranty post about it some time ago...  :sigh

http://mirkabreen.blogspot.com/2011/11/shrinking-word-count.html

But I do think that the tone, theme, characters and overall voice are far more relevant to a successful PB than the 500-or-bust word count issue.   :yup
#22 - February 02, 2018, 08:45 AM
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More than once I have had a small child put his hand on a page to keep me from turning it. I was finished reading, but he wasn't finished exploring the illustrations. Obviously, we can both wait to turn the page while we take more time with the pictures, but I wish for a better balance between text and illustrations, so the whole experience is more cohesive. Some PBs are splendid with 500 words, but some need more. I don't want to go back to the days of 3,000 word PBs, but I long for more flexibility in the publishing world.
#23 - February 02, 2018, 08:47 AM

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Pons, I don't think flexibility is gone. Picture books like Sophie's Squash and Yard Sale and others are still getting published, with word counts of 600 and 700 or so...  The idea that they have to be 200 or 300 words, which is widely mentioned "common knowledge," just isn't entirely accurate, or is based on books by author-illustrators, which are different.

And as someone else commented, word count isn't the only thing that matters in picture books. Overall, I see more variety (in approach, subject matter, style, and so on) in the picture book market today than existed in the "golden age" of the 50's and 60's (or whenever we think that was...).  Let's celebrate that.
#24 - February 02, 2018, 09:07 AM
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As someone interested in child development as well as writing, it makes me sad that children would go from 300-word picture books to early readers. Not all four and five-year-olds are ready to listen to novels. Chapter books and early readers by definition have limited vocabulary. Where in there would they be exposed to a more complex story with rich vocabulary and sentence structure that stretches their minds?
#25 - February 02, 2018, 09:46 AM

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In those longer picture books I mentioned. Or picture books like Last Stop on Market Street, which I believe is around 750 words.

Or in those even longer picture books that were published in the past and that are still available in bookstores and libraries.

Of course, if parents aren't buying them or checking them out, then children may not experience them. Perhaps the SCBWI could start a campaign on this, as I mentioned before?
#26 - February 04, 2018, 01:42 PM
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Absolutely nothing against some of the beautiful, longer, more classic-style stories, but I do think there is great value in many of this era's shorter PBs. And I don't think brevity necessarily = a story that isn't complex. Short PBs leave more room for conversation, I think. Without spelling everything out, kids are taught to read/listen on a deeper level. There are often clues and surprises in the illustrations. And there's often a subplot to be uncovered, too. There's time for these things because their whole attention span hasn't been used up with 1000+ words of text. When my kids were younger, I really appreciated PBs like this. My kids and I spent just as long reading and discussing one of these books as we would have spent just reading a longer one. There was room for me. And more room for my little one to draw his/her own conclusions on each spread. I write PBs (pretty much all under 500 words) and I love weaving rich vocabulary words into my texts.

#27 - February 04, 2018, 02:10 PM
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Such a great discussion. Such a great group of people. And Harold, how do we get this campaign for longer books started? We should call it the "Both/And" campaign? Short books AND longer ones! Revive the picture storybook! Sign me up!
#28 - February 04, 2018, 03:15 PM
« Last Edit: February 04, 2018, 06:58 PM by teresa-klepinger »

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When my kids were around three, they both enjoyed the world of Richard Scary. We read Cars and Trucks and Things That Go daily. We looked for Goldbug. We names every car and truck. We followed specific subplots. Sometimes I read less, sometimes more. It took an hour for each full read, less if I didn't go through the side pieces, like how the road is constructed or skipped the search for Goldbug (which the kids had memorized anyway). This is an illustration and word heavy book that's still in stores. More text doesn't have to mean less depth in listening. Sometimes more is more.

This doesn't mean that many shorter books aren't brilliant as well. Visual literacy is also an important skill that can't be fully learned without exploring different types of visuals. I think there is room for all kinds of books. It's all how we explain the need to the consumers and gatekeepers.
#29 - February 04, 2018, 06:33 PM
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I think about this topic a lot because my four-year-old son regularly falls in love with older, longer stories. He loves plenty of the new shorties too, but there's room for pretty much all lengths of book in our house and in our reading life.

From what I've seen of his friends' bookshelves and witnessed of their interactions with their parents, I get the sense that there are plenty of kids who still get to experience those longer stories. I live in an educated pocket of the country and our playdates are mostly with families that make education a priority, but I can say for sure that there are at least some kids who hear longer stories.

At conferences the publishing professionals always say parents don't have time to read more than 500 words, but in my world parents pretty regularly sit down on a weekend and read for half an hour with their kids. When you're reading through a pile of books, it's not like you're noticing if you're reading a 400-word story or a 700-word story. Much longer stories do register, but they only mean you end up reading fewer total books in a sitting--not a problem if the kid is engaged and happy.

I think the pressure for brevity forces writers to do some amazingly creative things--but I also think the worship of brevity has maybe skewed a bit too far.
#30 - February 04, 2018, 07:53 PM
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