Agenting Picture Books v. Agenting Novels: Part One of Two

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Agenting Picture Books v. Agenting Novels: Part One of Two


dickens[Some weeks back I was in Chicago to give a couple of talks at an SCBWI conference. While I was in fine form for much of the conference, I punted my final talk, to my chagrin. Part of the issue was an ill-advised, last-minute rejiggering of my notes and talking points into a confusing mess of arrows and write-ins (a poor idea, as it is all too easy to lose the thread of an argument while speaking); but more the issue was an inability to get my head around the topic. The title of the talk had been dictated to me—”The Joys and Challenges of Agenting Across Formats”—and, I blithely asserted, I had little if anything to say about that beyond, “Yes, agenting these sorts of manuscripts is different.”

Well, I was blazingly incorrect about that, and recent experience has driven this home. So I’ve put my notes back into their original order and fleshed them out. What follows below is, without apology, the first part of what that talk should have been. Forewarning: This will be a long post—more of an essay, really; a self-indulgence. It’s not for most, which is why I am posting these entries on successive weekends. Click the link if you feel like losing some time; else I’ll see you on Monday. —M.]

[The talk began with some introductory remarks: Who I am, where I come from, how to find me, and so on. And then I got down to business.]

On the face of it, in the most superficial manner imaginable, agenting picture books is no different from agenting novels. A manuscript comes in, the agent tweaks it a little or a lot, the author revises, the final manuscript is submitted to editors at various houses, and soon—one hopes!— it is purchased and published. But to leave the comparison at that—to say that agenting the two things is not much of a different experience for the agent—would be somewhat irresponsible. Like saying since a primate and a whale are both mammals, they’re basically the same. Picture books and novels are different, obviously, most notably in terms of process, and that’s what I’m going to talk about today.

1. About Picture Books and Picture Book Writing

I should start by stating unequivocally that I love picture books. Love them. Of the four agents at Upstart Crow, I am the only one who even considers picture book manuscripts. I squander my spare cash buying picture books I love despite not having children. I read them over and over again to see how they’re structured. I spend hours grazing at local bookstores while parents give me the hairy eye wondering what’s up with the strange single male who is reading picture books to himself and chortling.

But even though I love picture books, I represent and acquire very few.

Why? Well, I don’t always love working with picture book authors, for reasons that can be difficult to articulate without coming off as uncharitable. Here’s the thing: A really great picture book is a difficult art to pull off. I’m deadly serious when I use the word “art” here. That’s how I view a great picture book. It is about grace and the right words in the right place—much more akin to poetry than mere storytelling. The picture books I love are “language driven”—that is, are more about sound and rhythm and call-and-response than about, say, the devices of regular fiction—those things familiar from novels, such as extended scene and dialogue exchange and long descriptive passages. Picture book writing must be woefully dependent on the illustrations, else the manuscript is trying to do far too much, is the bore at the table who won’t let anyone else speak, won’t let the conversation come to life, and flattens the spirit of the evening.

(Some will cry out, but what about storybooks! There are tons of picture books that rely on fictive devices! And to those I say, yes, such books are published, and there are many good ones out there—favorites come to mind such as a lot of Steig—but for me, the books I most love, those are the shorter texts, and those are the ones I’ve chosen to talk about here.)

Anyway, getting a picture book manuscript to work in this fashion is no easy matter. Some people—such as Jane Yolen or Kathi Appelt—come to this naturally. They have a true gift, make no mistake. Such writers have an innate economy of expression and an artful ear, and though they work hard writing their picture book manuscripts, it doesn’t show: There is a fleetness to the language, an always perceptible joy. They make it look effortless.

Other writers achieve an artful manuscript via many many many revisions, and a paring away of extraneous bits. Twenty-five drafts in, say, such writers may have nailed their manuscript. It may differ only in the use of forty words, but those forty words matter and affect the tone and impact of the whole. Most writers, of course, fall somewhere in the middle in terms of process. However the writer achieves it, getting the picture book manuscript to that place it needs to be requires an artist’s heart and patience.

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. The prose may read well enough, the story may have a beginning, a middle, an end. The punctuation may be in all the right places. The images called to mind may be original and fun. And yet, something about the manuscript is off. Perhaps the concept isn’t quite “there.” That is, maybe the concept needs to be rethunk, and if so, that will affect the way it has been realized in the manuscript itself—will affect the very prose. It is not uncommon to work on a manuscript off and on for ages and then have to toss it. It is sad when this happens, of course, but it does happen.

So in some cases, the agent reads the manuscript, ponders it, sets it aside to marinate. Comes back to it a week later, rereads it, ponders it, makes a few notes. Keeps doing this until something unlocks. Because seeing the “fix” that will give a good manuscript heart, or finding a way to cut out half the words without cutting out the soul of the story—is hard work. If it weren’t, the author wouldn’t need an editor at all. (Some authors feel that they don’t need editors at all, and I wish such writers all best of luck.) It can take time, the figuring out of picture books—time inversely proportional to the length of the book.

There is a picture book manuscript that Deb Lund and I have been backing-and-forthing for months, making little tweaks, making larger tweaks, fixing meter and rhyme, but it was only after five months of this that we finally stumbled upon the question we hadn’t been asking, the question that revealed what the story needed in order to feel emotionally full. I wish we’d seen this back in May. But somehow we’d been blinded by the little things. Now it’s got it all and is going to market.

Few beginners understand this, the length of the process.

Many new writers in the children’s books arena (80% of SCBWI attendees?) cut their teeth on picture books, for obvious reasons. Picture books are short. Picture books can be revised quickly. Picture books look “easy” to the untrained eye. Whereas a novel is obviously a serious commitment, an undertaking of many months or even years, a picture book by contrast looks like something that can be knocked out in an hour. Such writers would never say this, but they think picture books are simple.

I dread such writers. And they are the ones who fill-to-bursting submission piles when agents open the floodgates and accept picture book manuscripts. This is why most agents will not look at picture book manuscripts at all.

This can strike the new writer as unfair, as a blind punishment of the talented and hard-working in order to keep the untalented rabble out. And I suppose these writers have a point: It is unfair. But so what? Who ever said this process was going to be “fair”? And fair to whom? Such measures are the only way for an agent to make the most of her time in the slushpile.

But what I’ve been talking about—the hard-to-achieve art of the picture book—it is only one of the reasons few agents embrace the format from newcomers. There is a second reason, and that is all about how picture book writers come across in their initial submissions.

2. Picture Book Dilettantes

A made-up, potentially hot-button label.

What, precisely, is a picture book dilettante? Well, it can be hard to say, and defining it can be borderline offensive. Seriously! One can look at our very best authors—Philip Pullman, Gail Carson Levine, and other literary greats—and label them picture book dilettantes. Remember Pullman’s Puss in Boots? No? I thought not. Most don’t even know it exists. Same is true of Levine’s Betsy Who Cried Wolf! Both of these are excellent picture books but not why these authors are known. Their brief forays into picture books are interesting side projects. Which is to say, smallish. Not treated by anyone as fresh, exciting debuts. Is that because of the books themselves? or because the authors are already known well for something else?

There are authors who move between novels and picture books with great ease, finding success with both—Kevin Henkes, Kathi Appelt, Tedd Arnold, Jane Yolen, M.T. Anderson, and on and on—but for the most part, those writers began in picture books and then grew into novel writing. Not always, but often. I think it’s easier for a writer to develop from a picture book creator into a novelist rather than the other way around, but that’s not really what I want to talk about here, and is a full talk all to itself (about the market, and about defining a brand in the market, and whether brands work backwards into picture books or only upwards into novels). So an interesting aside, but one that has little impact on you, the newish writer of picture books.

What does all of the above mean for the new writer approaching an agent? Well, two very concrete things. First, here’s a not-atypical approach from an email query to me:

Hi! I am a new writer and I have completed work in many different genres. Please tell me which genre do you want to see? I write picture books, middle grade, young adult, fiction, nonfiction, and erotica for the defrocked clergy. I have attached a list of all my available projects with loglines for each. Please review it, check off which are most appealing to you, and I will send them to you as soon as possible. Please also send me a contract and tell me when I can expect to receive my money.

My immediate and overwhelming feeling is that this person doesn’t have any freaking idea what it is she writes. She believes she is a master of everything and so I’m willing to bet she is a master of nothing. (Unless the signature at the bottom reads Jane Yolen or Kathi Appelt, in which case I’m on board.) Such a writer is clearly a dilettante, dipping her toes in everything. Basically, she’s approached me with everything she’s ever put to paper, saying, “Hey, I’m having a yard sale—and lucky you, you get first pick of the goods!”

Thank you, but no thanks.

Instead, I look for writers who put their strongest stuff forward first. If she feels her picture books are her strongest material, then she should start there. If she feels she is primarily a novelist, then she should start with a novel. The goal when starting out and approaching an agent isn’t to sell yourself as able to do everything—sorry, I don’t believe you, and my experience makes me skeptical of self-declared renaissance types. The goal is to appear focused and dedicated to your genre. The goal is to show you’re dedicated to doing this one thing as well as you can to the best of your ability. And then, after you’ve hooked the agent with that, you can go about revealing the erotica you write for defrocked clergymen (if you must).

So the first point here is to lead off with your strongest suit. Only lead off with that. If you feel your picture books are your strongest, then start there. If you feel you’re primarily a novelist, then start with a novel. The goal starting out is to appear focused and dedicated to your genre.

Second, don’t write picture books just because they’re shorter than novels.

Sounds absurd, but this is the real problem I was skirting around above. A picture book isn’t just a short story with pictures. It is something else entirely. If you attempt picture books, you should attempt them as picture book writers—rooted in a love of language and very young concerns. Otherwise you’re making life not just harder for you, but harder for your agent, and, down the road, harder for your next books. There is nothing worse than having to chase an unwanted picture book manuscript with a novel manuscript. The novel may be completely excellent, but it will be coming in on the coattails of something that was begrudgingly considered, and that memory may color the book’s reception.

Which brings me to another, grimmer reason that many agents look askance at picture books:

3. The Economics of Picture Books

First, time spent vs. money earned.

The agents who represent picture books do so because they love picture books. There are payoffs in the picture book market, of course—and in the case of runaway bestsellers (Fancy Nancy, anyone?) such payoffs are huge. But those are the exceptions, and the rule is a much tinier thing.

Payoffs in the picture book market tend to be smaller—and more importantly they tend to be later—than with a kid’s novel. Payoff comes only after the manuscript has been matched to an illustrator, published, achieved some measure of success (an award or four, a line-of-dolls, a movie). Initial advances tend to be more modest (most debut novels sell for bigger advances), and—because picture books take years to produce and bring to market—earnouts of the advance tend to be very distant. And, considering how rocky the picture book market has been these past few years, getting any title to take off and become huge is a chancy thing. Like gambling at roulette.

So picture books aren’t a huge money-making business up front. Like you, we do this for love. Because we can’t not do it.

But that long process of getting that manuscript to market? It can easily take as long and as much labor as it does to revise a novel. Picture book creators are prolific and fast, and produce many revisions, each of which differs in a number of slight ways that have to be weighed, their combined effects measured. And even while one picture book manuscript is being tweaked and refined, the author has written four others and sent them along to the agent.

Because, let’s be honest, for the gifted picture book writer (Jane, Kathi, Deb, and perhaps you), it is easy to write lots of picture books very quickly. But few publishers are going to sign more than a few picture book manuscripts from one author before publishing the first, and publishers will feel a bit peeved if they know that the author is selling picture books all over the market (in effect, flooding the market with their name, lessening the special quality of any individual book by floating out lots of books, some of which may be less fabulous than others).

So with my picture book clients, I spend a fair amount of time strategizing what goes out when, and to whom, and how to position the different publications. Just because a great picture book writer can write ten manuscripts a year doesn’t mean all ten of those should appear. In the world of problems, a skilled writer’s prolificity isn’t a big one, but it does pose a challenge for the agent. How to best deliver the manuscripts to market? Which house will make the best home for a particular picture book? Will another house be peeved to read that a picture book has sold to an editor elsewhere?

Happily, the houses have very different sensibilities, kind of like the studios in old Hollywood (where MGM did lots of musicals; WB did gangster pics; Universal was the monster house; and so on). Harper Collins is different from Candlewick is different from Walker is different from Holiday House. And within each house, there is often a very different editorial guard who edit picture books versus those who are more focused on novels. Some manuscripts just seem so strange that it seems they won’t find a home at all, but then an editor at a house will surprise you. Over lunch, say, I’ll mention to an editor that I have a picture book about dog drool and the water table, and that editor will clasp her hands together and say, I’d love a book about the water table. A wonderful thing when that happens, but it is the work of a long while sifting through the tastes and needs of different editors at different houses.

Second, the picture book market itself.

The picture book market of late has been a small, difficult-to-hit, moving target.

The bigger chains have promotions each year that dictate the lion’s share of their buys. These promotions comprise a mix of familiar and not-so-familiar themes and vary year-to-year: Christmas, Mother’s Day, Back-to-School, Halloween, sure, but then there will be odd ones thrown in: Single Parents, Transgendered Housepets, Cooking is Fun!—whatever. If a book has a promotional hook, it can help it in the marketplace. But it can hurt it, too. The Christmas book market is huge, but also intensely crowded by a lot of familiar brand names (Fancy Nancy, The Polar Express, Santa Calls, and on and on and on). It can be hard to get a toehold. But if a picture book does get pegged for a promotion, it can be the difference in an initial order of many thousands of copies. And the more copies in stores, the more copies will sell. (People have to see things in order to want to buy them. Sales are all about real estate and getting the word out.)

And the shelf life of picture books has shrunk over the years. Used to be that picture books sold, and sold pretty steadily, for years. Most of that market had to do with the prevalence of independent booksellers, who hand-sold the best books year after year. With the exception of great regional stores such as Anderson’s here in the Chicago area, and Books of Wonder in New York, and Books, Inc. in the Bay Area, handselling is gone. 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. Because really, who sees a picture book that is shelved spine out? Very few.

Mind you, this may sound like whinging, complaining. Trust me, I am always happy do my fair share of pissing and moaning about the work, but I’m not doing that here. This isn’t complaint; it’s more description. Just limning the work of the picture book agent. (And a caveat: It’s not always like this. Of course! Many picture book manuscripts—especially from experienced hands—come in that are much closer to fine. I’m not talking of those, but rather, of the writers at the start of their career. People such as you all sitting in this audience in this auditorium.)

Now, in the face of all the above—the reluctance of agents, the difficulties of the marketplace, the need for a writer to actually choose a genre and stake an identity—the fledgling writer can be forgiven for wanting to throw up her hands and say, Never mind!

But that would be to quit something simply because it is hard to do. Of course it is hard to do; if it were easy as cliché, everyone would do it. We agents who choose to work on picture books do so because of love, yes, but also because they are hard, so when we all succeed in spite of the difficulty, that success is all the sweeter. As with anything worthwhile.

And, anyway, novels have their own host of difficulties and pleasures, for both writer and agent, which I will post about next week.

dickens
  1. As an attendee of both your breakout session and your final talk, I feel you expressed everything in your talks that’s written here in this blog entry. You’re a great speaker and I learned a lot from you that day.

    At a different SCBWI meeting, a woman said to me, “I hear you’re a published author.” I nodded because I’ve been writing for parenting magazines since 2004, have also published a few short stories and am currently writing novels. I’m certainly not an expert on anything, but felt like I could guide her in the right direction.

    “Well,” she said, “I wrote a picture book manuscript in about twenty minutes and my friends think it’s divine so can you tell me who will publish it?”

    I stood there stunned for a moment, then I suggested she read a few books, attend more meetings, get in a critique group, etc. She stared at me, narrowed her eyes and replied, “Well, I thought you’d be able to help me get published. This group is supposed to be helpful and you aren’t telling me anything useful.”

    I wish she could read this post…

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  2. I really enjoyed this post. I like reading posts where I can learn to better my skills as an author.

    Picture books are also my favorite as are children. They must be because I have been in the childcare profession for over thirty-year. I love seeing little children enjoying the books in their hands, even when they are eating them.
    I can’t wait to read part two.

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  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by katebarsotti, Upstart Crow. Upstart Crow said: New blog post: Agenting Picture Books v. Agenting Nov (http://bit.ly/8uyAzq) http://bit.ly/8uyAzq […]

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  4. I will never look at transgendered pets the same way after reading this post.
    :-)

    I am bookmarking this page so I can forward it to every writer who wants to “take a break from writing their novel and write a picture book.” I want to reach through the computer screen and slap them. And I’ve always wanted an eloquent way to tell them to stop. You’re making it harder if not impossible for serious writers to break into this market!! I have always compared picture book writing to poetry, only I think it’s much more challenging because you do have to write with the illustrations in mind.

    Thanks for taking the time to pen this, also for sharing.

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  5. That was a superb explanation of the process, and it clarified some things for me.
    Since I love writing fiction and am published in haiku and non-fiction, I bristled against the notion of branding. I argued that Jane Yolen and Neil Gaiman successfully write across genre and format. But the perspective you give explains why I should leave my picture book on the revision shelf and concentrate on the two YA novels I have close to completion. Understanding of the marketplace is part of the writer’s job. Thank you.

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  6. Wow!! Unbelievable post. I’m going to paste this link and send it to my friends and family who ask me why I don’t write “real” books! Great glimpse at reality. Thanks!

    sf

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  7. Great post and as I’ve seen you speak before, I’m sure you did a fine job on this topic as well. As someone who is revising a YA ms right now, I can say it’s been far easier revising this than the PB’s I’ve completed. I don’t think new writers realize that it’s more challenging to create a story arc in 500-600 words than when you have an entire novel to do so. Just one opinion.

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  8. You’ve got enough material here for four blog posts, and it’s only “Part One.”

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  9. […] This post was Twitted by stephanieruble […]

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  10. Michael,

    Outstanding post! I was moved by your sincerity and insight.

    I am a published children’s book author/illustrator. Please see, http://www.jacketflap.com/profile.asp?member=PYXX or, http://robertwahl.blogspot.com/

    In Upstart Crow’s, How to submit, you indicate unless the writer is specifically sought out by you, or Chris, you’re NOT interested in seeing PB scripts/illustrations. Is this still the case?

    When you first became Upstart, I tried to reach you via e mail, all to no avail.

    Sincerely,
    Robert Wahl
    Pyxx@comcast.net

    Haste yee back ;-)

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  11. Michael,

    Thank you so much for this post. Very interesting. I’m looking forward to next week’s installment.

    anita

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  12. Wow. This is fabulous; thank you!

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  13. Great info in your post. Don’t be so hard on yourself about PWD. The extra Q & A time is what a lot of conference attendees enjoy.
    Your Mini Van Chauffeur
    Jen

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  14. Thanks for the entire post. Thanks for this in particular:

    “There is a picture book manuscript that Deb Lund and I have been backing-and-forthing for months, making little tweaks, making larger tweaks, fixing meter and rhyme, but it was only after five months of this that we finally stumbled upon the question we hadn’t been asking, the question that revealed what the story needed in order to feel emotionally full. I wish we’d seen this back in May. But somehow we’d been blinded by the little things. Now it’s got it all and is going to market.”

    Even though I know it takes a long time to craft the picture book, to find that spark or heart that makes it shine, I sometimes question how long it’s taken me on some of mine. It sure is good to see the process between you and Deb Lund. Good luck with the book!

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  15. I will admit that I have recently decided to try writing picture books “because they are short!” But in my defense, I don’t mean this as “that means I can run off a bunch of them really fast and publish a lot quickly,” I meant it as “that way I can get the rough draft (for me the hardest and possibly least enjoyable part of writing) out of the way, and then I can spend my time really crafting a perfect story out of it. It will be good practice on word choice and plot structure, which will help me write my novels in the long run.” When I write novels I tend to get caught up in the characters and dialogue, so those basics sometimes get lost; I’d be forced to concentrate on choosing just the right words in a picture book.

    But I’m glad to know your preferences for mentioning picture books to you. I’ll remember not to bring up my practice picture books when I finally get my novel together enough to submit to you!

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  16. […] This post by Michael Sterns of Upstart Crow solidified why I would love to have an agent. I know for picture books in particular it can be easier to send to the publisher, that you don’t really need an agent. But, what he had to say about working with one of his clients gave me the why of why I want an agent. That back of forth work of perfecting the story. Working with someone who can help make sure you are sending the publisher your best. It’s been through your critique group, they’ve given you the thumbs up, the extra sets of eyes-you’ve revised, let it rest, practice told it to the imaginary kids in your house, storyboarded, revised it again, rested it and so on and so on. You think you maybe/hopefully have a winner…but it still needs that last bit of help to bring it to it’s full potential. […]

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  17. We should be paying you for the lessons. Picture books aren’t my thing, but very interesting anyway.

    You want to go to Miami SCBWI and do my workshop on series for me? Because I’m beginning to realize that I don’t actually know how I do what I do.

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  18. Thank you, Michael. If I could simply cut and paste this entire post into my blog, I would. But instead I’ll simply link to it and hope that my fellow picture book writers take your advice to heart.

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  19. Waiting with bated breath for the next installment.

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  20. Thanks, Michael. I wonder how many people have attempted to articulate what you’ve nailed here. We wandered around this topic tonight at a writers’ gathering–sure wish I had seen this first (but I did mention you). Great grappling, Michael.

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  21. Wow . . . this is really an outstanding post! THANK YOU SO MUCH for delving into the reality of picture book writing and marketing as it stands now in the current economy. Picture books are DEFINITELY harder to write, at least for me. I’ve finally whittled one down to 500 words that I’ve been working on, on & off over the past 2 years. And what basically helped was reading books on the craft of picture book writing as well as numerous critiques from writer friends. Nevertheless, when I start the query process, I will still be sending out my middle grade novel first because it is my stronger suit.

    Thanks again, Michael, for this essay. It is definitely needed . . . great, great advice to heed! :)

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  22. As a novelist who aches to do a picture book, I read this post with great interest. I’ve tried and failed, and will probably try again. It is just plain *hard* to write a most excellent picture book, and I admire authors who can.

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  23. Thanks for a great post. I’m not a picture book writer, but found your post fascinating. I can’t wait to read your post next week on novels, which is what I write. Thanks for taking all the time to write such a long, detailed, helpful post.

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  24. If a children’s book illustrator were to be venturing into the writing aspect of a picture book, would they submit to a children’s literary agent and in your experience is it even more difficult for an illustrator/author to attract an agent?

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  25. Thank you, Michael. What a generous post this is. I’m looking at my PB WIP now from a different perspective—thank you for that.

    Your love of picture books shows. I’m looking forward to Part Two.

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  26. Thank you for this post. I was so disappointed to not attend the Illinois SCBWI conference this year as I had a family wedding conflict. I’m so glad I could get your new and improved presentation here! Looking forward to part two!

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  27. Thanks, what a fabulous post! It took me six and half years to get a second PB contract, so I totally get it, but it is so nice to have this well-written piece to refer others to!

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  28. […] This post was Twitted by bonnieadamson […]

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  29. Thank you for the new perspective. The dimensions of the beast begin to take shape . . .

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  30. Thanks so much for this detailed post, Michael. I will share it with the aspiring picture book authors in my classes.

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  31. Wow, what a great post. I’ve toyed with writing picture books. Have written a few little stories for my kids because it’s fun, but boy are they hard. Writing PBs… scares me. I love kids’ books and reading a great picture book is almost as great as eating chocolate for me, almost. So I look at those great, amazing pages and think: “There is no way I can write that good.” So I’m sticking to (attempting) YA novels… for now. And learning as much as I can, so thanks for posting this and sharing your knowledge!

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  32. Thank you, Michael: frank, informative, well-written. I’ve taken the advice to heart myself — and it will also be great to have this bookmarked for others. Next time I am, say, getting my hair cut and the cutter starts telling me how she and her co-workers wrote a picture book in their spare time “because we were bored” and where can they send it (this actually happened)I will know what to say and where to send HER. Thank you!

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  33. […] agent doesn’t handle picture books, so I’m doing the legwork on this one on my own. As Michael Stearns says, picture books are HARD. I know a lot of people think “Oh, but they’re so short and […]

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  34. O, truth! Thank you.
    Onward!

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  35. Bravo!

    If I had a nickel for every time someone told me they wanted to start with picture books so they could practice to be a “real writer”, I’d have more money in my pockets and fewer gray hairs on my head.

    Thanks for giving me a place with this post to send these people.

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  36. You’ve summarized in one post what’s taken me years to BEGIN to understand. Bravo, and thank you.

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  37. A fine feature Michael, but I notice you omit discussion of the 2nd most crucial thing about picture books – the illustrations!

    John

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  38. I just discovered this post and appreciate the fine way you’ve described the process of writing a picture book.

    Your observation that, “For the agent (and editor, I’d wager), editing and responding to the picture book requires an artist’s heart and patience…” and that “It is rarely obvious in a well-written picture book draft what, exactly, is missing” rings so true.

    As a writer, I understand how *loving* picture books is an essential part of the writing equation. Who but someone who adores the sounds and cadences of words and the “just right” way they must come together would be willing to invest the time it takes to work through those twenty-five drafts and forty some words that end up making all the difference? Writing picture books is not for the faint of heart! But, oh, what joy when they’re done well. Art, indeed.

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  39. […] friend posted to Upstart Crow Literary .  Agent Michael Stearns has written an excellent piece on Agenting Picture Books v. Agenting Novels. It’s one of the most insightful posts I’ve seen on the subject of picture books – […]

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  40. Awesome post. As primarily a picture book author, you have clarified and confirmed a lot of what I suspected about the difficulties of the picture book market. And yet, it’s what I love to do and, I believe, what I do best, so therefore I will keep at it. Thank you.

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  41. Your frankness and tact are appreciated, very articulate. As an author/illustrator, your blog resonated very deeply and re-ignited my passion. Thank You!

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  42. Excellent post, Michael. I’ll be referring others to it often.
    Yes, picture books are devilishly hard to do well. Revision after revision after revision after revision….

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  43. Michael, this is just lovely. It helped solidify some things that have been stirring around in my own mind, and started some new lines to mull, as well.

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  44. Michael–first thanks for the multiple shout-outs.

    Second, it is important to underline your thesis that even someone who considers herself a short form writer, loves to write picture books, and has done many (somewhat) successfully, can see every single “seam” in what you so kindly described as seamless.

    The number of drafts I do on picture books usually run into the (labeled) twenties and thirties and I don’t even do new files for every different draft. And that’s BEFORE any editor starts working with me. Some picture books take years to get right.

    And yet, like poems, at some point they must be set free into the world. Again and again and again. John Ciardi wrote, “A poem is never finished, it’s abandoned.” So, too, must a picture book which is more like a poem than anything else.

    Yes, Michael you have nailed it here. Can’t wait to read the rest.

    Jane

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  45. I’m glad it’s not just me who can’t always see that elusive ‘something’ that my pic book ms is missing. That’s where I get hung up.
    Great post.
    This is the icing on the cake to your talk in Chicago.
    Thanks.

    Reply

  46. Thanks for sharing your “agent-colored-glasses”– Glad they see passion for picture books!

    Hallee

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  47. […] This post was Twitted by UpstartCrowLit […]

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  48. […] This post was Twitted by DDHearn […]

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  49. Great, great post. Thanks for taking the time and energy to articulate these thoughts. I’m surprised that other agents (where you work) won’t even look at picture books. Many teachers that I’ve spoken with believe that, given the increasing use of Kindle-like readers, that picture books alone will survive as the only hard-copy books which people will still purchase and continually seek out. Online picture books? Not the same experience, at all. Not even a contender. Again, as a lover and advocate of picture books, nicely done!

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  50. As a first-grade teacher, I’d like to thank you for this post. I try to read aloud at least 3 PBs a day. The good ones feel as wonderful in the mouth as a piece of dark chocolate. When the kids say, “Read it again!,” when they pick it up and struggle through reading it to themselves because they love it so much–there is nothing simple about accomplishing that. It takes the skills of a poet and the heart of a child to do it, and most people don’t have that combination.

    One thing that I think is critical: young children, under the age of 7 or 8, have no sense of linear time. They live in the moment, and life is a bunch of experiences, not a string of connected events. Really good PBs capture that immediacy. They feel like the story is happening NOW, not over time the way a novel does.

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  51. Well said Ms. Judy. You are absolutely right.

    My mom was a kindergarten and music teacher, and if she were still alive I’d be hounding her for her input. She always talked about which books her classes loved and why. And much of it is just what you said!

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  52. I loved this post! Thanks!

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  53. Thank you … what a remarkable, informative post.

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  54. Considerably, the article is in reality the sweetest on this worthw hile topic. My partner and i concur along with your conclusions and will thirstily look forward to any incoming updates. Simply stating thank you will not just be enough, for the great clarity in your writing. I’ll without delay snap up your feed to be privy of any posts. Gratifying work and much success in your business endeavors!

    Reply

  55. […] L: You don’t represent picture books, either—is that a personal preference, a matter of industry knowledge and expertise, or a purely financial decision  (like fellow agent Michael Stearns blogged about here)? […]

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  56. I laughed out loud at parts of this post. Thanks for clearly stating the reality of this difficult business, but tempering it with the reminder that the reward is made even sweeter by the hard work along the way. (And it is hard!)

    We all need to hear both!

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  57. Excellent post! I’m so glad I found it. Thank you, Michael…for the post…and for your love of picture books and willingness to work with PB authors, despite the drawbacks and difficulties!

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  58. Michael, thank you so much for this post. I’m late in coming to it – I was directed here by a fellow PB writer – but I appreciate it so much. I consider myself primarily a picture book writer – it is the area in which I feel I do my best work – and it is so gratifying to hear “from the horse’s mouth” so-to-speak that the time involved in writing and revising a picture book is just what it takes to make it good.

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  59. Thank you for this insightful post. You’ve described a truly daunting task and a wearying road for those of us who aspire to have our picture books published. But throw up my hands and say `Never Mind!’? Nah. I’m in for the long haul. If there’s anything I’ve learned on my writing and illustrating path, as you have so well pointed out, it’s definitely not easy. But I want to create — as much as you, an agent, want to see — picture books that have in them some kind of magic, some truth, something so compelling that a child is drawn in and turns to them again and again.
    Despite all the work a PB entails, it’s good to know there are still agents who are willing to consider them. Thanks.

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  60. I have never read anything that has impacted me as deeply as this blog post has. Michael know the very soul of the picture book writer, like you’re hiding there in the crevices of our hearts. We love gorgeous words, incredible images, we write for the mad love of it. If we try to quit, we get as far as unplugging the computer, but it doesn’t last long, for our hearts continue beating and what would we ever do if we stopped? Writing picture books is as much a part of my soul as my children and grandchildren. I could NEVER do without any of it. Truer words were never spoken Michael!

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  61. Thank you for this very insightful post. I will bookmark it for reference – a newbie PB author

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  62. Enjoyed reading your post. Lots to think about. I do believe that inspite of all this information, there will be creative writers that will set aside your wise advise simply because it’s not in their make-up. These are the ones that break the mold (or rules). They may never become well known, but they trudge on because of their love and overwhelming drive of purpose. I know a few of these and I cheer them on.

    A 90 year old woman with beautiful stories deciding to self-publish for her children and their children and so on.
    A young woman whose history and beautiful use of words could produce many books about people of faraway lands.

    Looking forward to your next post.

    Reply

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