On Agenting Picture Books
Michael Stearns

[Many years ago, 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.—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. I squander my spare cash buying picture books I love. 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 one writer and I had 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 six months earlier. 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 admit 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 some agents look askance at picture book manuscripts on their own:

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 can be, 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, 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 Chronicle 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.

[Alas, I never went on to write that post because of work intervening. Perhaps one day I'll get around to talking about the peculiar hurdles agents face in selling novels.—MS.]