Q: My question is about children's picture books. Some say you need an agent for them and others say that you don't. I would like to find an agent but understand the market is quite competitive now. What can a children's picture book writer do to help their submission stand out from the rest?This seems like a few different questions to me, so I am going to separate them out if you don't mind.
1) Is the market for picture books quite competitive? YES, it absolutely is. That is not to say that publishers are "not buying" picture books - they are! But the picture books they are buying look different from what was popular 5, 10, 20 years ago. And of course, in a bad economy, $17.00 for a 32 page book can seem a bit steep for many parents, and we all know that library budgets are being slashed - so publishers are being rightly conservative about what they choose to acquire.
2) Do I need an agent for picture books? Yes! Or No! Yes, an agent will absolutely help you get in front of the eyes of the larger publishers. But many agents do not represent picture book authors, and picture books are one of the few categories in which some publishers, particularly smaller publishers, still accept unsolicited material "over the transom." So get yourself a book like the Children's Writers & Illustrators Market, or prepare to roll up your sleeves and do some online research, to figure out which route is right for you. And note the following:
* Author-Illustrators: This is not a must, of course... but if you are a superb illustrator, brush up on your storytelling skills. You'll just open yourself up to more opportunities if you are able to do both with ease. Most people cannot. Maybe you can. Great author-illustrators can be more appealing to agents than straight pb authors, because (to be frank) they tend to make more money.
* PB + Novels = Yay!: If you are not an illustrator - don't freak out! But you might consider trying your hand at chapter books or middle grade writing, too. Nothing wrong with being well-rounded. I myself only rep author-illustrators, and picture book text authors who also write novels - I have no authors who are text-only pb-only.
* Multiple texts: If you ARE text-only, pb-only - I would suggest querying when you have three polished texts. It will just give an interested agent a much better idea of your style and capabilities, since pbs are so very short.
3) So what IS sparking editor and agent interest in terms of picture books nowadays?
This list is by no means exhaustive, but I have certainly noticed that books that have the following attributes tend to have a better shot at publication:
* Short. - NOTHING over 1,000 words. Under 650 is better. Under 450, better still. Some of the most popular current picture books are also among the shortest and most spare. (Think QUIET BOOK, etc.) Remember - a picture book is a very small, very well-lit stage. Absolutely every word must count. This is pretty much required.
* Reread power! As I mentioned - $17 is pretty steep. So nobody wants a one-shot deal. This should be a book that adults won't mind reading over and over, and kids won't mind hearing over and over. It is terrific if the book works on different levels for different age kids, so that it is something whole families can read together. This is pretty much required.
* Character driven - a funny, cute, winsome character like Fancy Nancy, Pigeon, Ladybug Girl, Buglette, etc - either a child, or a proxy for a child, that the child reader will relate to - who can have many adventures in the future (not to mention lunchboxes, costumes, plush...) - this is appealing to publishers and agents, no doubt. Not required, but appealing.
* Interactive - PRESS HERE is a perfect example of what I mean by an interactive picture book. If you haven't seen it, get thee to a bookstore! SHARK vs TRAIN and CAT SECRETS, and yes, our friend Pigeon, are other great examples of picture books that invite the child listener to participate in the reading. Not required, it's just something that is popping up a lot, that I think is cool.
4) And what is sort of a turn-off, picture book wise: Again, anything too long is a no-go. Also traditional folk tales are faring badly nowadays - not to say that they won't ever be bought, but... unless you are an established folklorist, I probably wouldn't go there if I were you. And there is quite a glut of books on topics like "Bedtime," so if that is where you are going with your book, you had better either be an illustrator with the CUTEST illustrations ever - or else be bringing something fresh to the topic (which at this point is pretty difficult, but can be done.)
TIP: I'd suggest that all folks who are really interested in writing picture books go spend a few hours every week at the library or bookstore. Look at a hundred or so picture books published in the past three years. Make a note of your favorites. Do they fit into any of the categories above? Ask the librarian or bookseller which ones are most popular and what their favorites are. Can you see similarities? Who published your favorites? Are those publishers open to unagented submissions?
ETA: To be perfectly clear - I am not suggesting you COPY anyone or "write to a trend" - you just need to know the basic parameters, what works and what doesn't and how picture books are put together, before you can create your own piece of amazing. At the end of the day, commenter DP below is quite correct:
"Ignore what's been selling, make what appeals to you--and make it so good it can't be ignored."
Any other PB tips I am missing or questions I didn't address? Feel free to add in comments.