Thursday, December 27, 2012

On Board Books

Sometimes I'm asked why agents talk about Picture Books but almost never about Board Books. Maybe I can shed some light.

BOARD BOOKS, aka Baby Books, are those chunky little books generally made of thick cardboard, for about ages 0-2. They're what kids get before they have the manual dexterity to turn the thin pages of picture books, when they would still rather drool on, chew, or tear up paper than delicately peruse it.

Board books are almost always small and made of cardboard. Their covers can be flat or puffy or shaped like something. They can be stories (basically small versions of regular picture books) but they are also often concept books or novelty books.  Subspecies:
  • CONCEPT BOOKS are board books that teach about things like ABC, 123, Up/Down, Colors, Animals, etc. in an extremely simple way.
  • NOVELTY BOOKS have some sort of special interactive element like lift-the-flap, textured touch-and-feel, sliding panels, a spinning wheel, etc.
Because they are brightly colored, printed on thick cardboard, and often have special elements to them, board books are very expensive to produce compared to their retail price. This means there is a very small profit margin. Which means publishers really need to both keep costs down and sell a lot for these books to be successful. They are unlikely to take big risks in acquisitions for this market. For these reasons, you will typically find books that are either:
  1. Written by the artist (so they only have to pay one person)
  2.  Written in-house with an artist hired on a work-for-hire basis (so they only have to pay one person, and that, usually for much less than for regular picture books), or better yet, written AND designed in-house, AND/OR
  3.  Branded "spin offs" of existing popular picture book characters (like OLIVIA COUNTS or CURIOUS GEORGE COLOR FUN kind of thing), OR
  4. Board book versions of existing picture books (in other words, the SAME ALREADY SUCCESSFUL BOOK, just shrunk).
There are a few artists who produce simple and bright board book originals, like Sandra Boynton and Leslie Patricelli. There are fewer still who are masters of the novelty board book. Salina Yoon and Matthew van Fleet come to mind. But it's much less likely that you'd find a non-artist author of these types of books. In fact, I can't think of ANY text-onlys bought specifically to be board books*. I'm totally willing to be corrected about this, but every board book I can think of off the top of my head was either written by the artist or editor, or is a spin-off or shrunken version of an existing picture book property.

If you are a terrific artist/designer, and you have an awesome idea for a fun baby book or set of novelty books, there is a (slim) possibility you might break in this way. As an author who is NOT an artist, though, I'd think it would be VERY DIFFICULT INDEED to sell your text as a board book.

Not impossible, I suppose. Almost nothing is impossible, and there may be exceptions to every rule. But as the dear departed Editorial Anonymous said in her post on the subject (which explains what I just explained but in an even clearer way):

"Take my advice and don't present a manuscript as a board book just because you think it'd be cuter that way. Starting a book off as a hardcover picture book is always more profitable for the publisher, which means the acquisition pulls more weight for the editor, the book gets more attention, and it's more profitable for you."

* ETA: I stand corrected! I couldn't think of any board book originals, but the lovely Emily Jenkins reminds me that she wrote an original board book series, "Bea and Haha", illustrated by Tomek Bogacki - sadly out of print, though. And Laurel Snyder wrote one "Nosh Schlep Schluff" - but there were special circumstances. And Lawrence Schimel has a series called "Little Pirate" from Innovative Kids. But I still say these are highly unusual in the board book realm.


  1. Marla Frazee is a master of the form! She needs to do more, if they're profitable enough for her! Everywhere Babies is simply divine!

    1. I love Marla Frazee too, but EVERYWHERE BABIES is a good example of a regular picture book that was "shrunk" -- not a board book original. (though it is arguably better as a board book).

      Also, Marla Frazee isn't the author.

  2. All true. Even Good Night Moon was a hard cover book PB before its huge resurrection as THE board book of twenty years ago.
    But- (correct me)
    Isn't every market observation just a made-up rule to be broken? The next mega-marketing success brings a flood of imitations of what only last year was a no-no.
    I would still represent a potential board Book (text only) as a PB for all the reasons you & Ed Anon mentioned. I just wrote one of these, and plan not a whiff of a hint of its cardboard affinity in my queries ;)

    1. "Isn't every market observation just a made-up rule to be broken? The next mega-marketing success brings a flood of imitations of what only last year was a no-no."

      Mmmm yes and no? In terms of THEMES or TYPES of books, sure. Like, when something new such as a new format of novelty book or something becomes a big hit, you'll certainly see imitators. But the board book world has additional hurdles because of the cost of manufacture, etc, so I think again they'd be imitators created by the publishers... not that they'd be acquiring more original work.

      IMO the best way for a text-PB writer to get a board book made is to have a successful PB first! Believe me, if you have a smash PB, they'll be falling over themselves to make a board book and/or spinoff books. :-)

  3. Lee Wardlaw wrote and sold a board book some years ago:

    1. Course since the example you site is a decade old and out of print... that kinda proves my point. :)

      Yes, there are always a few exceptions.

  4. I actually sold First Steps as a picture book. But my editor at Harper decided it would work better if I trimmed 450 words from the 500-word text, and turn it into a board book. (I complied, cutting 451!) At the time, Harper was trying to tap into the baby/toddler market by publishing original board books under the imprint 'Growing Tree'. First Steps won a number of awards, and garnered great reviews, but the Growing Tree line was not a financial success, and the book went OP after a couple of years. So, yeah, this proves your point! I really dislike it, though, when successful picture books are turned into board books. The depth and scope of picture book illustrations just doesn't look great when smushed into a board book format. Too, the texts don't often work for that younger age, either. But, it's probably the only way bb's make any money.

  5. This is very interesting! I often write and illustrate rhyming board book style posts on my blog (example... I have a lot of fun with it and have wondered about publishing. Makes me wonder (as I am a product designer by background) if there could be a way to make board books less expensive. Maybe like the way Babybug magazine is constructed. Because as Lee points out, scaling down a PB doesn't always make an ideal board book.

  6. Enjoyed the post! And enjoyed meeting you at the Eastern PA SCBWI last fall.

  7. I wrote a series of board books a few years back called What's That Sound? They were illustrated by Kim Lafave and published by Fitzhenry & Whtieside. I loved writing them, but it is a tough market. Here's the link.

  8. Jennifer, I'd love to hear your thoughts on submitting a picture book dummy(not board book) by an author/illustrator who has integrated some novelty elements like lift-the-flaps, comparable in flavour to the work of Britain's Emily Gravett. Would you advise submitting it as a 24 page dummy instead of 32 pages(one signature less), to allow for the increase in production costs?


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