When I can't offer expertise in something, I find a person who can. So, to tell you about the ins and outs of writing picture books and novelty books, I turned to Anna Bowles.
Anna started in children’s publishing as an editor at Egmont, where she worked on Winnie-the-Pooh sequel, Return to the Hundred Acre Wood and the relaunch of Rupert Bear, amongst many other projects. Since going freelance two years ago she has done a stint as a Senior Editor at HarperCollins and written series fiction for Hothouse, in addition to operating as an independent consultant on children’s books. As an author of branded story and novelty books she has written about characters ranging from Barbie to Ben 10, and her books have sold over two million copies. Her next novelty publication is My Journey with Thomas the Tank Engine, due out in June.
Anna is available for consultancy and freelance editorial work. Visit www.annabowles.co.uk or check her blog www.chocolatekeyboard.blogspot.com for details.
Talking of Thomas the Tank Engine, I really ought to be an expert in this subject, having spent many a hallucinatory hour writing a series of these delights, but somehow I see only a blank space in my brain where sensible advice should be.
Anna, on the other hand, not only knows this stuff but manages to say it lucidly and remain sane.
NM: What do we mean by a novelty book as opposed to picture books?
AB: Novelty books certainly have pictures in them, but they aren’t picture books. Some writers can find this confusing, not surprisingly.
In publishing, the term ‘picture book’ specifically refers to a storybook (or occasionally some non-fiction) for children aged 0-5. It can be hardback or paperback, but it always has full-page illustrations and only a small amount of text per page. The standard format is something like A4, only more squarish.
Novelty books are a lot more diverse, and can feature anything from paper flaps to sound chips or other fancy additions. Quite often they are aimed at young children, but pop-up books for adults, for example, are still novelties. ‘Novelty’ is an umbrella term for any publication that physically consists of more than just flat pages and a cover.NM: Is there a difference in whom we approach and how, in order to be published in these different formats?
AB: With picture books, the way to go about seeking publication is via the standard route of polishing the text as much as possible, and then trying to interest an agent or going directly to a publisher who has an open-door submission policy. Just make sure that the publisher or agent in question does in fact take picture books. Most will, if they deal with other kinds of children’s books, but check the small print.
Because of the physical elements involved, novelty publishing requires specialist knowledge and resources. Only a limited number of publishers are set up for this, and as a result a lot of novelties are originally produced by book packagers, although you might not realise this from the finished project as it will have the publisher’s logo on the spine. A packager is a company that writes and designs a book, then sells it on to a publisher which prints and distributes it. Many packagers are very small operations, with just one or two people on staff, so they’re open to using freelance writers and designers.
An agent is unlikely to take on a novelty book, except for an existing client, so if you have an idea for one your best bet is to approach a packager. They don’t generally have a profile outside the publishing industry, but you can find them in the Writers & Artists’ Yearbook.NM: Can you outline the technical rules of picture book writing?
AB: Picture books are aimed at the 0-5s, and generally have 32 pages, about 24 of which are given over to the story and illustrations. The maximum wordcount for prose is usually said to be 1,500, though in my experience 500-750 words is considered ideal.
Picture Book Checklist
1) Concept - Is the action of your story comprehensible to very young children who probably have little experience outside home and maybe nursery?
2) Language level - Maybe not every word in your book will already be familiar to a three-year-old, but without making your text at all drab you should make sure that difficult words are kept to a minimum and presented in a context that helps the child absorb their meaning.
3) Sentence structure - This should be as simple and direct as possible.
4) Read-aloud-ability: flow - Picture books are meant for reading to children as much as by them, and it should be possible for an adult to pick up a well-written picture book and read it aloud straight out without stumbling.
5) Read-aloud-ability: flair - If you listen to a parent reading a picture book to a child, they often put a lot of drama into it. Onomatopoeia, lively dialogue and (limited) sound effects all help mum or dad to give a first-rate performance.
6) Illustrations: subject - No, you don’t draw them yourself (more on that below). But you need to think about how your story will work in visual terms. If it’s all set in the same place, for example in a child’s bedroom, you could have a problem because the illustrator will be hard-pressed to make that interesting.
7) Illustrations: spacing - You don’t have to know exactly where the page breaks will come in your text, but it’s good to have a rough idea, so that you can be sure there are no pages where the artist will be hard-pressed to find something to draw.
8) Editing - The usual advice about merciless editing applies tenfold to picture books. You can’t waste a word.
Hooray for Fish! by Lucy Cousins, which lists different types of imaginary fish, is a favourite with toddlers and a great example of a picture book with virtually no narrative. I wouldn’t recommend the non-narrative approach to beginners though; it’s good to prove to publishers that you can write a story.NM: And the technical rules for novelty books?
The most important issues in novelty publishing are cost and the ever-increasing raft of safety regulations. A case in point: I remember being handed a bag of crayons by Production and asked to tell them which colours I wanted for the crayon pack on the front of a book. I handed them all back five minutes later, having determined that the answer was ‘none of them’ because they physically didn’t work. The ingredient that would make the crayons actually function had become illegal in products for under threes, and been removed.
As a result of this kind of headache, novelty books often come about through a process of in-house brainstorming of the format, after which the text is written by an editor. However, the search for new formats, or innovative ways of presenting old ones, is an ongoing challenge, and if you come up with a really fresh idea it could well be of interest to a packager.
Novelty book checklist
Is the novelty element an integral part of your story, or just a bolt-on? The story has to be told through the flaps/pieces of cloth/LEDs or whatever it may be.
Is your book physically possible? You have to be able to visualise it very clearly, or you end up, for example, not realising that a die cut (hole in the page) on page 5 will of necessity appear on page 6 as well. It sounds obvious, but I know of a book that got to the sample copies stage before the editor twigged.
As a very rough rule of thumb, a £4.99 children’s book will be able to have one expensive novelty element like a mirror plus some flaps and tabs, or two less expensive elements such as cloth and PVC.
Safety regulations are complex but you can guess the obvious ones, such as no small detachable elements for the under threes.
5) VarietyNM: How do publishers go about matching books with illustrators?
For budget reasons you may need to have the same kind of cheap feature – a pull-tab, say – on each of your five spreads, but the illustrations will still need to look substantially different from each other Your story should be written with this in mind.
Novelties don’t seem to get discussed much online, so to get a handle on the market a good idea is to do some extensive research in a bookshop, or seek expert advice if you can get it. The runaway success of the novelty world is of course the Usborne “That’s Not My…” series, so do take a look at them if you haven’t already.
Well, the key word there is ‘publishers’, not authors. Genuinely multi-talented author-illustrators are welcomed, but sending in a manuscript with illustrations by your friend, as some new writers do, only signals to editors that you don’t know much about the business.
An acquiring editor is likely to have strong ideas about the illustration style that would suit a particular picture or novelty book. She may take the project straight to a specific illustrator she has in mind, or get samples from a number of candidates. The writer will be consulted during this process, but it is a case of the publisher keeping the writer informed rather than the writer actively driving the process of finding and approving an illustrator.NM: So many would-be writers start by writing a rhyming text, because we all know children love rhyme and that's it's a great way to engage them. Can you please set writers straight on this?!
AB: Yes! In fact rhyme is a disadvantage. This is mainly because of foreign rights. To explain: rhyming text is more difficult to translate, so foreign publishers are less likely to buy the translation rights from your agent or UK publisher. That means editors see rhyming manuscripts as less likely to make money than prose stories.
That said, you will find lots of rhyming books on the shelves. The novelties are often written by editorial staff, and many of the picture books are by big names like Julia Donaldson, whose work editors are confident of selling on abroad in spite of the translation issue.
Some, though, are by first-time authors. Breaking into the picture book market with a rhyming manuscript isn’t impossible, it just adds an extra obstacle. So unless you are a very confident writer of verse, and you have a story that just doesn’t seem right in any other form (it happens!), I’d advise sticking to prose.NM: What other big mistakes do inexperienced writers make?
AB: Most flawed manuscripts are let down by failure to deal with one or more of the points I’ve mentioned above. Plus a large number of manuscripts have a mishmash styles suited to various different ages, which immediately disqualifies them, or are overtly moralistic. If a book has a lesson at all, it has to be couched in, and totally shaped by, a fun story.
It’s also a waste of time to submit a manuscript that just goes “A is for apple, B is for boat” or “Bananas are yellow, strawberries are red” thinking that it’s an easy way to make money, although I’m sure no-one with the sense to read this blog would do that. If text genuinely looks so simple that you can’t imagine anyone being paid to write it then they probably weren’t; the editor did it.
NM: Any further advice, bugbears etc?Submitting a single manuscript can also be unwise, because someone who only writes one very short book won’t be seen as worth a publisher’s investment. If you’re working on 10 picture books don’t send them all, as a couple of them will be enough for a professional to make a judgement about your style, but do send two or three and mention the others.
AB: collect bugbears! I’ve worked on a lot of TV tie-in novelty books and the thing that irritates me most is the assumption in some quarters that these books are automatically cheap and naff. Unfortunately some are, because of publishers looking to make a quick buck off the back of a trend, but it’s not actually necessary.
In terms of approaches from writers, I suppose the most frustrating thing is when someone seems to think that books are manufactured for free, and waxes lyrical about how a story will be enhanced by having glitter on one page, a pop-up on the next, then a mirror… ain’t gonna happen, much as we might like it to.
I find that it helps to think of the picture book format as a discipline similar to poetry, not because picture books have to be in verse but because they are relatively short and highly sculpted. Making that analogy helps fix a writer in the necessary frame of mind for the amount of fine work and honing that a successful picture book MS requires.Anna, thank you so much for the huge amount of time you put into that generous advice! I hope would-be picture book writers will agree that it's been incredibly infornative, and eye-opening for anyone who thinks it's easy.
Writers: do check out Anna's website and blog: www.annabowles.co.uk / www.chocolatekeyboard.blogspot.com.She tells it how it is. Also, if you're thinking of contacting me through Pen2Publication for picture book writing advice, I'd be passing you straight onto Anna anyway, so just contact her direct. Cut out the middle-woman! (Not that I was taking any commission anyway, I hasten to add.)
Note, though: all this advice helps you avoid the practical errors that writers usually make. But much harder is actually coming up with the idea and then translating it into compelling tight writing. I have never even attempted a picture book story: MUCH too hard for me! Julia Donaldson is a friend of mine and I see the talent that goes into her work - pic books nay be short but they require very special skill.