Six Pointers for Publishers of Children’s Picture Books
by Katie Steigman
Let’s face it, the children’s book market is one of the most competitive spaces in the retail book trade. A children’s book is not only measured against the huge number of children’s books being created every day; it is also competing against all the mainstays like Richard Scarry, Dr. Seuss, and Eric Carle, who are so beloved that they don’t have to fight for shelf space.
Competition is so fierce that even when every piece of a children’s book project is perfectly executed, it’s still a small miracle to convince, cajole, and charm retailers into carrying the title where it can keep company with Little Bear or Sheep in a Jeep.
To have its chance, the book does have to be perfectly executed. That is the first step toward success, or, all too often, the first step toward failure.
Based on the submissions we see as a distributor, I can pinpoint three major requirements for creating a successful children’s book:
Incredible illustrations. The importance of high-quality, professionally executed illustrations cannot be overemphasized. Characters and storyboards must be conceived and carried out by experienced children’s book illustrators.
In this arena “cute” isn’t good enough—illustrations have to be dazzlingly perfect, and creative to boot. A traditional style of illustration can give a book a classic look, while a more quirky style can help differentiate a title.
I recommend getting a professional opinion of sample illustrations before committing to an artist. Asking library buyers, literary agents, book publicists, and/or book distributors for feedback is a good start.
And it’s always wise to compare the quality of your book’s design and illustrations to the quality of design and illustrations in comparable titles that have sold well in bookstores.
A story that hasn’t been told. Because of all those kids’ books published every year, you have to have a new message—or a least a new spin on an old message—for children and the people who buy books for children.
A book about a popular topic like friendship, bullying, or nightmares must approach it in a new way. You can innovate with an unexpected story, funky characters, an inventive rhyme scheme, or unusual illustrations.
Sometimes choosing an unaddressed topic and picking a specific niche can give you a built-in fan base. For example, topics like vegetarianism, knitting, meditation, or debt might fill holes in the marketplace.
High-quality production. Like illustrations, all production values for kids’ books must be of exceedingly high quality.
To ensure printing quality, do research on printers you’re thinking of using. Ask each printer to send you a sample with specifications similar to your book’s specs so that you can physically assess paper, ink, and binding quality.
For retail outlets, it’s best to print books by offset, as opposed to using print-on-demand technology. The quality is significantly higher with an offset press.
Adding interactive parts to a book, like sound, mirrors, pop-ups, or puppets, can also help it stand out, but these too must be high quality, and you’ll have to beware of expense.
On the flipside, here are a few mistakes we see too often:
Too much text per page. A lot of kids’ book submissions have far too much text per page. For children’s picture books, which are usually targeted at ages 4–8, text can be as minimal as you want it to be, but it’s generally a bad idea to have more than 70–80 words per two-page spread.
Shooting for 0–30 words per page is ideal—when it comes to the amount of text per page, less is always more.
Unclear age group. If it’s not clear what age group a book is suitable for, prospective buyers may think that the book doesn’t fit into any category. The topic, the length, and the diction must all be age-appropriate.
We often see books pegged for 4- to 8-year-olds that approach a topic in a way that’s too complex for that age group, hurting their chances for acceptance by retailers, librarians, parents, and teachers. Similarly, we often see picture books that are 60–70 pages long, which is too long for the picture-book market. Generally, 32 pages is a good length for a picture book meant for ages 4–8.
Too high a price. The retail price range for a children’s book is very limited and determined by the retail buyers. Charging $1 more for your book than other publishers are charging for comparable books could have a severe negative impact on sales.
Most hardcover children’s books are priced between $9.95 and $16.95, with $14.95 being ideal in most situations. Board books are typically priced at $4.95 to $6.95.
A note about money: It is important to consider profit margins before starting production on a children’s book, since the price point is very low because of the competitive landscape, and a color interior makes the printing price per unit significantly higher than for black-and-white books.
You’ll want to consider all costs before getting started, so that you have a plan to recoup them.
Katie Steigman is associate consultant at Greenleaf Book Group, a publisher and distributor that serves independent authors and publishers. To learn more about Greenleaf, visit greenleafbookgroup.com or email email@example.com.