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Tracy C. Gold

AUTHOR, EDITOR, TEACHER

I Wrote a Picture Book. Now What? 

on December 13, 2022

One of the best parts of my work as a picture book author and freelance editor is talking to people who have written their own picture books. I love hearing their ideas and guiding them along the process of figuring out what to do next with their books. 

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I recently found myself wishing for a centralized place for the resources and advice I most commonly share. When I first started working with picture books, I had to piece together all of this by myself, and a blog post like this would have been super helpful. 


So, here we go! 

You’ve written one picture book? Woohoo—now, write more. 

Kate Messner has a wonderful post about why writing one picture book should only be the beginning of your journey as a writer. The gist is that even accomplished, award-winning authors like Kate write many, many more books than they ever get published. 

Even if publishers clamor to buy your picture book because it is the best picture book ever (erm, it is probably not), it is a lot of work to publish and market a picture book. Literary agents, who can help get you published, will want to see 3-5 of your books before deciding whether to represent you. They know that it takes not only talent, but luck and timing, to get a book published, and that you may need to send out many books before one is bought by a publisher. Publishers don’t always ask to see more books from an author, but they sometimes want to know that you are out there building a career as a writer before investing their time and money into your book (unless you’re a celebrity for another reason…in which case this blog post is probably not for you).

You just want to self-publish your one precious book? To self-publish a quality picture book, you will either have to spend lots of money to get help or teach yourself about all the design and logistics of self-publishing a book. Not to mention paying for an illustrator and printing costs. If you’re just self-publishing one book, that’s a lot of money, time, and effort put into gaining knowledge you may never use again. 

So, ask yourself: do you love just that one book enough to go through all of that? Or do you see yourself writing and self-publishing many picture books, in which case you’d use all that knowledge again? If it’s just that one book, maybe it should be published as text only on your blog or social media for fun. Maybe there’s a kid (or adult!) magazine, newspaper, or newsletter that would publish it. But if you think you will write more picture books…then keep writing, and read on! 

How do I find an illustrator?

Record scratch—hold on! Let me say this loud and clear: the publisher finds the illustrator for picture books. The publisher finds the illustrator for picture books! You send the publisher your manuscript (or your agent does—more on that later), and if they like it, they pick an illustrator for you. You may or may not get to have veto power or provide suggestions for the illustrator, but you do get the benefit of experienced art directors and book designers who know how to talk to illustrators overseeing the whole project.

Even if you are an author and illustrator (I bow down to your talent!), you may find that the publisher wants to bring on a different illustrator for a given book. I know several talented writers/artists whose publishers have brought in different illustrators because they had a style that worked better for a given text. 

If you are an artist, but not an illustrator (yet), keep in mind that portraying characters in action, with strong emotions, is a huge part of illustrating books. If you mainly do landscape or still life, you may need to add to your skillset as an artist before you are ready to illustrate a picture book. This post is mostly for writers, as I am not an expert in illustrating, but the most common advice I hear given to new illustrators is to build a strong portfolio showing characters with emotions before trying to get a contract for illustrating a picture book. 

Now, if you are self-publishing, then you are the publisher, and yes, you will be responsible for finding the illustrator and figuring out how to pay them. If you are both an author and illustrator, then the world of self-publishing is much, much easier. If you are not, then you do get to dive into the world of finding an illustrator. Traditional publishing companies have whole accounting departments who cope with royalties. Most self-publishers don’t have the capabilities to do this and pay illustrators flat fees for their work. Freelance illustrators come with huge range of quality, cost, and reliability. Reedsy is a great database for finding illustrators who go through a vetting process (full disclosure; I am listed there as an editor). Other sites like Fiverr and Upwork may have cheaper options. It is very rare for illustrators to agree to work for a percentage of profits, because the truth is that most picture books, traditionally published or not, don’t sell very many copies.

Do I have to rhyme?

No! You do not have to rhyme! In fact, many agents and editors expressly do not take books that rhyme. Not all agents and editors feel they have the knowledge or experience to help authors revise a rhyming picture book. I will probably write a whole other post about rhyme in picture books one day, as it is a hot topic. Here’s the deal: a picture book that knocks the rhyme out of the park will probably sell better than a non-rhyming picture book. However, rhyming books must also be written in a flowing, consistent, rhythmical meter. 

That means there needs to be a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables that is the exact same for every single stanza. It is incredibly hard to write in rhyme and meter while telling a complex story. Little extra words or strange syntax sneak in for the rhythm and rhyme…but make the book less coherent and beautiful. Some people have a natural ear for rhythm (I count myself as one of these people, and rhythm can still be challenging for me). Some work hard to figure it out. Some…will be pulling their hair out until the end of time.

My general take is that if a story is very complex, it probably shouldn’t be a rhyming book. Stories that are based more on lists, like my book, “Trick or Treat, Bugs to Eat,” about all the things bats eat (affiliate link), or where you have a lot of freedom to swap words and change the order around, are much easier to rhyme.  

If you’re rhyming because you love rhyme, go for it! If you’re rhyming because you think you have to rhyme, abandon ship! Just write in prose! You can thank me for all the hair that’s still left on your head later. 

If you’re digging into rhyme, I suggest this post by Brooke Vitale as a starting point. I also suggest playing with an existing rhyme/rhythm scheme from a nursery rhyme to get started, like how I took “Trick or Treat, Smell My Feet,” and turned it into “Trick or Treat, Bugs to Eat.” It is harder, in my opinion, to come up with the framework of the rhyme and rhythm scheme, rather than to just take something you already know works. Of course, you shouldn’t mimic something with a copyright (unless it’s just for fun!), but most nursery rhymes are in the public domain. Mimicking known rhythms will help you develop a good ear. 

Should I traditionally publish or self publish? 

I have been on an entire industry panels discussing this, so it’s a huge, huge question and there is no one right answer. I have a whole blog post about traditional versus self publishing geared toward longer books, and I’ll add to that a bit for picture books here. If you’re not an illustrator, self-publishing a picture book is harder than self-publishing a different type of book.

In general I tell folks to always shoot for traditional publishers first, and then try self publishing if that doesn’t work out. It is extremely rare for a traditional publisher to pick up a previously self-published book, so once you have self published a book, that’s it, there’s no going to traditional publishing with that same book.

A “no” from a bunch of agents and traditional publishers could mean your book needs work, so it’s always worthwhile to reassess and reevaluate. However, a “no” from a traditional publisher doesn’t always mean something about the quality of your writing. The traditional publishing landscape is extremely subjective and competitive. A lot of rejections could just mean there have recently been a bunch of books published that are too similar to your book, or that your audience is too niche, or that you didn’t find that one editor who loves your book, or that an editor loved your book, but the sales team didn’t. 

There are a few times, though, when you may just want to forge ahead with self publishing:

  • If you are great at marketing and think you will enjoy the nitty gritty business part of publishing and marketing a book. 
  • If you’re in a hurry: traditional publishing is slow. Here is a blog post about the general timeline geared to longer books; subtract some time from the reading and review process, and then add a good year for illustrations. It may be years before you see that book in your hands. I got my contract for my upcoming picture book, “Call Your Mother,” in August 2021; it was originally slated to publish in 2023 but recently got pushed back to Spring 2024. If you want an ill or aging loved one to see the book in a timely manner, you may want to self-publish.  
  • If your book is meant to support a specific business or non-profit. Self publishing gives you more control. 
  • If your audience is niche—like graduates of a certain school, or stamp collectors’ children—and you only hope to sell a few hundred copies. 

How do I find a traditional publisher?

Ah, the burning question. Most large traditional publishers only take submissions from literary agents. Unfortunately, very few agents take on picture book authors as most publishers don’t pay a lot for picture books, and then all the money is split between the author and illustrator, and the agency only gets 15% of that, with the individual agent getting an even smaller cut. It ends up being not a lot of money for a fair amount of work on an agent’s part. More on agents soon!

The great news about the picture book market is that there are many great small presses that will look at manuscripts directly from authors. This is not the case for many other types of books. Here’s a starter list. Other than Googling, look at the publishers who have put out some of your favorite picture books, and then go a-hunting for their submission guidelines. If those guidelines are hard to find, you probably need an agent to submit a book to them. 

How do I find an agent? 

Large publishers can print and distribute your books on a scale that is not accessible to many small publishers, so it can be worth a shot to try to find an agent and go for the big shots. I generally recommend trying agents first, and then moving on to small publishers, and then self-publishing. 

Be aware that agents will almost always ask to see more books from you before signing you. That is because they may have to send multiple picture books out before a publisher picks one up. They want to know you’re into writing picture books for the long run before investing time in you. Before you query, have 3-5 polished manuscripts ready to send to an agent. I would also recommend having those 3-5 manuscripts in different series, rather than all in one series, to show that you have breadth as a writer.

Query Tracker and Manuscript WishList are two of my favorite places to send folks to look for agents. After you find an agent, double check their own website for the most up-to-date information on what they are looking for and how to submit. Sometimes agent websites have guidelines that only apply to longer books even if they take picture books, like “submit the first five pages” when your book might only be two pages total. My general advice, if you can’t find specific guidelines for picture books, is to write a short query letter (a few lines about the book, a few recently published books similar to it, and a few lines about you), and then paste the whole manuscript into the email below the query.

Even though picture books are short, agents normally have huge query backlogs, so you will likely still be waiting weeks or months to hear back…if you hear back at all. For many agents, “no response means no,” unfortunately. I suggest querying 5-10 agents, waiting a few weeks, and then doing another batch. Without going through and counting, I would guess that there are about 20-30 total agents who take author-only (as opposed to author-illustrator) picture book writers, which isn’t a ton compared to other age categories and genres. 

Ideally, you should look for an agent who either has a track record of selling picture books, or is at an agency where other agents have sold picture books (so they will have mentors). 

What resources are helpful?

There are so many great resources out there for picture book creators! 

The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) has both in-person and virtual events where you can learn and connect with other creators. On Twitter, look up the hashtag #pbchat for picture book creators in conversation. Kidlit 411 is a great Facebook group. These are great places to start making connections and forming critique groups.

In terms of how-to books, I love “The Nuts and Bolts Guide to Writing Picture Books” by Linda Ashman and “Writing Picture Books” by Ann Whitford Paul (affiliate links). 

I also recommend reading many picture books published within the last five years to get a sense of the market. You can ask your local librarian or bookseller which books were published recently; they will likely be a great well of knowledge and recommendations for you! 

If you want a more personal touch, you could work with a freelance editor like me. I offer editing services for picture books as well as book coaching, and I would love to talk with you! I also frequently have classes and coaching books coming up. In 2023, I have a class with Johns Hopkins Odyssey (open to anyone), and a Creative Coaching Group via SCBWI. If you’re reading this after 2023, signing up for my newsletter is the best way to keep posted on future classes and learning opportunities.


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