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The Purple Crayon Blog for March 2005 (#3)

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Money for Picture Book Authors

I've enjoyed your site--thank you for doing it. I read what you wrote in the FAQs about how a PB author may expect around $6000-8000 for a book that sells 10,000 copies. You mention that 10,000 copies is "very good." What I'm trying to understand is what kind of books sell 10,000 copies. Could you give me some sample titles? How many would an average Caldecott book sell (in the first year after the award and in succeeding years)? What kind of money do the more well-known PB authors make?

Regarding your questions, I have to say I'm curious as to why you want to know this. If you're wondering if going into picture book writing is likely to be a lucrative career, I'd say you should look elsewhere.

If you want to write picture books and will do so regardless of my answer, that's good, because most picture book authors do not make enough money to live on. They have to do other things.

Sample successful titles: well, this is a problem. I can't reveal the numbers of books sold for titles I've worked on, because the publishers keep that confidential. My rough estimate is that at least 1 in 5 books sell at least 10,000 copies in hardcover their first year, but that may be a wild guess.

If you want specific numbers, the best thing you can do is get the issue of Publishers Weekly that reports on the previous years bestsellers. That PW report, which I think comes out in March or April and is called "The Red and the Black" (or something similar) will give you an idea of what success is possible.

The Caldecott Award can mean additional sales of 75,000 to more than 100,000 copies in the following year, depending on the book. That's a widely accepted estimate, I believe. Well-known PB authors, if they aren't also illustrators, make a decent income, but would not be regarded as wealthy by society in general. My sense is that author/illustrators, such as Maurice Sendak, David Macaulay, Peggy Rathmann, do better, because they don't share the royalties.

I hope this helps. The information I would need to answer you more fully isn't publicly available, so this is the best I could do.

Ebooks for Children

I did have a question that wasn't specifically addressed. I was particularly interested in the new media section of your latest "trends in children's books" article. I don't know how up to date this article is [note by HU--it's not up to date], but what do you think about the ebook industry of children's books?

I think I might get into that industry and it sounds like you think it is going to be a growing industry.

Are you thinking about investing in children's ebooks, or about writing for a children's ebook publisher? I can't tell from your message.

In either case, I think my answer is about the same. So far, children's ebooks are a small but growing industry, perhaps in a similar situation to audiobooks (books on tape) 20 or 30 years ago. For the foreseeable future, they'll be a derivative product for the most part. There are small companies doing original ebooks for children, or creating materials for specific technologies such as the LeapPad products, but the bulk of what is available to consumers and libraries consists of conversions of existing books.

That was the situation, at least, when I was working at ipicturebooks, more than 2 years ago now, but I don't think it has fundamentally changed. I have been working on a piece on this subject. It's not live on my site, but you can see a partial text.

The Length of a Middle-Grade Novel

What would be the appropriate number of words in a mid-level chapter book intended for 5th grade? It's about two contemporary boys who time-travel to take the Oregon Trail in 1850. Westward expansion is part of 4th/5th grade curriculum in California, Texas, Oregon, Washington and New York. I've done a lot of research to gear it to the curriculum, but I'm afraid it's too long. It's 45,000 words.

By the usual rule of thumb, that would probably translate to 160 to 200 pages. I don't think that's too long. There are longer books in print for that age group. And there are shorter books. Middle-grade novels range in length from fewer than 100 pages to well over 200.

Of course, a book can also FEEL too long, but that's a different issue. If your manuscript is polished and just can not be cut further, then I think you are OK. Good luck with it!

Three-dimensional Illustrations

I am currently a primary school teacher and a beginner children's book illustrator and author. I have been somewhat confused about the publishing guidelines for children's book illustrations. Would a publisher review work that combined a mixture of real life mediums with oil paint - i.e.: if I combined sand, clay etc with paint and my pictures became 3D. I am not sure if this type of illustration would become too difficult to reproduce for publishing...does anyone know children's illustration guidelines related to use of mediums in the work?

Thanks in advance for any advice!

From your email address and spelling, I take it that you are in the UK. I can't say for certain that this would also apply in the UK, but I do know that publishers in the US are open to illustrators working in three-dimensional media.

Such art has to be photographed and then scanned, instead of scanned directly, so it is somewhat more costly on the production end. But if the style is what the publisher wants, then that's not going to stop them. Once you started working with a publisher, you could ask them for their guidelines in sending them 3-D originals. Some may want you to send ready-for-scanning photographs, and not ship them the original art at all. Some may not pay for that photography, while others will.

I do think one other problem with 3-D art is doing it justice in the samples you send out. Make sure to have it professionally photographed so that it looks the way you want it to end up looking on a printed page.

I hope these comments help.

Looking Beyond the New York Publishers

Dear Mr. Underdown:

Your newsletter is wonderful, but I'm still not published. I've been sending my picture books and YA mystery novel to NYC publishers--they hold on to them forever and then don't read them. Can you suggest publishers outside NYC who might be more inclined to actually want to read and publish? I'm already published in short story format and have given workshops in early childhood education to global children for years. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life, but I'm totally frustrated. I quit a job from hell to write for kids. I won't give up but need some advice.

Looking beyond the big NY publishers is a good idea. Do you have the latest Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market? I'd start there if you want to find out about smaller, non-NY publishers. I could mention names to you, but they'd just be companies I know, while a diligent search through CWIM will turn up more.

Illustrator Working with Author

I have been asked to illustrate a children's book. We had decided that I would do the front cover and then she would send the manuscript along with a sample of my work. However, I was disappointed to read on your site a few different places that this should not be done, and that the publishers usually choose their own artist. As the illustrator, what do you advise for me to do? Am I going to lose this one? 

My other concern is, if the publisher okays that I do the illustrations, what sort of time frame is normal for the artist to have in order to complete the illustrations? I was hoping to be working on the other pages while the book is being submitted so that I would not be rushed.

At least so far as traditional publishers are concerned, the publisher usually chooses the illustrator after signing up the manuscript. You can do the sample if you want to, but it may not land you a contract. The publisher may, and in fact is likely to, choose another illustrator. Of course, if they like your work, they may also keep you in mind and hire you to illustrate a different book.

The normal time frame for completing illustrations is that AFTER the book is under contract, and after it has been fully edited, the illustrator starts work. I would not continue to do illustrations without having a contract if I were you.

[added: My article on Picture Book Manuscripts and Illustrations provides additional help.

Hope these comments help. You might want to get a copy of my Complete Idiot's Guide to give you some general guidance to the world of children's publishing.

This installment is based on emails I sent out in March in response to questions received at The Purple Crayon.

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Copyright 2005 by Harold Underdown. All rights reserved.

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