Just what makes a picture book exceptional? The illustrators and authors who gathered together at the most recent SCBWI picture book workshop were all very keen to find out. Fortunately we had Jude Evans, Associate Publisher, of Little Tiger Press on hand to share her accumulated wisdom and industry insider knowledge about what makes a picture book stand out from the crowd.
Jude gave us a very detailed overview of the UK picture book market today. In the current top fifty titles Julia Donaldson accounts for a whopping eighteen of them, books with licensed characters such as Disney films took up eight spots and the classics or discounted titles had a further six titles apiece. It was very clear from this industry list that the market place for debut authors, or even just the less well-known, is very, very crowded indeed. Jude also included what she grouped as “scatological books” in the top fifty. Apparently you still can’t beat dinosaurs, aliens, pants and poo!
So just how do you get someone to even look at your masterwork? Examining the current trends and fashions of children’s publishing can be a good starting point. As more and more agents and publishers use social media, this can be a great way to find out what they are all getting excited about. Even observing what booksellers are making a song and dance about can tune you in to what’s hot and what’s not in the picture book world. Currently illustrated non-fiction is flying off the shelves, after the publication of books such as Shackleton’s Journey. Alternatively you could opt to focus on the perennial themes that just seem to run and run. Yup. You guessed it: dinosaurs, aliens, pants and poo.
Really getting to know your character was another very helpful tip. Thinking about who they are, where they live, what they are like…working through this in your planning can help build a fully rounded character. Non human characters can also help in selling your book in other territories – animals can work better if your book is published as a co-edition in other languages. As preferred illustrative styles can vary from place to place, animals can bridge the cultural gap more successfully than people. A really strong, unusual character can also be your “hook; the thing which makes you stand out when submitting to an agent or publisher.
Yet, as Jude cautioned, even though you have the published book with a fabulous character and a great story, the book world can still be full of unforseen obstacles. With its eye-catching big green crocodile running across a yellow cover, you would think that “Dangerous” by Tim Warnes, would have the big book sellers fighting over it for their in-store displays. Unfortunately, in the world of publishing sometimes someone else’s big green animal on a yellow background can just pip you to the post!
During the workshop we also had a chance to practise our character and story building skills together. Once again I was impressed at the ease with which SCBWI members can conjure up such imaginative ideas at the drop of a hat. Three groups chose to work up a story based on the image of a wellie wearing pig wallowing in a muck heap. Maybe there is something in poo after all.
©Chez l’abeille 2015