Writing Picture Books: A Look at the Numbers (Part 1)

Background:

  • The survey was open from April 19th to September 15th (2017)
  • 174 published picture book authors participated.
  • Results were anonymous. (I don't know who answered what, so please don't ask.)
  • These are the final 2017 numbers. They might be slightly different from previews published elsewhere. These results have the most complete data.
  • Many questions relate to the authors debut work. A debut is an authors very first published work in that genre.
  • Some of the authors debuted more than ten years ago (14.4%) but overall the results skew towards more recent first books.
  • Sometimes an author didn't answer a question or answered in a way that was difficult to categorize. These responses were removed before the results were tabulated.
  • I offered no compensation to authors taking the survey. THANK YOU AUTHORS FOR DONATING YOUR TIME AND MAKING THIS INFORMATION POSSIBLE!
  • FYI, I'm also not getting paid to do this, and I have four small children. I'm doing the best I can to make this information quickly available and in a format that's useful.

The results: The Habits of Picture Book Authors

#1: What type of house published your debut picture book? Answer: Small house without advance 12.6%, Small house with advance 50%, Big Five publisher 37.4%

Q1 What type of house.jpg

#2: Cumulative years pursuing writing before first picture book sold? Answer: It took about half of the writers 5+ years to publish their first picture book. These spreads are mostly within a few percentage points whether the authors published at large houses or small houses. The biggest shift in small houses vs. large house authors is in the 11+ year category. Authors waiting 11+ years to publish were more than twice as likely to publish as smaller houses.

Q2 Cummulative years writing.jpg

#3: Cumulative years of writing professionally to date? The survey had a mix of new and more established authors.

Q3 Cummulative years writing to date.jpg

#4: Please rate your overall experience working with your debut publisher (with 1 being terrible and 10 being excellent):

  • Average for all responses: 7.6
    • Average for Big Five Publishers: 8.0 {standard deviation = 2.1}
    • Average for Small Houses with an Advance: 7.8 {standard deviation = 2.2}
    • Average for Small Houses without an Advance: 6.9 {standard deviation = 2.3}

Authors at Big Five publishers, on average, had a slightly better experience than authors at smaller houses. This isn't universally the case. Many authors at smaller houses had an excellent experience and some authors at Big Five publishers had a bad experience. However, overall larger houses did a better job at meeting author expectations.

Questions 5: How much assistance did your publisher provide in marketing your debut book?

Q5 How much Assistance.jpg

About 50% of picture book authors said their publisher provided very little or no assistance marketing their book. These percentages are almost identical for large and small houses alike. However, at smaller houses is authors were slightly more likely to say their publisher provided either "A ton" or "A great amount" of marketing help.

Did this translate into sales?

  • The average (mean) number of copies sold per Big Five debut was 41,375*
  • The average (mean) number at smaller advance-paying publishers was 12,340

*The averages at the Big Five publishers were skewed by one huge selling title. If I remove the upper outlier, the average for Big Five publishers is 17,841.

Let's slice the data another way and look at median sales. (That's the middle-most sales.)

  • The median sales of debut picture books at Big Five publishers was 10,000 copies.
  • The median sales at smaller advance-paying publishers was 5,000
  • The median sales at no-advance publishers was 2,000 

Big Five Authors usually sold more titles than authors at smaller houses, regardless of their level of perceived marketing assistance. This should come with a huge disclaimer that there are many types of small publishers and some non-Big Five publishers are quite large. Still, even authors at Big Five publishers who said their publisher offered "no" marketing support, usually out-performed peers at smaller houses. But, these authors did not usually sell as many copies as peers with more marketing assistance from their Big Five publisher.

#6: How many drafts did you write of your debut picture book before it was accepted for publication?

14.5% of authors wrote more than 20 drafts of their book before it was accepted for publication; however, most authors (56.7%) wrote 2-9 drafts.

Q6 How many drafts.jpg

#7: About how many hours a week do you devote to writing?

About a third of published picture book writers have no regular writing schedule.

 

Q7 How many hours.jpg

#8 How many rejections did you receive before it sold (including rejections for other stories that didn't sell)? 

96% of picture book authors experienced some rejection. More than 1 in 10 picture book authors received over 100 rejections before their first book was published.

Q How many rejections.jpg

#9: How many practice (unsold) stories did you write before you had a picture book accepted for publication?

About 50% of published picture book authors wrote six or more stories before selling one to a trade publisher.

 

Q9 How many unsold.jpg

That's it for PART 1. In Part 2, we'll explore picture book author finances and what it's like working with an agent. Thanks for reading.

10: How long ago was your debut picture book published?

About one-third of authors taking the survey are still under contract, with their picture book set to debut in the next year or two. Because of this, my data skews towards more recently published authors.

Q10 How long ago debut.jpg
Hannah Holt