Saturday, January 28, 2012

Samantha McFerrin: Picture Books

Samantha McFerrin--who wrote a picture book for college credit
(and got an A!)

Samantha is an editor at Harcourt. She acquires everything from picture books to YA and has edited a number of award-winning books, including Just a Minute: a Trickster Tale and Counting Book by Yuji Morales and In a Blue Room, by Jim Averbeck and Tricia Tusa.

She spoke about picture books—what really drew her into publishing--and she shared tons of great advice with those of us who write them:
  • Start the story right away. Don't set up a bunch of backstory or anything like that.
  • Shoot for 800 words or less. 
  • Only write rhyme if it’s right for the story and for you. 
  • Once you have a draft, try to paginate it. You can fine-tune the story’s arc, ensure the length is right, bring in more drama and humor, and can trim all the little details that don’t need to be there. 
  • Read successful picture books. Get a sense for why something is highly promoted, doing well. Read those books out loud. What does it feel like to turn the page and have a surprising bit on the other side? 
When she's thinking about acquiring a manuscript, she makes a proposal that goes up the management chain. She reviews the competition. Sometimes, a similar book can be just too good.

Other times, though, similar titles open up opportunities. SHARK VS. TRAIN, for example, created a space in the market for other shark books.
The market today is tough for picture books. Sales are lower, there are fewer brick-and-mortar stores, school and library budgets have shrunk, there are fewer librarians and less reading time in class. What's more, there's more competition for kids' time.

But it’s not all doom and gloom, she says. Publishers can’t afford the mediocre, so-so, not quite there books, so they’re publishing the real gems.

It still comes down to good storytelling, no matter if it’s an ebook or a pbook. Is it a story worth going back to, she says. "Those are the books that I want."


  1. THANK YOU for the awesome job posting about the conference! I am home in bed with kidney stones. I was supposed to be THERE, so thank you for sharing. It has made my day.

    1. Kidney stones : (
      Oh no! I have SO been there. For those who haven't, a word to the wise, if you are on a high protein diet, drink tons of water with lemon juice. Certainly, that's not the only way you get them, but that's how I got mine. Take care of yourself, Donna. I am so sorry to hear. Ouch!!!

  2. Aw, Donna, feel better soon, so sorry you are missing it. I too am so appreciating the live blog from the other side of the Pond!

  3. Thank you for reading. And boo to kidney stones!

  4. For all of us who wanted to be there and weren't - Thank you for the summary!