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The Picture Book Query

By Aaron Shepard

Printed in the SCBWI Bulletin, Sept.–Oct. 1992


For more resources, visit Aaron Shepard’s Kidwriting Page at
www.aaronshep.com/kidwriter

Copyright © 1992, 2000 by Aaron Shepard. May be freely copied and shared for any noncommercial purpose as long as no text is altered or omitted.


Book cover: The Business of Writing for ChildrenPicture book query? Isn’t that almost a contradiction in terms? You’re not supposed to send queries for picture books, are you?

No, you’re not. But I did. And as a result of my query campaign, I found my dream editor and had four stories accepted—in just five months!

It was almost an accident. In 1990, I had a retold folktale from India that had been rejected by nearly everyone. A friend suggested I try publishers in Britain and Australia. So I compiled a mailing list and got ready to send out copies.

Then I figured up the cost of overseas mailing. “Well,” I thought, “maybe I’ll do more research first.” So I decided to send queries. But if I was querying for one story, why not for others? I put together a descriptive list of my available manuscripts, all on one page, and sent it off.

At the time, I was very frustrated about my writing career. I had sold one picture book story, but the publisher hadn’t taken any more. And though a number of editors were writing me personal notes, they weren’t buying. I was convinced my stories were publishable, if only I could find the right editor.

The query form I’d come up with seemed to me a pretty handy tool. It occurred to me that a query campaign to U.S. publishers might flush out that special editor I needed.

So I made another mailing list and began sending queries to editors. The form itself was printed out on my letterhead, with the title “Picture Book Texts Available.” Each story was described in two to four lines, with a place for a checkmark beside it.

At the bottom, I had two choices for checking: “Please send the manuscripts indicated,” and “Not interested, because ____.” Then came blank lines for the editor’s and publisher’s names. (I found out it’s a good idea to fill in these names yourself. I got an unsigned request for three stories, and it took me four months to track it down.)

At the top right of each copy, I stuck a Post-it saying something along the lines of “Would you like to see any of these? I have sold to ______ and _____.” With the query sheet went a list of my publications and a self-addressed, stamped envelope.

In the course of working with this new tool, I discovered a number of nice points about it. Consider these:

 

—Your coverage of the market can be broader. You can safely submit a query to every likely publisher at once—even to multiple imprints within the same house. And the low cost of querying makes this affordable.

—Your coverage of the market can be deeper. If a query comes back with a negative response from one editor—or if it doesn’t come back within a reasonable time at all—you can query another editor at the same house or imprint. You probably wouldn’t risk that with a manuscript.

—The editor sees you’re a serious writer with a stock of stories—not someone with a single manuscript written ten years ago.

—The editor can respond to the focus and range of your work as a whole. You are more likely to connect with editors interested in your type of story, rather than in a single story that happened to catch their eye. (Connecting with the wrong editor can prevent you from finding a more suitable editor at the same house.)

—The editor saves you the work of deciding the best manuscripts to send! And you gain other hints about the pattern and depth of that editor’s interest. For instance, if she selects one story that’s different from all the rest, then maybe that editor isn’t for you. (If one of your stories has appeared in a magazine, I suggest you leave it off the list or don’t mention the fact. Many editors will simply select anything published—so you learn nothing about their own preferences.)

—The responses taken together may show you which of your story ideas have the most potential for success. This may help you in selecting ideas for future projects.

—You don’t have to send the stories requested! If an editor requests one you’ve already sent to another imprint at the same house, or if too many editors have requested that story, you can send a similar one, along with an explanation. You can also send additional stories you think the editor might like, based on their response pattern.

—Whatever you send now is “solicited.” It stays out of the slush pile, and may gain a slight edge in consideration. If it is later rejected, you still are more likely to get helpful comments.

—If you do not get comments when rejected, you have no commitment to the editor. Her initial response to your query isn’t considered the beginning of a personal correspondence. So, no one will mind if you contact a different editor at that house.

 

One expected advantage did not materialize. I thought that responses to queries would come back much faster than responses to manuscripts. Wishful thinking! Most editors still took months to reply.

But what about results? Within half a year, I sent 56 queries to editors at 40 major U.S. houses or imprints. Ten queries got no response at all. Of the responses, 26 were negative and 20 were positive. (Several responding editors advised me not to query for picture books. At least one of those editors also asked to see a story!)

The 20 positive responses included requests for a total of 43 manuscript copies. The stories I sent garnered personal notes from eleven editors. Eight of the notes were encouraging enough to place the editor on my mailing list for future submissions.

But the best result came just four months into my campaign. After reading two of my stories, the head of an imprint at a major house called and offered a contract for one of them, with a good royalty and a hefty advance. A month later, she asked me to set aside three more manuscripts for upcoming contracts.

I had found my editor!