As picture book authors, we hear a lot about writing unique manuscripts. You need to be fresh! Different! Stand out in the market! But have you ever thought about being different from yourself?
Allow me to explain. Around the time I was getting ready to query, I was also wrapping up a 3-month mentorship with author Jason June. JJ reviewed the seven stories I’d deemed polished and ready for agent eyes, and pointed out some surprising similarities between three of my manuscripts: they all involved contests, and each main character’s motivation was tied to a family member—in one case, her older brothers; in another case, Grandma. And so on.
In my mind, I saw three very different stories—let’s say they were about a pirate, a pig, and a witch—but the heart of each story was similar. Somehow, this hadn’t dawned on me at all. The main characters were so different! The settings were different! But the stories were, indeed, similar.
Skipping ahead a bit, I signed with my agent shortly thereafter, on my mentor’s advice to send three different manuscripts that would showcase my range and ability to come up with fresh, unique concepts. A few months after that, my agent sold my debut, Vampire Vacation, to Viking/Penguin Random House.
To give you a bit of background, Vampire Vacation is the story of a young vampire who tries to convince his family they should vacation at the beach, instead of the usual, boring trip to Transylvania. Here are a couple (fictional) examples of the types of rejections we received while this was out on sub:
“I love this story, but we recently acquired a zombie book, so we’re not looking to add anything Halloween-themed to our list for a while.”
“I’m going to have to pass on this. There are so many monster-themed books out right now, I’m afraid I don’t feel I can market this.”
Okay, valid points, but it occurred to me that I’d never realized a vampire book and a zombie book—or a vampire book and a monster book—could be considered similar. This got me thinking…
If I already have a story about a tap-dancing pig who lives on a farm, should I write a story about a homesick cow? Could those books be considered similar because they’re both barnyard stories? If so, if an editor or agent rejects a manuscript because they already have too many farm books, have I just written that person off my list for the next story?
Then, I thought some more…
What would be the ideal release date for each of my manuscripts? Do they have an obvious seasonal hook? The answer in my case was, YES. Without realizing it, I was only writing books that were very obviously “Halloween” or “summer” books.
Now, you might be thinking, Why is it a big deal to have all your books be summer books? I love summer!
Me too! That’s probably why so many of my manuscripts feature beaches, barbecues, or mentions of scorching-hot sun. Still, it really wasn’t ideal for my personal goals. Here’s why: publishing contracts will usually stipulate that you can’t have another picture book published within a certain period of time (around 3 months on average). So, if all your books have summer hooks, that pretty much limits you to one book per year. Maybe you’re thinking, One book per year sounds great! I’ll take it! But if you’re looking to make writing your career, you might want the option to have multiple titles each year, which is tricky if you’re only writing about zombies, witches and ghouls, and editors automatically think, October release!
I’ve started keeping a spreadsheet of all my manuscripts to consult when I’m vetting new ideas. If I have a detective story on my list, I’ll hold off on writing another for a while. If I’ve written a manuscript about a snowman and a manuscript about ice skating, maybe I’ll nix the sledding idea for now. This way, if an editor (or agent) says “Not a good fit”, I’m not staring down a list of similar stories.
Now, of course, there are agents and editors out there who love specific topics, so if your dream agent adores books about cats, it might not be a bad idea to have a couple cat stories up your sleeve.
I’m also not suggesting you need to write one gorgeous lyrical book, one laugh-out-loud funny book, and an ABC concept book. If you can do all those things well, props to you! But if you’re a funny author, it’s totally cool to have all of your books be funny. (Having them all be about bunnies, maybe not so much.)
I hope this post helps you think strategically about your writing, and gets you one step closer to signing with an agent, selling a book, or coming up with your next brilliant idea!