How long should your picture book be?

Image from Microsoft clipart.
Does your manuscript pass the egg timer test?

Picture books are deceptively simple.  Short and concise, yet also poetic, many of us going into writing them not realizing how much work is involved in creating such a brief text that:

  • Develops a compelling character.
  • Contains a complete plot arc with multiple attempts to solve the story problem.
  • Does all of this with a limited word count.
Not all that long ago, I still heard writers giving out the following piece of advice: Keep your picture book to 500 words or less for a better chance to sell.
Just last week, I read something a little different.  According to author and editor Tammy Weston, Erin Murphy says most of the picture books she sells clock in at 600 words or less (see complete post here).
600 words.  That’s a 20% increase over 500 but still not very long.
Another test that I just read about for picture book length is the egg timer test.   Can an editor/agent read your picture book in the length of time it takes to cook an egg?  Hint:  That’s three minutes.  According to Rob Sanders (here), this not only limits the manuscript to 500-600 words, it also means that it has to be a smooth, flowing read.
Check out your latest picture book creation.  Does it pass these tests?
Editors and agents aren’t coming up with these numbers arbitrarily.  They know that the typical picture book audience is a wiggly, easily distracted group with a short attention span.  Will your story hold their attention?
If the answer is “no,” you might have some more work to do before you send out your manuscript.