Updated: Sep 19
Before you start writing, it’s important to know the audience you’re writing for - not only so you can write a story they’ll love, but also to help you figure out where and how to publish it.
If you’re hoping for a traditional publishing deal, you won’t get one if your book doesn’t fit into one of the industry’s already established categories.
If you’re self-publishing, making sure your book can be accurately placed into established categories on Amazon is essential to your book’s success.
Not sure which route you want to take? Read this.
Regardless of which publishing route you choose, you want to avoid pouring time and energy into a project that falls in the dreaded “no man’s land” of children’s publishing. In this blog post, I'm going to break down each subgenre of children's books so you can do just that!
Word Count for Children's Books
5-9 (whenever a child is learning to read)
NO MAN'S LAND
6-10 (newly independent readers)
Disclaimer: A quick Google search produces about a hundred different versions of these ranges and all of them are slightly different. I’ve used the most recent numbers I’ve seen from industry pros, as well as my own experience in publishing to settle on the numbers above. But remember, there is no answer key, and this information changes as publishing trends change over time.
Board books contain short, simple text paired with bold illustrations to engage the youngest readers. Common topics include colors, animals, body parts, and simple bedtime rhymes. While the word count can reach up to 250, shorter is better, and many board books have under 100 words.
🌟 Insider Tip: Because board books are expensive to produce, board book manuscripts are hard to sell to traditional publishers. To self-publish a board book, you’ll need to invest in an offset print run, as board books are NOT available through print-on-demand companies.
Board Book Examples:
Picture Books are meant to be read aloud by an adult to a child, so even though the target audience is ages 4-8, reading level isn’t a factor. However, “read-aloud-ability” is! So, you still want to take the age of your audience into consideration to make sure the story, word choice, and pacing will hold their attention.
While 1,000 words is the upper limit for picture books, again, shorter is always better, and most modern picture books are trending under 500 words.
The illustrations in a picture book should NOT just be there to support the text. Instead, the text should RELY on the illustrations to add value to the story.
🌟 Insider Tip: Only hire an illustrator if you are sure you want to self-publish. Traditional picture book publishers will not allow you to choose your own illustrator, (unless you, yourself are a professional illustrator) so you’d be wasting time and money.
Picture Book Examples:
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Early Readers are unique in that their primary purpose is NOT to tell a great story, but to provide text that will help build the confidence of a child just learning to read. They often feature simple storylines and include certain phonics skills in each book. They are fully illustrated but can contain more words than a picture book.
🌟 Insider Tip: If you’re a hopeful writer trying to break into traditional publishing, this isn’t the best category to do it with. Because early readers are so focused on specific reading skills, many publishers have in-house experts or trusted freelancers who write them. And because reading these books is sometimes difficult for new readers, many publishers try to entice them by incorporating familiar favorites - like Marvel characters or Disney princesses. Most publishers just aren’t looking for new authors or content here.
NO MAN’S LAND
This is the dreaded gap in the children’s book market that so many new authors seem to find themselves trapped in. They’ve poured their heart and soul into a story that comes in at 3,500 words. Now what?
Unfortunately, for new authors, the answer is to cut it down to a picture book…or develop it into a chapter book. Why?
Because the modern child’s attention span is shrinking...and even parents will tell you that a 500 word picture book is plenty long when they have to read it every night before bed.
Because kids who are already voracious readers want longer, chapter books that make them feel like “big kids.”
Although I’m certain you can go find books of this length somewhere out there, most of them are written by established authors who have already built up a strong following.
Because there just aren’t enough books of this length to warrant their own category on the shelves at Barnes and Noble…and publishers know that a book without a clear place on the shelf is less likely to sell because customers aren’t sure what they’re getting.
Because competition is just too stiff to take the risk.
Could you self-publish a book that falls into this category? Absolutely! Just keep in mind, that you’ll run into that same problem when you list your book on Amazon.
Is it a picture book? No?
A chapter book? No?
Hmmmm... The algorithm may not know what to do with that.
🌟 Insider Tip: Try your best to avoid NO MAN’S LAND. You’ll thank me later.
Children's Chapter Books
Chapter books are for children who have JUST started to read independently. They’re proud of themselves, but still a little intimidated by big words and long chapters. So, once they find something they like, and that they feel safe reading, they stick with it.
This is why chapter books are fairly short (under 10,000 words), with simple plot lines, just a few black and white pictures, and almost exclusively published as a series.
🌟 Insider Tip: While the average reader of chapter books is 6-10, most kids like to read about someone a little bit older than them. (It’s fun to imagine themselves being a bit older and cooler!) So, the average protagonist of a chapter book is often on the upper end of that age range (9-10).
Children's Chapter Books Examples:
Middle grade readers are usually pretty comfortable with their reading abilities, but they still aren’t going to go for anything too thick and scary looking! Keep it under 50,000 words.
Common themes of middle grade books include dealing with peer pressure, independence, confidence, friend drama, sports, and generally figuring out who they are, and who they want to be.
🌟 Insider Tip: Middle Grade books have recently started being subdivided into lower middle grade and upper middle grade and with good reason! The interests and reading ability of an 8-9 year old can be vastly different than those of a 12-year-old. Keep this in mind if you tackle this category.
Middle Grade Examples:
Young adult books are for ages 13-17 and can often tackle more serious topics. Length can be up to around 90,000 words and longer, but if your manuscript is over 100,000 be prepared to make some cuts. Common themes include the transition to adulthood, dating, work, and pretty much anything modern teens deal with.
🌟 Insider Tip: If you choose to write in this category, I highly recommend getting familiar with TikTok. Booktok is where it’s at for this phone-addicted age group!
Writing a book that doesn't fit into the modern conventions of word count for children's books is a recipe for failure.
When you're trying to write your first children's book, don't get so bogged down in counting words, that you lose your spark for the story. But, once you've finished that first draft, sit back and take some time to figure out where you envision your book on the shelves at your local bookstore.
Your readers will thank you later!