Inside information on Publishing Children’s Picture Books

Top That

Top That Publishing shared an insightful introduction into Children’s Picture Books and what to do if you are a writer or an illustrator wanting to make it in this industry.

Top That Publishing at Felixstowe Book Festival

I was so pleased when I saw that Top That Publishing were going to be speaking at Felixstowe Book Festival and swiftly bought a ticket to attend their Writing Picture Books Workshop.

Some quick facts on Top That Publishing:

  • I’ve been following them on LinkedIn and Twitter for some time now….
  • They are based in Woodbridge by Tide Mill (gorgeous offices)
  • Creative and innovative publishers turning traditional book formats on their head
  • Started in 1999 and sell to over 70 countries
  • Top That is 37th for Neilsen’s list of top picture book publishers in the UK

They showed us one of one of their early concepts.  It was a book inside a the head of a monster/animal.  You unzip the mouth to read the pages.  Children could attach these to a school bag.  I think it was called a book buddy but I can’t find it in my notes or online.  

Writing Picture Books Workshop

The talk was delivered by Simon Couchman and Dan Graham.  They had prepared a presentation and provided everyone with a full colour printed copy to take away with them and keep.

The pair worked well together and clearly knew their stuff, bouncing the talk from one another as they worked through their presentation.

They had enough content that they could easily come back again another year.

For those of you that missed the talk, I shall share here some of the things I learned:

Target audience

Age:  It was interesting that in the UK tend to only buy picture books for children 0 to 5 years, but in the US it rises to 6 years and in Northern Europe it is 7 years.

Buyer:  Children books are bought from publishers to wholesalers and shops.  Wholesalers/shops sell the books to adults i.e. parents.  The consumer is not actually a child so initially you need the book to appeal to sellers and adults before you even reach your actual intended audience.


With Top That’s innovative approach to publishing they do print in books in the traditional styles (board book, paperback or hardback) but they were enthusiastic about all the other formats available and making books interactive and dimensional.

I have a lovely seaside story book where you add magnetic creatures to the pages.  This was published by Top That Publishing.

Other platforms they often publish work to are: eBooks, audio books, social media, apps, television, film, YouTube, etc

What a beautiful catalogue by Top That Publishing

A post shared by Alison Aldridge (@redfae) on


They talked to us about the different markets (i.e. traditional trade, mass markets, supermarkets, etc).

They explained that books sold to shops like The Works or other discount stores are not of a lower quality that those found in Waterstone –  one of the attendees asked.

Top of the charts

They shared statistical data on publishing sales using data from Neilsons – this book data is only for trade sales.

  • Top picture book publisher in the UK:  Pan Macmillan Group
  • Top picture book author in the UK:  Julia Donaldson
  • Best-selling trade picture book (so far) for 2017:  We’re Going on a Bear Hunt
  • Best-selling picture book of all time:  The Tale of Peter Rabbit
  • Best-selling UK ‘trade’ illustrators today:  Eric Carle


Choosing the right illustrator for a picture book can make or break it.  Some authors collaborate with an illustrator before contacting a publisher jointly.  However, ultimately the decision will be the publishers as they know what appeals to the commercial market.

There is no benefit to contacting publishers with an illustrator and it can even work against you if they like one of you and not the other.  However, it does help if you pitch with page layout ideas, i.e. where you think the text would go.

Simon and Dan then shared images of art work of illustrators that are distinguished enough that their works are easily recognisable:

  • Eric Carle
  • Anita Jeram
  • Olive Jeffers
  • Alex Scheffler


They then advised that illustrators should contact publishers with their portfolios.  Just like authors, the publisher will decide if they have a need for that style or already have something similar.

They will then instruct an illustrator to work on a project if they feel they have the right fit.  However, they may not go with the artwork produced if it doesn’t work.

If you are an illustrator they suggested The Bright Illustration Agency.

Submission editors – what do they want?

They are looking for:

  • Originality – always looking for fresh ideas.
  • Humour – is very popular with children (and adults reading the story).
  • Trending topics – to predict what will be trending you can attend card or craft fairs, toy conventions or be aware of upcoming anniversaries for books.
  • Filling a gap/need – currently, there are too many bear stories.

Illustrations and text

Simon and Dan then showed us some examples of beautiful layouts showing how important the relationship is between the text and the images.

They pointed out how in Hattie Peck the text bounces along the rooftops, exactly as the text is describing.

They discussed how busy pictures can be great for non-readers as they will relish in the detail and love discovering hidden things (like a creature hiding behind a tree).

“When the boy woke up, he discovered that he was on a slippery, wet island; drifting on an empty, endless sea.”

Based on the above passage, Simon showed us how one page can have several sketches to reach the final idea:

  • Sketch 1:  Boy on his island
  • Sketch 2:  Same image but panned out to show how vast the ocean is
  • Sketch 3:  Drawn from above to reveal to the reader, the island is actually a whale!
  • Sketch 4:  Drawn from another angle to reveal to the reader, the island is actually a whale and how huge the whale is.

All the images are suitable to go along with the text but each drawing gives a different feel and depth to the story.

How to get your Picture Book considered:

  • Word Count:  600 to 800 words (350 to 700 is industry standard).
  • Pages:  24 to 32 (but there doesn’t have to be text on every page.
  • Edit:  Top That Publishing receive 200 submissions a month and sloppiness will get you rejected straight away.
  • Set text to pages/spreads:  This can really help.  Remember, most pages will be a 2 page spread.  You can also support the layout with image ideas or a dummy version. – please don’t attempt this if you cannot draw.  You can give a description of how the scene will look.
  • Read aloud/Children:  Most picture books are read out loud so it important to test that this works.  Read it to children to find out how they respond to it.
  • Filler:  Picture books cannot contain any fillers (parts of the story that do not progress it or excite or engage the reader).
  • Imagery:  Will your story inspire an illustrator does it prompt imagery.


  • Some publishers will only accept submissions from literary agents – suggested The Brights Literary Agency
  • To avoid the slush pile:  check submissions guidelines, address to the correct editor and check your picture book matches their theme
  • Use the correct postage

Publishing Agreement

They discussed the different types of agreements you may enter into with the publisher for you works:

  • Flat fee – they outright purchase the copyright of your work
  • Royalty deal – they pay you a percentage from RRP/net receipts for each copy sold
  • Advance payment royalty deal – you receive money in advance of any copies sold

The agreement may be to sell in one country (single territory) and language or the entire world.

The agreement may include rights for licencing for film/television and other stated areas.

What does the publisher do?

  • Edits for format and layout
  • commissions the artwork and cover (there can be a lot of back and forth to get this right)
  • arranges the production and distributions
  • promotes the book (marketing, sale and public relations)


If you get rejected don’t take it to heart.  If you get constructive criticism then you are lucky and you should take note.

Remember that it’s not always a problem with you book.  It may just be that they don’t currently have the opening on their books or are already in the process of publishing something similar.

You can always self publish!  Use a free self-publishing platform like Amazon Kindle Create Space.

“Promote your work online, start an author page, write a blog, use social media.”

The Future

I am huge lover of picture books and look forward to reading to my son each night.  I love finding new books for him and sharing that joy.

After meeting Dan and Simon, I was left wishing I could work with them.  They have an amazing job – I am so envious – and they are so passionate about what they do.  It was so much fun discussing picture books.

When I got home I desperately tried to think of a picture book idea that would be good enough to pitch to them… but sadly failed.  I also entertained the idea of applying for their International Sales job (I would miss Noah if I was away a lot).

The dream lives on and one day I will be a published author.  The things I learned from Dan and Simon will transcend across genres and isn’t isolated to just picture book publishing.  I also feel more confident now that I know what makes a good idea and how to pitch it.



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