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Writing and Publishing Board Books

This article is based on the answers I've given to some questions about board books. You can read it as one article or skip to the part that interests you.

What's the Difference Between a Board Book and a Picture Book?

A board book is a binding format. A picture book is a type of book, or a genre. You can write a text intended for a picture book, but you can't write a text for a board book, just as you can't write a text for a hardcover or a paperback. Your text may get published in one of those forms, but it was a picture book text, or a text for a novel, not a hardcover text, or a board book text.

Make sure you understand the distinction between format and genre. If you do, you'll understand why I say this: picture books for the very young are often published in board book format, but they may not be. Some books are published in hardcover first, and then converted to board book later. Or they may just be published in hardcover or paperback and stay that way.

Very approximate rules of thumb: Picture books for the very young (under 3, say) tend to run up to 400 words, but may have considerably fewer words, to the possible extent of being wordless. The "classic" picture book has perhaps 400-800 words. Once you get over 800 words, you are getting into older picture books (for children in lower elementary school) and illustrated story book territory. I give these word counts not as rules to follow but because the books generally regarded as the best of those types have a word count in the range I gave.

How Do I Submit a Board Book Manuscript to a Publisher?

Generally, it's a bad idea to submit a manuscript to a publisher and say it's intended to be a board book. Why? Well, look at the board books on display in any large children's bookstore. They tend to fall into three groups:

There are very few, if any, original board books published. They are a tricky format--though more expensive to produce than a paperback, they have to be sold at a similarly inexpensive price. So board books are usually only published when the publisher can save money by producing a large print run that they know they will be able to sell--and the three types of books listed above are generally the types of books in which a publisher will have that confidence.

So: from a publisher's point of view, one can't really "write a board book." What you may have done is write a picture book text that would be best published in a board book format. But don't present it as such. Tell them it's a picture book for the very young--which is perfectly true, and more likely to be given consideration. It may be published in hardcover, and never make it into a board book format. Deciding on format is a publisher's job, and they'll most likely make the right choice.

Finding a Printer to Self-Publish a Board Book

Given the difficulties in publishing a board book the traditional way, some of the site's visitors have asked about self-publishing a board book. One person told me: "I need to find a reputable printer in Asia because I've been told that this is the most economical way to do it. Do you know of any sort of Asia-printing list that exists? It's a toughie, because like I said I'd like to find a reputable place. So any recommendation or help you can offer would be greatly appreciated."

This was my response: After I answer your question, I do I have to say a little about self-publishing a board book--because it seems to me to be a supremely risky undertaking.

Printing in Asia is usually the cheapest, and for that reason most picture books are printed in Hong Kong or a few other places. Given the weak dollar, that price difference may no longer be so great, however. I don't know of any simple list of reputable South-East Asian color printers. If I were trying to research a printer, I might just browse copyright pages, which sometimes give the printer. A more comprehensive resource might be Publishers Weekly, which I remember doing annual or semi-annual reports on printers in Asia.

Once you have found the names of some printers, I'm not sure that you'd be able to use that information, however. Many of them might not want to work with an individual. You might be able to get around that by working with a print broker or a freelance production manager (and no, I'm sorry, I don't know where you could find one of them!). Given this complication, and the weak dollar, working in the U.S. might be a decent alternative, actually.

Or at least it would be if board books weren't such a difficult area. You may already be aware of the difficulties I'm about to point out, and have planned for them. In that case, just ignore me. As you probably know already, self-publishing in color is more expensive than black and white, whether you are doing a board book or a picture book. A board book, however, presents a special challenge. It has to be less than half the retail price of a hardcover picture book, and yet unit costs can be higher, even with a lower page count, due to the fact that you are printing on board instead of on paper. Traditional publishers have to do large printings to get the unit price to work, and that's why almost all the board books you'll see in a typical bookstore are conversions from well-known picture books or tied to a TV show, movie, or someone's name.

If you do invest in a large print run, you will then face the problem of getting them distributed and sold. Many wholesalers and booksellers will be reluctant to take on a board book from a self-publisher, figuring that customers will not pick it up and buy it.... Unless the book has some special hook, you may not be able to overcome that reluctance.

For related information, please see my Self-Publishing section.

What Are Board Books Made Of?

The question and answer above led to a new question: "Do you know what type of material is actually used for the 'boards'? I have a local printer who might be willing to work with me, but I cannot find a source for the actual pressed board. Is there an industry term for this type of material or a supplier of essentially blank boards?

This was my response: Brian Walker, production wizard at Charlesbridge, deserves much of the credit for the information that follows.

What I discovered is that different materials are used for board books. The highest quality, and most expensive, is "white board," or "white art board," which essentially is pressed cardboard, with a white laminated surface, and white fibers all the way through. "Gray board" is similar, but contains gray fibers in the middle of it. You can probably find samples of both in the board book section of a large bookstore--look at the edges of the board books and you'll see the difference. Sometimes, card stock, which is not as thick and feels very much like the material from which playing cards are made, is used to make board books, but this is not really "board."

Board is specified by thickness and weight. "Gsm" (Grams/square meter) indicates weight, and "pt" (point) indicates thickness. Typical weights are in the 300 to 400 gsm range, with a 18 to 25 pt thickness. The material in white board may be referred to as "SBS" for solid bleached sulfate.

What you will want to do is get samples, both of what a supplier can provide, and what you find in actual board books. Find a board book you like--one that doesn't curl, that has been printed cleanly on a good surface, etc.--and ask the supplier if they can match the material.

Having said that, I must say that if the printer has no experience in printing board books, you should probably find a different printer. Printing board books, and binding board books (which is a very different process than binding standard books), both present unique technical challenges, and you don't want to be a company's first attempt. There are a lot of things that can go wrong.

So what should you do? Well, you could find a company that does have experience in printing board books, but that may not be easy. Or you could hire a print broker or freelance production manager (sorry, can't recommend anyone, but you could search on those terms via Google) to do the finding for you. You would have to pay for their expertise but it would probably save you money in the long run.

Or you could produce your book as a hardcover or paperback instead. You'll understand from my comments earlier in this article why I'm suggesting that.

For more information, consult this article on the history of the board book from LitHub.

I hope you have found this page and this site useful. Please visit The Purple Crayon Bookstores page to find some recommended bookstores and to learn how to support this site while doing your usual online shopping. Thank you.

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