Most people probably assume picture books have different extents. After all, no one picture book takes the same amount of time to read and to savour as another, a good reason to think the number of pages may vary. In fact most picture books are precisely 32 pages long. And while this might appear to be an arbitrary number it has been arrived at through a most serendipitous meeting of the three key components that makers of picture books must consider: process, creation and audience. Sue Buswell explains.
To take process first. One of the key reasons for the economy of page extent is cost, and largely this is determined by the printing process. Colour printing is time consuming and complex, involving as it does many lengthy stages and an extremely high level of expertise. These stages include the initial repro of the book, proofing, correction, finalising digital files, constant monitoring for the duration of the printing, drying time along with the usual stages, common to all books, of folding, gathering, trimming and binding. 32 pages is an economic extent for the simple reason that print machines are set up to print multiples of 16 pages per printing sheet, usually consisting of 8 pages to view, depending on the page size, and the same on the reverse. The first sheet will make up pages 9-24 and this sits inside the second sheet which makes up pages 1-8 and pages 25-32 – in total, 2 sheets per book. Generally, for hardback books the endpapers will be separate and in addition to the 32 pages; their function is to strengthen and secure the binding. Paperbacks do not have endpapers (unless an endpaper design has been incorporated as part of the 32 pages) as the two sections sit inside the paperback stiff card cover with extra glue on pages 1 and 32 to help secure the binding.
The extent can vary – though publishers are often resistant to it – commonly to 24 pages or 48 pages, but both are less economic than 32pp. 24 pages involves not only waste (as it does not consist of multiples of 16) and a non standard trimming process but may even require a heavier weight of paper, at increased cost, to provide the necessary bulk. 48 pages involves a greater number of plates to be made, more paper, more time on the printing press and so on – the longer page extent offers no discernible increase in perceived value and therefore the RRP remains the same as a 32 page book.
In terms of creation, 32 pages remains the perfect extent largely due to the time it takes to create a picture book. A text can be submitted and acquired fairly swiftly but choosing the illustrator may take many months, since it is such the crucial decision that will decide a book’s success. Once chosen, the artist may not be ready to begin. Sometimes the wait can be as long as a year. Obviously this stage can be considerably shortened if the author and illustrator are one and the same.
Creation itself has many stages: the text will be edited and sometimes rewritten, there will be preliminary ‘scamps’ or storyboard, followed by roughs, then a design layout, the choosing of the typeface, final roughs and layouts, first stage colour art and finally finished artwork. Throughout these stages there will conceivably be as many as six people involved each with a clear, but often subjective, point of view. An artist can take anything from 6 weeks to 12 months (though often it is between 4 and 6 months) to complete the artwork for one 32 page book. From the point at which the artwork is delivered it will conventionally be a full year until that book is in the hands of a child. In other words, it is quite normal for a 32 page picture book to take two years from beginning to end to complete.
Finally, the audience. For the most part they are children of 3-6 years of age, firstly enjoying being read to and gradually reading the books on their own. Economics aside, it is a happy marriage proved over and over again that 32 pages is the perfect length to explore a well developed story with sufficient illustrative detail best suited to this target audience. While ideal for this young audience, the 32 page extent also imposes a wonderful discipline on the writer and illustrator (and indeed the editor!) to capture the essential components of a good picture book – a well rounded plot, anticipation, entertainment, surprise and a memorable, satisfying ending. Take a big idea, distill it into 400-800 words (frequently fewer) married to 12-14 spreads of colour illustration to create a perfectly crafted whole.
It is possible that the 32 page convention will change in the future. Artists (not normally writers), often complain that 32pp does not offer them enough scope. Arguably this is because there is a desire in this visual age that picture books rely more and more on the illustrations to tell the story and with the advent of digital art many artists have been able to increase their output. And yet, the books that have stood the test of time have almost always relied on the language and the pictures working in perfect harmony; the power of language cannot be underestimated. The picture book should allow ‘space’ for the imagination to take flight. Increase the number of pages and the temptation is to be too literal, to ‘tell’ the whole story, leaving nothing to interpretation. The 32 page picture book just works – long may it last!
Sue Boswell is Deputy Publisher Picture Books at Random House.