Knowing how a picture book is constructed is worth diving into, even if it’s something that’s never crossed your mind. On a practical level we always suggest writers work on a picture book dummy to ensure the pacing of a story works and to build encouraging page turns. A picture book can of course be longer or it can be shorter, but each time you veer away from the standard format it will cost a publisher more to print. And that potentially makes your book just a little less attractive.

The standard length for a picture book is 32 pages. A printer takes a large sheet of paper, then folds it in half, then in 4, then in 8, then in 16. This makes one “signature”. Two “signatures” of 16 pages are put together to make one 32 page book. Voila, the 32-page format aka the book block.

So, you ask, why is this relevant to me? Surely a publisher will take care of that and I can write as freely as I like? In the early stages of writing, yes! Just aim to get your story down.

You certainly don’t need to know about picture book construction in order to have your book published. Yet understanding how many pages are yours to play with can elevate your work as it develops. It has the added benefit of making the job of a prospective editor just a little bit easier. Which can only ever add to your submission, right? It shows you’ve done your research, and that you know your genre well. 

There are two kinds of picture book constructions. Self-ended and separate-ended. The easiest way to get to grips with this is to simply go to your bookshelf. Grab a picture book. Open it up. Look at the endpapers (left, attached to the cover; right, the very first page) then ask:

Are both endpapers made of the same kind of paper? If so, this is a self-ended picture book. This is how many hardback picture books are made. Two “signatures” are glued or sewn into the cover:

 And here’s how many pages you have to work with, your self-ended layout:

In a 32-page self-ended book, page 1 and page 32 are glued down to the cover, i.e. you will not see them. Pages 2-3 and 30-31 become the endpapers. Pages 4-5 are the title pages. Leaving you with 12 double page spreads available for the actual story.

If the endpapers are made of two different kinds of paper, this is a separate-ended book. This is how many paperback picture books are made. Two “signatures” are glued or sewn into the cover with the addition of two endpapers at either end of the book:

And here’s how many pages you have to work with, your separate-ended layout:

Endpapers in a 32-page separate-ended book are often blank, or a single plain colour. With this format, pages 1 and 32 are not stuck down as they are in a self-ended picture book, leaving you with 14 double page spreads for your story. 

Until you begin working with a publisher, you’re unlikely to know which one they’ll choose for your book, but sticking to 12 spreads may be well worth your while. So, how does your book fit into this format? Try it and see!

And remember – the reader experience should be top of mind whatever you’re writing. Make that story flow!