How to Make Six Figures Self-Publishing Children’s Books

Image: a pile of cash atop a stack of books
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Today’s post is by author and indie publisher Darcy Pattison (@FictionNotes). This post has been edited and adapted from a presentation delivered at the SCBWI’s Big Five-Oh! Virtual Conference.


Let’s talk about making money as a self-publisher of children’s books.

I bet you think that I’ll start out with something like running a Kickstarter campaign. This year, I did indeed run a campaign for The Plan for the Gingerbread House, but it was my first Kickstarter campaign ever, and it was a minor project for my company.

Nefertiti, The Spidernaut by Darcy Pattison

Instead, I’d like to walk you through some of the issues of self-publishing by looking at one of my books, Nefertiti: The Spidernaut, which was published on October 16, 2011.

During the summer of 2010, I heard a radio interview with Astronaut Sunita Williams, Captain U.S. Navy about a live animal experiment on the International Space Station (ISS). She was the astronaut who dealt with Nefertiti, a jumping spider who was sent to space.

Most spiders spin a web to catch food. But jumping spiders actively hunt, leaping to catch their prey. What happens when a jumping spider jumps in the microgravity of the ISS? It’ll float away. Would Nefertiti be able to adapt and hunt? Or will it die?

Williams said, “It was a suspense story for me as it happened. I didn’t know if she would survive when I unpacked her for the first time, or when I packed her up and sent her back home to Earth.”

I knew it would make a suspenseful book for kids to read, too.

Here’s the question, though: why self-publish THIS book?

It helps to publish a series

One reason I decided to publish Nefertiti is that I already had the makings of a successful picture book series of animal biographies.

  • Wisdom: The Midway Albatross won the Writer’s Digest Self-Published Award for picture books, a $1,000 prize, and subsequently received a starred Publishers Weekly review.
  • Abayomi: The Brazilian Puma was named a 2015 National Science Teaching Association (NSTA) Outstanding Science Trade Book.

Self-publishers know that publishing in a series makes a lot of sense. You don’t have to recreate the audience for each book. If a reader liked a previous book in the series, they are more likely to like this one, too.

So, I decided to publish the book.

Publish in multiple formats and distribute wide

I decided early on to simultaneously publish hardcover, paperback, ebook and audiobook versions of each title. Because I use print-on-demand services, instead of offset printing, I made about the same profit on each version. I decided to let the customer decide on the format they preferred.

I also distribute widely, refusing to limit my books to any exclusive agreement. Readers can find the books wherever they are accustomed to shopping, in whatever format suits them best.

I also send books for reviews, just like any other publisher. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of discrimination in the industry about self-publishing, but I ignore all that, and my publishing company submits books anywhere the book belongs. However, sending books out for reviews is risky!

School Library Journal gave Nefertiti the worst review I’ve ever read: “Skip this bland treatment and share the news clippings instead.”

I don’t know. Maybe the reviewer’s opinion really was that the writing was bland. Perhaps she just hated spiders. Or maybe she knew this was a self-published book and slammed it for that reason. Who knows?

I was upset. But not very upset—yet. I knew the conversation wasn’t over.

Live and die by your opinion

Publishers live and die by their opinions. I once talked with a Dial/Penguin editor who said that for their fall list of 25 titles, they knew that half of them wouldn’t earn out. The problem? They just didn’t know which half would perform? The professionals—the publishers with a long track record of producing children’s books—they didn’t know what would succeed and what would fail.

The editor said, “In this business, you live or die by your opinion.”

In my opinion, Nefertiti was a great book. Ultimately it was named a 2017 NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Book. One judge told me later it was his favorite book of the year.

Now, here’s what I know. If I’d been traditionally published, the book would never have won the award. First, it likely wouldn’t have been accepted for publication. Second, it would never have been submitted for that award. Traditional publishers will only submit a season’s lead book from their most popular authors. Mine wouldn’t be submitted!

My book would’ve failed because it was ignored.

The only reason it received the NSTA recognition is because I care more about my work than anyone else. I submitted. And the book did its work.

Network your way to special sales

Because Nefertiti was named an NSTA book, when I attended the Arkansas Reading Association convention later that fall, I contacted the NSTA representative to tell her I’d be attending. I stopped by her booth and visited. She recommended that I meet Emily Morgan and Karen Ansberry, who were working on Picture Perfect Science workbooks, which provided elementary teachers with lesson plans for teaching science using picture book texts.

A couple weeks later, Emily and Karen were presenting at a school district just an hour away, so I attended and stayed to eat dinner with them.

The result was that two of my books, Nefertiti (space & spiders) and Burn: Michael Faraday’s Candle (light and fire), were included in their next volume of Picture Perfect Science STEM Lessons, Grades 3-5.

I was thrilled when the NSTA decided to create a book bundle of all the books recommended in the Picture Perfect series. They ordered thousands of copies of Burn and Nefertiti to include and sell to teachers and school districts in the book bundle.

Special orders are an important addition to a self-publisher’s income. These sales came from networking. (Don’t you dare call it luck. I networked!) But you can also go looking for special sales. In fact, traditional publishers have whole departments dedicated to special sales.

The key is to learn the basic business of the sales process from purchase orders to invoices, not something I can teach you here. But something to investigate and learn.

More paths to special sales

Nefertiti also caught the attention of the subscription box service Little Passports. A box service offers a monthly box filled with—in this case—children’s books about traveling the world. Their flagship box promised a tour of the world for kids. But they decided to add STEM boxes, too.

They contacted me first about CLANG! Ernst Chladni’s Sound Experiments because it was an NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Book, for a box about sound experiments. But they quickly became interested in Nefertiti as a fun way to talk about space.

They asked if it was possible to change the trim size from 8.5” square to 8” square, and they wanted to co-brand the books. That is, they wanted their logo on the book cover’s corner. That meant I couldn’t sell these books anywhere else. Apparently, some traditional publishers stumbled over that request, but it made sense to me. I was glad to accommodate them. I negotiated a reasonable price, did offset printing for the special orders, and received a nice profit on each book. In return, I’ve sold tens of thousands of copies of both books to Little Passports.

Think like a publisher, not like an author

Bulk or volume sales is thinking like a publisher. An author says, “I want to do school visits and sell books to kids afterward.” There’s nothing wrong with that idea in the early years. In the first few years of your business, do anything you must to stay afloat. But eventually, you’ll learn that you can’t scale up author visits. Your time is too limited. You may sell a couple thousand books in a year that way. If you really travel and work it, it could be very lucrative.

But that meant you weren’t home writing the next book. And eventually, you run out of days in the year to present. After a certain point, you can’t scale up.

Instead, think like a publisher. I want to wholesale the books to someone like Little Passports because they work to acquire the end customer, not me.

Pursue international sales

So far, the Another Extraordinary Animal series hasn’t received any solid offers for international translation deals. I’ve done well with the Moments in Science series, which sold a four-book deal to Dandelion Children’s Books in China, and a six-book deal to Dabom Publishing in Korea.

Moments in Science series by Darcy Pattison

The feedback, however, on Another Extraordinary Animal has been that the series is too focused on American animals. Calaveras County, California holds an annual frog jumping contest based on Mark Twain’s short story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” Over 30 years ago, Rosie the Ribeter set the world-record for the longest triple-jump, a record that still stands. Yes, it’s an American story.

The Animal Biography series by Darcy Pattison

But next year, I’ll add a new title to the series, Diego: The Galapagos Giant Tortoise. This is the amazing true story of saving a species from extinction. Sixty years ago, scientists thought the tortoises from Española Island were extinct. They only found 14 individuals, 2 males and 12 females. And then, they found one more in the San Diego Zoo, whom they named Diego. For 60 years, the scientist worked on a breeding program, figuring out what the tortoises needed in a breeding ground, protecting the hatchlings until they were big enough to survive on their own, and eventually reintroducing the tortoises to their home island.

In 2020, they declared the breeding program a success, with over 2,500 tortoises now on Española Island. And in June 2020, they loaded up the original 15 tortoises and returned them to the island of their birth. After being gone for about 100 years, Diego came home.

I am hopeful that this book will expand the series into a stronger international focus and will find interest in other markets. In other words, Nefertiti remains part of that series has a bright future!

Value your copyright: rights and licensing

As a self-publisher, I know the value of my copyright. Each right (hardcover, audiobook, merchandising, etc.) has potential for income. I didn’t sign away all my rights in a single contract.

A website that teaches reading to kids needed some solid nonfiction texts. They licensed the right to display on their website Nefertiti and another book, Pollen. Both contracts were for text-only and for a five-year period. After that, they would have to come back and negotiate a new contract.

Traditional publishers’ contracts ask for all rights, which limits my ability to make money on a project. As a self-published publisher, I can extend my income by marketing each right separately.

Nefertiti has sold successfully in these formats.

  • Hardcover
  • Paperback
  • Ebook
  • Audiobook
  • Book bundle from NSTA
  • Subscription box service
  • Text only to a website that teaches reading

What formats will sell in the future?

  • Foreign rights
  • T-Shirts
  • Plush animal

OK, some of these are far-fetched. I’m not sure who would buy a plush toy of Nefertiti. But you never know!

Your backlist is gold

One main reason my income has topped $100,000 is that I now have 55+ books out. Each book needs to contribute something to my income. But this year, the highest grossing book may be Nefertiti and next year, it might be When Kittens Go Viral. On average, each book needs to pull in less $2,000 per year for me to earn $100,000. That’s vastly different from having only two books out and each book would need to contribute $50,000. The math tells you, publish more books!

Fiction titles self-published by Darcy Pattison.
Nonfiction titles self-published by Darcy Pattison.

With such a strong backlist, it’s also easier to be found. There are 55 chances for my publishing company to be noticed, instead of just two. Once a reader visits my website, will they purchase other books? Some will!

A final thought

I never apologize for the business decision to bring a book to market yourself.

My goal for the future? Watch me!

I’m going to win a Newbery or a Siebert. Or both.

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