How to Self-Publish Children’s Books Successfully: Notes From the Trenches

by Tim Pierce via Flickr
by Tim Pierce via Flickr

Note from Jane: Within the past few months, there has been increased conversation around self-publishing in the children’s book market, including three focused posts here at this site.

Last week, editor Sangeeta Mehta hosted a Q&A with two literary agents, who offered insights on indie authorship specifically in the category of picture books. In response, I heard from author Darcy Pattison, who wanted to share what she’s learned from her entry into the marketplace.

My first book, The River Dragon (Harpercollins), was published in 1990, and I’ve been involved in the industry since then. In the last 20 months, I’ve made the switch from traditional publishing to an independent publishing company, with 20 titles available. You can see my catalog here. As I say in this article, the first 18 months were devoted to production, distribution and accounting. The next 18 months will continue those activities, but focus more on marketing.

I’m having way more fun now than I’ve ever had before. Projects that failed to find a home with a traditional publisher are finding a lucrative spot in the marketplace. My indie books have received starred reviews, national awards, been translated, been sold in the Smithsonian Museum stores, and are being read by kids every day. And that’s after only two years in business.

Where to Find Illustrators

9781629440118-ColorPF-alt.inddUnless you’re an author-illustrator, it’s almost always a significant investment to self-publish because of the cost of illustrations. is a place for artists to post portfolios, which makes it the perfect place to search for book illustrators.

You must be able to:

  • pick out great art
  • figure out if the artist is also an illustrator who already does or can adapt to the demands of children’s picture books
  • negotiate a contract
  • direct the art.

Cat250x250-150I’ve had mixed success. One contract was cancelled because the person was an amazing artist, but couldn’t tell a story with her art. But one illustrator I discovered on Behance has been great; Ewa O’Neill of Poland worked on I Want a Dog and I Want a Cat will be out this fall.

I’ve just contracted with a British illustrator for a 2016 book. As the publisher, I offer contract terms and negotiate a mutually agreeable contract.

Another way I’ve dealt with the illustrations is to partner with a friend, Kitty Harvill (we share a birthdate, so we were fated to do books together!). She has previously published books with August House and Holiday House, and is a fantastic wildlife artist and book designer.

Our book, Wisdom, The Midway Albatross won the Writer’s Digest Self-Published Children’s Book Award and received a starred Publisher’s Weekly review. Our second book, Abayomi, The Brazilian Puma was named a 2015 NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Book. Because we have a contract spelling out terms, the only hard part about working with Kitty is the accounting, because we split profit. (Thank heaven for Quickbooks.)

Why I Stick to the 32-Page Format

While I feel free to create a book of any size that I want, I generally stick to the 32-page format because it’s been the industry standard for so many years. Librarians, teachers, parents, and booksellers expect this format. I also think it’s an art form, just as a sonnet is a fixed length/format poem. In fact, I’ll be teaching a Highlights Foundation workshop in April, along with Leslie Helakoski. We’ll be encouraging writers to think in terms of 32 pages because the editing required to fit into a 32-page book makes the writing tighter and the story stronger.  For more, see my article here.

As POD publishing expands, however, I expect the picture book format to morph. On my own books, I’m finding it easy to add two pages to the front or back for advertising purposes, for example. I expect that someday soon, I’ll find a good reason to expand even more to an unusual length.

The Question of Bookstore DistributionScreen Shot 2015-03-06 at 2.34.18 PM

Unless and until you set up the right distribution and get the right recognition with booksellers, your self-published book will not reach bookstores. You can reach bookstores through Amazon’s CreateSpace Expanded Distribution, and if you price it so the store can make a profit of $2 or more, they might order it. But why should they? You must give stores a reason to order your book, which might include reviews in major journals and a major advertising campaign. Discoverability by bookstores is a major hurdle.

But so what? This is a fundamental mindshift that needs to happen if you want to self-publish. You are in the business of selling books, not in the business of stocking a bookstore. You must go anywhere and everywhere necessary to sell books, and bookstores are only one sales channel.

Do You Need Endorsements?

Just like for traditional publishers, the marketing tool of endorsements has a spotty record of success. It depends on the book, the audience, the person giving the endorsement, how the endorsement is used, and so on. It’s merely one of the marketing tools available.

How to Get Reviews

My books have been reviewed by Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal, Audofile Magazine, and others. Because I have a traditionally published background, this has been easier for me than for others. However, the main strategy is to consistently send review copies three to four months before publication, and to present yourself as a publishing company. I always include a copy of my catalog and often include photocopies of previous reviews.

Not all books are reviewed by all journals because it’s still controversial to review self-published books. However, good books can find a review and I expect this to open up more. Late in 2014, Horn Book’s editor Roger Sutton challenged children’s indie writers to submit in what he controversially titled The Selfie Sweepstakes, which was an offer to review books submitted within a strict window of time. He’s now begun reviewing the submissions—check out his latest post.

School Visits and the Self-Published Author

They’re just as lucrative for a self-published author as a traditionally published author. Reaching kids and teachers at schools is always an income-producing strategy that children’s book authors should consider. The questions aren’t any different for the indie writer:

  • Can you do a good presentation?
  • Do you like doing school presentations?
  • Will the school allow back-of-the-room sales?
  • What is a reasonable speaking fee?

For more on school visits, check out this site by Alexis O’Neill, who also writes a column for the SCBWI Bulletin about authors in schools.

Other Ways to Market and Promote

The question and challenge is how to build an author and a publisher’s platform. The answer depends on what kind of books you publish, the audience, the strengths of the author to produce online content, and so many other things. You build a platform and find readers and sell books. How that’s done is as individual as the books published.

Personally, I’m finding success mostly through my blogs and Pinterest. For more on building an author website, check out my post.

Print Versus Digital in the Children’s Market

Both print and digital books will always be popular. Adults on-the-go prefer digital when they travel because it cuts down on weight. Without a doubt, schools will move toward digital, which may begin to influence school age readers.

As an indie publisher, I use print-on-demand (POD) technology and ebooks, both of which mean there’s no charge unless a book is ordered. From that standpoint, investment is low because my inventory is small; I only keep enough for back-of-the-room sales when I speak.

But it’s not a question of print versus digital, or digital first, but best distribution strategy, or how can I reach my readers? I design the book’s trim size so that a single design fits all formats, and I simultaneously publish ebooks, paperback and hardcover. The POD technology is more expensive per copy, which puts the hardcovers out of the range of most trade markets, but squarely in the camp of library and educational publishing markets. Paperback books most comfortably sit in the trade market category, though I’m forced to be on the high side of pricing. Ebooks give me the possibility of worldwide reach, through Kindle, Kobo and Apple. My books have sold in Australia, UK, Canada, Germany, Mexico, Japan, India, France, Croatia, and more. In fact, Wisdom, The Midway Albatross is on the reading list for the 2015 Sakura Award, a children’s book award given by the English-speaking schools in Japan.

WisdomCover500x500Another question is what platforms will come out on top. Right now, education publishers are promoting a device-independent format that can be accessed through a web browser. While this gives the widest accessibility, the ebook files must be smaller, so the images aren’t displayed as well. The EPUB3 standard might have a chance of becoming a standard, but only if proprietary formats such as Nook, Kindle and Apple give it a chance. In this ongoing struggle for dominance, this is the year to watch Apple and see what they do with the ebook market.

Before You Give It a Try

Picture books are a special art form, just like writing a sonnet is a special art form. People who want to write a picture book should read take a week to read 100 books published within the last few years. Only then, with some background in contemporary standards of picture books, should they try this.

It helps to create a business plan. Who is the audience for your book? As you consider manuscripts, which are most likely to appeal to that audience? How can you create an excellent physical and/or digital book? Where will that audience buy books? Where are they most likely to hear about your book? Being intentional about your publishing process makes success more likely. The wonderful thing about independent publishing is that the answers will be particular to each author. Done right, you will find the right audience for your books.

Editor Sangeeta Mehta hosted a Q&A with two literary agents, who offered insights on indie authorship specifically in the category of picture books. In response, I heard from author Darcy Pattison, who wanted to share what she’s learned from her entry into the marketplace.

Share on:
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

newest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments