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. Behance.net 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.

Posted in E-Books, Marketing & Promotion, Publishing Industry and tagged , , , , , , , , .

Darcy Pattison

Translated into nine languages, Darcy has written about writing for many industry periodicals, including Writer’s Digest and the Children’s Writers and Illustrator’s Market. Darcy served as Arkansas Regional Advisor for the SCBWI from 1991-96. In 1999, Darcy created the Novel Revision Retreat, which she teaches nationwide. Darcy is a member of the Author’s Guild. Awards include: Irma S. and James H. Black Picture Book Award Honor Book; twice her books have been named the National Science Teachers Association Outstanding Trade Books of the Year, and she’s the 2007 recipient of the Arkansas Governor’s Art Award for Individual Artist for her contributions to children’s literature. Darcy blogs about writing at darcypattison.com. Find her books at MimsHouse.com

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48 Comments on "How to Self-Publish Children’s Books Successfully: Notes From the Trenches"

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kareninglis
Thanks, Jane and Darcy, for a fantastic post! I have been self-publishing children’s books here in the UK since 2011 – and it’s great to hear from someone so like-minded. I’ve never been traditionally published (though did have a close shave with Bloomsbury and a couple of agents early on) but I have been successful in terms of volume sales for all of my titles, with over 6,000 copies of The Secret Lake sold (half in print and half on Kindle – and still selling consistently), around 1,200 of Eeek! The Runaway Alien (also selected on LoveReading4KidsUK for their reluctant… Read more »
Ross Fraser
I am trying to find a way to publish my first book (I currently have 2 rhyming books that I would say are in the final editing stages) and am torn between trying to get a publisher and attempting to go won the self publishing route. I originally planned on trying to get a publisher but after 8 years of failed attempts to find an employer willing to give me a job (I am essentially housebound due to a severe back injury and only get £20 a week in benefits which leaves me 2-3 hundred pound short for bills every… Read more »
Steven K. Smith
Thank you Jane and Darcy for a great post! It’s not easy to find many in-depth articles about indie children’s books. It has a number of challenges, many of which you state in your post. The few that I have read, tend to focus on picture books. I write middle grade novels (ages 7-12) in a series called The Virginia Mysteries (http://www.virginiamysteries.com) which ties adventures with a twist of history. I decided early on that I preferred the independence and creativity that comes with being an indie. While different than picture books, many of the same challenges exist with middle… Read more »
Carisa Kluver

Excellent article! Thank you so much for sharing your experience (and Karen Inglis for your enlightening comments). The children’s book is definitely a different animal, whether print or digital, on so many levels. It’s nice to see it covered more in this blog – thanks!

Sangeeta Mehta

Terrific ideas and advice, Darcy. I’m glad that so many of us are taking an interest in self-publishing with regard to the children’s book market—and from such different angles. I was especially intrigued by your mention of Quickbooks and how it helps with accounting. Do you have any other suggestions about how the author and illustrator can keep track of monies received from books sales and subsidiary rights?

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[…] Pattison on Jane FriedmanHow to Self-Publish Children’s Books Successfully: Notes From the Trenches “Within the past few months, there has been increased conversation around self-publishing in the […]

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[…] continue reading How to Self-publish Children’s Books Successfully: Notes From the Trenches by Darcy Pattison, visit Jane Friedman’s […]

William Ash

Darcy, what are you using to make your ePub3 books?

Gary VanRiper
Great advice here, Darcy. Very true to our experience. We have been self-publishing 14 years and have sold more than 120,000 copies in our children’s book series. Regarding the school market: We make it part of our contract to have the school send book pre-sale forms home with students several weeks before our visit. The school then sends us the total number of each title sold and we bring autographed copies with us the day of our visit. Something else we have experienced the last few years are a number of schools interested in a One School – One Book… Read more »
Gary VanRiper

The one area where we would part company is in the area of P.O.D. By truly SELF-publishing, (overseeing/handling every part of the publishing process from the writing to the reader) we are able to drive the price per copy way down to be competitive in traditional market places with lots of wiggle room to give good discounts to schools and libraries. – Gary Allen VanRIper. On Facebook: The Adirondack Kids®

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[…] someone looking for an article on self-publishing children’s books is unlikely to be here in the first place, but that’s also not the readership I’m […]

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[…] someone looking for an article on self-publishing children’s books is unlikely to be here in the first place, but that’s also not the readership I’m […]

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[…] help. You should also check out Darcy Pattison’s post on Jane Friedman’s site, “How to Self-Publish Children’s Books Successfully: Notes From the Trenches“, which gives an overview of what to look for in illustrators, why stick to the traditional […]

Alex Davin

Thanks Darcy for the insight. Any suggestions for the legal aspect of self publishing? For example; avoiding any copyright or reasons to be sued (even though you believe your material to be unique) as well as protecting your own intellectual property.

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[…] Pattison presents How to Self-Publish Children’s Books Successfully: Notes From the Trenches posted at Jane […]

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[…] I committed to indie publishing of my children’s picture books and middle grade to YA novels. As I wrote here, the first eighteen months were devoted to production, distribution and accounting. The last six […]

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[…] A traditionally published children's author discusses how she's launched a successful indie publishing effort in less than two years.  […]

Kandy Griffin
I am in the process of researching self-publishing companies for my first children’s book. After three years of sporadically searching, I have found the perfect illustrator. She and I have been working together for the last couple of weeks. My book has a Christian theme (prayer), and I know that excludes me from the possibility of getting into schools other than private Christian schools. I am also encountering an unanticipated problem. I visualize the book as being a couple of inches wider than it is tall (perhaps 9″ x 6″). Isn’t that the case with many children’s books? Either the… Read more »
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Erica

Hello Darcy,

Thank you for your website and the wealth of information it provides for all of us. I am about to self-publish a picture book on Amazon and will use the site you suggested (Behance.net) to find an illustrator. My question has to do with the contract terms. Can I ask the illustrator to renounce any profits from future sales (if any) and just have him or her charge me a fee for the illustrations? Is that how it is normally done?

Thank you very much!

Erica

Christine Johnson

Erica, I had amazing success with freelancer.com. I love my illustrator and the site makes milestone payments very easy and manageable.
Chris

Erica

Hello again Darcy,

I just wanted to say thank you again. I appreciate your taking the time to write me and answer my questions. It’s great that there are people out there like you to help beginners like me.

Erica

Jenni

What are the typical rates for self-publishing? Do you go with a company to sells it for you? Or do you simply get the book printed and then sell it on your own? Do you print more copies as requests come in? I guess I’m wondering about that part.

Jane Friedman

You can find more info on self-publishing here: https://janefriedman.com/self-publish-your-book/

Jessica

Thanks for the great advice! Where would you recommend finding an editor for someone who self-publishes. Children’s books are different than novels and need a special touch. Did you ever use an editor? If you use an editor and have self-published, how would you normally pay them and credit them? I self-published books and later down the line I noticed errors (“of” instead of “off”). Does an editor handle little things like that? I just published http://amzn.com/B01AV7K0FG and I would like to have someone look at my previous work.

Jane Friedman

Hi Jessica – Yes, ideally you should find an editor who specializes in children’s books. (And I use editors all the time for my work, even for email newsletters.) To look for an editor, you might try joining http://Reedsy.com, which is a marketplace for authors to find professional help. I also list editorial resources here: https://janefriedman.com/resources

Jessica

I really appreciate it! I will check it out.

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[…] you still have a shot if your work appears to meet professional standards in every other way. Darcy Pattison has shown that it’s possible, and so have many others. Too many self-publishers don’t have the patience to wait, yet still […]

Taylor
Hi Darcy! What services have you tried for self publishing? I’ve completed my first book and it is being illustrated right now. I’ve been a little disheartened by the cost to produce a quality full color book. I followed your article advice and am planning on an 8.5 x 8.5 book and am open to paperback or hardcover. However, the CreateSpace paperbacks look like they were printed at Kinko’s, the Book Baby options would require an awfully high MSRP for a children’s book (paperback or hardcover), and Lulu.com doesn’t have the square trim size (and is out of price range… Read more »
Patrick Giambalvo
Jane and Darcy, Thank you so much for providing an inspiring Indie self publishing children’s book author with valuable insight and knowledge into the crafty world of publication.. I found your article very informative and guiding.. As for me, if deadlines go as planned, I plan on launching my Summer adventure read by June of this year. Its a chapter book, geared towards an early reader 6-8 years of age and is also a read aloud for the youngings…For me, the marketing angle is a new frontier and I can manage to navigate this frontier with direction and success… Anyways,… Read more »
Lynn Sanders

Thank you, Darcy! This was most helpful. I’m in process of navigating the waters of self-publishing, and it’s quite an adventure.

Anna

What a wonderful article – thank you. I have written a selection of picture book style manuscripts which are aimed at preschoolers to maybe 6 years old – they are dual language books aimed at encouraging language acquisition in young children. Do you have any advice for the best way I can find an illustrator and publish this type of book? Any advice would be appreciated! Anna

Segilola Salami

thank you for this most lovely post. I only just made my third book available in all three formats ie ebook, paperback and hardback. now the question is what’s the best way forward in promoting it?

Luis Peres
This is one of the best articles I´ve read on the subject. Fascinating for several reasons. First I´ve been an illustrator for more than 20 years now and when the self-publishing market appeared it was like a breath of fresh air. Traditionally I always did work for companies here in my country of Portugal but the most fun projects I ever had were not the big ones but the “small” books done for POD clients. Common folk that wanted to publish something and needed help. Some of my clients are now friends and that has been very rewarding. When POD… Read more »
Leah Quackenbush

I am working on a children’s book and I was wondering — the 32-page standard… does this include the front and back matter (i.e. dedication, etc) or only the story? I felt my book was getting a bit too long, so I like this idea. Also, is that 32 pages front and back or 32 pages counting each page as two?

Olayide

How can one get photo illustrations?

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