The Business of Self-Publishing Children’s Picture Books: Two Literary Agents Weigh In

Children's books

Today’s guest post is by Sangeeta Mehta (@sangeeta_editor), a former acquiring editor of children’s books at Little, Brown and Simon & Schuster, who runs her own editorial services company.

Back in 1901, aspiring writer Beatrix Potter was frustrated with rejection letters from publishers, so she “privately published” 250 copies of her first book for distribution to friends and family. Within a year, The Tale of Peter Rabbit was picked up by Frederick Warne, one of the publishers that had originally turned it down. It is now one of the bestselling and most beloved children’s books of all time.

In Potter’s day, the phenomenon of self-publishing was rare and expensive, so much so that the first printing of The Tale of Peter Rabbit did not include color illustrations. Today, writers looking to self-publish have several platforms to choose from; Amazon’s KDP Kids, BookBaby, Blurb, and Lulu Jr. in particular are ideal for picture book writers.

I asked literary agents Erin Murphy and Susan Hawk their thoughts on self-publishing children’s books and what the future of the picture book might look like.

Traditional publishers usually select and hire illustrators for the picture book manuscripts they contract. So what is the best way for a self-publishing writer to find an illustrator—through an organization like SCBWI or a design school like RISD?

In most traditional publishing arrangements, both the writer and the illustrator receive royalties and are paid by a third party (the agent or the publisher). In a multi-author self-publishing scenario, should one party be the principal author and the other be willing to accept a flat fee, even though most traditionally inclined writers and illustrators are cautioned against taking work-for-hire deals? 

Erin Murphy: Those are great ideas for places to find illustrators, and there are many more online as well.

Writers might be sure to look for illustrators who are familiar with picture books in particular, because it is its own format, after all. Picture book illustrators know how to enhance a story in the art, and they think of the nuances such as varying perspectives, mixing in spot art with double-page spreads, and the like.

I think it’s always important that in any collaboration or partnership situation, there be some kind of agreement in writing so everybody is clear on who is obligated to what, who will be paid what, and so on. Agreements exist for worst-case scenarios, so it’s important to work out everything clearly ahead of time. If things go sideways, there’s an unemotional document to refer to, to help everybody work through how things should be handled.

Susan Hawk: Both SCBWI and RISD are smart places to begin. There’s a wealth of resources online: you can view illustrators’ work on a storytelling platform like Storybird, Kathy Temean’s Writing and Illustrating blog often features new illustrator’s work, and I’m often fascinated by illustrations I see on sites that aren’t directly related to children’s books such as Etsy and Spoonflower.

The problem isn’t lack of resources, it’s almost the opposite—too many. So, set aside plenty of time to look for the person whose work is right for your text. It’s a good idea to ask for a sample, and for an illustrator to ask the same, if one isn’t available on the writer’s site.

A contract is very important, that’s the best way to make sure that the agreement between author and illustrator is clear. Whether or not a flat fee is appropriate really depends on the particular situation. For the writer or illustrator making that determination, it’s important to have a clear sense of your goals in going self-pub. If a flat fee works with the goals, then it may be something to consider.

In the trade book market, picture books are typically 32 pages because printing presses use 8-page signatures to efficiently print large quantities of books. Since self-published authors are more likely to choose print-on-demand (POD) than offset printing, and they are probably not looking to traditional retailers to sell their work, is there any reason that these authors shouldn’t take liberties with the standard page count and word count (usually 1,000 words or less) of picture books? What are the advantages of adhering to the standard model?

Erin Murphy: The standard model exists because it is what the market wants right now. It’s less about page count and more about making a story as tight and illustration-driven as it can be. In fact, a lot of traditionally published picture books right now are 40 pages or even 48 pages—that’s been sneaking under the radar, right???—but they generally don’t feel any more text-heavy despite that.

When I get queries or submissions from authors who have self-published or are considering self-publishing, they usually have texts that are far too long to succeed in the traditional market—and generally far too didactic, as well.

I don’t know that self-publishing will be successful in finding those books a readership unless the writer is willing to take an honest look at what they’re trying to accomplish and revise to make the books as strong as they can be—entertaining, moving reads—not reads that exist to teach something.

Susan Hawk: This is one of the wonderful things about self-publishing—writers and artists don’t have to stick to the “rules” of traditional publishing. It’s exciting to think about the ways in which self-pubbed writers can push boundaries within picture books.

That said, some of the rules have evolved from something systemic, like the way books are printed; others come from what’s happening in the marketplace, and that will affect any book, regardless of how they are published.

For instance, schools push kids to read earlier these days and first graders are tackling chapter books. As kids move away from picture books sooner, it’s meant that the longer length storybook isn’t as popular as it once was. That’s a reality for all books, regardless of their origin. A smart self-publisher will be looking at those trends, just the way a traditional publisher does.

School visits can be very lucrative for picture book writers, sometimes more so than royalties from their books. Should school visits be a priority for self-published picture book writers since their books are unlikely to be carried in bookstores, and they can make far more money per sale than traditionally published writers? What should self-published picture book writers without a track record expect when approaching a school? Although endorsements from writers and educators aren’t usually solicited for picture books in the trade market, do you think they would help in the self-publishing market? Or should these writers focus more on securing reviews from established journals like Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, or Library Journal to establish credibility?

Erin Murphy: The ONLY reason I can reasonably advise a picture book writer or illustrator (as opposed to those working in other formats) to self-publish is if they have a built-in market for the book or books.

If they’re publishing into a niche in which they have expertise and know outlets that traditional publishers wouldn’t ably exploit, or if they’re actively doing school visits for traditionally published books and have an out-of-print book they see a lot of demand for, or if they’re doing school visits in some other capacity—as a storyteller, say—then having a self-published book can make sense.

I think a lot of writers go into self-publishing without realizing how much work is involved in actually selling the stock they produce. You have to have a viable plan to reach your readership, or else you have expensive boxes of books sitting in your garage.

Susan Hawk: Back when I did School and Library Marketing for Penguin Books for Young Readers, my department managed school visits for all the Penguin authors, so I’m a big believer in their power to build an author’s presence, and I’d encourage any writer, self-published or otherwise, to pursue them.

Writers and illustrators need to have a website that describes their books as well as the kind of programs they do in schools—do you discuss the writing process? How to create characters? Do you prefer speaking to large groups, or small? Certain ages, but not others? Be as detailed as possible, then work on getting the word out.

Create a flyer that details your books and programs (keep it brief), and drop it off at schools, libraries, and bookstores. Reach out to anyone you know that’s connected to your local schools. Let people know that you’re local and prepare to be flexible on your honorarium, knowing that it will increase over time.

I’d pursue both endorsements and reviews—they can’t hurt!

Since digital publishing is a relatively low-risk investment, do you envision any traditional publishers offering digital-first imprints for picture books or easy readers down the road? Is this something self-publishers might test the waters with before investing in the high cost of producing physical picture books, which involves variables like choosing a trim size and paper stock, and checking for color consistency and image resolution? Is there a certain number of digital sales (not counting free downloads) or clicks on a certain site that they should reach before planning a print run?

Erin Murphy: It seems as though digital is not working out to be a strong avenue for picture books at all. I suspected that, in the early days of e-books started; it’s panned out to be true. My sense is that most digital picture book sales supplement hard copies, as though parents want a copy they can easily have with them in doctors’ waiting rooms or in the car, perhaps when they didn’t anticipate the need, to supplement the copy that’s on the picture book shelf at home.

Susan Hawk: In terms of what may happen with digital publishing, I don’t think anything is off the table! As to when, or how, traditional publishers may offer digital-first, I can’t say what that would look like…yet.

My sense is that there are as many challenges with self-publishing a picture book in a digital format as there are in print—it’s just a shift in technologies, and the accompanying details.

As with the determination to accept a flat fee or not, the number of digital sales or clicks that determine a print run will depend on the particular writer or illustrator and his or her goals.

What are some of the best ways to promote illustrated children’s books online? Through highly visual social media platforms like Pinterest and Instagram? By posting or advertising on parenting blogs? By offering downloadable (and physical) bookmarks, posters, and activity kits on an author website? Since it’s usually the illustrations that sell a picture book, is creating a book trailer or another kind of video based on the illustrations an effective marketing strategy? 

Erin Murphy: Any online marketing needs to be targeted very well. Sending blanket emails or posting self-serving comments on established blogs is only going to turn people against you.

But also, producing a book trailer does no good unless you have some places to post it. Again, I think this is where self-publishing is at its best, when the author has an established platform and reputation in a particular niche market.

If you’re an animal expert familiar with interacting with kids and parents about animals, you have reason to share a book trailer or do a guest post on a blog in your online community. If you’re a craft expert who’s often at craft fairs around the country and have a blog with a strong following in the craft community, and you have a self-published book about crafts, you have a natural outlet. If you’re an expert on your state’s history and you’re often asked to speak at events on the topic, you can probably reach your buyers better than a traditional New York house can.

Susan Hawk: Ah, promotion! It can be a major challenge for self-published writers; it can also be fun, if you focus on the activities that you enjoy the most (and that will be effective, of course).

There are so many tools out there. Creating a strong Facebook page and having even a simple website is important. I haven’t seen much use of Pinterest or Instagram for picture books, though it’s a good idea (and perhaps I just haven’t noticed the people who are using those sites).

The key with all marketing is to be very focused on your audience. Know exactly who you are trying to reach, then you can start thinking about the tool that’s most appropriate to reach that group. If it’s Pinterest, so be it—every tool you mention here will be appropriate for various different populations.

I’m not a big fan of videos, however. There are so many of them out there, and creating one that’s really unique, and therefore effective, is costly. I think there are other, more grassroots tools that give more bang for your buck.

In spite of all the evidence to the contrary, the stigma that picture book books (and children’s books in general) are easier to write than adult books remains. Do you think the “I can write that!” attitude is encouraging more people to self-publish picture books? Many of them have perfectly good intentions—there are the established novelists interested in experimenting with a new genre, parents who notice a gap in the marketplace and want to educate their children on a certain topic, entrepreneurs with a built-in distribution channel who are eager to build their brand. What separates “hobbyist” self-published authors from the true “authorpreneurs”?

Erin Murphy: The true “authorpreneurs” (nice word!) have really educated themselves, instead of having some filled-in-the-gaps-with-imaginary-truths understanding of how publishing works. They don’t have a rosy view of how easy it will be; they’ve really learned how bookstores work, why things are done the way they are in traditional publishing (and what parts of that they should do themselves or pay someone to do), what is involved in running the business of selling your own books, how many you have to sell to break even, and realistically how long it will take.

They also know at what grades various topics are covered in the curriculum, what else is out there on that topic, and whether a perceived gap in the market is real or not.

Sometimes a “gap” is more about not pushing your personal/political viewpoint on other people, as though all it would take to get more people to agree with you is a book! for kids! Sometimes it’s about thinking kids should know something at a younger age than makes sense to most people. Sometimes that gap is plenty full and the writer thinks that looking on the shelves of a local library and/or bookstore is enough market research.

Susan Hawk: Ah, yes. If it’s short, it must be easy to write! There are certainly more self-pubbed picture books now than 10 years ago, but I don’t think there’s been an explosion in this category as there has been in others.

What I love about self-publishing though, is what you point out here—that it gives those writers and illustrators with a specific audience the tools to reach them. The big publishing houses aren’t suited to certain regional books, for instance. I love that so many books that might not otherwise have found their readership, can now.

According to Digital Book World, digital reading (on e-readers, tablets, and phones) is on the rise even for young children, and children are exercising more autonomy with their online purchases. What are some other digital trends you foresee with regard to children’s books? Can you picture a day when digital illustrated children’s books will be as popular as print books?

Erin Murphy: Nope. Call me a traditionalist, but from the time of early adoption of digital books, I’ve believed it’s just another medium, and I’ve believed that the best books come from the long-valued process of nurturing and curation that traditional publishing provides. There will always be exceptions, of course, and there will be changes in technology and the marketplace, and promotionally there will be new things to try—but reaching readers for the most part comes down to producing a great book with the help of knowledgeable folks and finding the readers who will love it.

Susan Hawk: What I’d really love to see is a digital picture book that exists better in the digital sphere than it does in print—one that is truly improved by existing on that platform. Most of what I’ve seen so far are on-screen versions of print books, with some bells and whistles, which my kids easily tire of.

I could have missed something, so please let me know if in the comments if that’s the case! But, there’s a loss of warmth in digital, that so far, I haven’t seen overshadowed by an inventiveness within the platform. That said, it probably will come. And I look forward to seeing it!

About the Agents

Erin MurphyErin Murphy (‪@agentemurph‪) is the founder of Erin Murphy Literary Agency, which focuses on building careers and community. The agency began as a one-person operation in 1999 and now includes three support staff and two additional agents working in different parts of the country. Erin’s client list includes Golden Kite winner Joanne Rocklin, Jane Addams winner Cynthia Levinson, and New York Times bestselling authors Chris Barton, Robin LaFevers, Liz Garton Scanlon, and Deborah Underwood. Erin’s favorite parts of being an agent are working with her clients editorially to develop their projects for submission, looking at the big picture of each client and his or her work to envision a path for a long-term career, and choosing to work with truly nice, dedicated people. Erin lives and works in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Susan HawkSusan Hawk (@susanhawk) is a literary agent at The Bent Agency, representing every kind of book for kids. Projects she represents share powerful, original writing; strong story-telling and a distinctive, sometimes off-kilter voice. Some recently published client work includes The Graham Cracker Plot by Shelley Tougas (Roaring Brook), 17 First Kisses by Rachael Allen (Harper Teen) and The Ninja Librarians (Sourcebooks). Her favorite projects live at the intersection of literary and commercial. Before agenting, she spent fifteen years in children’s book marketing at Penguin, Henry Holt and North-South Books; she also worked in Editorial at Dutton Children’s Books, and as a children’s librarian and bookseller.

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