Shifting Gears and Finding Indie Success
How one innovative author-illustrator leveraged self-publishing.The children’s book author and illustrator Michelle Nelson-Schmidt studied physics in college before deciding to pursue her first love, art and design. “I’ve always been a bit insecure about my credentials as a ‘writer,’ ” she says. “I’m a storyteller, though, and in order to tell my stories in book form, I spent a lot of time self-educating before I pursued publishing.”
Growing up, Nelson-Schmidt was a voracious reader; she credits Shel Silverstein with inspiring her lifelong love of rhyme. She also counts Tomie dePaola, Judy Blume, and the Nancy Drew books as formative childhood influences. Nelson-Schmidt’s publishing story is one that demonstrates the power of innovation and direct marketing, as well as the benefits of being adaptable at each step of an evolving career.
Nelson-Schmidt began writing and illustrating picture books as a single mom who was painting pet portraits to supplement her income as a freelance graphic designer. “I painted over 800 paintings for people in that time,” she says. “Not only did that really hone my painting style but it gave me the confidence to think that if people would buy my art, they might also buy my books.”
Nelson-Schmidt put some feelers out into children’s publishing and was offered a deal with Kane Miller for Dogs, Dogs! and Cats, Cats!, rhyming books that feature adjectives about dogs and cats (both released in 2011). Though she started out being traditionally published, circumstances led her to become a trailblazer.
Right around the time that Nelson-Schmidt signed her contract, Kane Miller was aquired by Educational Development Corporation; as a result of this acquisition, she learned, her titles would not be sold on Amazon. Rather than panic, Nelson-Schmidt adjusted her approach. “I basically shifted gears and instead of promoting myself to the public, I promoted myself to the ever-growing team of direct sellers who sold my books at home shows, at Facebook parties, booth events, and, most importantly, directly to schools and libraries,” she says.
By being flexible, Nelson-Schmidt also developed a sense of ownership over the marketing of her books, using her contacts to develop creative outreach to schools and libraries. “I’ve done school visits in 38 states, been to over 800 schools, and talked to hundreds of thousands of children,” she notes.
In addition to her school visits, Nelson-Schmidt is very active on social media; for example, she reads her books and shares art for her weekly online series, Storytime Live. “Storytime is a pretty joyful half hour I look forward to every week,” she says.
Nelson-Schmidt’s other picture books published with Kane Miller include Bob Is a Unicorn, Cordelia, Dog and Mouse, and Jonathan James and the Whatif Monster. She also has a line of plush toys to accompany the books, which she sells independently on her website. “I had made sure to maintain all my licensing and merchandising rights when I published, because I knew I wanted to create multiple income streams with my art and the characters I had created,” she says.
In the process of promoting her books and networking with direct sales consultants, Nelson-Schmidt has developed a broad fan base. Having name recognition and a robust audience already familiar with her books came in handy when she decided to self-publish her first middle grade novel. “I originally offered it to my publisher, but they declined to buy it,” she says. “It’s a story I really need to tell, and self-publishing made a lot of sense.”Nelson-Schmidt will publish Cordelia and the Whale this fall. The novel arose from her previous picture book project, Cordelia, which she was inspired to write while taking walks on Martha’s Vineyard to ease her anxiety during a writing retreat. The child character in that story asserted herself in a way that Nelson-Schmidt says she couldn’t ignore: “Cordelia whispered, ‘My name is Cordelia, and I can fly.’ I ended up making a picture book from that one sentence.”
About a year later, a second character spoke to Nelson-Schmidt—a blue whale named Beatrice, who informed her that she was the one who taught Cordelia to fly. “Ironically, that turned into my first novel—all from walks I took to deal with the anxiety and doubt from not being a real ‘writer’ like my retreat companions,” she says.
Readers will likely not share Nelson-Schmidt’s doubt as she continues to take her personable and authentic approach to promoting her stories. “I have found the best promotion is just being me and doing what I love to do: encouraging people and trying to make both children and adults feel good about themselves, even on the hard, messy days of life,” she says.
Correction: A previous version of this story reported that Kane Miller was was acquired by Usborne Books & More. The company was acquired by Educational Development Corporation.
Correction: A previous version of this story reported that Nelson-Schmidt’s books would not be sold in major retail locations. The titles are available in retail locations, but not available on Amazon.