Telling Stories to Children
How to create a successful self-published children's book
Self-publishing a children’s book is very different from self-publishing adult fiction or nonfiction.Aspiring children’s book authors have it tough. They’re trying to push their work into a glutted field, with far more supply than demand, and publishing houses aren’t known for investing in unknown writers.
On the surface, the growth of self-publishing tools and digital marketing channels seems like the perfect answer for a children’s book author who hasn’t been able to catch the attention of a publishing house.
However, the process of creating and marketing a children’s book is very different from that for a piece of fiction or nonfiction meant for adults. For instance, being able to write does not necessarily mean being able to write for children. Gail Kearns, cofounder of To Press & Beyond, an advisory service that helps self-published writers develop professional-quality books, says that many children’s book authors write from an adult point of view.
Young at Heart, Young in Mind
It’s a problem that Penny Paine, children’s author and art director at To Press & Beyond, has noticed as well. “[Many children’s authors] haven’t had any child development courses,” she says. “They don’t appreciate that a three-, four-, or five-year-old won’t comprehend some of the feelings or issues they bring up.”
Often, authors want to write children’s books because they want to impart something they appreciated as a child, or to send a message, which can make their story overly didactic. Thus, adults sometimes compromise one value to illustrate another, Paine says: “It might be fine to have a child do something very brave, but then the punishment will come in.” Paine is aware that fairy tales often incorporate this structure: heroic action leads to less-than-ideal consequences. For children’s books, she says, this structure can be a problem because it can make the book harder to sell.
And even during the writing process itself, many children’s book authors overlook that they’re telling stories to children. Kearns has found herself stripping out words from overwritten texts. Moreover, many children’s book authors forget to incorporate dialogue or develop a plot. “Try to have something that is exciting in the story, so it does have that movement, and a resolution at the end,” Paine suggests. “Hopefully, there’s a crisis of some sort.”Action is especially important, as children’s books are now competing in a world of video games, movies, and digital entertainment. Describing abstractions like feelings isn’t easy, and often the language used in adult novels to describe even things like sounds and smells doesn’t resonate with children. Paine recalls working on a book that tried to describe the frustration of being bullied. “It’s very difficult to use the words and show it in the pictures,” she says.
One trick? Use action verbs. “You need to have some movement in the story and in the illustrations as well,” Kearns says. “Sometimes we go through 20 drafts with a client, and it’s not even final at that point. Once you put illustrations with text, the text will change.”
The Illustration Challenge
Few children’s book authors are also illustrators. Traditional publishing houses prefer to find an illustrator to work with their authors. To Press & Beyond also provides this service for its clients. But for authors who don’t work with a traditional publishing house or a publishing services provider, the process of finding an illustrator can be both daunting and expensive.
Karen Inglis, who has self-published four children’s and young adult books since 2011, got lucky. She began searching for an artist to do black-and-white illustrations for her book Eeek! The Runaway Alien. She searched through Google and scoured her network of friends and acquaintances until she nearly gave up.
“I couldn’t find somebody I could afford, or who had the right ideas,” she recalls. Although Inglis herself couldn’t draw, she doodled an alien for Eeek and went online looking for a Photoshop expert who could clean it up. Eventually, she found Kundalic Damir, who did such a good job she asked if he also illustrated children’s books. He didn’t, but they began working together. Damir re-did the cover for Inglis’s first book, The Secret Lake, and provided illustrations for her children’s book Ferdinand Fox’s Big Sleep.
Inglis is very precise in describing how she wants the illustrations to look. “Were I working with a completely different illustrator who’s done a lot of children’s books, I could see it being different,” she says, noting that she is separated from Damir (who is Bosnian) both by geography and language. “I do brief him quite tightly and that works well for both us.”Asked about the importance of author-illustrator communication, Kearns and Paine burst out laughing. The two helped the children’s book Night Buddies, written by Sands Hetherington and illustrated by Jessica Love. “They’re always butting heads because he’s very literal,” Kearns says. “She’s absolutely the perfect person for the job, but he is so literal, if she takes any creative license it kind of upsets him.”
Part of the problem, Paine agrees, can be distance. “I’ve done several books myself and was very fortunate because the illustrator was close by where I was living,” Paine says. “In that case, I let her take over. I created the words, she created the artwork, and my only requirement was, no faces.”
Another big hurdle for self-published authors looking for an illustrator: pricing. In many cases, this limits whom a writer can work with and it is one of the biggest challenges Inglis had to overcome. Before she found Damir, she’d identified another artist whose work she liked. But not only was that artist busy, her fee was beyond Inglis’s range. “She wanted, understandably, a lot of money, and I didn’t have the confidence I’d sell a lot of books to get the money back,” she says.
Illustrator prices range from the hundreds to the thousands; the best of the best can command around $10,000 for just a cover. For a self-published children’s book, which can cost an average of $20,000 to produce, including printing a four-color text, marketing, and distribution, budgeting is imperative.
“We’ve had a couple of [art] students work on books, and they’ve been very good and cost our clients a lot less,” Paine says. “It’s not quite so bad when we’re in the electronic and technical era, but when we were doing print, it was quite difficult.”
A self-published author trying to market books for adults can be successful without ever leaving his or her desk. A savvy search, marketing, and advertising campaign, as well as the right type of online interaction, can generate a fervent fan base. No such luck for children’s book authors, who have to be present at book fairs, signings, and readings in order to generate an audience following. Much of this has to do with their target market being composed of kids, many of whom might be too young to use Facebook, Twitter, or any of the other social media sites that authors focus on to build a platform.
“Discoverability for children’s books by self-published authors is challenging because our end-user typically discovers his or her book at a school fair, bricks-and-mortar store, or from a referral,” says Jeffrey Gunhus. Gunhus writes books for adults as well as the middle-grade Jack Templar fantasy series that is aimed at the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson set. “They’re typically not trolling the Amazon bestseller lists or clicking the suggested reads in an online retailer sidebar. Indies have to get their books in front of parents and grandparents who buy for their kids.”
Stacie Hutton’s book Shovelful of Sunshine, published through the small press Headline Books, takes place amid the tightly knit coal-mining families in Appalachia. Hutton makes it a point to attend readings and book fairs, where she encounters families with a strong lineage in coal mining and signs each book in honor of those relatives.
“When I go to events and they know I’m signing the books in honor of coal-miner relatives, it’s not a stretch that I will sell to almost every person there,” she recalls. “We had an entire school buy a copy for the entire school population. And then we had another school, off the heels of that, pop up and say they wanted to have a book for every child.”
The Tour’s the Thing
When children’s book authors tour, they need to do more than simply present their books and say, here: read this, it’s entertaining. As Hutton discovered, it’s about building a genuine connection with both children and their parents.
When Gunhus goes on blog tours to build word of mouth and participate in communities, his message goes beyond simply selling books.
“The main difference in my marketing stems from the reason I wrote my children’s series,” he says. “My son was a reluctant reader, so I wrote book number one in an effort to get him excited about reading.” Gunhus’s outreach focuses on helping parents get their own children to read, suggesting strategies, and recommending other books besides his own. “Having a cause you are passionate about that speaks to your target audience aids in the promotion of the novels,” he says, “but also makes the author experience even more rewarding.”
And that’s the best type of children’s book—one that’s as rewarding to the creator as it is to parents and children.