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October 1, 2012
By Sally Lodge
Spotlighted here are a quartet of children’s authors, each of whose success stories has its distinctive twist—and happy ending.

It’s always heartening—for writers hoping to get published, editors on the lookout for new talent, and anyone appreciative of a happy ending—to hear tales of self-published writers landing contracts with well-known publishers. Spotlighted here are a quartet of children’s authors, each of whose success stories has its distinctive twist—and happy ending.

Amanda Hocking: Skilled Self-Publisher Changes Tack

As a youngster, Minnesota native Amanda Hocking immersed herself in writing short stories, and finished her first novel at the age of 17. She says she sent “tons and tons” of letters to literary agents over the next several years, but had no success lining one up. Since she was determined to be a published author by the time she was 26, at the beginning of 2010—when she was 25—she decided to take action. “I hadn’t thought that self-publishing was a viable option,” Hocking says. “But I’d heard about authors doing well publishing online, so I decided to give it a try.”

In March 2010, Hocking self-published My Blood Approves, the first in a vampire series, as an e-book. Although she notes that she “didn’t have a huge response at first and was selling maybe 30 books a day,” she received positive reader feedback. After she released additional books, sales soon picked up. By early 2011, Hocking was averaging 9,000 book sales a day, and by that March had sold more than a million copies of her nine self-published e-books.

Once sales took off, Hocking was feeling “overwhelmed and bogged down by the details of publishing” and wanted to devote more time to writing. She decided it was time to find a publisher. Her agent, Steven Axelrod of the Axelrod Agency (she’d acquired him after she began self-publishing), held an auction for rights to her new paranormal series, Watersong.

St. Martin’s Griffin clinched the rights to the four-book series for a reported $2.1 million and, in a separate deal, acquired rights to Hocking’s previously self-published Trylle trilogy. The publisher released trade paperback editions of the latter between January and April of this year. The novels spent a combined 23 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and currently have more than half a million copies in print.

It was the Trylle trilogy that initially caught the eye of St. Martin’s editor Rose Hilliard. “I noticed that her books had received a lot of good reviews on Amazon, so I ordered the trilogy to find out what the fuss was about. I also noticed that her books were self-published, which interested me.”

The editor wasn’t disappointed. “I was immediately drawn in by Amanda’s storytelling style,” she recalls. “Her characters just leap off the page.” After other staffers agreed that Hocking would make a great addition to the company’s YA list, Hilliard contacted Axelrod “to figure out how we could work with her,” and was thrilled when he eventually told her about the upcoming auction for Watersong.

St. Martin’s Griffin released Wake, the inaugural Watersong title, in August with a 100,000-copy first printing. Lullaby will be published in December, with Tidal and Elegy to follow in April and August 2013. “Amanda was one of the first self-published authors to really strike it big,” says Hilliard of Hocking’s success. “She is smart and level-headed, and is a very powerful inspiration to others who are pounding the pavement hoping to make a career out of writing.”

Dallas Clayton: Dreaming Big Pays Off

In 2008, Los Angeleno Dallas Clayton wrote and illustrated a 64-page picture book to deliver a crucial message to his then five-year-old son: never give up on your dreams. Encouraged by friends who thought An Awesome Book! was just that, Clayton sent it off to publishers, but wasn’t thrilled with their responses. “I kept hearing, ‘I love this book, but...’ and ‘It even made me cry, but....’,” he recalls. “I heard there were too many pages, they couldn’t make a return off a full-color book for a first-time author—all the things you don’t want to hear.”

Clayton was also put off by what he perceived as the sluggish pace of the industry. “Sometimes it took three months for editors to get back to me,” he says. “I wanted things to move more quickly. I thought that turning my idea into a kids’ book and having it on the shelf a few weeks later seemed reasonable. I guess I didn’t have a clue!”

So the author (a self-described stickler about paper quality and book design) took matters into his own hands, found a printer he liked, and ordered a print run of 1,000 copies. At the same time, he made the book available online and created a 30-second promotional video to post on his Web site.

“I had initially intended to give the book away to friends for the holidays, but the first printing sold out in a week and I didn’t have any left to give away,” says Clayton, who notes that social media and online word-of-mouth was largely responsible for the success of An Awesome Book!, of which he sold more than 50,000 copies in a year and a half. He also spread news of the book through appearances at schools, colleges, and bookstores, and was approached by AmazonEncore, which in 2010 published Clayton’s second book, An Awesome Book of Thanks! as its first-ever children’s picture book.

Clayton’s good fortune continued at the 2011 London Book Fair, where a U.K. colleague of HarperCollins Children’s Books executives Susan Katz and Kate Jackson showed them the video for An Awesome Book! They immediately conveyed their enthusiasm to v-p and publishing director Emily Brenner, who in turn contacted Clayton’s agent, Richard Abate of 3 Arts Entertainment.

When Abate brought Clayton to HarperCollins’s Manhattan offices, staffers’ interest was further piqued. “We’d gathered about 10 of us—sales, marketing, and editorial teams—to meet him,” recalls Brenner. “The second he walked in, he hugged each one of us, and we all said, ‘This is our guy.’ Not only does he get the rhyming right in his books, which is one of the hardest things to do, but he fills a page with an amazing amount to look at, so that you stand back and say, ‘Wow!’ ” HarperCollins signed Clayton for a three-book deal and issued An Awesome Book! last April. An Awesome Book of Love! will be released in January 2013 with an announced first printing of 100,000 copies. Clayton also has an illustrated poetry collection, Make Magic! Do Good! due from Candlewick in November, and has recently sold a book to Penguin.

The author describes himself as “psyched” to have the opportunity “to work with these publishers whose books I grew up reading. When my first book took off,” he says, “I was interviewed by people who seemed to be saying, ‘You showed them.’ But I was never the guy who set out to say ‘Screw you’ by self-publishing. I always wanted to work with these people who publish very cool books, and now I’m really happy to be doing that.”

Nikki McClure: New Life for a First Book

Now an accomplished cut-paper artist whose self-published calendars and greeting cards have amassed a sizable fan base, Nikki McClure made her first paper cut after returning from a walk one fall day in 1996, in her hometown of Olympia, Wash. As she passed a tree loaded with apples, she put several in her jacket. Once home, inspiration hit. “I’d known that I wanted to make a book, but I had no idea how,” she says. “So I said, ‘Why don’t I make a book about these apples? But how do I make that book?’ My boyfriend at the time suggested I try cutting art out of paper, which I’d never done before. So I drew a picture of an apple falling from a tree, and then cut out the image using an X-Acto knife.”

That cut-paper picture became the first illustration in Apple, a wordless picture book. “One image led to the next, and when I had enough pictures for a book, I ran off to Kinko’s and copied them,” McClure recalls. “I bound them by hand, tied them with a ribbon, and sold them through local bookstores. I didn’t think I needed an agent, publisher, or publicist. I simply made a book and that was it.”

Now, 16 years after its original appearance, Apple has a spiffy reincarnation as a paper-over-board picture book with an embossed cover. It was released in August by—quite fittingly—the Abrams Appleseed imprint, which the publisher launched last spring. McClure has added minimal text—a single word per spread—to the new edition.

McClure came to Abrams via the house’s adult group, which in 2007 published her Collect Raindrops: The Seasons Gathered, a gift book about the change of seasons. “We had also noticed her beautiful calendars, which have a kind of cult following in the Northwest and had made their way east into select gift shops,” says Susan Van Metre, senior v-p and publisher of Abrams Books for Young Readers. “We were looking for an illustrator for All in a Day by Cynthia Rylant, and Nikki seemed to be the perfect one. I got in touch with Nikki’s agent, Steve Malk [of Writers House], about that. As it turned out, Cynthia was already a fan of Nikki’s work.”

That book was released in 2009, and Abrams subsequently published two picture books written and illustrated by McClure, Mama, Is It Summer Yet? (2010) and To Market, to Market (2011). The author has also published several picture books with Seattle-based Sasquatch Books.

Van Metre is especially pleased to be releasing Apple under Abrams Appleseed, which she credits publishing director Cecily Kaiser for helping to launch. “It definitely seems like fate that we had come up with the name for our new imprint for preschoolers about the same time we decided to republish Apple,” says Van Metre. “It came together perfectly. We knew that the simplicity and boldness of Nikki’s art made it a perfect book for small children, but the breadth of its appeal exceeds our original expectations.”

McClure, who has another picture book, How to Be a Cat, due from Abrams Appleseed next April, is overjoyed to see the return of Apple. “I always wanted this to be a real book that could be read to a child sitting on someone’s lap, but I didn’t have the means—if I found a quarter on the sidewalk in 1996 it was a good day—or comprehension about how to do that. Seeing this book as a real hardcover is so sweet to me. It’s like I had a baby grow up and now I get to have my little baby back again. And even cuter this time around.”

Abbi Glines: Exploring a New Direction

On September 14, Simon & Schuster announced that its Simon Pulse imprint has acquired the rights to two contemporary YA romance novels that were previously self-published by Alabama author Abbi Glines: The Vincent Boys and The Vincent Brothers. Glines has had a great ride with the books, having sold a combined 150,000 digital copies since October 2011, and Simon Pulse obviously expects to build the momentum: its paperback editions of the novels—due in October and December, respectively—each has an announced first printing of 250,000 copies. The publisher will issue simultaneous hardcover print runs, and has already released e-book editions of the novels this past August.

In 2010, Glines published her first novel, Breathe, with Wild Child, a small California publisher that specializes in e-books, but with The Vincent Boys, she decided to switch tactics. “This novel has a steamy side, and pushes the line typically found in YA,” she says. “I didn’t want anyone to tell me that I couldn’t put those steamy parts in the book, so I published it myself as an e-book in October 2011. It became so popular that by December I realized I had to get it out in paperback.”

The Vincent Brothers followed, in both e-book and paperback editions. Then she continued the Sea Breeze series, which had launched with Breathe: the e-books, Because of Low and While It Lasts, both became USA Today bestsellers. While It Lasts, with 87,000 copies in print, has become Glines’s bestselling title to date. This year, she also self-published paranormal e-books Predestined and Ceaseless, and plans to republish Breathe herself, as well as Existence, a paranormal e-book also published by Wild Child, when rights to each revert to her.

Glines, who says she spent about three months trying to find a mainstream publisher for Breathe before it was picked up by Wild Child, maintains that her main goal was not to be published traditionally—but to sell books. Clearly, she has a knack for that: she has sold a combined 380,000 copies of her self-published e-books, which she estimates translates into profits of $800,000. “Self-publishing has been a fun experience,” she says. “I’ve met some awesome people doing it and have been able to make a lot of money.”

But she’s pleased to have signed her contract with Simon Pulse, a deal brokered by Jane Dystel of Dystel & Goderich. The author says Dystel had contacted her this past June after noticing the Vincent books’ sales success and subsequently reading the novels. “My biggest concern about going with a traditional publisher is losing the control I have self-publishing,” she says. “But the team at Simon Pulse is amazing, and lets me make decisions. I’m very happy with them.”

The feeling is mutual. Jennifer Klonsky, editorial director of Simon Pulse, explains that her colleagues at S&S U.K. had given her the heads-up about The Vincent Boys and The Vincent Brothers, which had been submitted to that office. “We read them immediately—you can’t stop once you start,” she says. “And we know that this kind of sensual romance is unbelievably popular now, so we went full steam ahead with the acquisition. We were inspired by the success Abbi has had on her own—she’s a brilliant marketer and self-promoter. We want to build on her approach in a very collaborative way.”

Like other editors who weighed in on tapping the ranks of self-publishers to find new talent, Klonsky views them as a rich resource. “This is a group of very smart people who are not to be ignored,” she says. “I think as our landscape continues to change, this is one of the ways we can stay relevant. It’s another terrific avenue for us to explore—and explore seriously.”

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