Find out the latest indie author news. For FREE.

March 28, 2011
By Sally Lodge

Tales of self-published kids' books that have become backlist staples for trade houses are familiar publishing lore. Two are titles written by young readers themselves: Christopher Paolini's Eragon, first published by his family, then found a home with Knopf in 2003, and Alec Greven's How to Talk to Girls, which grew out of a school report and was picked up by Collins in 2008. And more than 20 years ago, Jerry Pallotta's self-published alphabet books were the inaugural four releases from Charlesbridge's trade division and are still among its bestsellers. Here are less well-known stories of nine self-published titles that are flourishing in second lives with mainstream companies.

A Feisty Feline Hits His Stride

A chance encounter at an Atlanta stoplight led to the creation of Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes, written by children's musician Eric Litwin and illustrated by James Dean. Waiting for the light to turn, Litwin recognized Dean, a local artist known for his paintings of a blue cat named Pete, in the next car. Litwin told him he was a big fan of Pete and asked if he wanted to collaborate on a book; thus a children's book protagonist was born.

In 2008, the two self-published a book in which the singing, sneaker-wearing Pete struts his stuff. The collaborators—Litwin on guitar and banjo and Dean with giant easel—promoted their book at Atlanta-area bookstores, schools, libraries, and festivals, and sold some 4,000 copies. One bookseller showed the book to HarperCollins sales rep Eric Svenson, who passed it along to the house's picture-book team. "We are always on the lookout for great new characters with a unique quality, and Pete had that," says Margaret Anastas, editorial director of HarperCollins Children's Books. "Across the board, everyone here felt this book could be a success on our list."

HarperCollins released Pete the Cat in March 2010 and sent Litwin and Dean on a five-city tour; the book spent three weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and has sold 50,000 copies. The duo will hit the road again in August, when Pete returns in Pete the Cat: Rocking in My School Shoes, which has an announced 75,000-copy first printing.

Writing from the Heart

Floridian Laura Duksta was working as a bartender when her nephew inspired her to write I Love You More, a flip book revealing love from both a parent's and a child's perspective. After receiving rejections from publishers and agents, she borrowed money from her mother and in 2001 self-published the picture book, which features art by Karen Keesler. Passionate about her book and its message, Duksta visited schools and art festivals, and hand-sold copies to galleries and children's stores across the country. After selling 179,000 copies, author and illustrator signed up with agent Cathy Hemming, who placed the book with Sourcebooks Jabberwocky.

"We had just launched Jabberwocky, and I Love You More was a perfect fit for us," says Todd Stocke, Sourcebooks' v-p and editorial director. "Laura had had extensive success within gift and specialty channels, and our job was not just to put the book in bookstores but to nurture both markets and expand her reach in nonbookstores."

Jabberwocky's first picture book, I Love You More was released in October 2007. The publisher has sold 120,000 copies, as well as 50,000 copies of a board book edition released in September 2009. Duksta continues to spread her message of love in You Are a Gift to the World, illustrated by Dona Turner, due in April, which she'll promote on a five-week national tour.

Labyrinthine Path to Production

For years, math whiz Jason Shiga worked on creating Meanwhile: Pick Any Path. 3,856 Story Possibilities, a graphic novel in which readers use myriad tubes and tabs to follow various adventure paths. The process entailed making a series of seven increasingly complex flow charts and writing a computer program to map the branches of the story. Shiga then created black-and-white art, which he photocopied and stapled together, cutting the tabs on each page by hand. In 2001, he began selling the book on his Web site and at comics conventions, and moved approximately 1,000 copies.

"This book is an incredible reading experience, and as soon as I held the self-published version in my hands, I couldn't let it go," says Maggie Lehrman, senior editor of Abrams Books for Young Readers and Amulet. Together with Charles Kochman, now editorial director of Abrams ComicArts, she bought Meanwhile from Shiga's agent, Dan Lazar of Writers House. "We knew we wanted to run with the book, but trying to figure out how to mass produce something so complicated was the hard part," Lehrman says.

After Shiga colorized his art on the computer and the production department mastered numerous challenges (including sourcing paper that could reproduce the graphics well and resist rips), the Amulet title rolled off press in March 2010 and currently has 45,000 copies in print. Meanwhile was named an ALA Best Graphic Novel and a Booklist Top 10 graphic novel, and has had solid sales in the trade and in the comics community, Lehrman reports. Abrams ComicArts will release Shiga's adult graphic novel, Empire State: A Love Story (or Not), in April.

Gift Book Gets New Look

After 25 years as a flight attendant, Corinne Humphrey retired and promptly did two things she'd long wanted to do: adopt a dog (which she named Rudy) from a shelter and take a painting class. Both steps helped inspire The Tao of Rudy, a book she self-published in 2007. A frequent inspirational speaker in her Park City, Utah, area, Humphrey sold more than 2,000 copies of her book about making the most out of one's life, which won an Independent Publishers Bronze "IPPY" Award for Most Outstanding Design in 2008.

Almost simultaneously, Humphrey met two people who urged her to submit her book to Chronicle: a friend of Tyrrell Mahoney, Chronicle's v-p of sales and marketing, and Feiwel and Friends publisher Jean Feiwel, whom Humphrey encountered at BEA. Humphrey followed their advice and sent her book to San Francisco.

"When we saw it, we saw exactly what those people had seen: a graphic, punchy, gift book, which is Chronicle's specialty," says editor Julie Romeis. "We worked with Corinne to edit the book, and gave it a fresh design and new title so that it would appeal to a broader kid audience."

Chronicle will release Shoot for the Moon: Lessons on Life from a Dog Named Rudy with a 15,000-copy first printing in May. "With its inspirational wisdom, this book is reminiscent of Oh, the Places You'll Go!" Romeis observes. "It makes a wonderful graduation gift."

A Leap from Web to Page

In 2009, adult novelist Catherynne M. Valente published her first children's book, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, as an online serial. The novel, centering on a girl who is transported to Fairyland to help inhabitants deal with turmoil, was named the 2010 CultureGeek Best Web Fiction of the Decade and won the 2010 Andrew Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy—the first work ever to win this prize before appearing in book form. The story garnered accolades in tweets and blogs, including from Neil Gaiman and Cory Doctorow.

Valente's agent, Howard Morhaim, brought the book to auction, and Liz Szabla, editor-in-chief of Feiwel and Friends, clinched the rights for Fairyland and a sequel. "As I did some research before the auction, I realized how popular this book was online," says Szabla. "That only fueled the fire of our wanting to publish it. I am really tough on fantasy, and this was a find."

Featuring illustrations by Ana Juan, Fairyland pubs in May with a 50,000-copy first printing. Valente will embark on a four-city tour and will attend a number of upcoming conferences.

Launching with a Splash

Sterling's Splinter YA line debuted in January with Colleen Houck's Tiger's Curse, a paranormal romance originally published by the author on Kindle in fall 2009. When the Kindle book, about a girl who attempts to piece together an ancient prophecy to break a curse, appeared, Houck "quickly cultivated a devoted fan base online," says Cindy Loh, editorial director of Sterling's Children's Books and Splinter. After arriving at Sterling in April 2010, Loh heard from a friend at a Hollywood studio that a self-published property was making the studio rounds. She contacted Houck's newly acquired agent, Alex Glass at Trident, who sent her the manuscripts of Tiger's Curse and its two sequels.

"I took them home that night and quickly devoured them, entirely ignoring my family," says Loh. "Everyone at Sterling agreed that this was the book we wanted as Splinter's first." Sterling released the novel with a hefty 250,000-copy first printing and a $250,000 marketing and publicity campaign. "We wanted to make a big statement when we launched Splinter, and felt this was the perfect book to do that with," Loh says.

The novel took the #1 slot on its first day on sale and subsequently spent four weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Splinter has an aggressive publishing schedule for the next installments of Houck's five-book series, with Tiger's Quest coming out in June and Tiger's Voyage in November. "We don't want to make readers wait," says Loh.

School Request Triggers Deal

Diane Lang and Michael Buchanan drew from their experience as high school teachers to write The Fat Boy Chronicles, which follows a teenager's struggles with obesity, abuse, and isolation. The Charlotte, N.C., authors self-published the book early last year and had sold some 1,000 copies when local school district requested 2,000 copies for a community-wide reading initiative. Bookseller Virginia Meldrun, owner of the Owl's Tree in Powder Springs, Ga., suggested that the authors contact Sleeping Bear Press, and a contract was soon inked.

"We needed to move quite quickly with the book, given the school district's deadline," says publisher Heather Hughes. "We tweaked the book a bit in terms of design and did some copyediting and proofreading. We fulfilled the school's order and then brought the book out in the trade." The July 2010 release has sold 25,000 copies.

"This book is a good fit for our press, since we are used to a real grassroots publishing approach," says Hughes. "There has never been a greater need for communities to discuss bullying. From e-mails we've received, we've learned that the book has been helpful in starting discussions. We're very pleased to be a part of that."

Propitious Encounter Leads to Book's New Incarnation

After receiving rejection letters from some 100 agents, in 2007 Bryan Chick decided to self-publish The Secret Zoo, his novel about a magical land that lies behind the walls of a zoo. He sold copies to bookstores in his local Ann Arbor, Mich., area and visited schools, making presentations to, in his estimation, some 20,000 students. In a conversation with one principal, Chick mentioned he wished he could connect with a publisher, and the principal mentioned that his aunt, Lois Adams, is the managing editor of Greenwillow.

"Lois read the novel and passed it along to me," says Steve Geck, Greenwillow's executive editor. "I fell in love with the book. Bryan knows how to write characters, and his novel had great pacing and was absolutely on target for middle-grade readers." The house published the book in June 2010 and sent the author on tour, releasing the paperback the following December. The two editions have sold a combined 35,000

In February, Greenwillow published a follow-up, The Secret Zoo: Secrets and Shadows; The Secret Zoo: Riddles and Danger will follow next fall. The series will continue, says Geck: "Bryan thought up this series when he was in elementary school, and has at least a 15-book arc in mind. The paperback sales of The Secret Zoo grow every week, which is always nice to see." The author will tour again in April.

From Journal to Picture Book

Cheryl Kilodavis's My Princess Boy, illustrated by Suzane De Simone, centers on a four-year-old who happily wears traditional girl things like dresses, jewelry, and tiaras. The book grew out of Kilodavis's journal entries about her son, a self-titled "princess boy." Kilodavis self-published the book in 2008, first having it bound by a copy center and, as news of it spread by word-of-mouth, hiring a printer to produce 1,000 copies, which she sold on Amazon.

After the author was interviewed in People and appeared on Today, Kilodavis sought out a publisher; last fall Simon & Schuster signed up the book, releasing it under the Aladdin imprint in December. There are now 20,000 copies of My Princess Boy in print. "We knew right away we wanted to do this book, to make sure that its message about acceptance gets out to a wider audience," says Aladdin editorial director Fiona Simpson. "This is a beautiful story that needs to be told."