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July 27, 2015
By Alex Palmer
Social media and other online tools have made it easier than ever for authors to connect with readers, but they’ve also made it more difficult for self-published titles to stand out.

Social media and other online tools have made it easier than ever for authors to connect with readers, but they’ve also made it more difficult for self-published titles to stand out. Authors of self-published children’s books, in particular, have their marketing work cut out for them. Promotions for these titles have to appeal to two distinct groups: kids and the adults, such as parents and grandparents, who might buy books for them.

“You must market to both the child who will be at the library picking out his or her book and the adult who will ultimately be the one to buy the book for the child,” says Tiffany Papageorge, who self-published the children’s book My Yellow Balloon. “Marketing an adult book is not nearly as complicated.”

Papageorge’s efforts to connect with these buyers have included an active social media presence and outreach to “mommy blogs,” as well as live events at schools and bookstores. This combination of marketing efforts and steady sales attracted the interest of the independent publisher Sourcebooks, which reached out to her about setting up a traditional publishing deal and distributing the book. But after reviewing the costs and benefits of a more traditional route, Papageorge opted to continue her indie approach.

Authors can engage parents and groups on social media using the topics in their books to start or join relevant conversations. If parents are discussing ways to deal with bullying or making friends at a new school, an author whose book addresses these topics can chime in.

Full-color print editions are the norm for children’s books, which can mean a significant cost for each book ordered via print-on-demand. An author can arrange for distribution through a company like Baker & Taylor, which will also allow books to be advertised in its catalogs. And services like Lulu and Amazon’s CreateSpace allow for authors to print and sell books as they are ordered.

Fan Involvement

A book often gets its most important endorsements from fans, and that is especially true of children’s books: enthusiastic parents and their kids become near evangelists for the characters they love. Tapping these resources can begin in the book’s planning stages, by spreading the word through a Kickstarter or Indiegogo campaign, for example. This helps increase awareness of an

author’s project while raising money for production and distribution, and testing whether there is strong enough interest to proceed. Services like Inkshares combine the crowdfunding approach with publishing services, providing design, printing, and distribution (and 50% royalties) to books that meet their preorder goals.

Authors can also find more personal ways to connect fans with their books. Alonda Williams wrote Penny and the Magic Puffballs, in part, to help give her African-American daughter confidence about wearing her hair differently from other girls in her class. Williams connected with potential fans online by

creating a Facebook page for the character and holding a contest for parents to take a photo of their daughters wearing their hair in “puffballs.” Williams then included some of these photos in the back of the book, getting more interest from followers. She then gave away a free copy of the book each day for the 15 days leading up to its launch.

“I was able to get over 1,000 fans in the first three days and have leveled off at around 11,000 fans,” Williams says. The book has since sold more than 5,000 copies and she has a follow-up coming out in a few weeks.

Create Memorable Events

"You must market to both the child who will be at the library picking out his or her book and the adult who will ultimately be the one to buy the book for the child"
Events can be a major opportunity for children’s book authors, but a straightforward reading usually won’t be enough to keep kids’ attention and open their parents’ pocketbooks. “We have authors that write in other genres as well, but we find that children’s books can be the most effective for self-pubbed authors to get events,” says Julie Schoerke, founder of JKS Communications, a literary publicity firm that worked with traditionally published authors for years before adding self-published authors to its stable.

Children’s books lend themselves to high-energy interactions with young readers. Authors looking to make events part of their marketing plans might want to consider ways to add extra fun and games. For example, Sharyn Shields recently held an event for her book The Wisdom of Dr. Soles, about a plain shoe who learns to accept herself for what she is.

Shields created life-size models of the shoe characters from her book—with names like Plain Jane, Miss Diva, and Road Runner—and performed selections at a farmers’ market at the mixed-use Serenbe urban community outside of Atlanta. “The models were very successful in drawing children

to my table at the Serenbe Farmers Market from a distance so that I could interact with them further and get them involved with the book,” Shields says. “Reporters were also interested in the 3-D visual display. I’ve been contacted for an interview for a local magazine by the editor who was impressed with the crowd response to the life-sized models from the book.”

Distribution Challenges

Indie authors continue to face difficulties when it comes to getting access to schools and libraries. “It’s virtually impossible to get statewide library awards that launch an author onto summer or school reading lists like traditionally published books,” Schoerke says.

With so many writers already struggling to get their titles noticed, indie authors need to put extra effort into getting schools interested in hosting their events. Kristy Short—whose Zanda Humphrey series includes Operation Nice, about a fourth grader who creates a robot to fight bullying—got creative in marketing her book to schools and parents for educational events.

“What finally got me into schools was developing a one-hour antibullying assembly/workshop around [Operation Nice],” Short says. “The story resonated with the kids and the assembly was a success.” Over the years, she has spoken before some 5,000 kids and “sold a lot of books” in the process.

Kevin Christofora took a similar approach in marketing The Hometown All Stars, which offers instructions on the basics of Little League baseball and aims to both entertain kids and offer guidance to coaches. This means a built-in audience, and Christofora reached out to regional and state Little League groups, not just to advertise the book but to suggest ways that it could be incorporated into the organizations’ fund-raising efforts.

“I offered the book at cost, so the groups could add $5 to the registration fee so every kid gets a free book,” Christofora says. “It helps to start driving education before they start their first day and makes it easy for parents.”

Shields has also found success in partnering with organizations on events and gatherings for The Wisdom of Dr. Soles. She offers presentations at schools, asking teachers or administrators to recommend students to help play characters or narrate the story in front of other students, making the experience more engaging for everyone. “I’ve also had event bookings with youth organizations like the Girl Scouts and Diamond in the Rough,” Shields says. “The Wisdom of Dr. Soles gives me a fun way to teach young children that everyone has their own unique talents and inherent value.”

Papageorge urges authors to get as much face time with the leaders of such organizations as possible. “Most organizations have their own conferences. Find out where they are and get a booth,” she says. “As much as social media can bring about mass awareness, there truly isn’t anything as impactful or meaningful as human-to-human contact, because presence fosters an authentic experience for both sides.”

Expand the Network

Of course, author’s don’t have to host actual live events to achieve marketing success. There is an extensive community of children’s book writers worth tapping. For example, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators boasts more than 22,000 members and 70 regional chapters, hosting conferences throughout the year at which writers, illustrators, editors, publishers, and agents can meet and interact.

Authors should also never underestimate the power of their own friends and families. “My theory was to follow the money,” says Mary Stern, who self-published her Cowboy Dog series, about a boy, his grandmother, and the eponymous canine. “I called former CEOs and executives that I worked with during my corporate days. They bought hundreds of books. Many gave books to their employees; others donated books to children’s hospitals.”

Williams has found targeted Facebook ads to be a crucial ingredient in building a following and generating interest in Penny and the Magic Puffballs. “The key to success is intimately knowing your audience before you start marketing,” she says. “Social media, especially advanced analytics on Facebook, allows you to target your audience very effectively. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have all been very helpful. However, Facebook offers the best campaign targeting.”

Children’s titles also lend themselves to merchandise and giveaways—and authors should consider offering bookmarks, posters, or other items featuring the book’s characters as sales incentives. Laura Barta took this approach even further with her 2011 self-published book, My China Travel Journal, which follows a pair of American children as they visit China and learn about its culture and cuisine. Barta founded Whole World Wide Toys, a toy company, to include the book as a learning tool in its World Village Playset China. The set also includes color story cards for reading comprehension, a fabric play mat, and standup puzzle pieces.

“I created World Village Playsets to add an element of creative play to the reading experience. The play mat features several artistic details that are culturally accurate and featured prominently in the story line to help children become more familiar with China,” Barta says. “I believe that kids can learn in many different ways, and they can have fun while they learn.”