With all the changes taking place in the publishing industry, it seems harder than ever for even the best writers to secure a book deal. Those who do land with a traditional publisher often find that their time there is short-lived, unless their sales meet or exceed expectations. Adult genre writers are solving this problem by self-publishing, either with the help of a literary agent or on their own. But should children’s book authors do the same? I asked literary agents Kate McKean and Kevan Lyon.
Self-publishing phenom Amanda Hocking sold over a million copies of her YA paranormal series before partnering with St. Martin’s. Do you think that series writers like Hocking have a better chance of self-publishing success than those who write single titles? Do young adult writers have an edge over middle grade writers because their core audience is more likely to live online, and their work has the potential to crossover to the new adult and adult markets?
[KM] In a word, yes, and that’s because the reader here is doing the buying, whether it’s an adult reading YA or a teen with a debit card and Kindle. Middle grade readers read on devices some, but they aren’t necessarily doing the shopping. That’s the hurdle to cross. But whether this has to do with YA titles often coming in series or not is not really the issue here. There are tons of middle grade series. The anecdotal evidence I’ve seen, however, is that the more titles a self-published author has up, the more visibility they can possibly garner.
[KL] I do believe that YA writers probably have an edge over middle grade writers in the indie publishing world. Many YA authors are appealing to a crossover readership that is buying both adult fiction and young adult fiction. It is hard to know how many teen readers we are reaching online, but the crossover market is significant. I think this is less the case for middle grade. However, the YA market is still heavily print-dominated on the traditional publishing side, which would suggest that print readership is still an important component of building a young adult fan base.
For picture book writers, one of the obvious obstacles to self-publishing print copies is the cost and quality of color printing. Those who opt to self-publish in the e-book format have several platforms to choose from specifically designed for illustrated books, but this doesn’t solve a much bigger issue for children’s book writers of all categories: distribution to the school & library market. Are limits in distribution the main challenge facing self-published children’s book authors?
[KM] For picture book writers, the cost of producing the book is one hurdle, and distributing it is another bigger hurdle. Bookstores are not likely to stock many self-published titles, so that leaves online distribution only. And as you said, this doesn’t even touch the school and library market. I think distribution is a big obstacle for self-published picture book writers, but so is discoverability. Even if parents are reading to their kids on a full-color tablet, how do those parents even find a book? App stores and the like are notoriously bad for books and little-known entities. Self-publishing is great for many, many writers and genres, but not all, as we can see here.
[KL] I spoke with my colleague Kathleen Rushall, who handles all levels of children’s books for our agency, and she feels it is one of the primary difficulties. Cost is another big factor. Self-publishing a full-color print picture book can be very expensive with little room for a profit margin, especially without distribution. And that’s assuming the author is also creating the art. Otherwise, there’s the additional cost of hiring an illustrator. The author would have to pay for a print run of a number of copies all at once (the cost per copy gets lower as the amount of copies printed goes up, but the total upfront price would be high), or he or she could choose the print-on-demand option. This is not without its own challenges, however, as the cost per copy would be much higher than other picture books on the market and would only be available through one channel.
Would you recommend crowdsourced publishing platforms like Wattpad or Kindle Scout for debut authors? Wattpad boasts a number of success stories of YA writers landing traditional publishing deals after using their platform (Brittany Geragotelis, Beth Reekles). Are these stories the rare exception, or can crowdsourced publishing increase a writer’s chances of receiving a book deal?
[KM] There are success stories of these platforms that have led to fame and riches for the authors and that’s wonderful. But that’s just as likely outside those platforms as inside. If it’s not a matter of posting to get cherry picked for a book deal, and more of a way for a writer to get exposure and feedback on her work, I’m all for these kinds of platforms. I don’t actively search them for clients, but other agents do, I believe.
[KL] I am a big fan of what Wattpad and other similar platforms are doing to help bring authors’ work to new readers. Many of these authors have successfully gone on to expand their readership beyond these platforms either via indie publishing or traditional publishing. Ultimately the author’s goal is to reach the widest possible readership and if these platforms can help achieve that then I am in favor of it. It isn’t always easy to convert readers that are accustomed to getting their content for free to paying for it, but generally with the right publishing strategy this can be very effective.
Back in September, The Horn Book editor-in-chief Roger Sutton said that he doesn’t review self-published books for children because most are “pretty terrible.” From what you’ve observed in query letters and online, is Sutton right? How would a review in a respected journal like The Horn Book, Publishers Weekly, or Kirkus affect your assessment of a self-published submission? An award from an established organization like SCBWI? If you came across a submission that’s received the Spark Award, for example, would you be more likely to represent it or the author’s next book, assuming you love the writing?
[KM] It’s hard to write a good book, period. Reviews of self-published books don’t sway me one way or another. I still have to like the book and believe in it, regardless of what Kirkus thinks. The problem with awards, most often, is that agents don’t know where they come from, how big the pool of entries was, or who judged them. Winning first place out of 50 is different than winning first place out of 50,000. There are some big awards that most agents know, and they can certainly help, especially from well-known organizations like SCBWI, RWA, etc. In the end, it’s still my connection to the writing, but well-known awards can’t hurt.
[KL] There is a lot of self-published content out there, some of it very good and some of it not ready to be published. In the end readers will have to decide which authors they want to buy more than once and as that happens we will see something of a shake-out in the self-pub market. I am always in favor of authors including their history of awards, etc. in their query letters. It means they are serious about their writing, in that they have made the effort to enter these contests and that others have judged them favorably—definitely a good thing! But, an award alone would not influence my decision to represent them. I would need to LOVE the work and believe that I could passionately represent their next work.
YA and women’s fiction author Eileen Goudge was able to revive her career by self-publishing. If you have several books under your belt but aren’t sure you’re ready to be an “authorpreneur,” is it better to keep focusing on your craft, or on digitizing and promoting your backlist? How do you know if you should keep waiting for a traditional deal to come through or take charge of your career?
[KM] A writer has to play to their strengths. If she knows she can’t handle marketing and promoting her work to the extent that self-publishing requires, then she shouldn’t do it. It’s worse to do something halfway than not at all. And only that writer knows when it’s time to shelve something and try something new, or chip away at what she’s got. Writers need to learn to trust their guts and be brave about acting on it, I think. There’s no magic sign, unfortunately.
[KL] I believe that this is going to vary by author. It doesn’t do an author any good to simply upload their past work to an online e-tailer site in an attempt to indie publish. Without a plan in terms of strategy (i.e., do you have a next book ready to go? promotion and publicity?), the odds of the book succeeding go down dramatically. A poorly published self-pub work does you little to no good, and can actually hurt you. Now you have a sales track record, and if it isn’t one you’re happy with, it really isn’t going to help.
SCBWI President Stephen Mooser self-published his latest book, after publishing more than 60 titles the traditional way. Do you think that, except for über bestselling authors, all traditionally inclined writers will eventually want to embrace the hybrid model and self-publish some of their work? Can you envision your more prolific clients traditionally publishing certain categories of books (such as their picture books and early readers) and self-publishing others (such as their middle grade and young adult novels)?
[KM] Just like self-publishing isn’t right for all writers, the hybrid model won’t be right for all writers either. I think more and more will try their hand at it in the future, and some will really succeed. It all depends on what readers want, and where they want to buy it. That’s what we need to watch and adjust to, while keeping the ecosystem as diverse as possible and not just putting it into one platform’s hands. I think because there are so many different ways readers want to read books, writers, agents, and publishers have to deliver books in many different ways.
[KL] I am supportive of indie publishing, and many of my clients are “hybrid” authors. Their self-pub strategy supports their traditional publishing strategy by helping to build their digital readership. Our goal with this strategy is to reach the widest possible market of readers out there—both in print and e-books, and then wherever possible encourage readers to read across all of the series by that author. I also believe it is a solid and smart approach to strengthen an author’s career for the long term.