As the traditional book publishing landscape becomes increasingly complex and competitive, more writers are considering independent paths. But given their audience, children’s book authors who self-publish face very different challenges from those who write for adults, especially in terms of design, production, and promotion.
Back in 2014, I asked literary agents Kevan Lyon and Kate McKean if children’s book authors should self-publish. In light of the many changes in book publishing since then, I thought I would continue the conversation, this time by speaking directly with writers who have published both traditionally and independently. Separately, I interviewed Zetta Elliott, who has released several books under her own imprint, including picture books; Brent Hartinger, who self-published a young adult series and a new adult series; Cheryl Klein, the author of a self-published a work of nonfiction; and Stephen Mooser, who released a middle grade book on his own.
As with all of my interviews, none of the participants were aware of the others’ identity until after they submitted their answers to my questions. Here they are, in alphabetical order by author name.
What prompted your decision to self-publish? For example, were you looking to jump-start your writing career? Share a specific idea or message? Experiment outside of your usual genre?
Zetta Elliott: Rejection! I never would have self-published if the publishing industry had shown interest in my work. My first traditionally published book with Lee & Low (Bird, 2008) won a number of awards, but I couldn’t get an agent or interest editors in my twenty other manuscripts. I’m a Black feminist; I’m a scholar and educator; I’ve worked with kids for thirty years. I write realistic fiction but also historical fantasy—time travel and ghost stories to connect the past to the present. African Americans make up 13% of the population but we’re only 3% of kid lit creators in the US. Last year, according to the CCBC, less than a third of kids’ books about Black people were by Black people. Most of the writers I know who self-publish are people of color who have been systematically excluded from the traditional publishing community.
Brent Hartinger: It was as simple as the fact that my publisher at the time wasn’t putting out ebook editions of my earlier books. I was getting a lot of interest from readers, so I finally asked my publisher for all the rights back.
How did you promote your book? What were some of the pros and cons of your promotional efforts?
Zetta Elliott: I’ve never hired a publicist and find word of mouth can work just as well. One of my self-published picture books, Benny Doesn’t Like to Be Hugged, got a starred review from School Library Journal and was subsequently selected as a first-grade fiction title for the Scripps National Spelling Bee. But not all review outlets accept self-published books, or only after charging exorbitant fees. I submit to the inclusive indie column at Booklist and they’ve reviewed three of my titles. I send out review copies to select bloggers, librarians, and educators, and then use social media to spread positive reviews. I also give talks on college campuses and at conferences; I was a professor for almost ten years and still have academic colleagues who assign my books and essays. I find I’m better at discussing racial disparities in publishing than I am just talking about my books. If I give a compelling talk about issues in kid lit, I find people are naturally drawn to my books.
Brent Hartinger: At first, I tried to launch the book exactly like a traditional launch: I sent the book and a press kit to all the industry review outlets, and also all the mainstream media. I honestly think that was a mistake. They don’t have time to vet all the traditionally published books being produced, much the less the deluge of self-published ones. I thought my name would help, but it didn’t. I chalk that up to industry bias against self-publishing.
What worked? My existing fan base was passionate, and it helps that I directly engage with them on social media.
I’m not a fan of book trailers, which I don’t think anyone watches except the author’s friends, but for one book, I did partner with a musician-friend to write a song based on the book, then I partnered with a filmmaking friend to shoot a music video. For another book, I wrote and sang a song myself, and had my filmmaking friend put together a short film with clips from the movie.
The music video cost me $1700, and the second one cost me $500, and I know they paid for themselves, and more, because I saw the resulting sales figures.
Cheryl Klein: I sought reviews from book bloggers and relevant media for children’s and YA writers (the Horn Book, the SCBWI Bulletin). I also appeared at multiple writers’ conferences and arranged to sell the books there, and of course I talked about it on social media.
Stephen Mooser: Selling the book was harder than I ever imagined. I still don’t regret the expense, but today when people tell me they are going to self-publish, the first thing I ask is “Do you realize it is not enough to post your book on Amazon? There are millions of books already there. How do you plan to drive people to your book and then convince them to buy it?”
I did promote the book on social media. We spent a little money on some banner ads. I also considered trying to organize a Class Clown Association and then hold a conference in order to grab attention, but, in the end, I didn’t care to devote my time to something that time consuming just to sell a few more copies of the book.
I knew that my book Geography Club (HarperCollins, 2003), the first in the Russel Middlebrook series, was about to be adapted as a small indie film. I decided to take advantage of the publicity and continue the book series on my own, and also market it and package it as a series, which was incredibly satisfying, because my publisher had always bizarrely refused to do that. A year later, after finishing that first series, I aged the characters a bit and started a second series, featuring these formerly teen characters as twentysomethings. My YA characters became New Adult.
All these books did extremely well. Each book made at least as much money as any of my traditionally published books—and probably a lot more. Then again, back then self-publishing was so new it was hard not to make money.
Cheryl Klein: I’m a little different from the other contributors because I am an editor within traditional children’s publishing, and hence I was very familiar with the entire publishing process from the beginning. In 2005, I started a blog that often touched upon writing for children and young adults, and later began posting some of my talks for writers on my nascent website. A few years later, I decided I wanted to put together a collection of this material, but I wasn’t sure anyone would want to publish a miscellany that had first appeared online.
Then I heard about Kickstarter—still in its infancy at the time—which gave me the opportunity to gauge support and raise funds for my first printing. My project got a great response, thanks to the audience I’d built, so that made me confident enough to move forward. And while I usually work with book designers and production and manufacturing people on titles I edit in-house, I was excited about the opportunity to put a whole book together myself. I released the book in April 2011 under the title Second Sight: An Editor’s Talks on Writing, Revising, and Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults.
Stephen Mooser: After traditionally publishing 60 books over more than three decades I had trouble selling my middle grade book, Class Clown Academy, despite the best efforts of three agents. The book was not unlike Louis Sachar’s Sideways Stories from Wayside School, and the one of the agents who tried to sell it said when he had been an acquiring editor he had been looking for such a book. In the end, however, we were not able to place it with a traditional publishing house. I loved the book, loved the characters, thought it was very funny, and thought it deserved a chance to reach an audience. From my experience at the SCBWI I was aware of the obstacles, knew that I had to produce a quality book, and then had to find a way to sell it. All this, I realized, would also require time and money.
Did you hire anyone to help you create or sell your book, such as an illustrator, a designer, a developmental editor or copyeditor, or a publicist?
Zetta Elliott: I hire illustrators on sites like Upwork; that’s also where I found my designer. I use Amazon KDP and they provide free downloadable templates, so I have done some text-only books myself. But for picture books, I definitely collaborate and hire artists to do cover art as well. I edit my own work and have a few readers who also provide feedback.
Brent Hartinger: I’ve hired freelance editors, copyeditors, jacket designers. Now what I do is sort of crowdsourcing all the editing, with a combination of some smart writer/editor friends (where we trade manuscripts), and also lots of beta-readers and proofreaders (who are mostly hardcore fans). But I still hire someone to do my book jackets.
If you’re not a professional writer with a lot of professional editor friends, hire (1) an editor, (2) a copy editor, (3) a jacket designer. The self-published market is now extremely competitive, and if your book has any whiff of amateurism, I think you’re sunk.
Cheryl Klein: I did hire a freelance book designer/typesetter, which was very useful, as I doubt the book would ever have gotten done if I had to undertake all that work myself. I felt hubristically proud enough of my own copyediting skills that I didn’t hire a proofreader … and then kicked myself with every typo my readers found in the book. (Not a lot of them! But enough.)
Stephen Mooser: I hired a friend who was a designer and could format the book and prepare it for print-on-demand publication by Amazon. She also found an illustrator, a professional, who worked in animation to do the spot art.
Finally, to help with promotion, we hired a web developer to build an online virtual school, Class Clown Academy, in which visitors could play various games and engage in a number of activities, all with a humorous approach. There is a science lab; a library; a cafeteria; a music room where kids can create music on whoopee cushions, record their compositions and then send them to their friends. There is also a Class Clown theater where you can watch a film, “Farts and You,” created by my son-in-law, who writes for children’s television. He patched together old educational film clips into a very funny movie.
How and where do you distribute and sell your book?
Zetta Elliott: I have two books with Skyscape, Amazon Publishing’s teen imprint (A Wish After Midnight and Ship of Souls) and those titles are regularly put on promotion in the US and elsewhere. I don’t particularly enjoy vending but it’s sometimes necessary at events since many bookstores refuse to stock indie titles. I just did a university event and the organizer said the local bookseller wouldn’t even return her calls! The majority of my sales come from Amazon, though libraries generally purchase through distributors like Ingram or Baker & Taylor.
Brent Hartinger: These days, I upload ebooks to Amazon, and have Smashwords (which is a self-publishing distributor) do all the other platforms. I used to do all the outlets individually, but it was too much work, and I hated doing all the updating. I also do a print edition through Amazon. Most self-publishers say they don’t sell print copies of their books, but that’s been less true for me. I actually end up in libraries, unlike most self-publishers, probably due to my career as a traditionally published author. My books continue to sell steadily. Every time I release a new book, my backlist sales go way up.
Cheryl Klein: The first printing was available through a distributor’s website, Amazon (their Advantage program), and my events. Later printings were only available through Advantage and events. To some extent I regret not fulfilling orders through my own website, where I could have collected customer info and built out my email list. But setting that structure up and maintaining it was more than I knew how to do in 2011, and I did not anticipate writing or publishing future books of my own at the time, so an email list felt like less of a necessity than it is for marketing now.
Second Sight is no longer available for sale. After its third printing, I decided I wanted to revise the text, and I sold the new version to W. W. Norton, which published it as The Magic Words. As part of that deal, Second Sight went out of print in 2016—but I didn’t mind that, since The Magic Words is a better book.
Stephen Mooser: I sell on Amazon as print-on-demand in paperback. I have sold a few copies at conferences, but not that many.
So far, it looks as though adult genre fiction, particularly romance, has fared best in the self-publishing landscape, though there are exceptions (as shown by John and Jennifer Churchman, Beth Reekles, and Amanda Hocking, among others). Do you think we’ll see more such success stories among self-published children’s books down the road, or does this depend entirely on the targeted audience, format, and publishing plan?
Zetta Elliott: It depends on how you define “success.” I’m an advocate for community-based publishing that puts people over profits. But if you’re talking about sales, then I do think we’ll see more success stories as more marginalized writers realize that self-publishing is their only option. Most kid lit awards accept indie submissions; if a self-published book wins a major award, that might also change perceptions.
Brent Hartinger: There will always been exceptions, but yeah, self-publishing has become almost exclusively romance, with a bit of paranormal too, and a few other extremely popular genres.
Self-publishing other genres like historical fiction? Literary fiction? Quiet realistic fiction? Fuhgeddaboudit! Especially in children’s books. I’m sure there are exceptions, but I suspect they’re either niche books, or the exceptions that prove that rule.
I’ve always divided books into two different categories: “dessert” books (which tend to be light and frothy, but are always immediately desirable, and you want it no matter what anyone else says) and “broccoli” books (which are more difficult or more challenging, maybe literary fiction or award-winners, books you’re “supposed” to read, because they’re “good for you”).
You can still successfully self-publish a “dessert” book, but I think it’s much more difficult to self-publish a “broccoli” book. For the most part, broccoli books need the imprimatur of a publisher. That’s literally the function of publishers, to say that the unusual or different book you’re reading has been vetted by lots of smart people who say, “Yes, this is one of the best books written this year!”
By the way, I’m not making a value judgment. I love broccoli!
Cheryl Klein: I’m sure we’ll see some individual successes, but in the main, I think self-published children’s books are going to continue to have a hard time, honestly. In print, they’re expensive to produce in a small print run, and hard to distribute without a lot of preexisting infrastructure. Most parents are disinclined to read ebooks to their kids, and the kids themselves usually don’t (or even can’t) go looking for new ebooks/authors online the way that adult genre readers do. They’re much more inclined toward discovering books in print, as are most of their gatekeepers. If someone new does break out, my guess is that it would be either a graphic novelist or a YA writer.
Stephen Mooser: For most people, self-publishing will remain a challenge primarily because of the marketing. For people who have a large social media following (meaning hundreds of thousands of followers or more) or those with a book targeted to a specific, reachable, audience, there’s a greater chance for success. For instance I’ve put together a picture book, filled with photos from the internet, called Kittengarten, where kittens learn how to manipulate the humans who share their home. I have a dummy, but it will require some permissions and time before I might choose to self-publish. However, I believe there is a market for cute kitten books, and between the internet and cat associations and clubs I could reach my intended audience.
Again, when people write for advice on self-publishing I begin by asking how they plan to sell. If someone is writing a book on nurses and they have access to a list of nurses nationwide then I’d say give it a try. If they are doing a picture book about the joys of springtime I’d warn them away.
Years ago, there was a stigma associated with self-publishing. Would you say that it still exists today? What can we in the book publishing community do to minimize it?
Zetta Elliott: The quality of self-published books is improving but the stigma remains—too many booksellers, libraries, and review outlets hold blanket policies that keep writers of color locked out of the kid lit community. To eradicate the stigma, members of the publishing community need to acknowledge that there is far more talent than opportunity. The industry is dominated by one group (straight, White, cisgender women without disabilities) and those professionals have proven they’re unable or unwilling to share power. Until they do, many marginalized writers will have no choice but to self-publish. A commitment to diversity means accepting that there are multiple ways of telling stories and producing books.
Brent Hartinger: Well, some of that stigma is there for a reason. There’s a huge amount of crap in self-publishing. Personally, I think there’s a huge amount of crap in traditional publishing too, but there’s definitely less crap. Editors and publishing houses make a big difference in terms of overall quality.
In traditional publishing, you “prove” yourself by writing a book that makes it through the gauntlet of agents and editors. Readers weigh in too, but not until the end. In self-publishing, you’re “published,” but you still haven’t proven yourself. Readers do all the vetting.
Traditional publishing and self-publishing seem to me to perform very different functions in our media landscape. At its best, the fundamental function of traditional publishing is to celebrate quality and break new cultural ground. At its best, the fundamental function of self-publishing is to celebrate and empower fandoms and niches, and also break ground, but in smaller or less “serious” ways (like Fifty Shades of Grey normalizing S&M). Although I will say that sometimes self-publishing can champion ideas or readerships that traditional publishing is ignoring through sheer bias or bigotry.
Cheryl Klein: I think it is much more widely accepted as a viable publishing choice.
Stephen Mooser: There still is a stigma, but not nearly to the degree there was five years ago. The SCBWI Spark Award for independently published books gets many excellent entries that are as good (and sometimes better) than anything published by traditional publishers. Naturally, there’s also a lot of sub-standard entries, but quality seems to be improving.
As a community we can help the independent book community’s reputation improve by continuing to educate the creators of those books, by raising the awareness of the good books through awards like The Spark, by publishing helpful articles in the SCBWI Bulletin, and by including workshops and panels on the subject at conferences.
If you were to self-publish again, what would you do differently? Do you have any advice for children’s book authors planning to self-publish in today’s market?
Zetta Elliott: I’ve self-published over twenty books and my most recent title (The Return) came out last month; it’s my first hybrid graphic novel and my most expensive book at $18. It’s a bridge project for me; the next book in the series will be a traditional graphic novel. I think it’s important to be clear on your goals—are you writing to make money? Do you want to win awards or wind up on the New York Times bestseller list? That’s not why I write, so I’m not discouraged when a book I’ve self-published sells a couple thousand or a couple hundred copies.
When I self-publish, I’m showing what types of stories are getting rejected by traditional publishers. I’m affirming the value of the stories that matter to me and my community. Books are commodities but stories have more than commercial value in many cultures. When the traditional publishing industry says, “Your stories don’t matter to us,” it’s an act of resistance to walk away and make the book yourself. It’s also therapeutic and empowering! You don’t know what you can create on your own until you give yourself permission to experiment. That’s why I self-publish.
Brent Hartinger: I’d keep it to YA, not middle grade, and only very popular genres and/or sub-niches. I’d be very wary about self-publishing middle grade or chapter books unless you have some kind of built-in, underserved audience.
Honestly, I’m reluctant to recommend self-publishing for anyone now, except those very niche books. There’s a real renaissance in children’s publishing right now. If you have a book you think is special, I’d absolutely try to traditionally publish it first. Lately, the money can be really great too.
As for me, if I do self-publish new books, they’ll be part of my existing series. The market is very, very different now. The Gold Rush is definitely over. There is now an absolute deluge of content, and the market has become extremely competitive. Your idea needs to be really, really marketable, or your book needs to be really, really good, and preferably both.
I actually think it’s easier to land a traditional deal right now, especially in children’s books, than it is to successfully self-publish. A lot easier, actually.
Cheryl Klein: I was happy with my experience, but I’ll offer three pieces of advice.
(1) Think carefully about what you want to get out of being published, and whether self-publishing is the best way to fulfill those goals. If you just want a book with your name on it—which is a totally valid desire—self-publishing can fulfill that. If you want to reach thousands of child readers across the United States, you may need the support of a traditional publisher.
(2) Make a marketing plan before you even create the book, and start laying the groundwork for your marketing early on, while you’re still writing. A good rule of thumb is to spend 5-10% of your writing time on establishing a platform, connections, and community, and spend the rest on your writing.
(3) Life is short, and dealing with all of the small headaches of self-publishing can take up a lot of time. Don’t self-publish unless you’re nearly as excited to work on publishing the book as you are to work on writing it. If you’re not that excited, then the publishing can easily become just another thing that takes you away from the writing.
Stephen Mooser: I would give much more thought to marketing before investing in self-publishing. And I might add it can be a long and sometimes expensive journey, but if you believe in your book and you are willing to spend the money to do a book that looks as professional as anything put out by Simon & Schuster or HarperCollins, then give it a try so you don’t have any regrets down the line. But keep in mind if you don’t have a solid marketing plan you will probably not succeed.
Brent Hartinger (@brenthartinger) wrote the YA classic Geography Club (2003), which was a Lambda Award finalist, was adapted as a 2013 feature film, and is now being developed as a television series. He’s since published twelve more novels and had eight of his screenplays optioned by producers. Visit his website.
Cheryl B. Klein (@chavelaque) is the editorial director at Lee & Low Books and the author of The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults as well as two forthcoming picture books. Visit her website.
Stephen Mooser (@stephenmooser), co-founder and president of the SCBWI, is the author of over 60 books for young readers, including his self-published middle grade title CLASS CLOWN ACADEMY. Visit his website.