When it comes to self-publishing success stories, children's books have had their share. Christopher Paolini's Eragon was originally self-published by the then-teenage author's family; the book and its sequels are now huge bestsellers for Knopf. And Michael Stadther's self-published novel/treasure hunt, A Treasure's Trove, which offered $1 million in prizes to those who solved its riddles, rode a major publicity wave to a deal with Simon & Schuster. Here are a few recent and upcoming books by authors who made the leap from DIY publishing to signing on the dotted line with trade houses.
On the Night You Were Born by Nancy Tillman
Though her background was in designing greeting cards, Tillman decided to try her hand at children's books. The result was On the Night You Were Born, a picture book celebrating the birth of babies throughout the animal kingdom, which she self-published in 2005. Tillman's contacts in the greeting card world came in handy, too—she sold 35,000 copies, primarily through the gift market. When administrative and distribution work became too onerous, however, Tillman was ready to find a publisher.
The break: Cathy Hemming of LevelFiveMedia brought the project to Jean Feiwel, who picked up On the Night You Were Born in a three-book deal in spring 2006, and made it the first Feiwel and Friends title at her new imprint at Holtzbrinck (now Macmillan) later that year. The book has sold more than 400,000 copies to date and hit several bestseller lists.
The rest: Feiwel and Friends published two more books from Tillman this year, with more in the pipeline. The Wonder of You: A Book for Celebrating Baby's First Year is a journal for new families, and September saw the release of It's Time to Sleep, My Love, which is the imprint's highest-selling title behind On the Night You Were Born (Feiwel says the first title continues to sell “exponentially” better each year). Next up for Tillman: The Spirit of Christmas for fall 2009, and Tumford the Terrible, a book about her cat.
The Hoopster by Alan Lawrence Sitomer
Sitomer, a high school English teacher in inner-city Los Angeles, self-publishedThe Hoopster in 2002. The book stars a high school student, whose basketball and writing ambitions are interrupted when he is injured in a racist attack. “Not only did I really like the story, but Alan's motives for writing that book were so pure,” said Wendy Lefkon, editorial director at Disney Book Group. “He felt that somewhere inside him he could write something he could get his unreachable students to read.”
The break: Lefkon signed up The Hoopster in a three-book deal in early 2004, after Al Zuckerman at Writers House sent her the book. Hyperion has since published the two additional titles in the Hoopster Trilogy. Sitomer's books “do very nicely” in the trade, according to Lefkon, who adds, “He's quite a star in the institutional marketplace. He just finished the NCTE convention, where he was just the biggest thing.”
The rest: Sitomer has been keeping busy in both the literary and academic arenas. He was named a California Teacher of the Year in 2007, and Disney published a fourth book with the author, The Secret Story of Sonia Rodriguez (a spinoff from the Hoopster books), in September. While Disney doesn't currently have more books signed up with Sitomer, Lefkon expects to work with him more, now that his teacher of the year stint is over. “His voice and who he is is part of what draws you in,” she said. “He lives with these kids every day, and he figured out how to connect.”
The Land of Elyon: The Dark Hills Divide by Patrick Carman
In this middle-grade fantasy series, Alexa Daley ventures out beyond the walled kingdom in which she lives and discovers her larger destiny. Carman found strong regional support for The Dark Hills Divide in the Pacific Northwest after he self-published it in 2003. Word of its popularity with area booksellers made its way to Scholastic sales rep Gene Smith. “I think the key is to get other people passionate about the book,” said Scholastic's David Levithan. “If booksellers and readers are proclaiming your success, and it's really making a buzz in the local stores, we will take notice.”
The break: Smith sent a copy of the book to Scholastic's Craig Walker, who shared it with Levithan. “He studied publishing really well, got beautiful artwork and a really nice design—you never would have known that it was self-published,” Levithan recalled. Scholastic signed the book in 2004. The Land of Elyon was planned as a trilogy, but has since expanded to five titles, with more than 1.6 million copies in print.
The rest: Last year Carman began another series, Atherton, for Little, Brown, and earlier this year he launched Elliot's Park, a chapter book series with Scholastic. In February, Skeleton Creek, an interactive series with Scholastic in the vein of The 39 Clues, gets underway; Carman is also writing the fifth 39 Clues book, for fall 2009.
Beowulf by Gareth Hinds
Beowulf is one of several classics that Hinds has adapted into graphic novels and self-published—in 1998 he published Bearskin: A Grimm Tale and last year, he published an adaptation of King Lear. Hinds originally published Beowulf in three separate comics and then in a 2000 compendium, The Collected Beowulf.
The break: Unlike many of the books here, Beowulf didn't come to the attention of its publisher via an agent. Rather, Liz Bicknell, associate publisher at Candlewick Press, read a 2004 article in the Boston Globe about a teacher who was using Hinds's Beowulf to teach the epic poem. She liked the art she saw and looked up Hinds in the phone book. The illustrator met with Bicknell and editor Deborah Noyes Wayshak, who acquired Beowulf soon after—sans agent. “He's his own agent,” said Wayshak. “He's quite good at it.”
The rest: Candlewick published Beowulf in spring 2007, and it attracted critical acclaim and support among teachers who also found it a useful classroom tool. “When he goes to conferences like NCTE, he's very much in the spotlight and sought after,” said Wayshak. Beowulf was one of Candlewick's first forays into graphic novels, and the house followed it up with Hinds's adaptation of The Merchant of Venice earlier this year, which was original to Candlewick. Hinds's previously self-published King Lear is scheduled for Candlewick's fall 2009 list, and he is working on a version of Homer's Odyssey for 2010.
Erec Rex: The Dragon's Eye by Kaza Kingsley, illus. by Melvyn Grant
The eponymous star of Kingsley's middle-grade fantasy series travels to a magical world to rescue his mother in The Dragon's Eye, which the author self-published in 2006. Kingsley sold around 30,000 copies on her own, through bookstore connections and appearances; it was also a 2007 Borders Original Voices pick. Kingsley self-published a sequel, The Monsters of Otherness, and signed with agent Richard Curtis.
The break: Earlier this year, Curtis brought the series to Simon & Schuster's Rubin Pfeffer and Justin Chanda, who signed up a planned eight-book series. What made them take notice? Kingsley's track record didn't hurt, but Chanda says it came down to the book. “The characters were solid, and it was genuinely well-written,” said Chanda.
The rest: S&S will republish the first two books in trade paperback in April 2009; the third book, The Search for Truth, arrives in hardcover in June. The publisher plans to issue one book per year going forward, and S&S's Courtney Bongiolatti is editing the series. Chanda says that it takes “a special kind of drive” for a self-published author to put in the work needed to see the results Kingsley did. “To be a successful author, self-published or otherwise, you need to know a little, if not a lot, about the market.”
From The Unusual Mind of Vincent Shadow.
The Unusual Mind of Vincent Shadow by Tim Kehoe, illus. by Mike Wohnoutka
This past summer, Kehoe published his middle-grade story of a boy with aspirations of inventing toys. Kehoe, a toy inventor himself (he has patented several of the toys in the book), enlisted Wohnoutka to provide artwork. Regional booksellers rallied around the St. Paul, Minn., author's book—Common Good Books in St. Paul went so far as to display it at the Midwest Booksellers Association trade show.
The break: “I think it has that kind of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory appeal,” said Little, Brown editor Nancy Conescu, who signed up the book this fall. The book had been submitted by Kehoe's agent, Sloan Harris at ICM. “The art is what made me read it right away, but then the story really pulled me in,” Conescu said. “To know that someone has devoted his life to toys—you know how kid-focused he's going to be and that he's going to bring something new to it as an author.”
The rest:The Unusual Mind of Vincent Shadow is slated to pub in fall 2009. “With the popularity of heavily illustrated middle-grade novels, it's a natural as to what would work on the market,” Conescu said. An as-yet-untitled second book, also acquired in the deal, is scheduled for the following year. And Kehoe's Zubbles (non-staining bubbles for which he's received a good deal of press coverage) should hit the market next year.
Meanwhile by Jason Shiga
Meanwhile, which employs a tabbed format Shiga developed for the project, plays with multiple narratives—a sort of graphical take on Choose Your Own Adventure. As readers move through the story, the plot takes off in a multitude of directions. “Not only can he draw in a unique way, but Jason has a unique way of looking at comics,” said Charles Kochman, executive editor at Abrams Books, who acquired Meanwhile this past June. “That's the secret to a great book—to be able to look at it with repeated viewings and find different things each time.”
The break: Writers House agent Dan Lazar sent a proposal to Kochman, based on the success the editor had had with Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid. “It played to two things that are very dear to me—Choose Your Own Adventure and comics,” Kochman said.
The rest:Meanwhile is slated for Amulet's spring 2010 list. The publisher is working on the book's unusual format—such as strengthening the 30-odd tabs that readers will use to access different parts of the story; Abrams's edition will also be in color, unlike the original. “We don't want to do the 'next of something' that's been done before,” Kochman said. “We want to do the 'first of something' that people will try to follow and duplicate.”