Picture books are a rapidly growing category in self-publishing, but they can also be one of the most challenging types of books to produce. From the added cost of hiring an illustrator and paying a printer to promoting and publicizing a book in the crowded children’s market, authors must be prepared to find creative ways to meet their publishing goals.
We asked five picture book creators to tell us about their publishing success, share their experiences, and offer advice to
other authors. Whether it’s teaming up with a member of the autism community to broaden readership or funding a project on Kickstarter, these indie authors are finding creative ways to fund, publish, and market their books.
The Woodcutter and the Most Beautiful Tree by Robb N. Johnston
As an English conversation teacher in Japan, Johnston felt inspired by the picture books he was using to teach Japanese children. He decided to take his love of art and illustration, combine it with a simple story, and create a book that would be his contribution to the world of picture books. About a tree that must outwit the woodcutter’s ax, the story is complemented by Johnston’s own illustrations. Listed as a top-five book for Earth Day by BookTrib, the title was the recipient of a starred review in Kirkus Reviews and the product of a successfully funded Kickstarter campaign. It’s sold out of its first printing due to promotion on the author’s website, word of mouth from Kickstarter and the author’s artist community, and positive press.
“Despite being unable to secure a traditional agent or publisher for my work, I’ve had an overwhelmingly positive response to The Woodcutter,” Johnston says. His second independently published book, Lelani and the Plastic Kingdom, is an adventure tale about marine plastic pollution and is close to being ready for press. “If you put your absolute best work out there, it will resonate with and enrich people,” he says. “There are so many avenues and opportunities out there for independently publishing your work, and there are just as many pitfalls and traps for getting scammed. Research your options and talk to people that have been there before.” Johnston credits the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators as a useful resource.
Wisdom, the Midway Albatross by Darcy Pattison, illus. by Kitty Harvill
Prolific author Pattison established her publishing company, Mims House, in 2008, and in 2014, the company published seven titles. Based in Little Rock, Ark., Mims House is named after the 1890 residents of its Victorian headquarters—the Mims family.
Pattison’s bestseller to date is Wisdom, the Midway Albatross, about the oldest known wild bird in the world and how it survived the 2011 tsunami. The book received many honors, including a starred Publishers Weekly review; first place in the 2013 Writer’s Digest Self-Published Award for children’s books; a Next-Gen Indie Awards finalist for juvenile nonfiction; and is on the reading list for the 2014–2015 Sakura Medal—a children’s book award given by international English-speaking schools in Japan. The book is carried by the Smithsonian Museum stores and by educational distributors.
Pattison advises authors to “be everywhere.” Her books are available in paperback, hardcover, e-book (Kindle, Nook, iBook, Kobo, and on her website), as well as audio. “Expect quality from yourself and those you work with,” she advises. “Poorly illustrated children’s books are the bane of the children’s book indie publishing movement.”
Pattison adds, “Look to adult indies for marketing inspiration, but test everything in the children’s book market. Adult indies know that you can’t be a one-book wonder. Instead, series pull in readers and keep them coming back for more, nurturing an audience that becomes the basis of long-term success.”
Jamie Loves Her Natural Hair by Ariane Roberts, illus. by Shida Davis
Roberts’s children’s book Jamie Loves Her Natural Hair will be released in July 2014—but it’s already enjoying word-of-mouth success after the project was successfully funded on Kickstarter with 221 backers pledging more than $3,000.
Since 2010 Roberts had been blogging beauty tips and advice about Afro-textured natural hair on her website BlackNaps.org. After a spate of news reports about children being bullied and criticized at school for their natural hair, Roberts was appalled. “It was as if these school officials didn’t understand that this is the way that black hair looks without the use of chemicals and heat,” she says. She also realized that this criticism was damaging to the self-esteem of black youth. “The message that is being sent is the way you were born is wrong.”
Jamie Loves Her Natural Hair features Jamie, a girl who realizes that her hair is different from most of her friends at school, from the actors on the television shows she watches, and from the characters in the books that she reads. In spite of this difference, Jamie loves her curls and embraces her hair’s texture. Roberts envisions the book “as a source of strength, particularly for girls of color from ages 4–8 years old.”
Her advice to those who are seeking to self-publish: “Do your research and find a good printer.” She notes that for children’s books it’s important for the illustrations to look vibrant. She adds that many printing companies will send free samples of their products—a blank book that lets an author judge the board and paper quality before committing. “This will be a helpful tool in deciding which printer you choose,” she says.
Finally, Roberts says, reaching out to influencers in an author’s industry is key: “[They] will have an interest in sharing your work as they play a key role in getting your book recognition.”
Since We’re Friends by Celeste Shally, illus. by David Harrington
At the age of three, author Shally’s son, Cooper, was diagnosed with autism. When she realized there was a lack of children’s books about the subject, she decided to use her elementary education degree and write a book that would fill that void. Since We’re Friends: An Autism Picture Book sold 25,000 copies before getting snapped up by a traditional publisher (Skyhorse/Sky Pony Press).
“I wanted to publish the book myself because I had a definite idea of what I wanted the book to look like, and I didn’t want someone without knowledge of autism to change it,” she says of her decision to self-publish. The research process took two years, during which she found illustrator David Harrington, worked with a graphic designer, and studied the best and most cost-effective ways to print a picture book.
The story about a friendship between two boys—a typical boy and one with autism—provides practical examples of the compassion and understanding needed in such a friendship. Since We’re Friends has been a popular learning tool for parents, educators, and many others in helping typical children to better understand those who have autism. The book was recently included in a World Autism Day reading at Barnes & Noble, where actress Kim Raver read the book aloud.
“The single most important thing I did to sell so many books was that I asked Alison Singer, an influential member of the autism community, to write a foreword for the book,” Shally says. “She graciously agreed and championed my book in the autism community, which brought my book legitimacy—and sales.”
Where Is Simon, Sandy? by Donna Seim, illus. by Susan Spellman
After a career of child-care work, teaching, and establishing and managing a children’s toy store, Donna Seim, who lives in Massachusetts, decided to try her hand at writing children’s books. Her first book, Where Is Simon, Sandy?, is now in its third printing, with all proceeds going to the Children’s Club of the Turks and Caicos National Museum. The book received the gold medal for the 2009 Mom’s Choice Award in the children’s picture books category of peoples, places, and cultures; it was also a finalist in the 2010 National Indie Excellence Awards.
Set in the Caribbean on the island of Grand Turk, Where Is Simon, Sandy? is based on the true story of a little donkey who delivered water to the people of Cockburn Town every day, and who, with the help of the children in the town, saves the day when his master hurts his foot and is no longer able to deliver water. “This story had been passed down for generations by word of mouth, and no one had ever written it down,” says Seim. “I decided to try my hand at retelling the story in a folktale format.” She sent the finished story to the Turks and Caicos National Museum in the hopes they might want to print it in their newsletter. “They called back within three hours and said they wanted the story, but they wanted it to be made into a book,” Seim recalls. She sought out Susan Spellman, who has illustrated more than 30 books, to create the watercolor images. The expense of publishing the book was financed by donations solicited by the museum.
After publishing her first book, Seim says she felt secure with the self-publishing process. She was encouraged that she was able to choose and work directly with her own illustrator, which she says was one of the strongest reasons for pursuing the self-publishing route. Her advice to indie authors is to research publishers and compare cost and quality. “The quality of a book presentation is invaluable. A cover does sell a book—and a striking, eye-catching cover is the best sales tool you can have.”
Jennifer McCartney is an author and editor.