Category: creativity

2 Reasons Your Self-Published Children’s Book Doesn’t Sell

For the last year, I’ve been taking a serious look around the landscape of self-published, or indie, children’s books. I get the daily BookBub listing for children’s book category, and I often download the free or inexpensive books. I’ve joined several listservs, Facebook Groups, etc. of people writing and illustrating children’s books. I’ve started to see a couple threads running through the comments, especially that children’s books are hard to market. Indeed!

I’m going to give you my opinion on why many of these books aren’t selling. It’s just my opinion, feel free to disagree. First, though, let me tell you my background and where I’m coming from. I “grew up” in the traditional world and am still a hybrid author with a couple books still with a traditional publisher. More than that, I established the Arkansas chapter of the Society of Children’s Bookwriters and Illustrators (, and ran a conference for them for twelve years. In 1999, I established the Novel Revision Retreat, which I’ve taught across the US and Canada. To attend, you must have a complete draft of a novel, and then we spend a weekend discussing how to revise your novel. After the retreat, many authors have broken through with their first publishing contract, and a few have won major awards or starred reviews for their revised stories.

This summer, for the third year, I’ll be teaching at the Highlights Foundation. The first class is PB&J: Picture Books and All That Jazz, co-taught with Leslie Helakoski, the SCBWI Regional Advisor for Michigan. I’ll also teach Self or Indie Publishing: Answering the Big Questions. Based on my extensive teaching, I’ve also written several books on how to write. In other words, I have been and still am steeped in the traditional publishing world. Everything I learned there, I bring to the indie kids book world.

What’s your Literary Aesthetic?

Given that perspective, the first reason many self-published books fail is they follow a different aesthetic. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, they say. And that’s absolutely true in publishing, where you live or die by your opinion. The traditional publishing world demands excellent writing, art and graphics. The indie world fails most often because they follow a different aesthetic.

I’m not saying your book cover, layout and design is awful. If you think it’s beautiful, who am I to say different? But I do say that many indie books adhere to a different aesthetic than traditional publishing and that aesthetic hurts them in the marketplace. Sometimes that aesthetic labels them as definitely self-published and inferior. Right or wrong, the marketplace still understands the traditional aesthetic better than it does the other.

Too many times, I see artwork, graphic design of the cover, and so on that fails by the traditional aesthetic. It’s what you hear when people talk about adult self-published books: hire a cover designer and get the book edited. For illustrated children’s books, I would add, hire an art director. I understand that you may want to illustrate something yourself, but then you need someone pushing your art to its highest level. If you have little experience with children’s books, you shouldn’t rely on yourself to be the art director.

I highly recommend Robin Williams book, The Non-Designer’s Design & Type Books. It’s out of print, so you have to get used or Kindle copies. It’s a combination of two books, The Non-Designer’s Design Book and The Non-Designer’s Type Book. Buy them that way if you prefer. But get them. You need them. Williams is clear, easy to understand and can pull your book cover toward the traditional aesthetic.

Too many times, I go to Amazon and Look Inside an indie-published short chapter book or middle grade novel, and I can’t get past the first page. There are too many things that don’t fit the aesthetics of traditional publishing. Jefferson Smith’s Immerse or Die issues a challenge to indie authors and their books. He walks on his treadmill for 40 minutes a day and while walking, he reads an indie book. He notes the time at which he stops reading because the writing has caused him to pull out of the story. Read his post on the 51 things that break reader immersion. It’s as good an explanation as I’ve seen — for indie or traditional publishing — of why novels or short chapter books don’t succeed.

Another good starting place is the classic book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Brown and Dave King. Before people attend my Novel Revision Retreat, I require them to read this book.

Of course, if you really like your aesthetic, don’t change it. But realize the your sales may suffer no matter how big you grow your mailing list (or by following the marketing-technique-flavor-of-the-month).

Do You Respect Your Audience?

Another problem I see with self-published children’s books is a lack of respect for their audience. There’s often a condescending attitude: Poor little baby/child. Let me tell you a pretty story.

Any time I see the words “little” or “sweet” in a book title or description, I cringe. “It’s about a sweet little bee. . .” ACK!

No. I believe that you should treat your audience with respect. Sure, they’re young and don’t understand everything. But don’t underestimate their ability to understand when you’re talking down to them. Too often, I hear the comment, “It’s JUST a kid’s book.” By which they mean, quality doesn’t matter. Anyone can write a children’s picture book, it’s simple.

No. Writing a complete story in 500 words is hard.

But it’s not just that. It’s as if people think kids should be happy with the crumbs. I’ll spend my time writing my epic fantasy and get it edited and a great cover. But the kids’ book? I’ll toss that off in thirty minutes. (I’m not arguing about the time involved, just the casual-doesn’t-matter attitude.)

Walter dela Mare has said:

“Only the rarest kind of best in anything can be good enough for the young.”

That quote is at the top of this blog/site. It’s an attitude of respect that I adhere to.

Adult writers, who think you can get rich by publishing a children’s book, please leave. Unless you have a deep respect for this audience, please don’t try it.

Likewise, I’ve heard an author say, “Well, I don’t want to compete against traditionally published books. It’s not fair to pit me against someone like Mo Willems.”

Well, I want to compete with the best. I’ll likely fail, but by striving to meet that traditional aesthetic, I think I push myself toward a better book for kids. Because I still think the traditional aesthetic is great.

Get an Art Director and an Editor

My biases are pretty clear. I love books with a great artistic aesthetic that skews toward the traditional side; that goes for the art and the writing. Those books, I believe, will sell better. If your book isn’t selling well, in spite of vigorous marketing efforts, look again at the book.

Hire an artist or graphic designer to give you an overhaul on the art; if you’re the artist, ask someone to act as your art director.

Hire a great copy editor, at the least. Even if you don’t go back and do it for backlist, try it for your next release.

Let me quote Walter de la Mere again:

“Only the rarest kind of best in anything can be good enough for the young.”

2 Simple Reasons Why Your Self-Published Book Doesn't Sell |

Why Do You Self-Publish? To Build a Creative Life

Why do I self-publish? I get this question often and the answer lies in the creative life. This essay is an attempt to explain the two big reasons why I created Mims House as my publishing company.

Building a Creative Life

About five years ago, I found myself very discouraged about my writing career. I had good stories written, but couldn’t find a publishing home. I say that very carefully, “find a publishing home.” I’ve been published traditionally and my books have been strong mid-listers. But one of my publishers has a reputation for searching for best-sellers; their goal is to have book on the NYTimes Best Seller list. Anything less than that, and you’ll be overlooked the next time around.

Another house changed editors–a far more common thing than you think early in your career–and the new editor didn’t pick up my next story. In fact, that editor told me, “You just haven’t found your publishing home, yet.” Ouch! Translation: WE are NOT your publishing home.

With another house, I was lucky enough to have a picture book that won some awards. The Journey of Oliver K. Woodman was a 2004 Irma Black-Bank Street College Honor Book, and went on to be featured in a Harcourt reader textbook. The sequel, Searching for Oliver K. Woodman (now OP), didn’t do as well, and the editor rejected everything else I did. One particularly heart-wrenching rejection took 14 months.

I went through three agents: Number 1 sold nothing in six years. I fired her and sold two books, because no one cares as much about my books as myself. Number 2 failed to sell a novel, and we parted after nine months. Number 3 was lousy at communication. We submitted a manuscript in August to an editor I’d met at a conference. I gently reminded the agent to check on the status in December.

“Nothing,” he said.
In January. “No news,” he said.
In February. “No response yet,” he said.
And in March. “I’ll check again, but it just takes time,” he said.

Finally, in March, I nudged the editor who responded immediately, saying, “I rejected that in December and here the email that I sent to your agent.”
I said, “Good-bye, agent.”

I found myself being less and less creative in my writing. I didn’t want to take risks because, well, I knew what would follow: rejection. Things became worse creatively. Enthusiasm waned.

Now, look. For any other creative medium, an artist does the work. Basically, you craft something to suit yourself. Yes, of course, you worry about sales, but mostly, you’re doing it for yourself. Then the process of selling the work begins. There are many outlets from local galleries to craft fairs to online sales. I know I’m over-simplifying the creative process for visual artists. But from the outside, it seems like a very different process than that of writers.

Writing is this strange thing where you have to please an editor. You’re not working to please readers, at least not in the short term. First, you must please an editor or agent. I’ve seen crazy things happen. A writer I know went to a conference with the draft of a fantastic novel. An agent did a critique. Now this agent knew nothing about the writer; the agent only read 10 pages of the novel. And yet the agent had an opinion. The writer should totally (and I mean TOTALLY) rewrite the story and take it in a different direction.

I want to scream, “Read the story in front of you! Not the one you would have written if you’d had this idea.”

The writer has now spent a year revising the novel. It’s good–because she’s a good writer. But is it better? I liked the old version better.

But that’s typical of what writers endure in the race to publication. Strangers dictate a year’s worth of work, and who knows if it’s the right story even then. Can you picture that happening with an artist? Look at that 10″ x 10″ canvas. Could an art critic come in and make remarks such as these? You need more depth to the colors in the upper quadrant. And that oak is awful. Can you take it out and replace it with a pine? Your color palette is too pale. Deepen it.

Only writers allow strangers to mess around in their art. Stop it!

Yes, that’s what I did. I stopped allowing it.
Of course, that meant I didn’t sell my manuscripts to a publisher. Self-publishing seemed to be the wisest course for me so that I could remain an artist. My creativity dried up under the current traditional publishing practices. But in the last three years as a self-publisher, I’ve published 20 books. My creativity is having great fun.

One reason I self-publish is so that I can feed my creative soul and give it the freedom it needs to thrive. My writing is getting better and better because I’m writing more and more.
Where will you thrive as a creative writer? In traditional publishing or as an indie publisher? Food for thought! |

The Only Fish in a Small Pond

I often see the press touting the control issue as the key reason people self-publish. I guess you could say it that way. But it’s not how I see it.

Instead, I’ve chosen to be a Big Fish in a Small Pond.
Let’s say that I want to run a promotion on a book because there’s a local event that ties into the story. With Big5Publisher, could I do that?

Decision making with big publishers is slow. It has to be because there are so many layers involved. Editor, publicity, tech–all of them need to be on board, and need to be timely in their response. But how can they be? An editor may have contact with 100 authors. Your story gets lost in the shuffle. They must consider how your story fits into the bigger ecosystem of their backlist. Can they afford to spend time and effort for you on a local event? No.

With a large publisher, you are a Small (VERY SMALL) Fish in a Big Pond.
Do you want to be nimble and respond to some event with appropriate marketing? It won’t happen.

If, however, you self-publish, you’re the Biggest Fish in the Pond! You care only about your career and your books. If you want to turn on a dime and throw a big marketing push next week, then the only thing holding you back is your time and energy.

Does that mean I want control? No. I just want my books to be read. If I have to leap to a different pond so that my work is read, that’s what I’ll do. I don’t ever again want to be a mid-lister. It’s a deadly place to be for your creative life. Instead, as the ONLY Fish in my Pond, my books get the care they need.

Of course, I’m still inept or inefficient about many things as a marketer. It’s OK. I’m learning. A team behind me would be fantastic. But they were never really behind me, so I’m better off on my own. I’m learning. Look out!

I self publish because of one main reason:
In order to sustain my creative life, I need to be connecting regularly with readers. Self-publishing means I have creative and marketing freedom needed to find audiences for each and every book.

It’s most definitely not because I’m a control freak. It’s because I’m a creative writer. Period.