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Many authors who love writing for kids can find it challenging to sell their manuscript to a traditional book publisher. These days, more and more children's book authors are turning to self-publishing—which allows them greater creative control, larger profits, and a faster publishing time. And you can be one of them!
If you're thinking of self-publishing a children's book, this is the perfect video for you. I'll be discussing some of the key things that make children's book publishing different, as well as some important tips you'll need to know about self-publishing kids' books.
1. Know the market…and where your book fits in.
Most children’s books are categorized according to age and reading level to help both parents and teachers identify the best books for their young readers. Familiarize yourself with each category, and make sure your book follows the standard length and format for your target age group.
- Picture Books: These books are for kids up to six years old. The books tend to be mostly illustrations, and usually contain 500 words of text or fewer. One of the most common mistakes for new children’s writers is to try to cram too much text on a single page or a spread of two pages. We understand—it’s tough to write tightly when there’s so much you want to say and you’re in your creative flow! Getting it right requires discipline and really succinct writing. With 32 pages in a standard picture book, that means you need to limit yourself to about 15 words per page—basically a few short sentences.
- Early Readers: These books are written for kids who are new to reading, usually between six and seven years of age. They tend to be 2,000 to 5,000 words long, and still feature illustrations.
- Beginning Chapter Books: Intended for kids between seven and nine years of age, chapter books rely less on illustration and more on traditional book structure, while maintaining short chapters. They generally tend to max out at 10,000 words.
- Middle Grade: At this point, books start getting longer and more complex. Aimed at kids between the ages of nine and twelve, these books run between 30,000 and 50,000 words.
- Young Adult: While intended for tweens and teens up to age eighteen, young adult books can be enjoyed by readers of all ages. They often include more mature themes and are closer in size to typical adult fiction, with word counts running between 50,000 and 100,000.
2. Check your budget.
Self-publishing any book can become an expensive investment. In order to present a polished and professional-looking product, many authors work with established editors, book cover designers, and even copywriters to ensure their book captures a reader's eye in an instant. More than any other genre, children's books can be the most expensive to self-publish for several reasons:
- Many books for kids rely on professional illustration. And unless you're an excellent artist yourself, hiring an established illustrator is a necessary—albeit often expensive—undertaking.
- While many kids and parents love digital books (especially if they have upper elementary or tween/teen readers who tear through series books at warp speed), others see print books as a way to limit screen time. And libraries and teachers still prefer physical copies, especially for picture books, beginning reader chapter books, and children’s nonfiction chapter books that students read together in class or use for reference. This means indie authors publishing in print have to consider layout, printing, and binding, which can be very expensive. Layout and printing are particularly expensive for picture books, because the text and pictures on each page have to be carefully placed by a designer, then the printing itself usually requires four-color ink and hardcover binding. That means even if you’re using a print-on-demand platform, the cost of each hardcover color book cuts deeper into your profit per sale.
- Along with editing and design services, authors still need to market and promote their books, so hiring PR professionals, running advertisements, and traveling for school and library readings can also be a significant drain on your budget. In some respects, children’s book authors must work even harder than authors of adult fiction and nonfiction to continually self-promote their work because the competition for children’s book sales is fierce. Far more than adult books, new children’s titles must compete with books published in the past—referred to as backlist titles—because classic children’s staples like Curious George and Dr. Seuss and beloved mainstays like the Berenstain Bears and Sandra Boynton’s board books continue to attract new readers.
Some authors recommend you plan on spending between $5,000 and $7,000 for your book. So make sure you have room in your budget and create a plan to offset your costs.
3. Hire a professional illustrator.
If you are writing a picture book or a book for early readers, illustrations will be your most important investment. For authors who are also artists, this isn't a problem. But what if you aren't a professional illustrator? How do you find someone to illustrate your book?
Ensure the written part of your book is completed and edited. The last thing you want to do is to have to change the book after you have already contracted out the illustrations. If you can afford it, hire a professional book editor to work on your manuscript.
Think about what style of illustration best suits your book—is it watercolor, ink, line drawings, multimedia? Do you want something more cartoonish, or something more wistful in bold, lush colors?
To find an illustrator, start by perusing freelance artist sites, as well as asking friends and colleagues for recommendations. Reach out to professional organizations (like the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators), or even work with a friend.
Then, create a written contract. There are two common options here: a contract that outlines that this is “work for hire”—which means once you pay the artist, you own the illustrations outright and the illustrator has no claim to sales royalties—or split ownership, which means you share the proceeds from all sales of the work equally. The contract should also outline the scope of the project—such as the number of illustrations and when they are to be completed—as well as the terms of payment. Resources like the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (or SCBWI) can help you learn how to navigate fair and safe contract language.
4) Choose your book's format.
More than any other genre, children's books are often enjoyed in a traditional physical book form. If you're self-publishing a children's book, you have a number of options to choose from. Depending on the type of book you're writing, you may decide to focus only on digital. Other authors may wish to print physical copies of their book as well as digital.
- Digital: Digital formats (such as ePubs or PDFs) are the most affordable option for most authors. Their flexibility means that it's easy for parents to load your book onto a device. Formatting digital books is also much easier than print. However, the drawback to digital is that often books with many illustrations aren't as effective. However, if you can get creative—without gimmicks—you may find some unique ways for children to interact with your book that they can't do with print. Keep an eye out for innovative platforms for children’s books like Epic! (getepic.com). While Epic! doesn’t distribute self-published work yet, they may in the future, and other programs like it may spring up to change the way picture books are consumed digitally in classrooms and at home.
- Print-on-Demand: Many authors choose to go with Print-on-Demand—known as “POD” for short. With Print-on-Demand, you'll pay a reputable publishing service (such as Kindle Direct Publishing or Ingram Spark) a fee for each book as you need it. Essentially, you only pay for the books you sell. This reduces your inventory and risk (if your book doesn't sell, you won't be inundated with extra copies). However, this low-risk format also tends to be the most expensive option on a per-book basis. But in terms of upfront costs, it’s far less expensive than offset printing, once you consider the expense for printing (especially 4-color picture books), shipping, and warehousing.
- Traditional Printing: Rather than paying per book, authors who opt for a traditional book printing service submit their books to a company and order their books up front. This can get tricky (not to mention very expensive) if you are hoping to sell lots of copies of your book, as you may end up paying for more books than you can sell.
If you choose to hire a printer, make sure you carefully research the company's services. In fact, we recommend getting quotes from at least 3 different printers before signing with one. And if you’re publishing a 4-color picture book, it may be worth looking into hiring a print broker who can solicit quotes from overseas printers too.
When searching for a traditional printing company, you can save some money if you look for firms that offer “short run digital printing”—the Nonfiction Writers Association offers a list of US and international printers on their website, and BookBaby offers short-run and offset printing in addition to print-on-demand. When you’re doing price comparisons, don’t forget to factor in distribution and shipping costs. And offset printers will charge up to 10% over the cost of the order quantity, because quantities are never exact with offset printing.
Above all, we can’t stress how important it is for you to do your research. Don’t rush to pick a publisher before you’ve Googled them and asked the other writers in your network about their experiences. There are a lot of companies that prey on ambitious new authors, and there are many scam operations out there. Reach out to writers’ organizations like SCBWI and the Alliance for Independent Authors, as well as other authors and people you trust, for recommendations.
5. Create a marketing plan for your children's book.
Like every self-published author, you'll need to come up with a marketing plan that includes social media, advertising, and promotions. But for children's books, there are few important things to note:
- Reviews are even more important. Parents and teachers rely on word-of-mouth and recommendations from other parents, teachers, and trusted media. While it can be difficult to get your self-published kids' book reviewed, make sure you make the effort to submit your book for consideration to not just traditional magazines and newspapers, but also parenting and education blogs. Librarians and teachers are also often required to have at least one, sometimes three, established trade reviews from respected publications like Kirkus Reviews, School Library Journal, or Booklist before bringing a book into its inventory.
- Work with libraries. Libraries can be a great resource for self-published authors, especially when it comes to books for kids. Some authors have suggested that offering a copy of your book for free to libraries may introduce parents to your work and encourage them to buy more of your books, because they view you as a trusted author for their children.
- Make the effort to “do the school circuit.” Reach out to schools and teachers, and look for opportunities to speak and do readings in classrooms and school libraries. Some authors recommend creating a flyer that you can hand out to local schools. School appearances can not only can be an additional source of income, but may also allow you to make additional book sales.
- Remember that you aren't marketing to kids. While you want your book to be appealing to children, remember that your marketing plan isn't targeted for them. Aim for parents and teachers, who are the ones who will buy and recommend your book.
6. Don't rush the process.
One of the biggest mistakes self-published authors can make is trying to get their book out as soon as possible.
Remember that creating a children's book can be incredibly time-consuming. Writing, editing, finding and hiring an illustrator, layout, printing, marketing—it can all take a lot of time. Traditionally publishing a children's book can take up to two years. If you're lucky, self-publishing will take about half of that time. So just remember that self-publishing the best kids' book possible means taking your time…and doing it right.