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 (SCBWI.org), 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 | IndieKidsBooks.com