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2022 - Publishing Children's Books
What worked and what didn't work in 2022
The world marches on and businesses change. What worked five years ago may or may not work today. In some ways, I feel like I’m charging from one idea to the next, but this was my years to try different things. I’ve kept in place all the things that work – I’m not foolish enough to abandon success. But I also want to jettison the things that don’t work, or else transform and update them so they work better. It’s been a year to rethink my business to see where it’s going and where I can find success.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK FOR ME
eMail lists. Developing a list of emails (people who give you permission to contact them via email) works for nonfiction, especially when writing about self-publishing as in this newsletter. But it doesn’t work for my children’s books. I can’t get consistent traffic to drive signups; every newsletter I send out, I have unsubscribes, so what I do have dwindles instead of grows. In other words, I’m not good at building direct relationships with readers. It’s the promise of self-publishing and the foundation of most who are successful. I wonder if my failure is because I publish children’s books and the actual reader is unreachable; you can only talk to the adults around the child, the parents, teachers, and librarians. Or if is just that I’m lousy at this?
Content marketing. This is a long game strategy, and I know how to play it well for nonfiction topics of writing for children and self-publishing children’s books. But I’ve not been able to make it work for children’s books. One strategy I used this year was to bring onboard an intern who wrote 20 blog posts for me. These will run out in December, and I need to look at stats to see what kinds of articles brought in the most readers.
I also have ideas on content for 2023. Instead of talking about my specific children’s books, I plan to focus on bigger issues such as how to encourage more kids to read more ebooks. Will that kind of indirect content find a better audience? Stay tuned!
Facebook ads. These never gets sales for me. Some friends report that using a retargeted audience does work for children’s books. That is, when a person visits your site, they receive a cookie from Facebook, and you can then retarget ads to them. It’s a long process that takes patience and a deep purse. I’ve never seen sales from FB ads. The increasing complexity makes it difficult to keep up. It’s not something I’ll pursue.
Amazon Advertising. Five years ago, these were stellar, and I could count on sales resulting from Amazon ads. But in the last two years, the effectiveness has dropped to nothing. The problems seem to stem from competition, increased complexity, and the perennial problem of publishing children’s books. I do keep low-level ads going but I don’t see this as a major source of sales and I won’t major on this platform for 2023.
Special sales. Three years ago, Little Passports subscription box service was buying large numbers of two titles. But they have pivoted and instead of STEM books, they are producing more preschool box sets. I’ve tried to find ways to talk to other places such as Literati with their book fairs, but these relationships are hard to forge when no one will answer an email or phone call. I still receive special sales every month and will support that as needed.
Focusing on Amazon marketing. I have a love-hate relationship with Amazon. It sells books for me! But my books have never been breakout books on Amazon, and I generally ignore my sales ranking. Kindle Unlimited doesn’t work for me, and frankly, I’m glad because I don’t want to put all my eggs in that basket. I much prefer going wide. That means I’ll keep promoting Amazon sales when it makes sense. But I’ll explore other options, too.
Wide marketing. On the other hand, though, I am abandoning ebook markets for children’s books that underperform, despite my best efforts. In the end, the audience for my kind of children’s book is just not on some of the major ebook platforms. I am starting to move books to the aggregator D2D and will let them reach what they can on those markets. I’m pulling all my Barnes and Noble Press books and will move those to D2D. For GooglePlay and Apple, I’ll probably leave current titles in place, but for new titles, I’ll enable these on D2D.
School Visits. I haven’t focused on in-person speaking for several years, and not just because of COVID. Instead, I’ve found that a school visit isn’t a good use of my time. The sales and speaking fees can be good, but you can’t scale this up. You can only speak so many times a year and after that, you can’t scale up. I don’t want to speak 100 times a year to make a certain income. Instead, I use my time to encourage bulk sales and making sure my sales channels can manage wholesale bulk orders.
Direct to customer. This year, the self-publishing world has blown up with the appeal of direct-to-customer sales. I was a year ahead, setting up a Shopify store last year, excited by the possibilities. But – where do you find customers? How do you consistently generate traffic for your site? I do make sales, but not consistently. I’ve tried reader magnets, FB ads, content marketing, and more to drum up traffic, but I’ve failed in generating much. Certainly, there’s no word of mouth to bring in traffic, which means I have to generate everything. In conjunction with my also failed content marketing and email strategies means it’s a hard market for me.
What strategies do NOT work for YOU?
WHAT DOES WORK FOR ME
POD through Amazon and Ingram. A healthy percentage of my income comes from sales through Amazon or Ingram. They tend to balance each other out. When Amazon sales tank, Ingram sales pick up and vice versa. Christmas (with my new Christmas book!) has meant that Amazon sales are great in November/December. January/February do well on Ingram because it’s the start of a second semester for elementary schools.
Paid reviews and awards. I realize that this is a strange thing that doesn’t work for many indie authors! For me, though, it’s important to receive consistently good reviews from traditional outlets. That means I usually pay for Kirkus reviews, and then submit everywhere else (PW, SLJ, Booklist, and specialized markets that make sense for an individual title). The good reviews, my growing reputation for nonfiction children’s books, and the awards mean that teachers and librarians hear about my books. In the education market, the reviews and awards are gold.
This year, DIEGO, THE GALÁPAGOS GIANT TORTOISE received a starred Kirkus review and was named a Best Book of the Year. The California Reading Association named it a Eureka! Nonfiction Honor book. All my other books all had good reviews.
Kickstarter. In the last two years, I’ve done a Kickstarter project each year. Both projects funded, but I find this a hard process. Success here relies on those strong reader relationships, and because I don’t have that, it’s difficult to drum up traffic and supporters. I want to continue this as a preorder strategy, but I need to strengthen my reader relationships before I come back to this well again.
Special sales. Because of reviews and awards, my books do get noticed. I get orders from educational distributors for 50-1000 books for special projects or events. But I get few repeat orders because the relationships aren’t there.
EPIC! This reading app is bringing in surprising income! A LITTLE BIT OF DINOSAUR has 1.5 million reads on that platform. But all isn’t rosy in this camp. EPIC! is always behind on onboarding new projects, and I can’t consistently count on them adding a title. When they do accept it, the waiting time for it to become live can be six months. While they deliver the audience, it’s an uneven relationship.
Audiobooks for Children’s books. This works for me ONLY because on the EPIC! app, the audio is used to create read-along books which highlight a word as it’s spoken. These increase my popularity with young readers and result in real differences in income. Then, I put the audiobooks on Findaway and am happy with any sales.
Consistently Publishing New Books. I do make a consistent income on Amazon and from Ingram. Part of the reason is that I now have sixty books in my backlist. Last year, I added a Christmas book and the strategy of holiday books is helping fill in otherwise weak months. Just adding more books also takes the pressure off any one book to perform. Overall, my mix of titles needs to produce income, but this book or that book doesn’t have to sell well every single month to reach my income goals.
In the mix of everything I do, this is still true: I am a writer, and I publish what I write. Consistently, I publish three to five books a year. 2023 is already a full year, and I’m working on 2024 books.
Substack. This Substack newsletter, Indie Kids Books, which focuses on self-publishing children’s books successfully transitioned to both a free and paid newsletter this year. I still provide basic information free, but reserve advance information for the paid subscribers. It’s also a way for you to support my thinking and writing about this topic. Sure, you can read a lot about self-publishing around the internet. But few focus on self-publishing for the children’s market. Subscribe now!
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So, what has worked for YOU this year?
WHAT I’LL CONCENTRATE ON FOR 2023
2022 has felt like a year to research adjacent industries and alternate ways of doing business. I kept the solid pieces in place, but then went looking. What has stuck? What will I focus on for 2023?
Toy brand agent. As I traveled to conventions for toys, licensing, and video this year, I was fortunate enough to meet a brand agent who is now marketing A LITTLE BIT OF DINOSAUR. As an indie, I have a healthy understanding of the role of an agent, how it works well, and how it can go wrong. My contract is for three years for only this one property. If she can produce results quickly, this could be a profitable relationship. But my risks are managed both in time frame and in scope. Here’s hoping she’s successful!
To support this effort, I’ll add two more dinosuar books in 2023. Here’s the cover of A LITTLE BIT OF THIS DINOSAUR. And A LITTLE BIT OF THAT DINOSAUR is coming.
Licensing. I’d like to return to the Licensing Expo with a smarter idea of how to find deals. This time, I’ll try to set up some meetings. This is one area in which I’ll continue to look for strategies toward success.
Kickstarter. I found Kickstarter hard because ineffective email list. But the promise for preorders is amazing. With a healthy KICK, my book, THE PLAN FOR THE GINGERBREAD HOUSE, was quickly in the black. That makes Kickstarter a great option for future products. Brandon Sanderson has blazed the trail for authors who have a good fan base. The question is how to best build that fan base? I may or may not try a new Kickstarter project in 2024, but I will keep it as a strategy for the future, and keep working on building that email list.
eMail List. The author community favors certain email providers because this or that guru recommends it, or because it just seems to work. I’m going to try a different provider in 2023, though. Why? Because Privy.com focuses on Shopify marketing and building an email list of customers who purchase regularly. Other email providers do this, such as Klaviyo. But Privy specializes in Shopify where I host my store. We’ll see what their tools and strategies will bring.
Emphasize eBook sales. Along with this, I will emphasize ebook sales for kids. I know. Most of us make the bank on paperback books. But I think it’s time to try for ebook sales. I’ve spent a lot of time figuring out the right apps for reading the fixed-format picture ebooks, and thinking about why this is the right time for kids’ ebooks. Look for more on this in 2023.
Wholesaling. Wholesaling may be another fad, but I think it’s more of a shift in how business is done. Hiring representatives to travel the country visiting small to medium retailers doesn’t seem like a good strategy any longer. That leaves us with the wholesale marketplaces such as Faire.com.
Maybe conventions will become more important as a place to continue relationships that began on those marketplaces. Maybe you’ll have to create relationships the old-fashioned way of reaching out with information, and then pull the new customer over to the marketplace for easy in fulfilling orders. It might be an offline and online effort to produce success. Maybe it won’t work long term. The only way to know is to try.
Ironically, wholesaling has been the strategy of book publishers for decades. They market to bookstore owners and have ignored the relationship with readers. It’s strange to find myself trying this strategy, and I think it’s because I publish children’s books. Parents are hard to reach because their kids age out of my categories in a couple years. Librarians and teachers are long-term customers, but they are so busy working and teaching that it’s hard to develop those strong relationships. Their reliance upon children’s books is seasonal, based on the needs of a school year. I do find some advocates and customers here and there, but it’s a hard market, too.
Moving into wholesale, the audience is the small to medium retailer who has a customer base that they know well (presumably!). They succeed at retail when they curate a mix of products that their customers like and will spend money for. In other words, it’s a different market. That’s one of the appeals for me, finding a new market.
Building direct reader relationships. Nevertheless, I will continue to chip away at strategies that will connect me directly with child readers and their adults. I do think that promise of self-publishing is that we can connect directly with our readers. It’s one strength of this community. Maybe I’ll look for classes, books, or mentors that will help (any suggestions?). Whatever I find, it’s a strategy that I’ll continue to work on.
What will you focus on for 2023?