Competing with Mo Willems

I know what you’re thinking. Self-publishing or indie-publishing, yuk!

Ten years ago, I would’ve agreed with you. But the world has shifted and I want to talk to you about how that shift has affected my career as an author.

Since 1999, I’ve taught the Novel Revision retreat at Society of Children’s BookWriters and Illustrators (SCBWI) chapters across the United States. Alumni of that include Kirby Larson, who brought Hattie Big Sky to my workshop, revised it and went on to win a Newbery Honor award. Many others have attended the retreat, put into practice the principles and broken through with their first book. I’ve spoken at SCBWI conferences around the country on various topics.

I taught Freshman Composition, Intro to Creative Writing and Creative Writing for Children at a local university for seven years. For the last 6 years, I’m teamed up with Leslie Helakoski to teach “PB&J: Picture Books and All That Jazz” at Highlights Foundation, one of their most popular workshops. 

All of that is to say: I know quality writing, and I know how to teach writers to edit themselves to make the writing better. 

I know the online writing community:

My blog, Fiction Notes, has for ten years received about 1000 visitors a day because I write about how to write and revise children’s picture books and novels. On Pinterest, I’m receiving over 100,000 views per month and about 30% of my website traffic comes from there. 

I know the SCBWI and its culture:

For six years I was the Arkansas Regional Advisor–in fact, I started the Arkansas chapter—and I was director of the yearly conference for another four years and the yearly retreat for another couple years, for a total of 12 years in leadership. I have met the most amazing authors, illustrators, editors and art directors through those conferences. I was, and I am, steeped in the industry.

For my own writing, I’m best known for my Harcourt picture book, The Journey of Oliver K. Woodman, which was an Irma Black Honor book, an award which recognizes the marriage of text and art. It also received starred reviews in Kirkus and BCCB. That book was licensed for a Harcourt reading textbook, and I still get letters each spring when 3rd graders read it. I am the 2007 recipient of the Arkansas Governor’s Arts Award for Individual Artist for my work in children’s literature. 

I don’t usually talk about my accomplishments, but I think it’s important for you to know where I’m coming from. 

Ten years ago, if anyone asked about self-publishing, I told them to run the other way as fast as they could. And I was right. It was a difficult, humiliating thing back then. Because a self-published person was probably getting ripped off, paying too much for bad editing and bad art, for a story that should never see the light of day. If you or I saw the books, we’d cringe. And we’d be right.

But the Kindle was released in November 2007, and with it has come vast changes in how books are created and delivered to readers. Print-on-demand (POD) technology started making book publishing easy at about the same time. The combined technologies of ebooks and POD printing have drastically changed the publishing world. 

Oh, the traditional world is still there and still operates in much the same way. But a new disruptive industry has sprung up around the technology innovations. And I’m not saying, “Yuk!” any longer. Instead, I’m cheering for the entrepreneurial spirit of so many amazing writers.

First, let me get the quality issue out of the way: 

In the traditional publishing world, there are good books and bad books. Those are the ones you read and shake your head and say, “I could do better than this.”

In the indie publishing world, there are good books and bad books. Those are the ones you read and shake your head and say, “I could do better than this.”

The method of publishing no longer says something definitive about quality.  

Even ten years ago, though, I recognized that people could successfully self-publish. I’m a quilter. This is my self-portrait quilt.

Quilting in the US is a multi-billion-dollar business. In the quilting world, there are super-star quilting teachers who had an amazing sense of design that inspired thousands of quilts. Even in 2007, they could publish a new pattern book and sell out a 25,000 printing in six weeks and go back to press.

I once told that to a children’s book editor, and she was astounded that it was possible. The reason it worked in quilting is that the marketing was so easy. There’s one major quilt market held in Houston each year. The quilting-teacher-turned-author just had to attend that one show to reach 75-80% of the quilt shop owners. Combine that with their own mailing lists, and it was simple. Well, not simple. She still had to design and pattern a dozen or more quilts, get the photography done, hire someone to do layout and design, get them printed and mail out the finished books. Self-publishing is never simple. But I’ve always known that for niche markets, it works. The niche market needs a group of highly motivated people who can be reached through a limited number of clearly defined channels. Quilting is the perfect example.

A Tale of 3 Books

So, I want to tell you the story of 3 Books.

Book 1: I Can Publish and Sell a Book

I started teaching the Novel Revision Retreat in 1999. For a long time, I sent the retreat directors a file to print that served as the workbook. After each retreat, I refined the workbook even more. Then, in 2008, I was teaching a Novel Revision retreat, and there was a mixup in speaking fees. The retreat organizers had agreed to a certain fee but came back to say that the national writing organization said they couldn’t pay that much. Apparently, someone had overpaid a speaker for a single hour of presentation, so they put a cap on what could be paid for a weekend retreat. The difference was that I present eight time, plus I work hard to make sure the group discussions go well. The leaders were in discussion for a long time over the issue, and I had to make a decision: would I accept the lower fee?

I finally said, “Yes, I’ll take the lower fee. However, you must purchase the workbook.”

Novel Metamorphosis: Uncommon Ways to Revise, the workbook for the retreat, was my first published book because to me, it met the requirements of the niche market. When I talked to publishers about the book, they weren’t encouraging because its target reader was the intermediate to advanced reader. 

Let’s say that 1000 people decide they want to write a novel and buy a book to help them get started. Let’s be generous and say that 100 people actually finish that book and look for ways to revise it. The market for intermediate to advanced books is small, then, only those 100 people. Of those, how many will actually buy a book about revising? Let’s say 10. Instead of 1000 sales, you’ll be lucky to get 10 sales. It’s not a market in which a traditional publisher can be successful; however, it’s the perfect market for a self-publisher. Because I keep the full profit from each sale, it can be lucrative.

My book has sold steadily since publication, and there’s now a second edition. When I teach a retreat, the participants are required to buy the book. They go home and tell friends about it and for a while, there’s a halo effect of sales. Meanwhile, in the background, it sells steadily.

That book taught me I could publish a book. I could learn the programs necessary, design a book cover, choose fonts, paper and so on and get it done. I used print-on-demand technology. What that means is the book exists as a digital file until someone orders a book. When a book seller orders the book, the book is printed and shipped. No book is printed until there’s a demand—an order—for the book. No boxes in the garage. No shipping, because the book is drop-shipped from the printer to the customer. It also means no big investment of cash up front to print 5000 copies and warehouse them. The investment is very small. 

Book 2: I Can Publish a Color Picture Book

The second book came about because I won a contest. It’s the only writing contest I ever entered, so I’m 100% on winning contests! When the movie, The Help, came out, part of the publicity was to hold a contest for a children’s story about someone who helped you. My picture book manuscript, 11 Ways to Ruin a Photograph, was just sitting in a file drawer, so I decided to enter it. It’s the story of a family whose military father is deployed. The daughter decides that if Daddy’s not in the photo, it’s NOT a family photo. So, she ruins every family picture till he returns.

I revised it slightly to fit the contest better and sent it in.

I was stunned by the phone call that said I’d won.

My prize? Color illustrations.

By then, I’d been reading and rereading contracts for a while. I studied their contract. They had strict clauses about me using the illustrations in any way that would imply they were involved. But they had absolutely no restrictions on what I could do with the illustrations. None. They were mine to use as I liked – in perpetuity, as contracts like to say.

Well, what do you do with illustrations for a story? 

You publish a book.

I cried for a month, while I learned Adobe’s InDesign program, the professional software for laying out a book. I think I even finally wound up laying it out in Microsoft Word – which makes me cringe now. But in the end, there was a book.

My friend, Dori—she’s still my friend—told me that the book looked self-published. But it taught me so much. That book taught me that I could publish color picture books.

Book 3: I Can Publish With Excellence

Then, on March 11, 2011, the Japanese tsunami hit the coast of Japan and killed thousands, and damaged a nuclear plant. I was writing nature books at the time for Sylvan Dell/Arbordale and wanted to write a book about the event.

I was thinking of the Two Bobbies story by Kirby Larson, which was a story about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. If you don’t know it, it’s the story of a dog and cat that were found wandering around together after the storm. At the end of the story, you learn that the cat is the “seeing-eye-dog” for the blind dog. It’s a poignant story and it allows teachers and parents to talk about a tragedy in a way that doesn’t overwhelm kids. I wanted that kind of story.

I surfed the internet for stories related to the tsunami until I found one that I thought would work. Wisdom, the Midway Albatross was the oldest known wild bird in the world. She’s been continuously banded since December 1955, and she was nesting on Midway when the tsunami hit. She had been given a bright red leg band to make her easy to pick out of the crowd of albatrosses.

The scientists had warning that the tsunami would hit Midway, so they went to the top of a 3-story military barracks, the tallest structure still on the island. They said that the scariest thing was that the tsunami wave hit at midnight, and they could hear it coming in, but they couldn’t see it. When morning came, there was devastation. Thousands of birds and other wildlife were dead. When they had time to look, they found that Wisdom’s nest was still there with her chick—she was wise enough to build on high ground—but Wisdom was missing. 

They waited. Seven days. No Wisdom.

Eight days. No Wisdom.

Nine days. No Wisdom.

On the tenth day, she came back.

Within six weeks of the tsunami, I had researched the story, phoned the scientists on Midway for an interview, written it and submitted it. It went to eleven editors who said no. Some said that I should take out any mention of people and just tell it as a bird/nature story. Some said that I should emphasize the scientist’s part in the story and minimize the bird’s story.

No one agreed with my vision of the story.

Here’s an important fact: in the publishing industry, you live or die by your opinion. Editors risk big advances on a story they love and are willing to champion. But if the reading public doesn’t agree, that risk may blow up in their face. A Dial/Penguin/Random House editor once said that when they publish a list of 20-25 books, they know that most of them won’t earn out. It’s the old 80-20 rule in practice. 80% of the income will come from 20% of the books. The problem? They don’t know which books will do well and which will bomb. 

They. Don’t. Know. For publishers—the experts!—it’s all a crap shoot.

Soon after the last rejection on the Wisdom story, it happened that I walked into the local Barnes and Noble and saw my friend, Kitty Harvill. She’s an amazing artist and had moved to Brazil about five years before and married a Brazilian man who was deep into wildlife conservation. Kitty had illustrated books for Holiday House (Up! Up! Up! It’s Apple Picking Time) and August House. Sitting Down To Eat (1996 August House LittleFolk) was named an American Bookseller Pick of the Lists and featured Newsweek. It was a 1997 Notable Children’s Trade Book in Social Studies. But Kitty wasn’t doing children’s books at the time.

We talked and I told her about the albatross story. She said, “Send me some pictures of the birds.”

Now, here’s a fact. Kitty is a sucker for wildlife. Those albatross images pulled her in.

She agreed to illustrate the story, and we agreed on a business arrangement. Kitty and I were born on the same day, June 28, so we always knew it was a collaboration that would work well.

The book, Wisdom, the Midway Albatross was published on the one-year anniversary of the tsunami, March, 2012. At Kitty’s urging, I entered it in the Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book awards and it won the children’s book category. So, I submitted it to Publisher’s Weekly for a review.

I was stunned when Wisdom received a starred review from PW. 

Starred Review!

That book taught me that I could publish a color picture book and do it with excellence.

About that time, I parted ways with my last agent – who sold nothing for me and had horrible skills at communicating with authors.

By then, it was 2013. I was faced with a decision: Could I live or die by my opinion? 

Was I confident enough in my storytelling, my sense of design, and my ability to reach people online, that I could start my own publishing company?

Self-Publishing Mentors are Hard to Find

Here’s one aspect of the problem that’s still true: it’s hard to find mentors who’ve walked this path before you in the ways that you would want to do it. Or, if they did, their trails don’t look like they’ll take you where you want to go.

By 2013, ebooks and POD printing had already shaken up the publishing world and created new communities. But most were for those writing for adults. Still, they knew something.

I attended a workshop in Oregon taught by Dean Wesley Smith and his wife, Kristine Kathryn Rusch. I went with two other children’s book writers and met another there. There were 4 of us writing for children along with 25 writing for adults. Still. I learned a lot. I came home committed to creating a publishing career in this brave new world.

I set up the business end of my publishing house and got to work.

My husband and I own a three-story Victorian house in historic district of Little Rock. It’s the office for my husband’s real estate business. But when I signed the papers for the house, I said, “I’ll sign this if I get the attic for my writing.” Houses in the Quapaw Historic District are named after the family that lived there in 1890. Our house is named the Mims House after the 1890 Mims family. I took that as the name of my publishing company, Mims House.

Year ONE was spent deepening my knowledge of the technical side of publishing, setting up accounting, and deciding on distribution. From the first, I asked a crucial question: Where do librarians buy their books? Answer: Mostly through accounts at educational distributors. Therefore, my books had to be available there. I worked hard to find the right contact people and have my books picked up for distribution with Follett and Mackin, two of the biggest educational distributors.

Year TWO was spent widening the base of knowledge about marketing, while I worked on books that excited me. I published more books, novels, early chapter books and picture books. That year, I tried just about every type of ads possible online, set up a website where I could sell books eventually, and listened in as adult writers talked about what worked and didn’t work. Everything they said had to be translated to children’s books and it took time to figure out where it did and didn’t translate.

Meanwhile, my second book with Kitty Harvill, Abayomi, the Brazilian Puma, was named a 2015 National Science Teacher’s Association Outstanding Science Trade Book. 

Year THREE and FOUR have been about expanding distribution and marketing even more. 

A Fourth Book

I’ll want to tell you the story of one more book.

Nefertiti, the Spidernaut really tested my faith in myself. 

In the summer of 2014, I heard a radio program that interviewed Suni Williams, an astronaut who had spent time on the International Space Station. One very small part of her duties was caring for a spider experiment. The spider was a jumping spider named, Nefertiti. Most spiders spin a web and sit back to passively wait for food to fly by. Jumping spiders, by contrast, actively hunt. They jump to catch prey such as a fly or cricket. 

But on the International Space Station (ISS), if a spider jumped, what would happen?

It would float away.

The hypothesis was that the spider would NOT be able to adapt to the gravity of the ISS and would die of starvation.

It happened that the company who prepares all live animal experiments on the ISS is at Boulder, CO. We were going a month later to Denver to visit my daughter, who taught middle school math. I called and made an appointment with the scientists. Their cooperation was amazing. Coming home, I wrote the story, found an illustrator, and the book was off and running.

As usual, I sent it off in the spring of 2015 for review and was stunned by the SLJ review.

They trashed the book. I’ve never seen a review so bad. It actually said, “VERDICT: Skip this bland treatment and share the news clippings instead. ”

But I didn’t’ panic. I knew the conversation had just begun. I waited. 

By then, I had two NSTA Outstanding Science Trade books, one from a traditional publisher and one from Mims House. With relief, I learned that Nefertiti, the Spidernaut was named a 2017 NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Book. 

So, I ask you. Is it a good book or a bad book? The School Library Journal reviewer, Rachel Anne Mencke, St. Matthew's Parish School, Pacific Palisades, CA, didn’t like it at all. The science teacher’s committee like it so much it was especially recognized as a Judge’s Choice. 

All I can say is that in this business, you live or die by your opinion.

And I’m pretty opinionated. 

I love that book. It’s featured in a teacher’s book of science lessons, so the National Science Teaching Association regularly orders books. It was the featured book in a Little Passports subscription STEM box. It’s selling very well, thank you very much SLJ.

Competing with Indie Published Children’s Books

A couple years ago, I was on the SCBWI forums talking to others interested in self-publishing. 

About competition, one person said, “Well, I don’t want to compete with Mo Willems.”

Well, I do.

I don’t want to do this—publish children’s books—if I’m not aiming for excellence. I want to compete with the best of the best.  

So, here’s the last book I’ll show you. The Nantucket Sea Monster: A Fake News Story came out in Fall, 2017. If you remember the Caldecott winning book, Balloons Over Broadway, then you’ve heard of Tony Sarg, the puppeteer who built the balloons for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, because he saw them as upside down marionettes. 

I had heard of him before the book was published and in fact, I went to Nantucket to research Tony Sarg. While there, I heard that another author was writing about him. Of course, that was Melissa Sweet.

So, I shelved any idea of doing a story about Sarg, thinking it would never happen. But the 2016 election stirred up discussion of fake news. I don’t know what your politics is, and it doesn’t matter for this discussion. Teachers and librarians were asking for non-political news stories.

In August 1937, word came that a sea monster had been sighted around Nantucket Island. The newspaper accounts spread rapidly across the nation and created an uproar for about two weeks. Then, the sea monster washed up on Nantucket’s South Beach. It was a rubber balloon that Sarg had designed for that year’s Thanksgiving Parade. All the news around the sea monster was fake news. It was a big publicity stunt, but it was more than that because all the newspapermen were in on it. When they printed the reports, they knew it was fake.

The book gives adults an opening to discuss issues of Fake News, Free Press and the 1st Amendment. In May 2018, the Houston Bar Association went to local schools to read this book and donated 100 books to school libraries in Houston.

And it’s been named a Junior Library Guild selection. The JLG provides subscription services to libraries; they choose books in certain categories, which are then sent to the libraries. For publishers, it means that they will sell several thousand NON-RETURNABLE books Pre-Publication. Before the book is even published, it’s one way to start being profitable. It was also named a 2018 NCTE Notable Children’s Book in Language Arts.

I’m working to write, publish and market excellent literature for kids. My goal has always been, and still is still, to win a Newbery. 

Look out. 

You better start reading my books.

Because, I’m coming.