Indie Kids Books - Lessons From 2023
What has 2023 taught me so far?
Hey! This is Darcy Pattison, author of over 70 award-winning fiction and non-fiction books for children. Five books have received starred PW, Kirkus, or BCCB reviews. Awards include the Irma Black Honor award, five NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Books, three Eureka! Nonfiction Honor book (CA Reading Assn.), two Junior Library Guild selections, two NCTE Notable Children’s Book in Language Arts, a Notable Social Studies Trade Book, an Arkansiana Award, and the Susannah DeBlack Arkansas Children’s History Book award. I’m the 2007 recipient of the Arkansas Governor’s Arts Award for Individual Artist for my work in children’s literature. My books have been translated into ten languages. To see my books, see MimsHouseBooks.com.
This blog chronicles my journey through the independent publishing world, with basic information sprinkled in with my experiences and my current challenges. 95% of my income comes from selling books; I do some teaching and occasional consulting, but that’s not my main income.
Today, I want to look at the challenges of 2023 and what I’ve learned so far this year.
Picture Book Essentials - Webinar
First, I’d like everyone to join me on Tuesday and Thursday nights this week for a webinar, PICTURE BOOK ESSENTIALS, a two-night webinar about writing picture books! This is one of those few teaching gigs I was talking about.
If you’d rather attend an in-person workshop, check out the Picture Book Writers and Illustrators: A Working Retreat on August 23-26.
2023 Books - Exciting Fiction and Nonfiction
This year, I’ve had six books launch, four planned and two as a response to the marketplace.
Here’s the four books I had planned for 2023, three nonfiction and one fiction title.
Aquarium is Book 8 of the Moments in Science series, so it’s the only one that I had a track record to help me predict sales. This series of nonfiction books about science history are winners for me, especially when they get good reviews and awards. Because this one is about a female scientist, there’s an extra appeal and marketing hook, so I’m expecting good things.
AQUARIUM, illustrated by Peter Willis
“…this picture-book biography of a notable woman inventor belongs in STEM collections.” BookList
“…engaging information about a relatively little-known figure and her innovations in marine studies… likely to appeal to kids…effectively elucidates the steps of the scientific method, including prediction, observation, analysis of data, and formulation of a conclusion.” Kirkus Review
I am the Thirsty Desert was written during COVID, when I took a poetry class, The Lyrical Language Lab (there’s a new session in September 2023 - highly recommended) with the amazing Renée LaTulippe. It’s a lyrical narrative written by using the Wall Street Journal rap analyzer. I loved Jordan Kim’s collage art and she did a fabulous job on this one. The back matter turned out really nice on this one.
I AM THE THIRSTY DESERT, illustrated by Jordan Kim
“…informative, effective, and poetic introduction to a desert’s beauty and complexity.” Kirkus Reviews
I’m an optimist! George Washington’s Engineer is designed to appeal to STEM educators because this book includes science, engineering, and American history. It’s a bit of a risk because it’s not pure science, adding in engineering and history. My book, EROSION was named a 2021 Notable Social Studies Book (from the National Social Studies Teachers Association—NSSTA—and the Children’s Book Council). I’m hopeful that this one will be approved by the NSSTA and the NSTA (National Science Teaching Association). American history also pushed this into higher grade levels since American history usually isn’t taught until fifth grade. Will this push past my core audience and miss its mark?
GEORGE WASHINGTON’S ENGINEER, illustrated by Terry Kole
“…an empowering underlying message…regular people who became problem solvers…by working together, achieved an astonishing victory…A fascinating slice of American history…” Kirkus Reviews
“…a case study in how logistics can sometimes accomplish more in war than battles do…the lively tone of the narrative…” Booklist review
GREATEST is another passion project because it has a Christian element. It’s based on the widely quoted 1 Corinthians 13:13 “Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.” (NLT) Learning to act with love may be the most courageous thing Love Truly ever does.
I felt courageous publishing this one too, because it’s not my core audience of science teachers or those who love short chapter books for emerging readers. By appealing to a Christian audience, I knew it would be a challenge. And indeed, sales have been slow!
GREATEST, illustrated by Rich Davis
“…the enjoyable story makes Love Truly’s choices feel personal and relatable, all relayed in accessible language for emergent readers. …the important lessons of friendship and kindness are universal…An engaging tale about offering kindness and receiving friendship.” Kirkus Reviews
“…enjoyable…personal and relatable…accessible…universal… engaging…plenty of charisma...” Kirkus Reviews
Overall, this year, I took some risks on publishing books outside my core audience, This is a big reminder that you will build a reputation as a writer/publisher of a certain type of books. When you step outside that audience, it’s crucial to ramp up the marketing. I am The Thirsty Desert has a poetic/lyrical narrative, not the straight forward nonfiction style of my other books. Greatest is a great fiction story but because it’s classified as “Christian,” it’s a different audience as well. While I am finding ways to reach the right audience for these books, they remain a marketing challenge.
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Responding to the Market
On the other hand, two other books have been a response to the marketplace. My book, A Little Bit of Dinosaur has been read over 2.3 million times on the EPIC! reading app. I added EPIC! as an ebook distributor seven years ago when they were just starting, but they are essentially closed to indie authors now because they require a catalog of over fifty books. I am paid pennies per read, similar to Kindle Unlimited, but with 2.3 million reads, that’s a lot of pennies!
A LITTLE BIT OF DINOSAUR, illustrated by John Joven
★ “…entertaining tale… A science-centric winner, especially for young dinosaur lovers.” Kirkus starred review
“…an engaging scientific concept… bright, comical cartoon artwork…” School Library Journal
2021 Arkansiana Award from the Arkansas Library Association
2021 Eureka! Nonfiction Honor book, California Reading Association
EPIC! app – 2.3 Million+ readsI decided to create a series of three books and Books 2 and 3 launched in May, 2023
Because payments are quarterly, and the fall quarter is traditionally the highest, it’ll be several months before I know how they have done.
The other step I took was to attend the Dallas Toy Festival last year, where I signed with a toy agent. This year, at the urging of a grandson, I created a board game for the A Little Bit of Dinosaur series, partly just for the experience, but also as a way to extend the appeal of the series as a brand. This was a low-investment adventure, lots of fun, and I’ll continue to try things that might extend this series and reach kids in new ways.
So, the big lesson is to take success and see if you can “trade up” to something more exciting. Once, I was working with the youth at our local church and we had an challenging evening. We were divided into groups and each group was given a pencil. They were told to Trade Up. They were supposed to go around a neighborhood and knock on a door and ask if the person would trade for something better, different, more interesting. Just a regular pencil. You might trade up from a pencil to a flashlight to a bicycle. The winning team would have the most expensive item at the end of two or three hours. What do you think they wound up with?
One group brought in a couch and another an old refrigerator! Starting with a pencil, they traded up to appliances and furniture. That idea—trading up—stayed with me, and it’s what I try to do with any small success with my books. Starred review? Can I trade that up to an invitation to speak somewhere? 2.3 million reads? Hey! Let’s trade up to a toy brand. In other words, THINK BIG!
Planning for 2024
Meanwhile, I’m planning books for 2024, hiring illustrators and doing all the ground work for successful sales next year. My husband and i went to New Zealand last November, where I heard a story about a dolphin that will turn into a new addition to the Another Extraordinary Animal series. As I wrote last week, publishing in series works well for indies, so I was excited to be able to add a new title to the series.
One exciting opportunity that has come this year is a discussion with Nancy Schön, the woman who sculpted MAKE WAY FOR DUCKLINGS. My picture book biography of her will come out in March 2024, but we are going to run a Kickstarter in September to put books into kids’ hands for Christmas. This will be my third Kickstarter and that’s I’m glad the two previous projects behind me because this one has been easier to set up.
Part of what I’m currently doing is figuring out how to talk about the book, BE STRONG: THE RISE OF BELOVED PUBLIC ART SCULPTOR NANCY SCHÖN.
So far, this image is resonating. Notice the hand-written sign on the wall behind her that says, “BE STRONG,” which is where the title came from.
The lesson here is to start publicity early and test your messages. Gain experience with the different platforms such as Kickstarter so when you need it, it’s simple to implement.
Running an Online Bookstore
Meanwhile, my Shopify store needs constant attention. For print books, I’m connected to Lulu Direct who prints on demand and then ships to customers. But there’s a newcomer printer who is generating lots of excitement, BookVault. However, many ideas that work for adult books do not work for children’s books. I’m currently testing the print quality of BookVault for my books. The first title I ordered had amazing printing because it was on 110# coated paper, a really great quality paper. The binding wasn’t quite right, though, so I’ll have to order another proof copy before I’m convinced it will work for my needs.
The lesson here is to listen to recommendations from those writing/publishing for adults, but test, test, test for our purposes.
Publishing Children’s Books in 2023
I still firmly believe that the best decisions we can make is to invest in our careers by learning to write stronger stories. A strong story will always make your job easier. Quality of writing matters.
Beyond that, success is easier when you have a publishing program that combines steady sellers that hit your core audience, combined with books that stretch your skills and build a wider audience. Taking calculated risks is important in a small business, as long as your core stays stable.
This blog is one way to share my challenges and what I’m learning. It’s available as a free or paid resource. I publish about one blog post a week; twice a month, the post is only for paid subscribers, usually a more in-depth look at something practical. When you start a paid subscription, it means I’m able to spend the time thinking about, researching, and writing about these complicated topics. And I want to say thanks! I’m glad for the conversations and community of authors and publishers who read and participate here! Thank you.
What challenges, risks and successes have you had so far this year?