Writing Children’s Books for Self Publication

If you’re writing children’s books to submit to trade publishers, my best advice is to read Aaron Shepard’s "The Business of Writing for Children." I’m not a children’s book writer myself. My primary areas of publishing experience are self publishing and marketing to niche markets. The self publishing business isn’t a scaled down version of a large trade publisher anymore than a home based cookie business is a scaled down version of a supermarket chain. When you’re writing any type of book for self publication, you can’t count on a sales department to get the book initial exposure on store shelves or for name reviewers to even look at it. Publishing a high quality children’s book might guarantee that the people who see it will like it, but getting the book in front of them in the first place is the challenge. On top of that, the economics of self publishing preclude a full color, board bound book, unless you have tons of money to gamble or are willing to purchase a very short offset run to sell at a loss and test the market. I don’t recommend either of those options.

The children’s book market is vast, and competing toe-to-toe with name brand and classic authors backed by major corporations is a tough challenge. Chain buyers, review magazines and trade salespeople have retained their importance in the children’s book sector better than most other sectors, because children’s books sell based on branding, shelf appeal and buzz. I don’t mean anything negative about the word buzz here, though buzz can be heavily manipulated by professionals, but the network of mothers talking about children’s books really has an impact, and it can stretch across generations. As a new publisher, you not only don’t have any of these things going for you, you can’t expect to get them any time soon, so another approach is required.

Rather than going after the vast, somewhat generic, children’s book market, it’s easier to go after a niche. The narrower the niche, the more likely your title will have a chance to become prominent, though it will still require both a quality book and a serious marketing effort. Unlike professional books where niche markets tend to define themselves, when you’re writing children’s books, you have the opportunity to define the niche yourself through the characters and the story. For example, if you’ve got a book in mind about a small dog, don’t be shy about picking a breed that you haven’t seen many children’s books about. It doesn’t matter how obscure the breed may seem to you, with a little research you’ll probably find that hundreds of thousands of Americans own that dog, and many of them have small children. There will probably be owners groups and maybe even a publication that offers inexpensive advertising, as well. Without changing in any way the story you wanted to write, it gives you at least one natural niche you can go after, to offset some of the disadvantages of the self publisher.

Writing children’s books for ethnic and religious markets is another way to reduce the amount of competition and give you some natural market advantages. Obviously, it would be a good idea to write for your own ethnic or religious group so you know what the hell (oops) you’re writing about. Writing for the children of immigrant communities in their parent’s language is an interesting hybrid, particularly if you can use American situations and lifestyles in the story, so the parents and children can learn something together. Serious children’s books that offer child-sized explanations of problems that adults face seem increasingly popular. I suppose I could write "When Mommy Publishes a Book and Can’t Pay the Rent."

The obvious thread through all of these examples is that even though you’re writing children’s books, you’re selling them to adults. Adults have their own interest in children’s books, from the art of illustrations, to the use of language to the lessons they hope to teach their children. Children’s books can take people out of themselves and make them better than themselves during the short time they spend reading them. The golden rule, honesty, modesty, any number of values some parents have deemphasized in their lives can be passed on to a new generation. I’m not advocating that you lie to children and make the world out to be a better place than it is, well, actually I am. Who knows, if enough kids believe it, faith can move mountains.

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