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In some ways, marketing a book written for adults is easy. Most of the time, the reader is also the buyer. If you can convince readers to try your book, they become your customers. But to market a children’s book is very different.
Kids don’t have money to spend, and most book-buying decisions are made by the adults, like parents, librarians, or teachers.
Marketing strategies used for adult audiences often do not work for children’s books. Some are even illegal! While adults will purchase hundreds of ebooks for their Kindles, children prefer reading print books. While authors can reach adult audiences via online advertising, children typically are not shopping for books online.
How can you market a children’s book in an online-everything world?
So, how can you successfully market your children’s books in today’s world of online everything?
I asked Karen Inglis, who has mastered the art of self-publishing and marketing her children’s books. She is an international bestselling author. Her time travel adventure, The Secret Lake, has sold over half a million copies in English and has been translated into ten languages. She is successfully making a living as an indie children’s author, so when she says something works, it works.
How did you get started writing books for children?
Thomas: You’re making a full-time living writing and publishing books for children without the help of a traditional publisher. How did you get started?
Karen: Well, I started fairly late on. I had written for years, but when my children were little and I read books to them, I’d think, “That one’s good,” or “That one’s not so good.” I got inspired and started penning some rhyming picture books.
During that period, I visited a friend who had just moved into an apartment that backed onto the communal gardens of Notting Hill. I walked out there and saw all the children playing in that very safe space, surrounded by big Victorian houses, and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be magical if they could meet the children who lived and played here a hundred years ago?”
That’s how I was inspired to write The Secret Lake. It was the first of my longer non-picture books. It was very much a story from my heart.
I believed in the project, but it took a long time for it to take off. In fact, in the early days, I sent it to traditional publishers before the days of the internet. I waited six weeks and got the rejection letters back saying it was either the wrong length, too traditional or not modern enough. I’d meant to write a traditional non-modern adventure because I didn’t think enough traditional adventure stories were available.
Thomas: I 100% agree.
My wife and I have three children, five and under, and we buy hundreds of children’s books. Many books we buy are out-of-print, older books because we don’t like modern books. We don’t want to read “a is for activist.” We want to read Goodnight Moon and older, traditional adventures because our kids love those.
Karen: I know what you mean.
After a few rejections, I put the manuscript in a box, and it stayed there for about ten years. I used to look at the box and think, “What a shame. No one’s ever going hear that story about the secret lake.”
Then in 2010, I had a year-long sabbatical from my consulting job, and when I pulled the story out and read through it, I thought, “This is good, but it needs a bit of editing.” I did some editing with a work colleague who’s a huge reader and had kids.
I was about to send it to the Writers and Artist Yearbook, and I went online to get the latest version. That’s when I started seeing things about self-publishing.
Ten years earlier, I had investigated whether there was any way I could publish the book myself and immediately discovered that I would have to order 2,000 copies to get the unit cost low enough to make sense. So I forgot about it.
But suddenly, I saw all this information about self-publishing and something called Create Space. I noticed lots of people in the States were self-publishing, but not many here in the UK were. Certainly, no children’s authors were self-publishing.
I started asking questions in the Create Space community and quickly decided that I liked the idea of doing it myself.
Thomas: CreateSpace is now called Amazon KDP Print.
Initially, you considered offset printing, where you have to order thousands of copies to get the unit cost low enough to make a profit. Plus, you’d have a garage full of books.
With Amazon KDP’s print-on-demand service, the unit cost is the same no matter how many units you order because they’re printed on demand.
Karen: I self-published The Secret Lake in 2011, but it was not an overnight success. It was a success in the sense that Kindle was in its very early days. And after I spent many hours formatting it for MOBI without any of the modern tools, I finally uploaded it to Kindle just before Christmas of 2012.
It sold about 60 copies on Christmas Day, and I thought, “Who are all these people buying this book?” I didn’t know anyone who was buying digital children’s books at the time.
After those initial sales, there was a lull. Even though the book was available on Amazon, no one was going to happen upon it. At that time, there was no way to advertise.
It was a slow burn in the early days for several years. My marketing efforts involved going into schools, contacting schools, and slowly building my brand that way. I could talk about the book on Twitter, but those people were not kids, and I realized I’d have to start with an event in my local library.
People ask me about marketing to kids, and I still advise them to start locally. Establish your brand locally because that gives you material to share on your website and social media channels. People get to see what you’ve been doing at the library or your local bookshop.
I also printed flyers with the front cover of The Secret Lake to distribute to local cafes where I knew parents took their kids. By advertising locally, you are supporting your local community. My flyer said that the book was available at the library and bookshops.
I also contacted the local press to let them know the book had a local connection since the front cover of The Secret Lake was inspired by a pond called Still Pond in Richmond Park, close to where we live.
I also spoke to magazines in Notting Hill because there was a Notting Hill collection.
I was doing all that traditional media when the book first came out, and traditional media is still a very effective marketing tool for children’s authors today.
You’ll want to contact schools and visit because that’s where you’ll gain word-of-mouth momentum. If the children like your books, they’ll tell other children about them. Their parents will tell each other about it. Teachers and librarians will share the information. It is a slow burn.
As you meet people, you can ask if they’d be very kind and leave a review for you on Amazon because if you’re advertising on Amazon, you’ll need some reviews up there. But that old-school stuff hasn’t changed and is still important today.
In fact, I was doing a free event last night for the school my sons attended, and I was talking about children’s publishing. It’s all good PR to keep your brand out there.
Thomas: Authors are eager to jump straight into online advertising, but it’s helpful to sell your first 500 copies one-on-one or to small groups. The benefit of selling in person is that it forces you to talk with your readers. Speaking at a school forces you to interact with children, and you learn how to talk to kids in a way they find interesting.
Speak for Free (At First)
Karen: I tell beginning authors to build their confidence by offering free events. As a rule, you should charge for your events once you’re established.
But when you’re starting, offer to do a free event in exchange for being able to send home order slips in case children, or parents want to order a book.
A big, wealthy, private school is within walking distance from my house. They asked if I would speak to the children but said I couldn’t sell books.
Even though I couldn’t sell books, I decided to do it anyway to build my confidence. They wanted me to come at six times to speak to different grade levels.
Each time I spoke to a different group of children, I learned what did and didn’t work when presenting to them. At times, I realized I had gone on for too long and needed to break it up and ask questions.
It was very helpful for me. All those early, free events will help you hone your skills for speaking to more people and doing more events.
Thomas: I completely agree. I really believe in speaking for free when you’re getting started. Once you’re in demand and starting to get tired because of all your free events, then you can start charging.
The only way to become a public speaker is to speak publicly. Practice is the key. Knowing what a good speech is and delivering a good speech that connects with an audience takes practice.
Giving the same talk six times helped you hone your message, which came in handy later when you were doing other marketing activities. Your early speaking gigs laid the foundation for your future marketing.
Knowing how to buy an Amazon or Facebook ad is the easy part. The tricky part is knowing what to put in the text to make people want to click and buy the book. You must learn to describe your book with less than ten compelling words that pique interest and cause people to click.
Karen: When you’re doing free events, you do have to be careful because it can make it awkward for people who are charging. There is an unspoken rule which says, “Only speak for free when you’re starting. Don’t make a big habit of it.”
There’s a huge amount of work involved in planning school events because of all the emails that go back and forth for scheduling and ordering.
Your sales depend on how engaged and organized your school contact person is. Some are on the ball, and others aren’t. The efficiency of your contact person often determines how many books you are likely to sell that day, assuming you have a good book.
The quality of the marketing materials you provide should make it as simple as possible for them to promote your book to the parents.
How do you reach out to schools?
Thomas: How do you approach the schools to get the name of that contact person?
Karen: I start by calling to get the name of the literacy coordinator. Sometimes it’s a teacher, and sometimes it’s a librarian. Other times you’ll speak to a lady in the office who won’t let you speak to anyone beyond her.
I also tailor my emails to include a couple of thumbnail book cover images and some information to make them look interesting. Then I follow up with a phone call.
There’s a lot of disappointment involved. They often don’t get back to you, or they say they will, and then they don’t. When you follow up, you may learn that the teacher you were working with has left.
Over the years, I’ve learned not to take it personally. Teachers and school staff are incredibly busy. They’re not trying to keep you out. They just have so many things going on.
The process requires you to have thick skin, but if you are consistently targeting audiences correctly with an obvious and attractive pitch about what you can offer, you will have some success.
Thomas: You have to know what they want. They’re not in the business of booking authors. They’re in the business of educating children, so you need to convince them that you will make their job of educating children easier and that you will be easy to work with.
Having a real author speak to the children is the sort of thing that makes the school look good to parents too.
In most organizations, the people doing the work rarely make purchasing decisions. That second-grade teacher doesn’t necessarily have the authority to spend $50 on booking an author. She’d need approvals and signatures from three different bosses.
But if you’re offering to present for free, all that complexity is suddenly removed.
Certainly, professional authors should get paid, but if you only get $50, it might not be worth the complexity the fee adds.
On the other hand, some conferences are used to booking speakers. The person booking speakers has the authority to negotiate pricing.
When should an author contact a school?
Karen: It’s good to contact schools before they finalize their budgets for the following year so they can plan for the expense of paying you as a speaker.
If the school has budget restrictions, you can offer an agreement where you’ll speak for a reduced fee in return for being able to sell a certain number of books at a discounted price.
Thomas: I know many authors who do that. Since they’re buying their books for $3.00-$4.00 per copy, they can discount them from the $15.00 regular price to $10.00 and still make a profit.
Karen: That’s how the traditional publishing model works. Many authors are looking towards the direct-selling model, and I think that number will grow in 2023.
Thomas: For most authors, offset printing is a mistake because they end up with a garage full of books.
But if you’re selling hundreds of books every month, you can work with a fulfillment company, and then those 2,000 books are in your fulfillment company’s garage. They’re putting the books in boxes and shipping them to the customers for you.
Full-color picture books are expensive to print on demand, so it may be worth looking at offset printing to reduce your per-unit cost.
Karen: When The Secret Lake started to take off in the UK, I knew people would start asking for it in the bookshops. But at the time, it was being printed through Ingram Spark and took weeks to ship to the UK. The UK bookshops could get them, but never very quickly.
So, I started doing offset printing for about 500 copies. Then I ordered 2,000 offset copies through a company called Clays, which prints for many traditional publishers. That’s improved the delivery time, and now bookshops can get them within 24 hours.
I ought to be doing something similar in the states, but at the moment, I’m not.
Thomas: If you’re curious about offset printing, listen to our episode that compares offset printing to print-on-demand.
I recommend visiting your local offset printer. The big printers won’t care about you because you’re a small fry. But local companies that print mail pieces and catalogs can print regular books. They enjoy working with authors because printing books is more fulfilling than printing junk mail.
Most authors I know have found it easy to work with a local printer. They typically spoke to the same person every time they called. Building that relationship helped them understand the print process and made it easier for the printer and the author to understand the other’s needs.
If you don’t think there’s a printer in your town, search Google Maps and look for printers around your post office.
How did you go from selling a few books each month to thousands?
Karen: From 2011 to 2018, I sold about 7,000 copies through school visits, local bookshops, and some Amazon sales.
But the big game changer came when Amazon opened up advertising. As soon as there was a whiff that we could advertise, I was in there trying to find out how.
I didn’t have many book reviews at that stage because children’s book reviews come slower. Plus, I sold most of my books at events, and people who buy a book in person don’t typically leave a review online.
But in all my books, I’ve always included a very nice message saying, “If you enjoyed this book, it would mean a lot to me if you could take a moment to leave a short review on Amazon or your preferred retailer online.”
In 2018, I was finally able to get onto Amazon UK advertising. I had a feeling that the UK ads would have an effect because the book is set in the UK. And they certainly did. When those ads started appearing, I saw the book’s sales increase significantly.
I was also considering changing the book cover at that time, but I was afraid if I changed the cover, Amazon would take them off sale. That’s what they used to do in the olden days.
Thomas: When traditional publishers order thousands of offset print copies from China, it takes a long time and a lot of hassle to make changes to the book. But with print-on-demand technology, you simply upload a new image, and the next copy will be printed with the new cover.
Many books with poor sales have either poor covers or back cover copy. The writing on the inside doesn’t get the chance to prove itself because no one gets past the cover and the copy.
If you’re a new indie author, don’t be afraid to let go of the first cover you were so involved in designing.
When you start advertising, you may discover that the cover you designed doesn’t work to hook a reader. Be willing to let go of your original cover and experiment with more effective cover designs. A more effective cover will mean more clicks and more money to cover the cost of your ads.
Karen: Covers also change over time. The Secret Lake’s cover was well-received when it first came out, but by 2018 it started to strike me as a bit old-fashioned. It was definitely ripe for updating.
Thomas: Just because you’re writing a classic story doesn’t mean you have an old-fashioned cover. Your cover should convey accurately how fun and interesting the book is. That look changes with time. The Chronicles of Narnia have had four or five sets of covers. Lord of the Rings has had dozens of covers.
Karen: In the summer of 2018, sales took off in the UK, and then slowly and surely, they started to take off in the States. For the longest time, I only had 45 reviews, but now I have more than 16,000 organic reviews, which are based on the readers’ enjoyment of the story. I’ve never ever done a giveaway in exchange for reviews or paid for any reviews.
People often ask how I sell so many books, and I think it’s because a good story sells. Children love it, and it appeals to adults as well. When they share it with friends, that helps. Getting those reviews helped a lot, too.
But just because advertising is available to you, don’t think it’s the only thing you should do. Building your brand gradually and locally by word of mouth will help you get reviews and benefit you long-term.
For example, our village was hosting an event for the 50th anniversary of the World Cup. They wanted to hire vendor tables to go along with the event. I had a book called Eeek! The Runaway Alien, which featured an alien who runs away from space to Earth because he’s mad about soccer and the World Cup.
My table cost me £15, and I probably only sold 30 books, so my hourly rate for profit was extremely low. But two wonderful things happened.
First, a very well-known player was there, and I got a photo of him with me and my book Eeek, which I posted on my social media outlets.
Second, I received a letter from a parent saying, “My daughter bought a copy of your book, The Secret Lake, at the event. She loves it, and we are asking her school if you can come and do an event.” Subsequently, I got a booking for £350 to do a World Book Day event there.
Thomas: Hand-selling a book in person reaps far more benefits than an online sale because you make a personal connection, and that relationship can lead to really good things.
Advertising Vs. Marketing
Thomas: A lot of people confuse advertising and marketing.
Marketing is a mix of things you can do to promote your books and brand.
Advertising is specifically money you spend to put your book in front of people.
It’s risky to spend your own money on advertising. Many authors spend $1,000 advertising and only earn back $500. When they see they’re losing money, they quit advertising. Other authors lose money but continue to buy advertising simply because they want their book to sell copies, even if it means losing money.
But if you want to get to 16,000 reviews and sell millions of copies, you must be able to advertise profitably.
Your early days of presenting to students gave you an edge over other authors who didn’t take the time to listen to their readers and customers. But because you did, you knew how to present your book in a way that made people want to read it.
Karen: Advertising is a whole learning curve in itself. In the olden days, we had to learn how to format a book before all those wonderful tools came along. Then we suddenly needed to become experts in advertising.
It’s challenging for children’s authors because beyond having to promote directly to our audiences, many of the webinars on making profitable ads are focused on ebooks, and we’re selling print books.
I had to figure out my own Advertising Cost of Sales (ACOS) for a print book because it’s completely different than an ebook.
You must be willing to learn and spend time doing those things. I talk about those things in my book How to Self-Publish and Market a Children’s Book.
Thomas: If you want to indie publish your children’s book, I highly recommend Karen’s book. The most cost-effective education you’ll ever get for your publishing career is to buy books on publishing. You can spend a lot of money on courses, but a book is far cheaper.
To learn more about advertising, listen to the following Novel Marketing episodes:
- Facebook Advertising for AuthorsAmazon Advertising
- Marketing 101: Ten Advertising Terms You Need to Know
- How to Create Powerful Ads for Authors Who Hate Math! with Chris Fox
- How To Split Test Your Book Title Ideas With Facebook Ads
If you want to advertise successfully, you have to be willing to dig into the numbers to do it well. If you’re happy to lose money, you’ll eventually lose all your money, and that’s not the path to success.
If you’re doing this right, the money you’re spending on ads brings back more money, so you can send out more money. A profitable ad campaign creates a flywheel that gets you 16,000 ratings.
If you’re losing money with your advertising, you’ve got to make some changes.
You may need to change the cover or the blurb, but maybe the book’s not the right fit for your market, and you need to write another book. You learn all of that from the great data you get from advertising.
It’s very sobering at first, but it can help you make informed decisions.
Test Your Story
Karen: I’d also suggest making sure you have a good story.
I took a course with a freelancer who was the head of Penguin Children’s in the UK at the time.
A few years later, I contacted her and asked for a manuscript appraisal. She told me it was a great story but suggested I start it differently. Then she told me all the things I’d done wrong. I made many changes to my original story, but those changes made it better.
No matter how good your blurb or cover is, if the story doesn’t enthrall children, you won’t be able to sell it well.
I tell beginning children’s authors to put their story away for a couple of weeks, then come back to it. You’ll be able to see what’s not working. After you fix it and make changes, try to get some children or teachers to read it, and then give them a simple questionnaire after they read it.
- Which part did you enjoy?
- How many stars would you give it out of 10?
- Were there any bits you didn’t enjoy?
- What parts did you not understand?
- When did you get bored?
You don’t need them to write an essay, but if you make it easy for them to give you feedback, you could make some very profitable changes without having to pay a professional editor right away. The children and teachers will probably point to the parts you knew weren’t working anyway.
Don’t hire an illustrator or pay for any illustrations to be done until you’ve got your story mapped out so that you know where the pages are going to turn and potentially what illustrations would go there.
If you read a lot, you’ll know when you want the page to turn, and that will inform where the images go. Even if you only have stickman drawings, you can ask a parent to try and read it to their child. Ask them to let you know what they think of the picture placement so you get a sense of whether the kids will be engaged with the story.
If the kids aren’t engaged in the story, you don’t want to pay an illustrator to come up with a load of illustrations that will eventually be changed as the story changes.
Thomas: When you’re reading to kids and sense they’re losing interest, you might have to add voices or a bit of vocal drama to help get through the boring bits. But if you’re testing the story on children, you don’t want to add all that drama. You need to know if the story stands on its own.
If you start to lose the kids at a certain page, make a note to fix it and make it much more interesting.
How would you encourage a children’s author who doesn’t know where to start?
Thomas: What encouragement do you have for someone who has finished a children’s book but hasn’t done anything with it because it all seems too overwhelming?
Karen: First, put it in a drawer for a couple of weeks, and then come back and read it.
Second, try to find a group of kids in your target age group. Before that, make sure you know what age group you’re writing for. The target age group will inform the length, theme, plot complexity, and character ages. You discover the target age group by reading lots of children’s books from your library.
Third, contact a teacher, librarian, or parent and ask them to read it with their children and give you feedback. You may also want to get feedback from the children, preferably children you don’t know personally. If they know you, they may be hesitant, to be honest about the boring parts. Or perhaps their parents would tell them what they could and couldn’t say.
Finally, hire a professional editor to do the copy editing. If you are in the UK, I would look for one at Writer’s Advice Center for Children’s Books or other online places like Reedsy. You want an editor who is familiar with editing children’s books specifically.
Thomas: I encourage you to check out Karen’s books. She’s one of the most successful children’s authors in terms of books sold. She’s doing well in the States, despite the fact she doesn’t live here.
Connect with Karen and see her children’s books at KarenInglisAuthor.com, and then check out her nonfiction book How to Self-Publish and Market Children’s Books.