What Do I Know About This?
Children, tweens, and teens make up a significant portion of the target audience for dozens of books that I’ve published.
This includes my Improve Your Math Fluency series of workbooks (arithmetic, algebra, and trigonometry), my chemistry and astronomy books, projects where I’ve collaborated with other children’s authors, and books that I’ve published under a pen name.
(My audience isn’t just children, though. Many adults buy the same books. Most of my books have a grown-up look to them so that the same books can appeal to both audiences.)
I have implemented the marketing tips that I share below.
Who Is the Target Audience?
Ultimately, you write a children’s book for the kids. If the kids who read the book don’t benefit from the book, it will be very difficult to achieve lasting success.
But the kids may not be involved in—or even present during—the purchase. Parents and educators are more likely to make the purchase.
Both the packaging (cover and blurb) and content must appeal to parents and educators, or the book won’t sell.
The book needs to appeal to the target age group, their parents, and the educators of this grade level in order to have a fighting chance.
You must target a very narrow age group or grade, such as Ages 9-11, preteens, or grade 4.
You would love to sell your book to everyone from age 0 to 115, but if you market your book this way, it may not sell to anybody.
Consider the parent or teacher who is shopping for the book. For example, a parent may be shopping for a book for a child who reads at the second-grade level. This parent doesn’t want to buy a book that has a kindergarten reading level because that would be too easy, and doesn’t want to buy a book with a fourth grade reading level as it would be too hard.
The parent also wants the content of the book to fit the interests and perhaps relevant curriculum standards for this grade level. The material must also be parent- and teacher-approved.
Many authors avoid mentioning the age or grade level, but this is a big mistake. The worry is that specifying grade 4, for example, will eliminate a great percentage of the shoppers. And there may be children in grade 2 who can handle the material, or children in grade 6 who are still reading at the level of grade 4 or who would benefit from additional practice with the easier material. Specifying grade 4 might lose those sales, right? But it’s just the opposite!
What parent is going to buy 50 books to find the one that’s the right level? None! Parents and teachers need to know exactly what they’re getting. Specifying an age group or grade level (not broadly, like grades 1-6) helps much more than it hurts. If the parent can’t determine the grade level, from the perspective of the parent, chances are that it’s not the right level, so it’s not a good gamble. When the level is clear, the guesswork is removed.
Some parents will say, “Oh, that’s the wrong level,” and that’s okay. First, they weren’t going to buy the book anyway if the level hadn’t been clear. Second, if they did, they would be unhappy with the purchase, which leads to a return or a bad review. What you gain by specifying the level are several customers who say, “Hey, that’s the level I’m looking for.” Catching the interest of 10% of the people who check out the book is better than having 99% of the people who check out the book pass on it because the level is unclear.
There are a few exceptions. For example, if you write a book on arithmetic facts or tracing the alphabet, parents know by the topic whether or not the child is in the right age group. But if your book is about math, reading, science, history, or fiction, for example, there are many books on each of these subjects in many different grade levels, so you must make this very clear.
Here’s a tip: Use the words “and up.” For example, kindergarten and up, or grades 4 and up. This is less restrictive.
One difficulty is designing a cover that appeals to both the children in the target age group and their parents or teachers. Cover design is already challenging when there is just one target audience. It’s even tougher for children’s books because it must appeal to two audiences to result in a single sale.
Traditional publishers often indicate the grade level on the cover, such as a large “2nd” in the corner. (Note that Amazon has a new feature that hides the top right corner of the cover until the buyer looks inside.)
Similarly, the content must appeal to children, parents, and educators.
With self-publishing, it’s up to the author to determine the grade level. The writing has to match the grade level that you specify, the content has to match this level, and everything must be age-appropriate. It’s not easy to get this right, but one mistake can greatly deter sales. You can search online to find tools to help give your book a readability score.
The better approach is to talk with local teachers of the approximate grade level, ask for their opinion, and find out what standards they use to determine readability. For example, if there is a particular software program that can help you pinpoint the reading level that is more likely to be recognized in your state or country, then that’s the program you want to use.
Another thing parents and educators have on their minds is the author’s qualifications. This may be a relevant degree or teaching experience, for example, but not necessarily. A degree and educational experience may be more relevant for nonfiction. But even for fiction, parents and teachers want their children to read text and content that is free of mistakes. How will children learn to read and write well if they read books that have mistakes? It’s important to write well and iron out the blurb and content as well as possible.
K-12 educators are strongly oriented toward a curriculum, which follows state or national standards. You want to determine how your book fits, or doesn’t fit, into the curriculum. If you’re hoping to have your book used in a classroom setting, teachers will surely be thinking about how it ties into the curriculum. Your book doesn’t necessarily need to tie into the curriculum, though. For example, many schools are dropping cursive handwriting from the curriculum, yet parents buy cursive handwriting books because they still want their children to learn these skills. How you go about marketing your book depends on whether or not it fits into a school’s curriculum.
Formatting is generally more complicated for children’s books, especially if there are pictures. In many ways, it is easier to format text. For full-page picture books, the text and images must fit together, and full-page images must be designed to bleed past the page edges for paperback books. Full-page pictures with text are challenging in e-book design since an e-book may be read on a tiny cell phone screen or a large iPad: Text needs to be clear either way. The screen may have color, or may be black-and-white, but sometimes two colors that contrast well together don’t look different in grayscale, so ideally the images should look good both in color and grayscale. Image size and memory are two more challenges for e-books that have pictures.
New children’s authors generally find it difficult to get discovered by their target audiences, but it is doable. Ultimately, it takes great content, but it also requires effective marketing, patience, and developing an author platform that includes several similar books.
One more challenge is the perception of value. Beginning-level books, especially, often have very few words, so it may not seem, to the reader, that much work is involved in making the book, unless there are really intricate pictures (when, in fact, it takes a great deal of effort to write a book at the appropriate grade level, and to format most children’s books; but the shopper may just be thinking about the word count). Paperbacks and hardcovers printed in color may be quite expensive, and Kindle e-books with pictures may have a high memory. This means that the price may be higher than you or the customer would like. One possibility is combining multiple books together into a single book to help create the perception of better value, but it doesn’t always work out (if the page count is high for a full-color book, or if the images take much memory in an e-book, a larger volume may still turn out not to seem economical). Chapter books, consisting mostly of text, have an advantage when it comes to pricing reasonably.
It’s important to be aware of the challenges as you plan your book, write your book, design your cover, prepare your blurb, and establish the grade level.
Parents and educators are most likely to read the blurb. If you write to a teen audience, this improve the chances that the “child” will be reading the blurb. Younger kids may also read the blurb, but even if they do, they probably won’t buy your book unless their parents also read your blurb.
So you want to have the parent and educator in mind while preparing the blurb. But the child is important, too.
It’s important to establish the specific grade level, target age group, or reading level. Parents and teachers don’t want to take a chance; they want to know the proper level.
Note that grade levels can vary considerably by country. For example, it may be more appropriate to identify the key stage for UK children’s books. Also note that Amazon uses the same product description for all countries, so if your primary audience resides in the USA, for example, it’s probably not worth indicating the appropriate level in the UK (also, spelling and wording would be different there).
A parent isn’t just looking for the grade level, but to see that the material is age-appropriate, the reading level is a good fit, the content is what the parent or child is looking for, the material will engage the child, etc. Think about the best features that your book offers. These should be clear from reading the blurb (but not explicit for a fiction blurb).
Concise blurbs are often more effective. A fiction blurb should grab interest quickly and arouse curiosity. A long blurb runs the risk of boring the shopper or giving away too much. You want the buyer to look inside.
A nonfiction blurb can be longer, if separated into block paragraphs. Use bullets to highlight key points. You can format blank lines, bullets, italics, boldface, and underline by signing up for Author Central.
Category and Keyword Tips
Unfortunately, the BISAC categories that you select when you publish your book are different from the categories that you find on Amazon. You must choose the closest match.
Tip: There is a “secret” to getting into special categories. A hard-to-find page in the Kindle help pages (check it out even if you publish a print book) reveals how to use keywords to get your book listed in certain categories:
Once there, click on one of the categories (such as Children’s or Teen & Young Adult) to pull up a table. The table lists the keywords that you need to use to get your book into a specific category.
In particular, to get listed in a specific age group, you must use one of these keywords:
- Baby to 2 years old: Keyword = baby.
- Ages 3 to 5: Keyword = preschool.
- Ages 6 to 8: Keyword = Ages 6 to 8.
- Ages 9 to 12: Keyword = preteen.
It doesn’t say, but if your audience is teens, it seems logical to include “teen” as a keyword (without the quotes, of course).
Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) allows you to choose two categories, but CreateSpace only lets you pick one. Well, that’s not quite true:
Tip: Contact CreateSpace after your book appears on Amazon and politely request that it be added to a second browse category. Browse through the categories on Amazon, and when you find the best second category, copy the browse path (e.g. Books › Children’s Books › Fairy Tales, Folk Tales & Myths › Collections) into your email to CreateSpace.
In the past, I have been advised that the BISAC category must be within Children’s in order to add a second category under Teen.
Getting into the Classroom
Just enabling a distribution channel that’s available to academia probably won’t generate many sales to schools. It’s worth having access to such a channel. For one, you can then say that your book is indeed available through that route if the topic comes up in a conversation. But you’ll probably have to market personally to generate sales among educators.
Well, I have had multiple sales of 25 to 200 books directly from Amazon. It doesn’t happen often, but it has happened periodically with me. Teachers are looking for material that they can use in the classroom, and some do have a budget for additional classroom resources. If your product page appeals to teachers, there is potential. This is like winning the lottery. You can’t plan for it. You can make your content and packaging as appealing as possible, and if you get lucky, enjoy it. If not, well, you should have realized it was unlikely. If you do get bulk orders this way, it’s likely to be rare unless you’re motivating these sales through personal interactions.
I’ve also had upwards of 150 copies of a book purchased in bulk through the Expanded Distribution. That academic outlet is open, but, in my experience, is quite rare.
The more likely way to get a book adopted for classroom use is to personally interact with teachers. You may have to suffer many rejections along the way. First, you have to have content that’s an excellent fit into the teacher’s curriculum. Then the teacher may already be quite happy with the materials already on-hand or accessible online. The teacher may not have a budget. The teacher just might not like your book. The grade level might not match up as well as you’d hoped. There are many reasons that your book might not get adopted. However, there are books that appeal to teachers, and if you happen to have one of those, taking time to personally interact with teachers may pay large dividends.
If the teacher wants to adopt your book in the classroom, it could be ordered directly from Amazon, it could be ordered through the Expanded Distribution (though not all teachers may know how to go about this), or if you publish with CreateSpace you can create a discount code and direct the teacher to your eStore. The per-book shipping is pretty reasonable for large orders, and a sufficient discount may be enticing. If the teacher is investing his or her own money, rather than placing an order from the school through the school’s budget, the optimal solution is for you to order author copies and sell those at a discount in person. You probably can’t sell author copies if the school is purchasing the books through school funds (since auditors will examine records, hoping to prevent schools from overpaying for products through personal transactions of this sort); in this case, Amazon, Ingram, or your eStore are best.
It’s still worth interacting with teachers even if the chances of your book being adopted for classroom use are very slim:
- Teachers can help you judge the reading level of your text and the grade level of the content of your book.
- Teachers can help you determine whether or not your book fits into the current curriculum.
- Teachers may give you good ideas that you hadn’t thought of.
- If the teacher likes your book, he or she could recommend it to parents, other teachers, etc.
- The teacher may be able to help you arrange a local reading of your book to children and their parents at the school or a library (you may need to go through a fingerprinting process with the local police to ensure safety).
Most teachers are very busy people, and if you catch them at the end of the day, they’ve been dealing with kids all day long. Keep this in mind. If you show up seeming like a salesperson, you may not receive the warmest reception.
Don’t forget librarians: They can also help you judge the reading level of your book. They may even be willing to order copies of your book through Baker & Taylor to stock. Or you might be able to volunteer to read your book to children.
Another great opportunity comes with specialty bookstores that specifically stock educational materials. It’s like a teacher resource store, filled with educational workbooks, supplemental books, and all kinds of classroom materials, from dry erase boards to highlighters. If you can find any of these in your region, you may be able to sell them author copies at 40% to 55% off the list price (or on consignment).
Opportunities Beyond the Classroom
You may have better success among parents or home school teachers. For one, they may not be as tied to the standard curriculum.
One way to meet parents is through local readings at a school or library.
There may be another opportunity. Many parents are looking for after-school help. This could include tutoring or additional practice for students who are struggling. But it also includes advanced sessions for students who are breezing through school.
I know a local parent who used to offer advanced math lessons in the evenings. She was very good at helping advanced students learn math ahead of the curriculum. Parents observed this, news spread quickly, and her after-school program was in-demand.
You can try to find parents or home school teachers willing to use your books. You can also create your own after-school program (or perhaps even an online course) where your book is part of the required reading. There are many opportunities if you have good content, personal marketing skills, the ability to think outside the box, and the motivation to do the work.
Authors intuitively search for marketing strategies that involve little time or interaction, hoping to reach a large audience with little or no effort.
This is why so much money is squandered on ineffective advertisements, promotions, and hiring people to do the marketing for the author.
But personal interactions have the potential to be far more effective.
For one, it’s easier to get people interested in you—a living, breathing, interacting person—than a book that just sits there.
For another, parents and teachers will judge your character and personality. They can ask you questions to learn things that aren’t evident in your blurb, but which matter to them.
People who meet and interact with the author—and who enjoy this interaction—are more likely to check out the product page, buy the book if it’s a good fit for them, and leave a review if the book was helpful or entertaining.
Marketing Children’s Books Online
You can’t interact directly with your target audience because you’re an adult. But you can interact with parents and educators.
It’s hard to find your target audience through social media, discussion forums, a blog, etc.
But you may be able to help your target audience find you. It may involve some work, but if you pull it off, it might be the most effective marketing that you do.
One way is to post an article in a high-traffic area. The article must be relevant to your target audience and your book. The end of the article needs to state Your Name, author of Your Book.
Another way is to create content for your own website or blog that will appeal to your target audience. Most authors who attempt this become quickly discouraged, and so never realize the full potential.
The problem is that if you write one article today, or a few articles this week, you can pour hours into the writing, yet even if the content is incredibly valuable to your target audience, it might get only a handful of views when it’s first posted, and then may not be viewed at all after that. It’s really tough to post more articles when the initial results are so dismal.
It can take months and several content-rich articles before a content-rich website begins to show its effectiveness.
A blog receives initial traffic from followers, reblogs, and the reader. But it can also receive continued traffic through search engines.
Your goal is to get regular search engine traffic. These are people who search for keywords on the internet, then find your article in the search results.
For this to be effective, the articles must be highly relevant for your book, and the keyword searches must be highly relevant for the articles. You don’t want to write about something so popular that your article will be virtually invisible, but you do want the keywords to be searched for with some frequency. It can take several articles before you hit the magic combination that pulls in traffic from search engines.
If you can direct dozens of people to your blog from search engines every day, this adds up to thousands or tens of thousands of people in your target audience discovering your book (assuming you mention or show your book somewhere on your website or at the end of your article, with a link to it). Presently, I have over 100 views of articles on this blog every day, on average, with at least 70% of the traffic coming from search engines. It didn’t start out that way. In the beginning weeks, I had just a handful of views of any post, with none of it coming from search engines.
The potential is there. You can’t realize it if you don’t try.
Feedback Is Vital
How do you know if your book is good? Get it into the hands of your target audience.
You need beta-readers. (Don’t make your first customers beta-test your book. Then critical feedback comes in the form of a permanent review.)
Find out what children in the target audience like and dislike. What do the parents think?
Ask teachers, too. Their feedback can help you establish the grade level and see how your book fits with the standard curriculum.
Who Are You?
When people discover your book, that’s what they’re wondering.
Are you qualified to write this book? Do you have relevant expertise or experience? These are things you want to highlight in your biography if you have the qualifications that parents and teachers are looking for.
You’re not just selling your book, but partly yourself, too. Ultimately, you’re trying to create a brand as the author of a children’s book or series.
Your author photo should portray the look of someone who could write a children’s book.
More Than Just an Author
Chris McMullen, more than just the author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers
- Volume 1 on formatting and publishing
- Volume 2 on marketability and marketing