In the ten years that CLN has existed, one of our greatest challenges has been self-published books. Do we include them or don’t we?
The rules of publishing are changing in seismic ways. We’re watching the shifting trends.
CLN believes in presenting books that can fit the credo “the right book at the right time for the right child.” A plethora of books are needed to keep children and teens interested and reading. The tuned-in adult who has worked with kids and books has a sense about what will appeal and what’s written well enough for a child. You don’t want young people reading books with poor grammar or heavy moralization (because it gets tiring) or disorganized text (the book will be set aside because it’s too hard to figure out) or inflated text (too many words and paragraphs make reading difficult) or subject matter that doesn’t interest kids. Why? If a child isn’t hooked on reading yet, that may be the last book they ever read.
For a while, CLN had a committee that read books submitted by self-published authors to see if they were good enough to be listed on our site. It was a highly-qualified committee of people who select children’s books for a living. Unfortunately, 98% of the self-published books we reviewed were an adult’s idea of what a child should read or what they thought would make a lot of money. By definition, self-published authors are entrepreneurial. They talk disparagingly about “the gatekeepers” in children’s literature. But those gatekeepers, usually librarians and teachers, keep the standards high. Otherwise, we all end up with the deep consequences of children who aren’t interested in reading.
Twenty-five years ago, I was part of a company that published books for authors. In theory, I feel self-publishing is a good idea. Dan Poynter had just issued his Self-Publishing Manual, providing a step-by-step method for people to publish their own professional-looking book. My partner and I had the skills to edit, produce, and promote books. What we didn’t count on was the “good enough” attitude of our clients. Whereas it was our mission to work on a book until it was the very best it could be, every one of those authors tolerated one round of edits and then they were done. It was “good enough.” Put a cover on it, assign an ISBN, and it was ready for sale. They paid the bills. We followed orders. The books looked good but ultimately their sales disappointed their authors. We closed up shop.
Back then, an author needed help to publish a book. Today, a few pointers and a few hours will result in an e‑book that can be sold on multiple platforms. An author no longer needs to pay for boxes of books to be printed that may sit in their basement in perpetuity. It’s not necessary to pay an artist to create a book cover: stock art is plentiful. The nature of self-publishing has transformed. It’s easier so more people will try it.
We’ve seen evidence of this at CLN. After many years of trying to accommodate self-published books, we adopted a policy of featuring no self-published books on our site. Experience proved that we don’t have time to review these books to determine if they’re good enough for our readers. We nearly always ended up finding a tactful way to disappoint the author (there was only one time we found the book to be acceptable … not great, but acceptable). We choose to focus our resources on books that editors have already chosen to publish. Even though we state our policy on our site, we receive at least one insistent e‑mail each week asking us to make an exception. And we can’t. Not yet.
We know that almost everything about publishing is changing—everything except the need to have truly good books for kids to read: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, graphic novels. Books have to be good enough to capture attention over video gaming, texting, and after-school activities. Books have to be so good that kids become lifelong readers.
With visual, aural, and textual images assaulting us more rapidly than ever before in human history, it’s hard to get attention. How do you promote your book, traditionally published or self-published? It’s all about being noticed, creating buzz. In an age when news travels around the world in seconds, it’s still about getting people to talk to each other. How do you make that happen?
Here’s a company that is publicizing the illustrators it has hired to create the art for its self-published picture books. The article was picked up by St. Louis Today, the birthplace of the author (a suggestion straight out of The Self-Publishing Manual). It’s a book intended for children, An Infinitesimal Abundance of Color. It will be 30 pages, an unusual number by traditional standards. It’s being marketed on a blog I haven’t heard of before. It will be published again six months later with an alternate ending, illustrated by a different illustrator, An Abundance of Infinitesimal Color. A gimmick? An author who’s in love with both endings and can’t decide (in which case an editor is needed)? Or a brilliant marketing ploy, getting the book noticed?
But does it serve the child? The intelligent, curious, exploring child who is the stated audience for the book? The reader?
From our observations, self-published books are still not reliably good enough for children (Please don’t assail me with all the reasons I am wrong). There are—of course—exceptions, but somewhere there is a future waiting where self-published books will have as much care and preparation taken as traditionally published books did twenty years ago. That will be something to see.
Stay tuned. We’ll continue to share our thoughts about changes in publishing. What are your own thoughts on the topic of self-publishing, particularly for young readers?