Friday, July 10, 2009

Self-Promotion: A Challenge with Self-Publishing and Small Presses

Most of us have heard of Mo Willems, Doreen Cronin or Sandra Boynton. They’re all big name children’s book writers signed with big name publishers. They have marketing teams behind them, designing stuffed animals, CD’s, and endless lines of follow up books. But, for most of us, that kind of success is just a dream. Many people these days are turning to self-publishing or small presses to get their feet wet.

In general, publishing with a small press is still more socially acceptable than self-publishing. Publishing with a small press also often brings the advantage of more support from the publisher. My picture book, Angeline Jellybean, was published by 4RV Publishing, and I was pleasantly surprised that I had so much input during the process.

Although all authors need to promote their books on their own to a certain extent, I find this particularly true for those published by small presses and self-publishers. It also seems true that we have to work twice as hard to get our names out there. Since Angeline Jellybean was published in December 2008, I’ve worked hard to promote it both online and off. I’ve also run into a number of challenges. The greatest challenge anyone who is self-published or published by a small press has to face is not getting shelf space in major bookstores. As a result, I’ve found it hard to find bookstores willing to host me for book signings or author appearances. I did manage to get a few copies of my book on the shelf at a local independent bookstore, but the same bookstore never granted my publisher’s request for a book signing. I recently sent a follow-up e-mail to the bookstore, and have yet to receive a reply.

Selling books is a big business, so it makes sense that bookstores want to carry merchandise that is going to sell. Sometimes, however, it feels like just another impossible hurdle to an author trying to make a name for himself. Most of the authors I know who have been published by small presses have turned to the internet for marketing and promotion. Groups like VBT-Writers on the Move, Goodreads, and invention of blogs help books live on even in a technology-driven world. When your book is only available online or though the author personally, it makes sense to promote online. Still, online promotion can only take you so far. I believe that you have to somehow break into the real world to make a name for yourself.

I have thought of a few qualities which authors must possess in order to make it big. Not surprisingly, time and money are on top of the list. Also included are patience, drive and determination. You can’t be timid about writing, calling or visiting local bookstores and libraries. You also can’t let yourself take it too personally when you get let down.

Still, I wonder if mainstream bookstores and schools could be more open to hosting a little-known author who just wants to get their feet wet. At the very least, I would expect more people to tell me no than not return my phone calls.

What do you think? Should we as writers be doing more, or are traditional venues for promotion and readings a thing of the past?


Liana said...

Good question, and great article! I've been trying to promote my first print book in Greece for months-I published it in Dec.2008 and I still have a long way to go. The easiest part is the online promotion-but there are no sales... yet. Most local bookstores did accept hosting my book, while a few others just rejected the offer without even looking at the product. Here the book market is mainly traditional-the old way. People need to get a print copy from a local bookstore and prefer well known authors. They are open to new comers once they manage to get a show-an event that will gather a crowd. What if no one appears? I haven't done a book signing event yet.

Margaret Fieland said...

I think that it would be lovely if big bookstores were willing to take a chance on small press authors -- and I do think that the future is going to hold lots more small press books, ebooks, and online book sails. That said, I think that at the moment we as small press authors are stuck doing lots of self-promoting.

Ransom Noble said...

I've run into some of this, too. While I am focusing on independent bookstores, it still isn't easy to get an event going. Perseverance is what I think will get me there. I hope.

Rena said...

Great article, Crystalee. There are definitely challenges for small press authors/illustrators. As Ransom said, perservance is the key. Most of my sales have been online so far or from friends or friends of friends. I think small press authors/illustrators have to not only work harders, but be more creative in ways of getting their book/name out there. Perhaps, if anything, that might make us better at what we do. I feel very fortunate that an independent publisher "took a chance" on me and my stories, and even though I might have to work a little harder, it will all pay off in the end.

Katie Hines said...

I found your article most interesting. As a new author, I'm working hard on creating an internet presence, for the very reasons you mention.

I wish you the best of luck with your book sales and signings.

Anonymous said...


Have you tried working with Barnes and Noble to carry your book in their regional warehouses? The brick-and-mortar stores are more apt to carry your book if it is stocked in their warehouse. Email B&N at

They can email you a list of what they require, including why should Barnes & Noble place your title on its shelves? You'll have to also send them a couple copies of your book.

Stephen Tremp

Donna M. McDine said...


Interesting conversation. I'm in the midst of working on my media kit to be ready when the time comes to contact local independent book stores, libraries, schools, and historical societies to get the word out on my impending 1st book. The Internet is terrific and important, but it is equally important to get out their in person.

Stephen, thanks for the tip on B&N. Much appreciated.

Donna M. McDine
Marketing Manager, SFC Magazine
SFC: Families Matter Blog
SFC Magazine Website

Nancy Famolari said...

Excellent article. However, there are more considerations. I've found that aside from ebooks, book stores in my local are are willing to support my book.

I don't think the authors with a major publishing house have that much more success. I remember meeting with Jonathan Mayberry. He said that, even if you have an agent, and a major publisher you have to do most of it yourself!.

We're in a tough business, and if I read the tea leaves correctly, it ain't goin' to get better!

Crystalee said...

Stephen, that is great information. I wasn't aware that's how it was done. Thank you for the tip. Thanks, everyone, for commenting. Please let me know if you take this topic to your own blogs. :-)

Vivian Zabel said...

I'll also blog about this topic on Brain Cells & Bubble Wrap later today.

One thing some small presses don't do is to offer a standard discount, work through a distributor such as Ingram (I think it's the major one, too), or grant a return policy. 4RV does, so our authors need to be sure any bookstore knows those facts.

Vivian Zabel said...

My response available at

Karen and Robyn - Writing for Children said...

Great article, Cyrstalee. As a self-published author I can attest to the stigma still attached to this avenue of publishing. I belonged to one writing group and a member actually said self-publishers were cheap and their books were not good enough for the traditional route. This was said generically, she had never seen my book. I was surprised at this rigid view. I do think self-publishers have much more of a stigma attached to their work than small press authors.

While I can understand that there are some authors who self-publish poorly written and unedited work, there are many who use the proper tools to turn out a decent, and sometimes, great book.

But to the question, I think authors need to take charge of their success. That means promotion, promotion, promotion in whatever avenues they can come up with.

I think local and independent book stores should welcome book signings by all authors (after they've reviewed the book). It's a win-win situation, the bookstores have activity and the prospect of sales and the authors have an opportunity to sell.

As far as schools go, I think if an author approaches their local schools and starts by offering presentations for free, it could work out well. I haven't taken that route yet, having MS limits what commitments I can make. But, I'm thinking that in the fall I may give it a try in pre-schools since my book is a bedtime picture book.

Karen Cioffi

Anonymous said...

Crystalee, its on my blog. I need to go back and add a few imbedded links, but a writeup is there for the world to see. Best wishes for your continued success.

Steve Tremp

Paul McDermott said...

Being a local 'patriot' I decided that I wanted to be published by a local enterprise, and I went with a small local publisher for my first childrens' book.
Yes, I had to 'lay out' £150 sterling "up front", but the deal meant that once I had sold 18 book @ £8 each, the rest of the 100 books which comprised the "First Edition" were pure profit ... and I can order more, any time I want, at a discount price.

I've had to do 99% of the publicity work myself, but childrens' books are relatively easy to flog if you happen to be a supply teacher, or have some connection to local schools .....

I'm currently writing a seqwuel and plan a number of books to turn the tale (about Pirates!) into a series.

Further details can be found at:-

Signed & Numbered copies can be ordered through my e-mail :)

Vivian Zabel said...

Oh, my, had to comment again. (Sorry, Crys, I'm really not trying to take over your blog today.)

Personally, I don't consider subsidy presses (the ones that charge the author or require the author purchase a package or a certain number of books) quite the same thing as a truly traditional small publisher. That doesn't mean subsidy or independent publishers, as they are sometimes called, don't have a valid position in the publishing community. They do.

However, a true traditional publisher, huge or medium or small sized, does not charge the author anything.

Beth Bence Reinke said...

Wow, this has been a very eye-opening post. I have much to learn (and do) before my books come out. Vivian, I'm SO glad to be part of 4RV! Thank you for striving for excellence. :o)

Crystalee said...

That's ok, Viv. I 100% agree with you! Subsidy or self-publishing is another issue in of itself!

Lea Schizas - Author/Editor said...

What a GRAND discussion. I've always said that the 'big' bookstores became 'big' because of its readers, the way authors became 'big' because of their readers.

What they - the bookstores - should do is look at the whole package, have designated readers, evaluate THE book and not WHERE it's published.

Franny Armstrong said...

One can never have too much publication fame. The blogs, meta tags on your websites, groups like yahoo, and so many avenues are open to us and free! However, when the money starts rolling in, and like you said, with persistence and determination it will, you can spend on promos. Until then don't go into debt to be rich. It doesn't always work. J.K. Rowling sure didn't give up!

Helena Harper said...

An interesting post, Crystalee. I've come to realise that bookstores aren't always the best outlet for a new author. It depends on the type of book you've written, but there are other non-bookstore outlets you can try first who may well be more willing to sell your book than the normal bookstores.


Harry Gilleland said...

This is a great discussion! I have been a self-published poet/author since 2003. I have published three collections of my poetry, a fantasy novella, and a contemporary romance novel, all through Lulu Press. There are several facts to be dealt with: Most self-published books sell about 100 copies, mostly to family and friends of the author. Brick and mortar bookstores like Barnes & Noble have a policy not to stock self-published books since they are not returnable. Many people have a low opinion of self-published books as being of poor quality, and the important review sites uniformly will not accept a self-published book for review. There is a lot that must be overcome...and very few authors ever overcome it. I am one of those still trying to reach a broader reader base.
My local Barnes & Noble bookstore did allow me to have a booksigning as part of a group of local/regional authors. So, try to arrange a group signing instead of just yourself. I have donated multiple copies of all my books to my local library, and then they bought more copies for other branches. Get as many reviews as you can get from book review sites, not just relatives/friends on Amazon. Good reviews help remove some of people's concerns about the quality of your book. Be as big a presence on-line as your imagination allows you to be. Every little bit may help.
Well, this is too long already.


Dawn Embers said...

This is a very good topic and not something I've had to face yet. Money is a useful tool. I know some author try to go to cons and get tables there. That is one way for promotion. I signed up for a fantasy conference in Colorado and even sent an email to see about being on a panel. Promotion is a difficult task and with the printing methods changing, the economy and such it will be interesting to see how things go.