Dear self-published author:
I can imagine how frustrating it is to have your book refused possible review coverage by the Horn Book simply because it is self-published. But here is why that situation is unlikely to change anytime soon.
If we met at a party or something, I, and I think my colleagues at the other review rags, would tell you that we don’t review self-published books because there are too many of them. More than half a million such titles are published every year in this country, and I’m guessing children’s books account for at least 100,000 of those. Right now, I’m dealing with about 8,000 titles a year of traditionally published children’s books, of which we review approximately 5,000. If we were to commit to giving self-published books the same level of scrutiny we give to what we already cover, I would need to increase our staff exponentially, which is not going to happen.
But that is only a portion of the answer. The real problem is that most self-published books for children are pretty terrible. Ten years ago, I would have said that “most self-published books are pretty terrible” without feeling the need to specify children’s books in particular, but self-publishing for adults these days is demonstrating considerably greater skill and sense of audience than it used to, especially when it comes to niche topics and genre fiction. Why has the same maturity not come to self-published books for young people?
I think it has to do with the way people approach writing books “for children.” If a gardening enthusiast or a paranormal fan self-publishes a guide to lilacs or a vampire novel respectively he is likely to be imagining a reader like himself. But people writing “for children” tend to have set themselves up as Lady Bountifuls, handing down stories from above like plates of healthy vegetables. They perceive virtue in what they are doing–and virtue is no place from which to begin a book. Just about every adult I ever met has “a great idea for a children’s book” that is always an AWFUL idea for a children’s book, and, thanks to the greater ease of self-publishing, those books are coming to light. Quick, Henry, the Flit!
A related problem is that while many, many people want to self-publish their children’s books, far fewer actually want to read them. I know librarians and booksellers who have had self-published books pressed upon them by the author, but they have searched in vain for an audience. This is mostly because a) the books are pretty terrible and b) the books aren’t filling any kind of need that isn’t already being met by established publishers. This hasn’t always been true: back in the 1960s through the ’80s, there was a demand for counterculture-friendly children’s books that was not being met by publishers, thus very tiny publishers sprang up with books like Heather Has Two Mommies. While we did recently see a pro-pot picture book, I’m finding it difficult to otherwise think of subjects that scare the mainstream off. Did you really think your anti-bullying book was giving us something we didn’t already have?
Thus my final point. Self-published children’s books seem remarkably ignorant of the great history and scope of children’s literature. You don’t need this awareness to write a good or even great book for children (I know several worthy children’s book authors who pay no attention to the field or its heritage) but you do need it to publish a good or great book for children. (Or even a terrible one. Trade publishers publish bad books all the time, but they publish them for good reasons.) An editor isn’t there to “fix mistakes.” His or her most important job is to understand what contribution your story makes–or doesn’t–to the big world of books and readers. That’s what is most missing from self-published books for children today.
See Roger’s follow-up “A challenge to self-publishers,” introducing the “Selfie Sweepstakes” self-published books contest, here.