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An open letter to the self-published author feeling dissed.

image courtesy thesamerowdycrowd.wordpress.com

image courtesy thesamerowdycrowd.wordpress.com

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.

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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Comments

  1. Well said, Roger.

  2. Excellent post. Thanks for sharing, especially for the new and upcoming self-published authors who could use a little direction in this wild industry.

  3. Thanks for broaching this subject. For the last century our greatest ever children’s writers have required guiding help from editors and educators and ultimately children. They have all no doubt learned immensely from the creative/publishing process. It’s impossible to truly think like a 9 year old again after turning 30 or 40 but with the right atmosphere, critical filtering and a humble spirit it’s possible to connect with children and appear as one of them in a beautiful momentary season of thoughts. If you want to make it as a children’s writer throw yourself into the process. Stand in front of 25 pint sized critics and wow them with your words. Make an editor cry or laugh or have their world view challenged.

    For those out there who wish to skip all these steps and simply turn a one weekend word document into a winning wonder – then best of luck. You’ll need a lot of it. None of the greats have ever done it without help.

  4. I think another pitfall, for picture book authors at least, is that there are so many more hats to wear. Picture books are more wedded to their physical form than other genres, so the typography, layout, color printing, and even paper all need to be good (not to mention the writing and illustration!). It’s difficult and expensive for one person to handle all of these things well.

  5. I have seen some beautiful and touching self-published and indie published picture books. I get the feeling that this post is lumping them together as all being terrible and that’s just not true.

    I have also seen some that fall flat when it comes to the illustrations. With picture books, the illustrations are a huge part of whether or not a book will thrive or flounder in the today’s market. And it can be expensive to have them done well.

    Of course, it is also sad to find that, even when a self-published picture book author has created the best possible children’s book and paid huge expenses to have the editing and the illustrations done to create something both lovely to read and to look at, they will still be facing bias against their work from many of the reviewers and places that are used to dealing exclusively with the big 5.

    Just as self-published authors of romances, fantasy and YA have matured and improved, I think you will find that self-published authors of children’s book are also maturing in their craft and improving.

  6. The bias against self-published books is not unjustified; many are poorly written and shoddily produced but when the traditional publishing industry excludes so many talented writers of color, self-publishing is often their only recourse. If we all agree that the traditional publishing industry is not as inclusive as it needs to be, is it fair punish those writers who have sought out alternative ways to tell their stories? There is a large pool of talent in this country, yet the publishing industry is only giving certain individuals the opportunity to shine.

    The marginalization of writers of color is the result of barriers placed along the path to publication for far too many talented writers. Some Black organizations recognize this reality: awards like the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, the NAACP Image Award, and QBR’s Phillis Wheatley Award accept nominations of self-published books. Respected bloggers at The Pirate Tree and The Book Smugglers don’t discriminate against self-published books, and their reviews prove that indie authors can contribute a lot to the field of children’s and YA literature—if they’re given a chance.

    Members of the children’s literature community are paying close attention to the diversity debate but the industry will not change overnight. If the most trusted review outlets exclude self-published books, then they are upholding the status quo by privileging a system that clearly disadvantages writers of color. They are also denying their followers access to titles that might help to fill the “diversity gap.”

    The Brown Bookshelf recently published a series called “Making Our Own Market.” They note that although many African American authors have been publishing independently for decades, “self-publishing still brings a stigma. The books are less likely to be reviewed, considered for school and library collections, and seen as on par with traditionally published titles. At The Brown Bookshelf, we grapple with covering them too. We receive a range of work from outstanding to less than professional. But if we want to change the face of publishing, we need to welcome self-published treasures too.”

    Horn Book could provide subscribers with a valuable resource by highlighting the best indie books in a monthly column–and you could solicit recommendations from bloggers and librarians since they’ve all come across at least one outstanding self-published book. Reviews could also focus on books that increase diversity in children’s literature by featuring under-represented groups and/or genres. Doing things the way they’ve always been done will only get you the exact same results, and acting like the overwhelmingly white industry professionals who have created this situation will suddenly start to “act right” is, at best, naive.

  7. I could not agree with Zetta more! I published my first book in 1997 after receiving several rejection letters from publishers. It wasn’t the form letters that resonated with me, it was the hand-written note that stated, “we’re not interested in this ‘Good Times’ style of humor!” For those who may not remember, ‘Good Times’ was a sitcom about a poor African American family battling poverty, drugs, winos and everything else bad, while living in the projects (ghetto). My book was based on my SYNDICATED comic strip, called Mama’s Boyz, about a mom raising two teenage sons while running the family BOOK STORE. No guns. No drugs. No fights. My characters have since been used as spokespersons for the American Diabetes Association and the American Council for Fitness and Nutrition and the comic has won 5 African American Literary Awards.

    After that letter, I NEVER sent another proposal to a publisher. Since then I have published two additional Mama’s Boyz books, a dozen picture books, and most recently, a middle grade book on bullying called “The Offenders: Saving the World While Serving Detention!” Which was chosen by PACER (The Nation’s leading anti-bullying organization) for their first-ever book club!

    But even though The Offenders is about 5 kids from varied ethnicities (2 white, 1 Latino, 1 Black and 1 Korean), when I reach out to try to get reviews or interviews or introductions, the response is still, “Have you reached out to Ebony? What about Essence? Does Jet still publish? Does Hype Hair do book reviews?” These gate keepers of the industry have NO idea how insulting that is. Or maybe they do. This is NOT a “Black” book! In fact, most of the schools who have bought it for their kids are predominately white.

    Last August, Scholastic reached out to ME, to illustrate a book for them. Which I did. And the book has gotten great reviews in all the right places. Which is great. But it’s also sad because I know that if you take away the publisher’s name, all that would disappear. I commend them for trying to make a difference, and was very happy (and shocked) to be hired.

    I DO understand that many self-published books are not written well. Not drawn well. And could definitely use an editor. But as far as my own books go, at what point in my 17 years of publishing, if ever, will I be considered an Indy Publisher and not a self-publisher? And even more importantly than that, at what point, if ever, will I even be considered a self-publisher and not a Black publisher?

    Like the old Tootsie Pop commercial used to say, “the world may never know.”

  8. Your characterization of self-publshed authors are flawed, Peter.

    Who lied and told you that we do not use editors, interior/exterior book designers, researchers, marketers, etc.? While many self-published books fall short of traditional publisher production standards, what’s the excuse of traditionally published books who fall short routinely?

    The cheese has moved.

    Partial disclosure, I once worked an educational publishing firm. It is not rocket science, it’s publishing. All self-publisher’s need to do to ensure quality is to have an effective team.

  9. I think Roger makes very valid points. Many of us as authors (and illustrators) have been approached by well-meaning people with a book idea. There is a sense that writing for children is “easier” and many write from their perspectives as children not realizing the world has changed dramatically. I’ve also met authors who write with the purpose of teaching “a lesson.” I’ve vetted scholarship submissions for Highlights Foundation where the works were passive, had long run-on sentences, or – in one case not a singe paragraph break over five pages.

    I recently had two conversations with very enthusiastic local authors about why their books (5,000 word early reader with color-pencil covers) weren’t being adopted. And when my father walked into his local library and told them his daughter was a children’s author, he said they cringed and became guarded until he asked them to look at my website. Afterwards they visibly relaxed because they said they get many people walking in every day asking them to buy and carry their book.

    So while self-publishing made it easier for good authors to get their work out, it flooded the market with competitive titles that literally swamped the landscape making it harder to stand out.

    That is what I think Roger is referring to.

    So the issue becomes – with a limited staff – how does a group like the Horn Book vett indie books without having to read the other 99% of the large pile which we all quietly acknowledge isn’t good. Publishers are faced with the same issue. It just isn’t possible and still address the pile of work already on the desk.

    I think there are several solutions. Many of us could do a better job of pointing reviewers towards well vetted indie work. Or strong authors who produced indie work that is well edited and has professional covers. But that means those books would have to be reviewed after publication which is not how many reviewers work – many review based on ARC’s.

    We could also make sure this argument is kept global – the issue of people of color being shut out of the process is separate from the more generic issue of tens of thousands of hopefuls authors (of all races) with dreams of being JK Rowlings flooding the market but who haven’t mastered the skill and nuance of writing for children and young adults.

    So I hope we can see the essay for the foundation behind it. Because I know Roger has been a fierce advocate for people of color and challenges the status quo.

    But as someone whose inbox gets slammed with manuscripts from people I don’t know because they “heard” from a friend I was a children’s author and would I take a look – I’m sympathetic to the plight on both sides – how hard it is to navigate the system – and how hard it is for a reviewer that has limited resources.

  10. I understand that The Horn Book, and other review sources, are struggling with the volume and a range of quality in self-published books. But I worry when reviewers say that this door is closed, we will not review your books. Many people self-publish for different reasons, and with varying degrees of quality and success. I edit books for many people taking this route, and have seen books that are beautifully produced and of high quality. And I certainly think that there are restrictions within traditional publishing that keep certain stories, and ways of telling stories, out of the books that are traditionally published. Self-publishing offers a truly democratic alternative to those who have been excluded. I would hope that The Horn Book, and other review sources, would focus on finding a realistic way in which to evaluate some portion of these books. The position of this piece worries me, as it seems to be saying, “This door is closed, and it will remain closed for the foreseeable future.” I’m troubled, as this has been a way of excluding many other movements that seek to change the status quo.

  11. I am a reader. I devour books. Have I came across horrible self-published books? Yes. But I have also came across traditional published books and wonder, “What was that person smoking when they published this book?” There is a stigma that goes along with self-published books. Dr. Zetta Elliott sent me two of her self-published books that I found engaging and intriguing. It is unfortunate that more children will not see these books. I passed the books on to an African-American boy who attends an IB School and received a letter from the Governor of Florida for scoring the highest on his reading state test. These books deserves rating from Horn, Kirkus, and all the others. The publishing industry have a subtle way of excluding authors. And we all know that books’ shelf-life depend solely on the ratings and awards it receive. It is time horn books open a world of inclusion. This is 2014, we are living in a society where we want to expose our children to GREAT literature. We want our children – all ethnicities – to be exposed to books about them and by all authors including those from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. It is unfair that self-published authors are not included. If you want me to give you a list of HORRIBLE traditional books, I can. Please just say so. Roger, it is time you do the right thing. Find a way to include the self-published authors. I commend the authors who self-published. I am from a culture that state, “Do not way for others to give you a chance. Create your own opportunity. Market your own destiny.” You cannot punish them to do what they were raised to do – create their own opportunity.

  12. @Deidra McIntyre. “Your characterization of self-publshed authors are flawed, Peter.” You just backed it up.

  13. @Deidra McIntyre. “All self-publisher’s need to do to ensure quality is to have an effective team.” The irony is up to my ankles.

  14. Thank you for saying this so clearly and honestly. Unfortunately, most who need to hear it will not listen, but I’m passing it around anyway. People do not respect the craft of authors or the dedication of editors and agents enough. As a reader, I am not interested in sifting through a slush pile.

  15. I agree. A picture book is a team effort requiring many different talents.

  16. Well, I guess you could start your own review magazine. If readers find it reliable, it will gain prestige.

  17. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Thank you all for weighing in. I am taking time to think about all the comments. Here’s another question: say the Horn Book Magazine decided it WOULD consider self-published books for review, bearing in mind that they would be evaluated in a manner absolutely equal to the trade books we now consider. Given that the HBM only reviews what it considers to be the absolute top-tier of books (about 500 a year), do you think we would find enough contendahs among self-published titles to make their consideration worthwhile?

  18. I can’t speak to numbers, but think it is worth considering some method in which to select the best of the self-published books. I like Zetta’s suggestion of an Indie Books review column, soliciting suggestions from librarians and reviewers whose views you respect, and who make an effort to include self-published titles. This could help to put The Horn Book on the cutting edge of this new trend, which isn’t going away any time soon!

  19. Doesn’t Kirkus regularly review self-published (“indie”) books in each issue (and, I think but am not sure, charge their authors a fee for reviewing those books?)

  20. I think this is well said. While it’s true that traditional publishing companies put out their share of crap and exclude lots of people who do deserve wider audiences, the point Roger is making here is that the glut of crap in the self-published market means it’s not feasible or extremely worthwhile to wade through that slog when reviewers are already hard-pressed with titles that have been vetted by some people (editors, agents, etc) already. Cream will still rise to the top; like Roger mentioned, self-published books for adults are gaining in quality and getting acquired and republished by traditional publishers. Zetta Elliott is VERY well known online for being awesome AND for being self-published, and I would be shocked if a publisher did not approach her soon or at least if someone generally wary of self-published books would specifically pick hers up, even if they did not change their general habits. But I know as a reviewer I have been burned too many times by terribly produced and utterly unremarkable books and met far too many people who, when they hear I went to Simmons and studied children’s literature, say the same things Roger mentioned and completely misunderstand and underestimate the rich history of children’s literature and demonstrate that they really should not be a part of the conversation or the tradition.

  21. Pat Hughes says:

    Very good article. You could also point out to the self-published that there are many conventionally published authors who have never been reviewed in Horn Book. Even though they’ve had five books published by Farrar Straus, Random House, and Viking. Books that have gotten starred reviews from other publications. That have been cited “best of” by NCSS/CBC, YALSA Top Ten, Bank Street, and Junior Library Guild. But, you can add, their author is not bitter. No. Not at all.

  22. Martin Edic says:

    The obvious solution is right in front of you but you have to drop the unconscious bias you carry from the trad publishing mindset. Right now the publishers filter out most of the crap so you only see better stuff. Self-publishing has its own filter- its called Amazon ranking by genre, in other words, sales. Use that filter to find books worthy of reviewing.
    Btw, Kirkus charges indie authors around $350 for a review. It’s a profit center for them that they advertise heavily. However there is no evidence that Kirkus reviews of any kind materially impact sales.

  23. The simple truth, though, is that writing a children’s book *is* easier. Not necessarily a *good* children’s book, or one that children would actually want to read, but “put somewhere between a couple dozen and a couple thousand words on the page and call it good” is a lot easier than “spend several dozens or hundreds of hours writing a 90,000-word single title fiction piece.” The problem is figuring out which couple dozen words to write 😀

  24. You’re very kind, McLicious, but prepare to be shocked. I had one editor approach me last spring wanting diverse content and yet she ultimately rejected ELEVEN picture book manuscripts. As for reviews, only 3 people so far have reviewed my latest self-published titles and all share a commitment to social justice (The Pirate Tree blog, Omphaloskepsis, and Rethinking Schools). The cream doesn’t “naturally” rise to the top; certain markets are (over)developed while others are neglected, certain titles are widely reviewed and promoted over others. The publishing industry, in keeping with the rest of the country, is not a meritocracy. It’s not even about money–it’s about POWER. Self-publishing is often the only recourse for authors of color.

  25. Georgia Beaverson says:

    Your reasoning in the column you wrote is flawless, Roger. Please don’t review self-published books in Horn Book. Please.

  26. Adelaide Rowe says:

    The whole subject of self-published books isn’t easy for librarians either. We are often asked and frequently pestered about purchasing them for the library. I love that some Indie books are reviewed in Kirkus, but very few of them are available from Baker and Taylor, and thus are more cumbersome to purchase.

  27. http://www.achuka.co.uk/blog/an-open-letter-to-the-self-published-author-feeling-dissed-the-horn-book/

    Agree completely with Roger re. self-published books, but from perspective of someone who has tried / is trying to establish an effective ePublishing list I would hope that there could be some open-mindedness towards books that are published in eformat only, but that have gone through a curatorial/editorial process.

  28. Roger, does this also mean that the Horn Book would also not review children’s books by authors who were once conventionally published but now, for various reasons, have chosen to self-publish? A perfect example would be Susan Price, who has won both the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Award. You might like to check out the collective blog ‘Do Authors Dream of Electric Books’ at

    http://authorselectric.blogspot.com

    (And no, I’m not a member.)

  29. I’m the independently-published author Roger is responding to in his open letter. This is what I wrote to initiate this discourse:
    “Dear Editors:
    I find it hard to believe that, here we are in the age of communications, and publications such as the Boston Globe Horn Book are still stuck in the old industrial paradigm, serving only established publishing concerns when there are so many great independently published books out there, including my middle grade novel Nelson Telson – The Story of a True Blue Blood. Google it.
    When I read submission guidelines: “Books produced by publishers that are not listed in Literary Market Place are not considered,” it just breaks my heart to see that literary people whose job is to bring good books and the love of reading to the public are actually suppressing information and thereby robbing the very reading public they are supposed to serve. Freedom of speech itself is wrapped up in this highfalutin reactionary, exclusive brotherhood between reviewers, agents, and publishing houses. If you haven’t noticed, we entered the Information Age three decades ago; we’re riding the Third Wave now, and that includes independently published works of exceptional quality. Hop onboard!”

    Roger was kind enough to respond to my letter. I wrote back that I hoped he would consider ways to include an independently-published book review in each issue of the magazine, maybe create an Indie Corner or something like that, and maybe even get some revenue from some of those big ones like CreateSpace/Amazon. I also offered to send him a copy of my book for his enjoyment, even if it won’t get a review. ☺

    I am thrilled that my disgruntled squeaky wheel is getting a little oil.
    Roger said, “…do you think we would find enough contendahs among self-published titles to make their consideration worthwhile?”
    My answer to that question is YES, not all independently-published children’s books are terrible.

  30. Kiera Parrott says:

    I suspect I may regret jumping into this debate, but here goes. As the review editor for SLJ, a sister publication of HB, I can say that I do not close our doors, so to speak, to self-published authors. Any publisher (be they self, indie, adorably small, or part of the Big Five –is it still five? I can’t keep track) may submit titles to SLJ Book Review, as long as they meet the submission requirements (detailed here: http://www.slj.com/about-us/review-submissions/). Granted, some of those requirements winnow down the eligible titles considerably, but we’ve loosed up over the years.

    In terms of whether those books submitted for consideration actually get chosen for review is another matter. Roger is absolutely correct in his explanation of the logistical barriers. At SLJ, for instance, there are four editors, myself included, who wade through the hundreds, sometimes thousands, of submissions we receive every month. We then select about 300 or so titles to review in each issue. And that’s just scratching the surface. We choose books that we believe our readers (school and public librarians, mainly) will want to know about–whether they are good, so-so, or terrible. But there has to be *something* about a book that makes us want to review it in the first place. If we see a book that happens to be self-published that meets our initial criteria for selection, then by all means we would treat it just like any other book review. The fact is, it’s a rare occurrence at this point. Finding an able and willing reviewer is another matter that complicates assigning self-pubbed titles for review.

    Here’s my soapbox moment: not all, but many self-published authors could help their cause by gaining a bit of perspective about the industry and striving for some distance from their product. Sending multiple emails per day, calling again and again, resorting to quasi-threatening language (yep, true story) doesn’t entice most editors to want to pick up your book and shine a spotlight on it. As several folks mentioned, there are plenty of books from established publishers that I cannot review, simply because there are not enough hours in the day or space in our pages. But harassing me isn’t the way to go about getting a review. /end soapbox moment.

    At SLJ headquarters, we have been talking about doing exactly what Zetta suggests–periodic roundups of the best self-pub titles. We’re not there yet, but it’s something we are giving serious thought and consideration. Any librarians out there interested in reviewing those titles, do contact me!

  31. Zetta, I really didn’t mean to suggest that there aren’t major power issues at play. I’m a WoC; I’m well aware of the struggles there are, and I’ve been reading your blog for awhile. I honestly meant in your case that it would be ridiculous for a publisher not to recognize what a big player you are and make a move based on the WNDB movement and the fact that you are the name that comes to mind when people think of major voices in the kidlit self-publishing realm. That’s not to impugn your work and suggest that you wouldn’t deserve to be published for the same reasons that any other good author would deserve it, but just to say that I’m surprised that people aren’t making a move on you for business and publicity reasons, since that drives so many choices.

    At any rate, I know we’re both going to be presenting at KidLitCon next week, and I look forward to seeing your session!

  32. I looked you up! I know you “get it,” and it IS ridiculous that publishers (and librarians, and educators) claim to want more diverse content and yet use every possible excuse to reject it. That’s how you know it’s not about merit or money–it’s about preserving dominance by upholding the status quo. Why else would the kid lit community be so afraid of innovation and so determined to maintain traditions that are loaded with bias? I am not a big player and seriously doubt my name comes to anyone’s mind–in part b/c so few people (including WNDB) will even tackle the issue of self-publishing. As with this discussion, the focus ends up being solely on issues of quality rather than EQUALITY. I didn’t set out to be the champion of indie authors–and if the game wasn’t rigged, I likely never would have turned to self-publishing. One reason I self-publish now is to offer a kind of transparency; I want people to see just what’s being rejected by small and big publishers alike. I’m amazed that there’s still such implicit faith in the abilities of industry professionals when the results leave so much to be desired–especially around diversity. I also find that many established PoC avoid associating with self-pubbed authors, regardless of the quality of the work. So thank you for even daring to breathe my name! There’s a sense that if a writer dares to critique or call out members of the kid lit community, they will be blacklisted–which is not an unreasonable fear when so many doors are shut in our faces already. I’m looking forward to meeting you at Kidlitcon, though I suspect we’ll be preaching to the choir. Maybe Horn Book should consider covering the event…

  33. @Kiera: As the writer, illustrator, designer and publisher of my book (yes, it is very well edited), getting the work finalized and out there was my first priority, so when your guidelines say ” Two copies of the book must be received at least two months before the month of publication.” that excludes many single-handed, soup-to-nuts authors who don’t have a publicist or agent to send the book out when it’s still being vetted and proofed. And for many of us thin-skinned artistic types, the publishing industry is a mean business, which is why we do it ourselves. This process has been so educational and inspiring to me, as I learned every aspect of hands-on book publishing, and now that the book is out there, I’m mastering the fine art of marketing after the fact. :-)

  34. Paul Jackson says:

    “Trade publishers publish bad books all the time, but they publish them for good reasons.”

    Possibly you should have a content edit done on that sentence …

  35. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Paul, what am I missing? (Foggy here!)

  36. Not really, Wendy. Picture books may be shorter, but they require quite a bit of knowledge and skill, not to mention craft. And you’re assuming that “children’s book” = “picture book,” which leaves out entire categories, up to and including young adult.

  37. Just wanted to say thank you to Zetta Elliott and others who are pushing back here.

  38. Another issue: I’ve done lots of traditionally published books, but any ideas I’ve ever had published were made BETTER by the input of a good editor. Not just the stuff you get from a publisher and need: art direction, fact checking, basic editing, proofreading, marketing, etc – services that a publishing house offers (and the self-published person either does themselves, yikes!, or hires half a dozen people for). As published as I am, and with sufficient self-esteem, I don’t have the nerve to think that I have the perfect idea and don’t need conceptual, plot, art direction, etc help. Folks who self-publish must be very sure of themselves.

  39. ChristineTB says:

    I am so enjoying this discourse. A lot of energy can lead to something positive.

    First – Roger – that last sentence was a bit off – “They publish them for good reasons” often translates in real life to “publishers recognize and like a voice they identify with”. It fits their personal taste, or fills a niche, regardless of whether it resonates with a child.

    I went to a (name deleted but suffice it to say ubiquitously large literary house) reception at ALA where the editors gushed over the five authors they were showcasing and how they passed the manuscripts around with notes that said “you simply must read this.”

    I noted that there was not one person of color being showcased (not Asian, Latino, African American, Indian, Native American). But of course they gave away printed copies of each book. I couldn’t get past the first chapters of any of them. My daughters and their friends (many international) had a phrase for those books which I won’t use here but essentially, they were books much ado about nothing. This is an industry that boggles my mind because the content acquisitions process is so far removed from the consumer and plays – instead – to the taste of much older intermediaries (adults buyers.) So why call them children’s books? Wny not refer to them as books for adults with arrested development or who are reminiscing about their own distant pasts?

    Of course I’m being facetious because a lot of writers do the same thing (which you have so eloquently responded. :-)

    The “wanting” is often bereft of any knowledge that books reviewed are the minority of books printed in ANY fashion.

    My suggestion –

    Have one edition a year for indies – Then have interns do a first and second page read. Not hooked by then, toss it. That’s how it works often on the commercial side. Require self-published to provide ARC’s in advance – establish criteria for submissions – then get interns and volunteer readers to give you a thumbs up or down (librarians, school staff, etc.) Then choose from that pile which to read.

    Or – have a regular column but let the books get their sea legs (find an audience and get credible reader reviews not from friends and family) and then review them. Most people won’t like that option but honestly – even in commercial publishing authors are required to go out and find an audience since most are absent of a marketing budget or support. And the vast majority aren’t getting reviews even when they are published by a commercial publisher.

    Or – review books recommended by people you trust. Or are produced by established authors with a track record.

    Suffice it to say people choose to self-publish for a number of reasons. But I also worry about the “new-to-the-business ” authors don’t understand that even small indie publishers and regional publishers have a hard time getting newspapers, etc. to review their work. There are just too many books out there for it to be practical. So I don’t think changing the platform is necessary – but maybe open the door to vetted books may work. Your audience – potential book buyers – deserve an honest appraisal on books that are viable. There is no rule that says you must be required to staff up to read the 99.9% that clearly shouldn’t have seen the light of day to begin with. And frankly the covers of many of those books often scream self-published so they are easy to spot and certainly their submissions would provide a windfall for the USPS to clear their budget shortfalls.

    But if I could be really REALLY selfish- there needs to be more emphasis on self-published books by people of color. Honestly – because Zetta is right – publishers say they want works like that but I can show you a number of award winning authors who will tell you quietly that those same enthusiastic publishers rarely acquire a second book, or respond to their submissions unless they are one of a well known stable of people (you know who I’m talking about). I’ve seen many very good writers simply give up completely – or gone the self-published route because they’re accomplishments are considered meaningless.

    Sad since 50% of all children born in the US don’t look like the people in acquisitions and often don’t speak the same cultural language.

    But alas – different issue for a different day.

    I do not wish for you to have a pile of 10,000 manuscripts. Gate keeping happens for a reason. Rather than burn you at the stake for the honesty, we should all offer up an new paradigm and make it easier for you to find the gems worth of notice.

  40. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Christine, my intended meaning of publishers “publishing bad books for good reasons” was FAR more crass. Thinking particularly of celebrity books, I was referring to books that are published because they (it is hoped) will make money, either in themselves or by keeping a prized property happy (Patricia Cornwell’s Life’s Little Fable, I’m looking at you). Less cynically, it can also be a publisher’s demonstration of faith in a writer–THIS book might not be very good but the last one way and we hope the next one will be. I wonder how often that happens these days, though.

  41. ChristineTB says:

    Probably not often enough if at all. The lens seems to be how many books picked up by the chains even before the print run. No buy – marketing support dries up. Or there’s the profit and loss not based on career but sales in the last two quarters if an established author.

    It’s starting to look like a meaner version of Hunger Games out there – I’m seeing many peers disillusioned by the process.

    Me – just another puzzle to solve.

    Keep up the good fight!

  42. Sure, there are a lot of bad books out there, especially in the self-published world. (There are certainly bad books that are traditionally published, as well. The difference is that publishing houses think those bad books will sell.)

    However, I think there really are a lot of good YA and middle-grade out there that AREN’T traditionally published. I’ve seen them in the classes I’ve taken and the writing groups I’ve been in. In fact, I’d say that the better ones don’t get traditionally published and the so-so, very on-trend ones do.

    My experience is anecdotal, of course, but my sense is the publishing houses are running scared and are most interested in publishing money-makers. Quality literature? Not necessarily the top priority.

  43. I have not self-published (yet) but the people who have done it successfully (example: Hugh Howey and Heather Albano) have all hired people to do those services for them. It’s pretty easy to track down people who are recommended by others.

  44. In a world with websites, blogs, and new media companies, the gate-keepers of the past still don’t get it. I have had books published by two traditional publishers, and had the opportunity to publish my fourth book the same way until I opted to do it myself because what I wanted to do would never be accepted by a regular publisher without serious interference. There is no comparison – my writing now is better and though I am grateful for the past opportunities, the creative control and returns have been much better for me now than they were in the past.
    But the trade-off is the old schoolers are not likely to review my book and I could not be happier – if you don’t know that the world has changed dramatically, then I don’t want you anywhere near my book and then telling other people what and how to think about it. You cannot experiment or innovate under the traditional system that has put blinders on those in the business – and that has hurt the ever-decaying publishing industry. It is a sinking ship and if someone refuses to open his eyes to the storm, he is not likely going to have the sophistication and open-minded to see something new and wonderful with a non-traditional offering.
    Because reviews are not for the brave – but for those who have to have someone tell them the book is “all right” and acceptable – and then outline how to talk about that book at the water cooler or cocktail party. They are for people who need boundaries and a script.
    Besides, if all published books were good – reviewers would not feel compelled to meddle in the reading habits of strangers. So there are bad self-published books just as there are equally bad traditionally published books.
    Self-publishers have to stop bothering with reviewers – what they have is a different sort of work and they need to stop trying to fit in a system that no longer is functioning – and do things in a different way to create new systems of gaining a profile for their work…

  45. I think she means authors should hire professional editors, book designers, illustrators (if necessary), marketing experts, book trailer producers, and publicists. (All of these specialists, of course, are paid by the poor author up front whether the property in question has a prayer in the marketplace or not. Many of these people are very good at what they do, but that is not the point. The fact is, they have no stake in the success or failure of the book. The author wants to see the thing in print, even if they have to lose their day job, mortgage their house, and deplete their kids’ college funds–I’ve seen this happen.) Certain kinds of books do have a chance to recoup expenses and actually make money. Most do not. Are the authors told the truth about which is which? From the great majority of products we see, most reader would say, uh, probably not.

  46. That’s an excellent point! Most books are not reviewed by Horn Book.

  47. Exactly. (and I hate that self-publishers have co-opted the term “indie.” That used to apply to small presses, and there are still many niche market presses that are definitely not self-publishing.)

  48. Michael, why don’t you find an entrepreneur to start such a thing. I think it is a needed service. It would be best online. Maybe a start-up? Ereadz? Hire bloggers, retired librarians, English professors, or experienced freelancers to do summaries/reviews/ratings for their areas of specialization? It could have associated fora, news, and blogs.

  49. Heidi, if you think the traditional publishing gatekeepers are merciless, try the general public. True, thin-skinned writers won’t get rejection letters from readers, but there’s an excellent chance they will be quietly, and ruthlessly ignored. I am sure you do not read every book that is published each year. Nobody does. Everybody selects and rejects.

  50. Yes! Thank you.

  51. Linda, I’m doing pretty well with the general public. it’s the industry that I find so daunting. Key word is Industry. My job right now is getting the book out there, and I find all the traditional time frames – and time, after all is relative, especially when it comes to culture – to be illusions that these so called gatekeepers would like to think is real. The world has changed.

  52. Thanks, Alexandra. I have said the same to some of the authors that I work with as well. Let the reviewers red line the independent publishers and self-published authors. The bottom line for authors is audience, not reviews. Those who can find their audience will be successful, and new ways make contact continue to emerge. Old media (Mr. Sutton apparently hanging out with too many fossils like the Boston Globe near the front of that line) will naturally gravitate toward the old publishing system. There is comfort there, but sadly, fewer and fewer readers.

    I think the bigger part of this story was in the admission that working only with an approved list of publishers makes things easier. Why actually look through the giant slush pile when you can just look at the small pile of muck that your lunch buddies send to you? After all, Mr. Sutton, I’m sure an indie author ever picked up your lunch tab.

    How long does it actually take to give a book “scrutiny”? Most can be dumped from the covers alone. Thousands more could be eliminated with a scan of the first couple of pages.

    Is the percentage of indie published gems lower? Of course, but only because of the sheer number of indies versus the big publisher slate. That doesn’t mean that professional authors and/or illustrators aren’t perfectly capable of hiring their own team and putting out interesting, entertaining and important books. More and more are doing so all of the time.

    Does Mr. Sutton think that all he needs to do is shout down the malcontents and they’ll go away? Tell them to get back in line and behave? The fact is that the genie is permanently out of the bottle, and this is the new normal.

    The reviewers who find a way to deal with that will stay relevant. Those who don’t can join Mr. Sutton for lunch and remember the good ol’ days.

  53. Roger is telling the reason why self-published author are dissed simply because of the quality of the book and at some point I agree.
    My question is,
    If a self-published author wrote a book that meets the criteria of a good book, will you still not accept it for the reason that it’s self-published?

  54. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    My lunch today is leftover potato salad. Who wants to join me? Bring a fork.

  55. Roger, I have an agent, have paid rather a lot of money for proofreading and a full, editorial report. I also paid for a professional cover.
    In effect, I have invested more (financially) in my novel than many traditionally published authors have to and all because publishers decided my book was unmarketable. One editor of a very large publishing house wrote, ‘I just can’t associate with this character. Maybe it’s because I am in that rosy glow of having recently married.’

    My novel is a comedy about a woman who leaves her husband while they are on their honeymoon. This same editor called it a laugh on every page. But, apparently, the whole world doesn’t need to read this because said editor is happily married.

    It was the best selling ebook on Amazon.com.au for a time, is still in the top ten humour and women’s fiction novels there after six weeks and shot straight into the Amazon UK Humour bestsellers list at number eleven twenty four hours after becoming available for pre-order.
    I understand so many of the points you have made, but still, I am frustrated reading this. I was lucky to be cherry-picked in some way for a one day promotion on Amazon Australia and my sales soared because I was suddenly able to be found. I sold 857 books in a DAY. Yet getting people to review it has been a complete headache and I have so far been unable to repeat this success in the UK without another cherry pick style Amazon promotion. This article says one thing to me:
    ‘Rejected by the publishing industry? Pack up and stop trying.’
    Do you think writers like me – currently outselling Helen Fielding in Australia – should just pack up and stop trying? I think it is time the entire industry moved with the modern age.
    Horn Books: Fostering Lifelong Learners. Guess what? I’m a lifelong learner. Surely you can find a way to at least give an indie children’s novel a once over… after your potato salad or before tomorrows coleslaw?

  56. Publish your books, everyone!

    Roger Sutton is absolutely right that most self-published children’s books are junk vanity projects. Sadly, though, even if you write an excellent book and a respected company buys it from you, finds a terrific artist to augment it, and pays to print and warehouse it — even if children demonstrably LOVE it (isn’t that the important bit after all?) — you still have to be your own salesperson, your own marketing company, your own publicist. Unless you’re Mo Willems, pal, or someone comparable, you’re on your own anyway, so you may as well go for it.

  57. Give yourself another pat on the back… another. You have told yourself exactly what you wanted to hear.

    Now explain to me why most of the edited children’s books I find are just plain awful? And why do they show no awareness of the history of children’s literature, not having bothered to present anything even close to new — just the same Gilligan’s Island adventure with penguins instead of rabbits? How, in spite of the self-congratulatory labors of folks like yourself, is it that only a small number of them escape the temptations of self-indulgence and self-regard that mar the pages of so many children’s stories.

    Please do get over yourself. The modern editor’s job is, as you admitted, no longer about quality control (that most important of functions has been abrogated, and publishing will pay dearly for it in the end), it is about finding new and exciting ways to justify decisions.

    If publishers are doing neither quality control nor marketing, then they are distributing — and who needs that anymore? This is the real story behind your article. Now return to your office and punch the clock.

  58. smileyjen says:

    Tell us again how all self published children’s books are crap….

    “The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter was rejected so many times she decided to self-publish 250 copies. It has now sold 45 million.”

    Be fair, read Nelson Telson before you criticise it. Oh wait a minute, that would be a review wouldn’t it?

    :)

  59. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    I don’t think it’s possible to tell you that “again” when I never told you that in the first place.

  60. June Edvenson says:

    Reminds me that a casual friend desperately sought me to assist her in writing a children’s books about hats. I think the world is fine without it, by the way, despite energetic initial efforts.

  61. There are a lot of awful self-published picture books, and many formulaic, overly commercial published ones. Maybe we need to wait for the dust to settle. People writing the bad self-published books may give up after disappointing sales. Those writing the good ones may find their audience if they persevere with marketing. Perhaps the publishing industry will take note that audiences are open to a wider array of voices. I imagine small outfits will spring up that filter and sell the selfies. Authors are getting mixed messages from the industry. Self-publish! No, don’t! Hybdridize! Clone! Everyone should write picture books! But, we won’t read your submissions, unless you’re already traditionally published or you’ve sold a whole lot of self-published books! We do live in interesting times.

  62. Beth Cimler says:

    Sending manuscripts to publishers and agents, in hopes of being recognized and represented, continues to remind me of applying for my first job right out of college. Most job descriptions would often say, “at least 5 years experience required”. How am I supposed to gain experience if no one is hiring anyone right out of the gate? Most publishing companies won’t accept unsolicited manuscripts and finding an agent is equally as difficult. I have actually had quite a few very strong bites from publishers in the past; where they have actually personally responded and even passed it around the office for a month or so, but then ultimately decide against it. Those were GREAT days for me, sadly! I wish at those times they would have taken a few extra minutes out of their day to give me some constructive feedback. I must have been a “little” close, right??

    I can appreciate the horrifying and daunting task of trying to tackle 10,000 manuscripts a day/week. So, if you are seriously looking for ideas as a starting point, I have a very simple one for you, Mr. Sutton. What if you took the one off the top of the pile and just reviewed it. Just one. If it’s awful….tell us why. Tell us everything, good or bad. Repeat yourself over and over again, until you’re blue in the face. Give it a review, no different than you would any other trad published book. Tell it like it is, even if it ends up being a section, filled with “what not to do’s”….writers at any level can use that. And maybe….just maybe… you might come across (once in a blue moon, in a leap year) a self-published book you completely admire and adore!!! It’s just an idea…. :)

  63. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    And who will do the rest of my job? 😉

  64. I don’t even self-publish, but I know a few who have. And after reading this, knowing that this site or publication or whatever it is has closed its doors to a certain group of people, I’ve put it on my ‘do not engage with’ list. As a journalist, it pains me to have to pass on word that a certain corner of the web should be avoided, but discrimination of any kind is a major turn off to me.

    This is just more old boys and old girls club elitist trash talk, part in parcel of why Amazon won’t back down from the old establishment. It’s time for the reign of such people and their companies to crumble and scatter to the wind.

    I give ye olde boys n’ girls five years, tops, before you’re irrelevant.

  65. Jim Mellen says:

    I think what I’m seeing lost here is that Roger Sutton is not saying that all self-published children’s literature books are bad. However, he is saying that there is such a preponderance of bad that he is unsure how to efficiently filter through to find the gems that are there.

    Does anyone have suggestions as to how to filter through those in a fair and unbiased way that also does not require a significant investment?

  66. As an editor at a well known Trade House we gets hundreds of books each week to “review.” We rarely get past the first page of self pubbed books and end up donating them to Goodwill? Why don’t we read them?
    1) trade houses; Random House, Harper Collins, etc put manuscripts through about seven teams of editors to make sure they have not plagiarized, are grammatically correct etc.
    2) with more than a 100,000 self writers they have no idea who they are and what their reputation is. Hence to give them an advance is very risky.

    There are

  67. I’m still stuck on “Trade publishers publish bad books all the time, but they publish them for good reasons.” Your “fogginess” in response to someone else here querying this curious assertion aside Mr. Sutton, what exactly are those “good reasons?” I think I understand what you meant to say (that bad books get published largely as artifacts of a flawed system, increasingly based, as you point out, not on the quality of the merchandise being produced, but on the acumen of the so-called professionals whose job it is to determine and index the marketability of a stocking unit…), but maybe that fogginess—which may be attributable to that lousy regimen of yours; left-over potato salad for lunch? That really fortifies mental acuity)—in this instance allows others, like me to wonder: if there are criteria for publishing books and these include the deliberate choice of bad ones, which the syntax of your assertion implies as one possibility, what are those criteria? What are the “good reasons” for publishing “bad books?”
    PS Though it’s true the Fenway and the Kenmore Square area hardly has a bounty of places that have food worth the pleasure and benefits of dining, there are a few that would afford you a better lunch. If you’d like some tips, beyond the resources of Zagat Boston, I’m sure your loyal local readers would oblige. And, please, spare us any further manipulative solicitations of sympathy for your humility. Is your job really worth depriving yourself of the time and the resources required not only to sustain yourself with relish, but to to enjoy life outside of work? Who would do the rest of your job, and who would feed you more than mayonnaise-coated boiled potatoes, indeed? [your preferred emoticon goes here]

  68. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Howard, see above: “Christine, my intended meaning of publishers “publishing bad books for good reasons” was FAR more crass. Thinking particularly of celebrity books, I was referring to books that are published because they (it is hoped) will make money, either in themselves or by keeping a prized property happy (Patricia Cornwell’s Life’s Little Fable, I’m looking at you). Less cynically, it can also be a publisher’s demonstration of faith in a writer–THIS book might not be very good but the last one way and we hope the next one will be. I wonder how often that happens these days, though.”

  69. Dear Roger: Thanks for the clarification and reference. I did try to read through the panoply of comments and responses, but I hope it’s forgivable that I hardly cared to peruse all the content your apologia generated. If it comes to the establishment known as the publishing industry, crassness is the least of its sins. I am sure if the sort of strategic lapses in judgment, or triumphs of hope over judgment, you describe were to lead to a best-seller (as there is the Barnum-esque imponderability of the consumer psyche to contend with), someone would credit him- or herself with editorial brilliance and publishing acumen.

  70. True.

  71. Heidi, if you rack up enough sales (you can use a search engine to find the ballpark stats–a lot), you will be able to get a contract with a traditional publisher if you want one. If you are doing well, why do you want one? Sure, many of us won’t read self-published books (life is short), but there is no book in the world that everyone has read. If you already have a good audience, why do you want reviews? You do realize that not all reviews are positive. What you have now is working for you. Go with it.

  72. Sorry for the second post. My appreciation was for Roxie’s comment. I have a real problem with authors paying our thousands of dollars to professionals (who are, by the way, often highly qualified) for properties that probably will not earn back their investment. Reviews in Horn Book will not help a book that re-plows well-cultivated ground or has too narrow an appeal, even if it is technically perfect. Horn Book is trusted because readers have found its reviews trustworthy. A reputation for trustworthiness can be quickly and quietly eroded.

  73. All creative fields from fine art to photography to singing, dancing, and acting are highly competitive. There are legions of highly talented and inspired people. There are even legions of geniuses (one percent is one in every hundred.) The sad truth is that the great majority of gifted creators will not find an audience in their chosen field. Read Grey’s “Elegy in Country Churchyard.” The trick, dear self-publishing friends, is to check out your market before investing your life savings in a property. Certain books do well when published this way, but research with your eyes open. Do not expect publications like the Horn Book to shower kudos upon you. There are other, more publicity options open to you, if you have chosen wisely. If you chose to start your own self-pub review magazine, you will find out quickly that this open letter is honest and accurate.

  74. and you don’t think a self-published author who has penned a disaster and spent his life-savings to have it critiqued and edited won’t try to sue for being held up as an example of horror? I’ve tried to critique pre-self-published manuscripts in groups. See me roll my eyes. “Change my story? Change my wonderful sentences with 180 adjectives and rich assortment of adverbs per page? No! I’m self-publishing because my work is perfect as it is. I’m showing it to you so you can admire it! Don’t be so picky. This is just for children!”

  75. Jim, would you want to do it? I sure wouldn’t.

  76. Yes, most self-published books are crap. Yes, that includes children’s books. Yay for the home team!

    But to claim that self-published “books aren’t filling any kind of need that isn’t already being met by established publishers” is rather ludicrous, not to mention patronizing, condescending, and spoken with the blindness that comes from unexamined privilege.

    It also requires being oblivious to the public discussion that’s been happening this year about the lack of diversity in books. Rather than rehash it here, look at:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/16/opinion/sunday/the-apartheid-of-childrens-literature.html
    http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/16/opinion/sunday/where-are-the-people-of-color-in-childrens-books.html
    http://www.slj.com/2014/05/diversity/childrens-books-still-an-all-white-world/
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/katherine-rose/why-more-diversity-in-chi_b_5544182.html
    http://weneeddiversebooks.tumblr.com/

    Let’s see the issue more clearly, shall we?

  77. Tim Brandhorst says:

    I look to The Horn Book for perspective—for thoughtful analysis of new works against an encyclopedic knowledge and understanding of the entire universe of children’s literature. By virtue of its refusal to even look at self-published work, the Horn Book is choosing to be willfully ignorant of a rapidly growing body of work. How can this not, eventually, diminish its own authority?

    Instead of complaining about the volume, shouldn’t you be trying to figure out how to spot what’s new, different, diverse—and even transcendent—in self-published literature?

    I have judged entries for two different (adult) literary prizes over the past five years, both of which allowed self-published works. Most of the self-published books are obviously so; a very few are the equal of entries from traditional houses in terms of cover design and interior quality control. And every once in a while, one comes in that is not only packaged at a high level, but really wonderful, quirky and unique in substance. You can immediately see why this kind of book didn’t fit neatly enough into a recognized category or approach to have justified the risk within the relatively small world of traditional publishing (and let’s be honest, it is a small world)—yet it was that difference, that unique approach or viewpoint or bending of form, that made the book interesting and memorable and even delightful.

    I’d bet money the Horn Book would have the same experience: most self-published works won’t merit your attention, but the tiny few that do will be worth the effort. But if you don’t even look at the books, how will you know?

    A question often posed to editors and agents at writers conferences is, would anyone publish William Steig’s Sylvester and the Magic Pebble today? Usually the answer is, “I’d like to think so. . .but probably not.” But of course it would be published today—if not by a traditional house, then by Steig himself. It’s fun to imagine how far the Steigs, Sendaks, and Marshalls of the world might have pushed the picture book form had they been able to self-publish to wide distribution. Inside the system, they produced controversial, even transgressive books; where would their imaginations have taken us, if they had the freedom to occasionally push as far as they liked? And: wouldn’t the Horn Book have been very interested in that?

  78. the illustrations are a huge part of whether or not a book will thrive or flounder in the today’s market. And it can be expensive to have them done well.

  79. I don’t know Roger, and I don’t really care if he reads my work or not. Self-published authors that know how to write and can tell a good story shouldn’t be barking up his tree anyway. He is going to have to say no to quite a few authors whose industry publicist brought their book to his attention. These days, the business is all about finding reasons to reject new work anyway. It’s a rough trade and many of us haven’t grown thick skins yet. Hardly worth a lengthy post.

  80. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Tim, I’m not so sure you are correct about what would happen if nobody wanted to publish Steig, Sendak, and Marshall today. Sendak in particular would tell you of the importance of editors to his work.

    I agree that there may be a few self-published books up to the standards of the Horn Book Magazine. I know that sounds stuffy but that’s what we’re talking about here–or is someone saying we should hold self-published books to a different standard? But, as I explained in my original post, that’s a math problem: the Magazine reviews 500 out of roughly 5,000 annually. Although i can’t find a reliable number, the number of self-published children’s books probably runs into six figures, combined print and digital. How do we give them all as fair a chance as we give the 5,000?

  81. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Not exactly apples and oranges, Laura, but close. Yes, there is a big problem with the homogeneity of trade children’s book publishing. Yes, there are enormous gaps in what the big houses make available. But are those gaps being filled by self-publishers? I don’t think we can assume so.

  82. Linda, reviews matter a lot for authors–whether self-published or traditionally published–who don’t already have a following. It sounds like Heidi is doing well, but reviews help tap new potential readers.

  83. Jason Rohan says:

    Having read through ALL of the comments, I’d like to say that as a PoC, I’ve found the publishing industry to be very welcoming and receptive. Maybe that’s because I’m in the UK dealing with smaller houses but I don’t think so. If your work is good enough, you will be discovered, regardless of how you publish.

    Again, maybe that’s a naive view but I know of many non-white authors who have found success within the supposedly closed publishing industry. Yes, there are significant challenges but I haven’t found any blocked doors or signs saying “No Blacks Allowed.”

  84. I used to edit the children’s section of a book review magazine. We often reviewed self-published titles until we realized that we are actually ruining the dreams of these well-meaning people by publishing the one and only professional review they will ever get–and showing how bad the book really was. I had phone messages from authors in tears because they simply did not understand how bad their book was. What was the point? Horn Book only chooses to review good books, so that is another matter, but to review a poorly written book just because it exists is unreasonable to expect of reviewers with limited time who also dislike destroying dreams of people, many who do not know enough about children’s literature to want to follow our advice anyway.

  85. Thank you, Lisa S! You have said this so well. The self-published people I have met all assume professional reviews of their work would be positive (and they do not even take suggestions in casual critique groups well). You are right, many of them could and would do well if they persisted, but are often easily discouraged (or broke after paying for self-publication.)

  86. I will take a small salary for reading the 300K indie books for you. All I ask is a fair percentage when I read the next Market Buster! Oh, wait! I already have!

  87. It’s my intention to get the book adopted into schools’ core programs so reviews are key.

  88. But Roger, how do you know those gaps aren’t being filled by self-publishers? You don’t review those books.

  89. Robin Kelly says:

    I’m a mom. I have a 5 year old daughter and my son Matt is 8. We read both traditional and self-published books in my house. My son loves Diary of a 6th Grade Ninja and my daughter loves Lily Lemon Blossom. She asks for it almost every night. It’s the winner at bedtime! I guess my point is that both books are self-published and my children love these characters. So ultimately, it’s the readers who will decide.

  90. Of course “the readers will decide” if they like books. Professional review journals such as Horn Book and everyone else knows this. But there is a sort of grey area about what they are deciding, exactly. In the case of the Lily Lemon Blossom books mentioned in the above post, children like the colorful artwork (it is very good) and the simplicity of the text, no doubt. But a professional reviewer would call the rhymes the ultimate definition of “clunky” , to say the least. Bottom line, the rhythm and rhymes here are truly mediocre, with outright editing errors within the text that are astonishingly left uncorrected.

    So, here is a self-published book series with a lot of followers. In fact, on Amazon, one of the books has 3,365 reviews, the majority of them are 4 and 5 stars, although there are many strongly worded critiques there too.

    How is it that a poorly written book series has this kind of acclaim? It is FREE on kindle!
    Moms looking to entertain their kids while waiting in the doctor’s office can get a colorful book immediately. This is very nice for kids. So it is a question whether Horn Book knows more about what makes children’s literature great or whether children with kindle-owning moms looking for free stuff will really decide. In my opinion, publishing houses cannot compete fairly with this sort of model if the “readers” are deciding the level of excellence.

  91. There’s a misconception that writing a children’s book is easy. After all, it’s mostly about the pictures right? Wrong. It’s a very specialized art form.

  92. I found your article offensive, ignorant, and small-minded. I have a PhD in Renaissance art history and a Master’s degree in the Iconography of fairytales. I am well-versed in the history of children’s literature. My grandmother wrote Pat the Bunny, among other children’s books. I find it astonishing that you castigate self-published authors, whose books you haven’t read because you assume they are badly written, and yet you overlook the huge volume of drivel that passes for literature because it is published traditionally. Need I point out the ‘Shades’ debacle, as well as the Reality TV-based Hunger Games, ( if teachers want to assign a book addressing a Hobbesian allegory of all against all, why not assign actual literature, such as Lord of the Flies?) and the Twilight nonsense that pass for literature. However, as an art historian and a Dante scholar, I am most infuriated by publication of Dan Brown’s books. The very title, ‘Da Vinci Code,’ makes me wince. Leonardo had no surname. Everyone from the town of Vinci can be called ‘da Vinci. If he wrote a book about the Duke of Edinburgh, would he call it the ‘Of Edinburgh Code?’
    Mr. Brown’s grasp of English grammar is as tenuous as his grasp of Dante. There is no academic discipline called ‘Symbology.’ Like ‘Ironical’ and ‘irregardless,’ ‘symology’ is not even a word. I think he means iconography, the study of symbols and mythological and political allegory in art.
    “Brown’s writing is not just bad; it is staggeringly, clumsily, thoughtlessly, almost ingeniously bad.” (Edinburgh professor of linguistics Geoffrey Pullum)

    Below are just a few examples of idiotic phraseology that made it past Mr. Brown’s obviously illiterate editor:
    1. “The Knights Templar were warriors,” Teabing reminded, the sound of his aluminum crutches echoing in this reverberant space. The Davinci Code” chapter 83.
    “Remind” is a transitive verb – you need to remind someone of something. You can’t just remind. And if the crutches echo, we know the space is reverberant.
    2. A voice spoke, chillingly close. “Do not move.” On his hands and knees, the curator froze, turning his head slowly. Only fifteen feet away, outside the sealed gate, the mountainous silhouette of his attacker stared through the iron bars. He was broad and tall, with ghost-pale skin and thinning white hair. His irises were pink with dark red pupils. Chapter 4
    Notwithstanding the abundant use of adverbs, ‘silhouette with white hair and pink irises stood chillingly close but 15 feet away?’ What?
    The female lead in Angels and Demons learns of the death of her scientist father: “Genius, she thought. My father . . . Dad. Dead.” A member of the Vatican Guard in the same book becomes annoyed by something, and we learn that “his eyes went white, like a shark about to attack.” Was Mr. Brown’s editor asleep?
    There are hundreds of thousands of badly-written novels published each year, not to mention the conveyor belt Romances and erotica.

    By rewarding bad writing because the story will sell, aren’t big publishing houses perpetuating illiteracy? By publishing poorly-written books, publishers are conspiring in lowering literary standards. That is the real danger. It is reminiscent of the scene in Broadcast News when Aaron Altman tells Jane that the devil, when he comes, won’t look like a devil.
    He will be attractive! He’ll be nice and helpful. He’ll get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation. He’ll never do an evil thing! He’ll never deliberately hurt a living thing… he will just bit by little bit lower our standards where they are important. Just a tiny little bit. Just coax along flash over substance. Just a tiny little bit.”

    Given the abundance of awful books pushed by publishing houses, it is paradoxical and counter-productive that you overlook self-published books based on an assumption that they are badly written.

  93. Roger, I was so riled that I forgot the motivating reason behind my rant. I wrote an mg book called The Crystal Navigator, in which I address the issue of school anxiety, fear of being laughed at in a fantasy adventure set in Renaissance Florence, Rome and 19th c France. I wanted to bring five artists to life, to engage children in art history. I couldn’t find anyone interested in publishing it. Everyone said it was beautifully written, a creative story unlike any they have seen. Some said it was too detailed, too academic, too scientific, that children wouldn’t be interested. Since I self-published it in June, I have been invited to speak about it at middle schools in five states. The letters from children without exception tell me how much they loved the details, the science, the fact. That I was inspired to write by my grandmother and by my Corgi, Wilbur, who plays the magical guide. It is frustrating and bewildering that the experts rejected it because they believed children would lose interest, and yet the real experts tell me they can’t wait for my next book. I am flummoxed when I see the mediocre series and pseudo-mythological nonsense that is published. One reviewer said the writing is beautiful but it is too academic, yet Kirkus said they found it curious that I didn’t go into more iconographic detail. I would have like to point out that it is a children’s book, not an iconographical treatise a la Erwin Panofsky. Rejection has hurt me. Even with hundreds of letters from children, I am still tormented by the question of why was it rejected by experts when children love it? And, since it was rejected, it won’t ever make any difference how many children write to me because I’ll never be able to believe it. I don’t think you can generalize and determine that all self-published books are tripe. I apologize if I was rude. It angered me when you said.that the Self-published children’s book authors know nothing about children’s literature and nothing about writing.

  94. Thank you, Tim, for writing the most intelligent post yet. I found Roger’s assertion that he couldn’t be bothered to read sp children’s books because the authors were ignorant of children’s literature offensive. I had to self- publish my mg novel, The Crystal Navigator, because no one was interested in a book that combined art history and fantasy. I have a PhD in Renaissance art history, taught for 20 years, and have a thorough knowledge of children’s literature. Having grown up reading Andrew Lang with my paternal Grandmother and reading my maternal grandmother’s classic Pat the Bunny, when I stopped teaching I wanted to write a book that addressed the problem of school anxiety and I wanted to do it via a story about a child who loses her confidence and finds it on a magical journey back in time to meet five great artists. One reviewer called it “a crisply imaginative adventure story set among historical and allegorical truths, in this case the hidden themes in the work of Italian renaissance artists, you will enjoy this book. Dr. Lodge establishes a colorful character with real-life issues of dealing with adolescence and learning and uses that conflict to explore the inner meaning of some of history’s most famous art. With a doctorate in Art History, she combines to all levels of reader a revealing lesson in great paintings with a delightful coming of age story.” I have received letters from hundreds of children telling me how much they loved the book, especially the details. Now this is interesting because one well-known reviewer criticized it for being too academic, too detailed. Aren’t children the real experts, the final arbiters of what they like? Rejection has really torn me apart because I see so much drivel published traditionally and yet I think I my book is good, perhaps more then good. One agent told me it was “very unique.” These are the gatekeepers and they can’t even speak proper English? How is it possible for Roger to limit his choices to traditionally published books when so many truly bad books are published in droves. Dan Brown’s books are not just bad, the writing is ingeniously bad. As an art historian and Dante scholar, I wince whenever I hear the title of his first big seller. And yet publishers keep rewarding bad writing, the ‘Shades’ debacles, The Hunger Games, (a reality tv derivative why not steer our children toward Lord of the Flies?) and all the vampire tripe. By rewarding bad writing, publishers are conspiring to lower the standards of literature. That is the ultimate danger and that it why I find Roger presumptions about self-published authors short-sighted and limited. Thank you for your cogent counter.

  95. Just because a book is published by a big house does not mean that it is a good book. In fact, I would say more than half of the drivel published by the big houses today are embarrassingly bad books. Witness Dan Brown’s books. His grasp of English grammar is as tenuous as his grasp of art history and Dante. I can’t imagine what his editor was thinking. Perhaps she was unconscious.

  96. Thank you, Becky. well said.

  97. Why not? What is it you are afraid of?

  98. Well said. Bravo.

  99. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Nancy, you’ll note that i said “most.” MOST. And I don’t really follow your rant about Dan Brown because I was talking about children’s books, very specifically, and my point was not that ALL trade-published books are better than ALL self-published titles, but that the odds were both far better and the pool more manageable. Plus, I loved The DaVinci Code.

  100. So did my father, who teaches at HBS. However, by purporting to be an art historian, Mr. Brown is misinforming the public. Yes, it’s nice that he may have sparked some interest in Leonardo,but his ludicrous theories, about the Mary Magdalen, the Merovingians, his talk of ‘Symbology’ all put forth as truths, are irksome. And, I am flummoxed that an editor didn’t clean up all the grammatical mistakes. I am learning that the all of the successful bad writers have one thing in common- they are gifted storytellers. Perhaps we Oxford art historians take ourselves too seriously.

  101. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Nancy, you’re reminding me of Dorothy Parker mercilessly taking a writer to task for calling the sun “that round orb of day”!

    But I’m also reminded of another signal difference between trade and self-publishing; DaVinci Code was published because a whole lot of people thought it would succeed in finding an audience. With self-publishing, the author is generally the only one making that call, to usually disappointing results. A desire to have one’s writing published is not the same thing as having written something that other people want to read. None of this is to say that fine books don’t get rejected by trade publishers, and we may be in a particularly ruthless era as far as that goes.

  102. Roger, I didn’t mean to blame the writers. I cheer for the success of newcomers. I don’t operate in a state of constant professional jealousy. I understand that publishers have to make money. I understand why badly written books are published. All I want is clarification of what I see as a contradiction.
    When I started writing my middle grade book four years ago, I had no idea what I was doing. My writing was terrible. The only experience I had had was in scholarship. I have been a professor of art history for twenty years, written scholarly articles and delivered paper s in Italy and the US. This experience and a PhD did not qualify me to write fiction. I thought ‘raising the stakes’ had something to do with supporting peonies. It took four years and hundreds of drafts to write the book I was proud of. (Apologies to John Dryden for ending a sentence with a preposition.) My aim was to help children with school anxiety and engage them in art history. In order to get an A on an oral report, a nervous child asks for magical help to go back in time and visit five great artists. Their most famous paintings are seen through her eyes.
    The reason I don’t begrudge the publication of badly written books is that my dream has come true. After visiting 4th, 5th, and 6th grade children at schools in Maryland, Massachusetts, DC, and Virginia and receiving over one hundred letters from children telling me how much they loved the details, they felt like they were in the book, they loved learning about art, etc. Children have told me they felt as though they were holding Lucy’s hand when she jumped into Botticelli’s Primavera, or when she and her magic friend, a Corgi based on my dog, are marooned inside Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night. They tell me that they now understand why the Mona Lisa is such an extraordinary painting. After looking at her, they know what I meant when I said it’s remarkable because the artist created a portrait which draws the viewer into a silent dialogue.
    I am not telling you this to impress, rather to point out what I see as a contradiction at best, hypocrisy at worst. And I would really appreciate it if you could explain why agents bother to insist that they will not even consider a book if it breaks certain rules.
    Let me say something about the rules that I was encouraged to follow. The rules confused and angered me- “Never use the passive, even though it has been used by everyone from Shakespeare to Ian McEwan to Michael Ende. Never open with the weather, a crisis, or a dream, murder every last adverb, never use any word except “said” to carry dialogue, never use a talking dog, you’ll be decapitated if you even so much as look at an exclamation point, and Vonnegut’s cryptic ‘start at the end.’
    I was overjoyed when I ran into one of the most famous experts on how to write well. I told her I didn’t understand why transgression of the rules would land me in literary Siberia. I pointed out that Margaret Atwood likes adverbs and Ian McEwan opens Enduring Love with a literary trope, and what about that? She recovered beautifully by sidestepping “These aren’t really rules. They’re only guidelines.” ‘Oh!’ I said. ‘Okay, I get it. So, the title of your book, 10 Horrible Things that will Make an Agent Light it on Fire, those 10 things don’t actually bother agents?’
    At some point I wondered if authors of the How to be Creative books in this country might secretly be members of OULIPO, the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or Workshop of Potential Literature, a group of writers and mathematicians. Their most peculiar law is the S+7 method, where each substantive or noun in a given text, such as a poem, is systematically replaced by the noun to be found seven places away in a chosen dictionary.
    Flaubert spoke about the stultifying effects of rules far more eloquently than I. “The more I study style, the more I hesitate. I falter. I become angry and fearful, my drive diminishes as my taste improves, and I brood more over an ill-suited word than I rejoice over a well-proportioned paragraph. The most beautiful works are those that have the least matter; the closer expression hugs thought, the more words cleave to it and disappear, the more beautiful it is. But, I lose this when I study style. Happy are they who don’t doubt themselves and whose pens fly across the page.”
    So here is my question: why do agents insist that they will not consider a book that breaks some of the rules, that first and foremost a book must be well-written, when their actions prove the opposite? Why say it? Why not just say it’s a matter of taste, it’s subjective?

  103. Hi Roger, I promise I won’t call, or visit, or email, or friend, or fax, or tweet you, but I would like to thank you for your generous offer to review self-published children’s books.

  104. Hi did you happen to read Ron Charles’ interpretation of your article in the Post?
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/style-blog/wp/2014/10/01/no-i-dont-want-to-read-your-self-published-book/
    Anyway, I promise I won’t call, or visit, or email, or friend, or fax, or tweet you, but I would like to thank you for your generous offer to review self-published children’s books.

  105. ok I agree with the general premise of this article. It is the ‘american idol’ syndrome for kids books – just because I wrote it, it must be awesome!

    However I smell a bit of an aroma of self-importance with a statement like this:
    “the books aren’t filling any kind of need that isn’t already being met by established publishers.”

    Now first of all who said children’s books are about ‘need’? Aren’t they mostly entertainment? And aren’t most people looking for new things? So the stories may just be for a smile or a laugh, and they may not add anything new just something a bit different.

    Otherwise the same could be said for adult literature. What could possibly be anything really new to ‘meet any need that isn’t already’ met by the massive amount of literature already written? Are you really telling me that looking around a Barnes and Noble store every title is adding something significant or ‘meeting a need’. The only need the majority of them meet is entertainment, which is really not a ‘need’ rather a want. There are only creative new takes on old ideas, themes and morals. Whether ‘pro’ published or self. There is nothing new under the sun. I’m not talking about fields where there is new discovery and information, I’m talking about story telling, adult fiction and the majority of children’s books.

  106. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Hi John– by “need” I meant “needs of readers.” And I’m only talking about recreational reading–I don’t see that self-publishing for children has found an area or niche that isn’t being (over!)supplied by trade publishers. (As I said in the original post, I don’t believe the same to be true among self-publishers for adults.) Interestingly, though–a lot of the self-publishing for children does attend to the kind of “need” you are talking about–lots of didactic picture books, for example. But this is a case where the need perceived by the self-publisher is not matched by the needs of an audience.

  107. I think we all know that the market is saturated with self-published books and the publishing industry selects the tiny portion allowed into book stores. This wasn’t really anything new. In fact, there are way too many articles to read on the Internet–so I won’t be able to read this one entirely. I noticed that Horn Book is shown to have a Facebook page, Twitter account, Google account, etc. But since there are millions of these social media accounts, I won’t have time to check any of them out either.

  108. Being a full-time working mom and trying to paint, write, and illustrate my children’s book on a dime-budget, I get the message. So I am just hoping those that do get my self-published book/s and share why they enjoy it, is enough for me. Although, I think my character I created, with some help from those more qualified, could really become something, if I only had the attention of the right people in publishing. Until then, I will keep adding to my series of books, trying to improve the look and technical details, as I go. Have a great day everyone!

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