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

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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
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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Ryan Derek

I am an independent solo artist of electronic music and it is quite different that being an indie author. If my music is garbage, then people only waste say 15 minutes of their time and my music is completely free. But with a novel, it takes time to read them. The brightest and sharpest readers probably can read a 300 page novel with in 4-5 hours but the average person much longer. So my point is, that novels take a long time to read and you better have quality control going on. One thing about us indie musicians is that at least we spend money and time on our product. We pay professional mix and mastering engineers and we spend money on music lessons. But these indie authors think they are the next William S. Burroughs and they do not even pay the a few thousand bucks for a pro editor to review their manuscript? In the indie music world, we at least pay a few thousand bucks to have a pro mix and mastering engineer who'd our music so it does not sound sonic bullets to the ear! Plus Apple forces us to pay for a certified ITunes mastering engineer to meet their quality control standards. Perhaps Amazon should have certified professional editors who at least at minimum review the self-published books to ensure some basic quality control.

Posted : Apr 01, 2017 04:24

Leona Palski

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!

Posted : Jan 01, 2016 04:26

Kevin J. Curtis

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.

Posted : May 27, 2015 05:21

Roger Sutton

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.

Posted : Apr 06, 2015 01:41

John S

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.

Posted : Apr 04, 2015 04:09

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