I apologise for the length of this post, but it seems like a useful resource for children’s writers like myself. This is my experience of using the internet for marketing children’s books.
*This piece is aimed at writers of younger children’s books (for 4-12 yr olds), rather than YA titles. A lot of adult internet marketing techniques will apply to YA books (and they often have a strong adult readership anyway), so some of the negative remarks below should be ignored if you’re a YA writer.*
The big thing to bear in mind, is that for a children’s author there are limits to what can be achieved online. The internet is brilliant for reaching adults, but for children, you have to wait for them to reach you. If that happens, you’re onto a winner, so what can you do make that happen quicker?
1) Be accessible
If you’re not on the web in some shape or form, then to all intents and purposes you don’t exist. You can be in control of what represents you on the net, so do just that: take control. Try and make sure that by owning your own website (buy a url with your name, if you can!), you get high up on Google rankings for your name or the books you create.
2) To blog or not?
I would say the first thing anyone should do is have a blog of some shape or form. Use it as a diary. Tell people what you’re up to, post photos, artwork, add extra content from your books, like you’d find on a DVD. Children will want extra stuff – they’re hoovers for free things, so always remember that. Be aware though, I’ve found I get a lot of general traffic from people who aren’t directly interested in children’s books. Google can send all sorts of traffic your way. It’s not a bad thing, but it’s not so directly focused on you and your books.
A blog is best thought of as a great general marketing tool, especially if you focus on a certain subject and potentially build up a regular audience that might follow what you write regularly. However, it’s unlikely these people will be children – your core audience. In my experience, it’s just not how they use the web.
• Use a blog to get involved with the community of blogging authors/illustrators. They will be your friends and allies. They’ll also provide brilliant support and knowledge. They can also help spread the word about the book/your work.
• A blog will flood Google with your content, and help you rise up in the search result rankings. It’s the easiest way to make sure if someone types your name into Google, they’ll be sent to a site controlled by you.
• At first, a blog needs to be updated regularly. If you don’t do this, then it’s unlikely you’ll get a following of regular readers. Then again, this may not be want you want – as I said before, it’s unlikely your readers will be your audience.
3) Should I build a static book website?
I get far fewer hits to my static websites that focus solely on a book. However, I know that people coming to these sites are people directly interested in me or my books. It’s a lot more likely that these people visiting are my readers, and therefore mostly children. I load my Mythical 9th Division and Mousehunter sites with free downloads, such as a comic, or a detailed map, and these are really popular. Visitors also love to listen to podcasts, or watch trailers, and these are so simple to create.
4) Should I make a book trailer?
If you can do it cheaply, then yes. It’s another way of getting your name, book and content on the web. If you’re spending a lot on trailer, bear in mind how many people might watch it, and work out its cost per view. For example, the trailer to Patrick Ness’s Monsters of Men (the final part of the popular Chaos Walking trilogy) has received just under a thousand hits. I don’t know its cost to make, but it’s likely a few days work. So on that premise alone, and it’s in the region of £500, then that’s 50p per person who’s seen it. A static advert in a tube station is probably much better value for money, if you consider how many people will see it each and every day.
However, a trailer for a book could be incredibly simple, and still just as effective. It could be you reading, or discussing the themes in the story – most digital cameras have a video function, so use it. Upload it to YouTube then embed it in your site, and you won’t have to pay for bandwidth costs. A podcast could be put onto iTunes with ease. I’ve a number of short stories on iTunes, recorded directly into the microphone of my Mac with no hassle whatsoever. It’s so easy to do this these days, and you can do it yourself. Just try and make these things special and unique, ie. something that you can’t get elsewhere.
5) Social Networks and your books
There are communities out there waiting for you, but do you need them? The key thing is to consider your audience.
• Myspace: AVOID. Why? Because it’s far too complicated and of little use to authors/illustrators. LiveJournal has a blossoming illustrator community, so if you’re an illustrator, that’s probably where you should be.
• Facebook: AVOID. Why? It’s far too enclosed and generally doesn’t appear on Google in any useful form. Tweaks are happening all the time to its code, but most of the time content on Facebook is hidden behind its walls. The site is great for chatting to friends overseas. It’s nice to see family pictures, especially ones of newborn babies, but although its users are gradually getting younger, it’s complicated and only of real use for adults. If your audience is teenagers, it may be worth your while setting up a fan page, otherwise focus on your own blogs/sites. Remember that your time is sacred, and Facebook can suck up your time for little reward.
• Twitter: DO IT! Twitter will throw you into the community of web-savvy authors and illustrators out there. It’s great for networking within the industry, but it’s not going to get you direct sales amongst children. Sometimes, however, it may be parents that you actively want to tell about your books, so do be canny! And the fact that you’re a published author/illustrator does give you a certain amount of kudos. You’ll get followers who want to be or know you. Again, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will help with sales.
6) Use the web in a way that might reach your target audience
Focus your attention, and probably your slim amount of free time, on the things that will help spread the word about your work, or give more to your reader. If you have a book that might benefit from a diary, or something extra that you can write/draw and stick on a website, then focus on that, rather than trying to build a Facebook page extra to your own blog/website. Most people use the web first, then visit a bookshop. If they type your name into Google, does it come up top on the rankings? That’s what you should aim for, and a blog, first and foremost, is the easiest way to achieve that.
I do believe in covering all bases, and sometimes it’s important to be found everywhere. But a good blog/website, backed up by a regular Twitter feed, is probably the best way of putting content onto the web that children may find easily. Google, though a slippery bedfellow, is the best one to try understand, and a well-written blog on blogger or wordpress will do a lot of the hard work for you.
There’s a rich tradition of children’s stories set in and about our capital city, and it’s no wonder really, as London has it all. In Operation Robot Storm I’ve shocked the city by casting it into a new ice age, which meant I got to draw all the famous monuments covered in ice. Frankly, the chance to include London in a book was too good to miss. It’s always been close to my heart.
I remember being a tiny boy, wandering around the Natural History Museum in awe. I’d not seen anything like what was contained within its walls, and boy, even the walls were amazing and covered in grotesques. The first time I visited London and was able to remember it, it was bigger and more exciting than anything I’d experienced. Even the public transport was cooler than anywhere else. The Tube went underground?! When I was small, even hot, crowded trains coursing through hot, tight tunnels excited me beyond belief.
The city was magic. It was like entering Narnia, being so far away from my home town of Hereford. Everything I experienced there was different to everyday life (even down to being allowed to eat Cup-a-soups.) My grandparents would tell me about life in the war, my dad would tell me about his CND marches – it was even the place where Tottenham Hotspur played football (I was taken to Tottenham Court Road many times on route to the British Museum, and never once did I understand why I couldn’t see White Hart Lane Stadium.)
And now, as a writer, I can understand why London felt so magic to me all those years ago. It’s the tiny, wonderful details around every corner, which at night are lit up like a theatre stage. It’s the gigantic, stately and imposing buildings looming above you, laughing at your smallness. It’s the threat of dark deeds and nefarious crooks lurking in its tunnels and behind its closed doors, and whether it’s a contemporary London or a historical London, there’s always intrigue to uncover, stories to tell and magic bubbling under its surface.
Children aren’t worn down by its daily grind like us adult commuters. They only see the potential for exciting adventures and discoveries, and that’s why I thought I’d try and find all the children’s books with scenes based in or around London. It seemed like a fascinating way of seeing the city through the eyes of a child.
So here goes… I’ve tried to stick to one book per author, particularly if they’re from a series, but I imagine there are some writers that deserve more mentions. So have a look at the list below, and if you can think of any other titles, please say! Once I have a complete list (if there ever can be such a thing), I’m going to put them on a map. Should be a nice thing to do.
A Little Princess – Frances Hodgson Burnett (Seven-year-old Sara Crewe is sent to live at Miss Minchin’s boarding school in London)
Stoneheart – Charlie Fletcher (Scenes all over London, including a finale set upon the Monument)
Darkside – Tom Becker (Bethlem Hospital, and the underworld)
Black Hearts in Battersea – Joan Aiken (Simon enrols at the Marius Rivière Academy of Painting)
Numbers – Rachel Ward (They head to the London Eye, where a fateful occurrence takes place)
The Borribles – Michael de Larrabeiti (A magical ‘alternative’ London, Battersea?)
T.I.M. – Sam Enthoven (Admiralty arch and the Mall)
Operation Robot Storm – Alex Milway (Trafalgar Square)
The Devil’s Kiss – Sarwat Chadda (North London Junk shop)
The Enchanted Castle – E Nesbitt (Crystal Palace Park and dinosaurs)
Johnny Mackintosh and the Spirit of London – Keith Mansfield (The Spirit of London spaceship is in fact the Swiss Re building!)
The Parliament of Blood – Justin Richards (British Museum and the Houses of Parliament are overrun by vampires)
When I was Joe – Keren David (Hackney?)
Un Lun Dun – China Mieville (set in an alternative London – crossover points all over the city)
A Christmas Carol – Dickens (not specifically a children’s book, but needed one Dickens)
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit – Judith Kerr (move to London at the end)
Mary Poppins – P.L. Travers (Number Seventeen Cherry Tree Lane)
Coram Boy – Jamilla Gavin (the foundling hospital)
Archie’s War – Marcia Williams (East London)
The BFG – Roald Dahl (Buckingham Palace!)
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – CS Lewis (Pevenseys evacuated from London)
A Dog So Small – Philippa Pearce (Hampstead Heath?)
Peter Pan – JM Barrie (The Darlings live in Bloomsbury, but obviously Kensington Gardens)
Mortal Engines – Phillip Reeve (London on wheels!)
The Wombles – Elizabeth Beresford (Wimbledon!)
The Dark Portal (The Deptford Mice) – Robin Jarvis (Deptford sewers)
Ruby in the Smoke – Philip Pullman (Wapping)
Curious Incident of a Dog in the Night time – Mark Haddon (Willesden underground station)
This is London – Miroslav Sasek (All over, but the Tower of London bit is best!)
The Underground Conspiracy – Catherine Storr (The Underground)
Ballet Shoes – Noel Streatfeild (The Children’s Academy of Dancing and Stage Training)
Paddington Bear – Michael Bond (Paddington Station)
Time Train to the Blitz – Sophie McKenzie (Underground stations + …)
Goodnight Mister Tom – Michelle Magorian (Hackney Road)
The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman (inspired by Highgate Cemetry)
The London Eye Mystery – Siobhan Dowd (London Eye)
The Tall Story – Candy Gourlay
Stormbreaker – Anthony Horowitz (West Brompton Cemetery)
Smith – Leon Garfield (newgate prison)
Amulet of Samarkand – Jonathan Stroud (Hampstead)
Tanglewreck – Jeanette Winterson (mammoths on Thames)
Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince – JK Rowling (10 Downing Street)
And now to find a way of drawing them on a map…
I noticed yesterday that the new-ish Mark Haddon book, Boom!, came wrapped with a black band suggesting it was “for children of all ages”. I’m intrigued. There’s a quote on Amazon from the Bookseller review: “A hilarious adventure by Mark Haddon, who has an innate and dazzling rapport with his target audience”. I guess if I work with those two statements, I could naturally come to the conclusion that his target audience is everyone. Or, at the very least, that’s who his publisher wants it to be.
There’s a huge number of adults that read and like children’s books. I’m one of them. I like to think we’re a discerning bunch, and possibly know a good story better than readers who put up with pages of wobble and drivel in adult books. How many adults will finish a book simply because they’ve started it, and not because they’re enjoying it? I bet you those books are for grown-ups. It rarely happens with children’s books – okay, Harry Potter’s “100-page hanging around in a tent” in the Deathly Hallows bored me to tears, but I still got to the end.
But when you see publishers actively selling children’s books to an adult audience, I think there’s a problem. “Children of all ages” doesn’t wash with me. It seems confused, and that can’t be good for anyone, author or reader. One of the reviewers of Boom! on Amazon helpfully writes: “As soon as it arrived I realised that I had made a big mistake because this is very clearly a children’s rather than an adult’s book.”
This readership crossover issue clearly works both ways. Adult’s books packaged as children’s books are as confusing to kids as children’s books for grown-ups.
I was recently chatting to a bookseller about Bog Child, by Siobhan Dowd. The book’s beautifully written, and I’m sure we’ll see it on the BBC as a Sunday night drama at some point soon, but we spoke about it winning the Carnegie prize and she told me how in shadow reading groups within schools, the children just didn’t get it. So how did it win the prize if the children didn’t enjoy it? It was voted for by adults, of course.
Now that’s possibly a different problem – children’s book prizes being voted for by adults, who have different sensibilities to a child – but it highlights the confusion that’s created by not targeting a readership. With children’s books, writing for a set audience is usually imperative to success, and if the book breaks out into other markets, so be it.
But I think the fact of the matter is that children’s books are now judged differently, as much as to how they’ll be received by adults as children. Because of this, children’s titles are often reviewed with an eye to the adult reader, which can be incredibly unhelpful.
I write children’s books for children. It’s lovely if adults like them but they’re not who I write for. It’s unlikely my stories will ever make school reading lists, mainly because I want children to enjoy them. I want my books to be fun and exciting, and I hope they help children think that books are great to read.
I remember I am David sending me to sleep at school, and that’s an awful thing to say. Children’s books shouldn’t do that. They should excite, inspire, and make children readers for life. In contrast, shortly after finishing that book, we read Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator in class and I loved it. To me, that says a lot about how to get kids to enjoy reading – save history for the history class.
So let children’s books stand and fall on whether they’re good children’s books for children. If they’re brilliant, adults will like them anyway.
People talk about the rise of fantasy in children’s books relating directly to the increased lack of freedom in the real world. The more society can keep tabs on you – mobile phones or social media – the more children crave a world where they’re allowed to be free and out of contact.
I totally buy this. Books provide that freedom, or at least they allow the reader to experience that freedom from afar. I don’t really know any other medium that can do this.
For a child there’s definitely something to be said for experiencing a world where parents aren’t looking after you, where everything is not plain to see or readily available. And that’s what we children’s writers are trying to do, I think. We’re trying to put the freedom back into a world that’s lost it.
I bought a wood so that our child might grow up to know what it’s like to wander safely, and freely through a wilderness.
The very idea of wilderness, the wild and untamed, really excited me when I was young. There’s a sense of magic in wilderness that you just can’t find in a town or city. And I don’t necessarily mean magic as in Harry Potter. That would be too easy. The magic lies in experiencing things for yourself, discovering things because of what you’ve done, and not looking up the answers to any problems on Google. That magic is often related to not understanding things, and searching for the truth.
For example, there’s that moment when you finally realise what a lyric is to a song, and suddenly the magical aura is gone. It’s not as interesting any more. I’m a solid fan of science and understanding the truth, revealing the magic behind what makes things work, but that’s not to say I want to give my child the answers to everything. That would be daft. I want her to experience the magic in the world, and to do that she needs to be allowed to feel free.
And that’s the strength of children’s books, and the power that we have as children’s writers and illustrators. We are allowed to create a wilderness for children to play in, to imagine themselves in, away from the confines of the enclosed modern world that provides all the answers.
We have a duty to provide beautiful worlds where inquisitive imaginations can grow and go crazy, and we also have a duty to allow kids to feel scared, to feel brave enough to turn the page and face their fears on their own.
The wilderness will make strong minds and strong characters out of children, and I for one applaud children’s books for keeping it alive.
They’ve arrived! I’m getting more excited about the Children’s Book Festival by the day.
Last Saturday I whizzed over to Abingdon to talk about mice (and draw them, of course) at Mostly Books. This is a lovely independent bookshop, and if you’re ever passing near Oxford, it’s just down the road and well worth a visit.
We held a competition for the best mouse creation, and there were two winners: a splendid Dragon Mouse picked up the prize for the best drawing, and a terrific Scissor Mouse won for best story. (Of course, the Scissor Mouse doesn’t chew its food, it cuts it up into tiny pieces before swallowing.)
And seeing as I was so near Oxford, I then zipped along to meet Kate Brown, one of the DFC artists, to pick up some work for the exhibition. I somehow managed to avoid all the excitement of the Oxford Literary Festival while I was there, but these things can’t be helped.
And while I’m on the theme of festivals, our very own Crystal Palace Children’s Book Festival has been mentioned on the Bookseller website. It’s brilliant to get a mention. Just a few weeks to go now too, and the badges/T-shirts/leaflets are all on order.
As you can tell, I’m already excited at the prospect of a day of Children’s Books in Crystal Palace.
I’m currently playing knock knock with my niece, who’s just learnt to open doors. There’s a whole world of pain awaiting us – or rather, awaiting my brother and his partner. She’s a little tumble tot, who would do well in a wrestling ring. Could probably take on Mickey Rourke if necessary.
But what other exciting things have been happening in Australia? I spent yesterday in Melbourne, wandering the streets, and trying out the public transport. You have to do these things don’t you? The most striking aspect of the city so far is the sienna/sandstone colour of the buildings – and also the similarity to Japan. It’s incredibly friendly, and having a nice beer by the river got me right into the spirit of things.
Other less brilliant news from home is that we’ve discovered Dulwich is hosting a children’s book festival of its own on the same weekend as our Crystal Palace Children’s Book Festival. I was really thorough in my date checking, and I’m a bit gutted we’re going to have competition. There are not enough children’s book events out there as it is, and to find out we’re clashing with another one is galling. There are no details available online as yet.
We’ll just have to be sure ours is the best… And I know it will be.
The Guardian had a peculiar blog post recently, with the subhead questioning why Children’s Books rarely scoop major honours. The peculiarity arises because, as is often the case with blog articles trying to create discussion, the subhead doesn’t actually relate to the article, which was simply a chance to talk about the worth of the Newbery medal, and then listing – and debating – some ‘classics’ of children’s literature. (I’m not even going to get started on debating the totally out-dated list of classics they talk about.)
The very idea that children’s books don’t win major awards is quite preposterous, and the author of the article clearly had nothing to do with the standfirst. But it does raise a question of the awareness of children’s book awards, and their perceived worth alongside the biggies, such as the Booker or Costa.
I watched the Newbery award being announced via a live web feed, and it felt like watching the Golden Globes. It was big, and that surprised me. I’d like to see them do the same with the Carnegie awards, make a real event out of it, and celebrate the new, brilliant children’s fiction coming out of Britain. I’ll film it and stream it – you only have to ask, Carnegie folk! I suppose you could point to the example of the Blue Peter book prizes, which are quite high profile and get TV time.
I think what I’m trying to say though, is that major awards for Children’s Books are for children. Whoever wrote that standfirst should realise that children’s books are not made worthy by being able to stand alongside Booker Prize winners. After all, if you were to look at sales, the best modern kids’ books wipe the floor with the Booker winners, and that says more than anything.
Ultimately, good children’s books – as good as any adult books – are winning major awards. But they’re major children’s awards. It’s simply that there’s a snobbery out there regarding children’s fiction and its worth.
So as long as children’s writers remember that their audience is children, and they don’t pander to grown-ups to win a Costa Prize and gain ‘respect’, then that’s all that matters, in the end.