When Will a Self-Published Book Win a Major Book Award?

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Dear Librarians who serve on one of the ALA Youth Media Awards committees (Newbery, Caldecott, Coretta Scott King, Michael L. Printz, Schneider Family, Alex, Mildred L. Batchelder, Odyssey, Pura Belpré, Robert F. Siebert, Excellence in Early Learning Digital Media, Stonewall, Theodor Seuss Geisel, William C. Morris, YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults, Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, Sydney Taylor, and American Indian Youth Literature):

I greet you, fellow readers.

Monday’s announcement of the 2020 ALA children’s book awards is one of my favorite days of the year. I’ve watched the awards for many years and am always amazed at how you respond to the current moment in choosing award books. You aren’t afraid to break new ground and to recognize those previously marginalized. Just the breadth of the awards is amazing.

In 2016, you awarded the Newbery to Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena, the first time a picture book was given the award. This year, New Kid by Jerry Craft won the Newbery, the first time for a graphic novel to be honored as the “most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.”

(NOTE: In this essay, I will refer to the “most distinguished contribution to American literature for children,” the criteria for the Newbery award, as an all-encompassing shorthand for the various criteria for each award. I know each award has its own selection criteria, but can’t reference them all each time.)

I ask you: when will a self-published book win one of your awards?

The barriers are great:

  • Access. Because you read widely for the awards, you must use some sort of filter to manage the process. Usually that means reviews, recommendations, marketing support from the publisher, meeting authors at conferences, and so on. These are hard for indie publishers to navigate. How can I put my book in your hands? Only with great difficulty.
  • Reviews. Currently, the only two reliable review sources for me are School Library Journal (about 75% of my books are reviewed), and Kirkus Indie Reviews (100% are reviewed at the cost of $350/book). Publisher’s Weekly, through the awkward and unreliable Book Life program, will sometimes review free (about 25% of my books are reviewed). BCCB and Horn Book will not review any self-published book. Booklist also has a paid service only.
  • Conferences. Attending a national conference is a costly affair unless you happen to live close. It’s a business investment for a self-publisher, but at best, it’s an unreliable investment. There’s no way a self-publisher can host a meet-and-greet party for influential committee members.
  • Marketing. Any small business must advertise. But I must carefully weigh the return-on-investment for any advertising venture. Currently, I only do online advertising because it gives me a direct measure of results. Traditional methods, such as sending out postcards, has no direct measurable result. I can’t afford it.

The Questions: A FAQ for Self-Published Books Considered for Awards

Why did you choose to self-publish? Frankly, it’s none of your business. The only question is what do you think of the book I published?

Do you make any money self-publishing your books? Frankly, it’s none of your business. The only question is what do you think of the book I published?

Are your books copyrighted? Do you know the BISAC categories for your books? Do you have an LCCN? And so on… Sigh. Read the copyright page.

Are any self-published books good? How good is the book I just put in your hand? That’s the only question.

OK. Maybe there’s some legitimacy to this question. Because I know my own books, let me give you an example. My publishing company is MimsHouse.com, a wholly-author-owned publisher; I am the only author published by Mims House. POLLEN: Darwin’s 130-Year Prediction was released in May, 2019. It has been honored for excellence in these ways:

Pollen cover
For review copies, email suefoster@mimshouse.com
  • Junior Library Guild Selection 
  • Kirkus Review – *Starred*
  • SLJ Review
  • Eureka! Non Fiction Book Award Honor – California Reading Association
  • 2020 NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Book
  • Chinese rights to Dandelion Children’s Books

However, even with these accolades, I’m sure that the book was never seriously considered by any award committee. Certainly no committee member asked themselves if POLLEN was a “distinguished contribution to American literature for children.”

cover of The Nantucket Sea Monster
For review copies,
email suefoster@MimsHouse.com

Wait! How did you get a book recognized as an NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Book award? “I wrote a book that science teachers thought was good and helpful in their classrooms,” she says, tongue-in-cheek.

Mims House is a member of the Children’s Book Council, who administers several awards from teacher organizations. Mims House has four books recognized as NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Books (2015, 2017, 2019, 2020). Beyond that, my book, THE NANTUCKET SEA MONSTER: A Fake News Story is A 2018 NCTE Notable Children’s Book in Language Arts and a Junior Library Guild selection. Here’s my full bio and bibliography.

Is the book widely available? Good question. An award winning book should be widely distributed so it’s available to anyone in the United States. Mims House books are available here:

  • Print Distribution: Ingram, Mackin, Amazon, BN, Child’s Plus, Follett School Solutions, Permabound and other educational distributors.
  • eBook Distribution: iBook, Kindle, Nook, Kobo, Follett eBooks, MackinVIA, Permabound, Overdrive, EPIC!, Google Plus, other educational distributors, and MimsHouse.com
  • Audio: TalestoGo, EPIC!, Follett, Mackin, Overdrive, JLG Audio, Findaway and other educational distributors

(If I left something out, let me know, and I’ll remedy that tomorrow.)

Who is the reader for your books? Good question. Children, ages 5-14. Each book is targeted to a certain age group, and often targeted to curriculum needs. Each book has a Lexile reading level officially recorded to make it more useful to teachers and parents. All books are submitted to Renaissance Learning for consideration for an Accelerated Reader quiz. We have a variety of lesson plans and discussion guides for our books. Need something else to make the books more useful or available? Email suefoster@mimshouse.com and we’ll make it happen.

There are award programs for self-published books already. Why don’t you just go for one of those? Yes, there are programs that put my books into a ghetto category. Writers organizations have wrestled with the question of award access for the last ten years and solved it with varying degrees of acceptability. Some require insulting documentation: Provide documentation that you’re applied for a copyright. Supply your editor’s name so we know it was edited correctly. For those, I won’t submit. It’s even more aggravating when the establishment of a self-published award means I’m no longer eligible to enter the organization’s main award categories. My books are marginalized by such awards, not honored. The only question should be this: what is the quality of the book I published?

I don’t want a separate award. I want to compete for the “most distinguished contribution to American literature for children” along with everyone else. I’m not afraid of competition or unduly upset by losing. I just want access.

Here’s my point. Self-publishing in a business decision; it says nothing about quality.

It merely says that I’m a small business person with a literary bent. Period. To understand the quality of a book, you must READ THE BOOK.

I’m optimistic, dear librarians. You break expectations all the time. As a group, you’re the clear-headed thinkers. Self-publishing as an industry has grown up in the last decade and there are many excellent books being self-published for young readers. So, read them.

My goal as an author has always been to win a Newbery award. Now, it’s morphed. I want to write the first (but not the last) self-published book recognized for its distinguished contribution to American literature for children.

When Kittens Go Viral

One of the joys of running a micro-publishing company is that the buck stops here. I am the CEO, CFO, accountant, mail clerk, webmaster, librarian liaison, chief cook and bottle-washer…and publicist. I’m putting on my publicist hat here and this is an unabashed self-promotion for this self-published author.

Coming April 8: WHEN KITTENS GO VIRAL, pictures by Nicole Standard.

cover of When Kittens Go Viral
Now available for preorder. For review copies,
email suefoster@mimshouse.com

Discover the secret world behind the scenes of your favorite cat videos.

On a glittering night of destiny, a cat star is born.

The Majestic Kennels, home to the famous cats of KittyTube, welcomes a new kitten, Angel Persian. Angel is eager to follow in the footsteps of her famous mother and father and become a Kittytube sensation. When DaddyAlbert’s new movie goes bankrupt, leaving him stranded in France, Angel desperately works harder. Her videos must go viral, so she’ll win a cash prize and bring him home.

Will Angel become a water cat, a piano cat, a ghost cat, or something new? Will this tiny kitten find her courage—and her audience on KittyTube? Will she have what it takes to win?

What will it take for this tiny kitten to become a star?

Librarians, Please Read Our Books

To the award committee members and to any and all children’s book librarians, I urge you to read self-published books. Sure, there are bad ones just like there are bad traditionally published books. But you’re trained to recognize the good from the bad, yes?

Let me repeat. Self-publishing is a business decision; it says nothing about quality.

Thanks for listening. Librarians Rock!

2 Comments
  • Sandra
    January 30, 2020

    Thank you, Darcy! I ask the same question all the time. Well said.

  • Phoebe
    February 2, 2020

    Well done you!

    I love your cheekiness.

    No one asks how much money a publishing house spends on marketing and promotions. A business is a business, no mater the size.