Podcast: Download (Duration: 1:04:56 — 52.8MB)
Subscribe: Google Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher | TuneIn | RSS | More
How can you write a children's story with a message without being preachy? How can you find and work effectively with an illustrator? How can you market your book to kids in schools?
Crystal Swain Bates gives her tips on writing, publishing and marketing books for children, as well as how we can make books and the author community more diverse.
In the intro, how library distribution works for indie authors [ALLi]; Constant change and when your winning bet becomes your losing bet [Spotify A Product Story]; Tarzan Economics; 8 Principles for Pivoting Through Disruption by Will Page; Subscription models and streaming and the impact on indie authors [me and Orna Ross on the Ask ALLi Podcast]; The Once and Future Witches by Alix E Harrow; Google update coming in May 2021 for Page Experience and Core Web Vitals [Search Engine Watch], plus ScribeCount for wide reporting.
Today's show is sponsored by Draft2Digital, where you can get free ebook formatting, free distribution to multiple stores, and a host of other benefits. Get your free Author Marketing Guide at www.draft2digital.com/penn
Crystal Swain-Bates is the best-selling author of children's books, and the founder of Goldest Karat Publishing, which seeks to fill the racial diversity gap in publishing.
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and full transcript below.
- The value of making mistakes along the way and learning as you go
- Writing a positioning statement for your book
- Writing a story with a message — but without preaching or lecturing
- How to find and work with illustrators for children’s picture books
- The importance of getting your contract right if you want to create merchandise and other products
- Using print-on-demand for children's books and which services are best
- Marketing children’s books in schools and online
- Encouraging diversity in characters, books and in the author community
You can find Crystal Swain-Bates at CrystalSwainBates.com and on Twitter @CSwainBates
Transcript of Interview with Crystal Swain-Bates
Joanna: Crystal Swain-Bates is the best-selling author of children's books, and the founder of Goldest Karat Publishing, which seeks to fill the racial diversity gap in publishing. Welcome, Crystal.
Crystal: Thank you. Thanks for having me here.
Joanna: I'm excited to talk to you today because I get so many questions about writing books for children, and I don't write books for children. And I'm like, ‘Well, I just have to get some best-selling children's authors on the show.'
Tell us a bit more about you, how you started writing, and why you started your own publishing company.
Crystal: I've actually been writing since I was in elementary school. And it's so funny for me to look back and know that as a kid, I just knew that I wanted to become an author when I grew up. But the thing is, as I got a little bit older, I started hearing that writing was not a viable source of income. And I believed it.
So, instead of going to school for English or creative writing, I actually turned to one of my other passions, which was all things related to foreign affairs. I went to school for international affairs, I got my master's degree in that. I ended up working as an analyst for the federal government.
I spent a few years living overseas. I loved it. I really did. But I still felt like something was missing. You know how you have your list, your to-do list of all the little things. I wanted to travel the world. I did that. I wanted to live overseas. I did that.
I learned French. And I worked a fabulous job, but I still wanted to pursue that childhood dream of publishing a book. And that literally is the reason I even thought about creating a publishing company, becoming an author, and that's what I did.
Joanna: A lot of people are like, ‘Oh, yes, writing a book is on my list.' But you started a publishing company. You're a businesswoman and you're savvy in that way.
But how did you take that further, from one book to lots of books?
How many books have you got now?
Crystal: That's a good question. I think 15. Yeah, I think 15.
Crystal: It's funny you asked that because when I started my publishing company, I had no idea what I was doing. But something about me is I like to set really, really big goals. And I actually do resolutions. I know some people don't do resolutions anymore, but I still do them.
Instead of me saying, ‘I want to try to write an e-book, or try to start a blog,' I said, ‘I'm going to publish not even just one book, but six books.' So, that was my resolution, was to start a publishing company, write, and publish six children's books. And this was for 2013. And I actually did it.
One of the things looking back that I can say is what I really learned is that you don't need all of the pieces. Sometimes we feel like we have to know how it's going to work, we have to know every step of the process. I didn't know what was going on.
I didn't know what I was doing, but I said, ‘I'm just going to learn along the way.' And I've made mistakes along the way, but the benefits of me publishing my books have far outweighed the mistakes that I've made. So, yeah, that's kind of how I started.
I'm really glad that I did this, simply because when I looked at the market I didn't see a lot of traditional publishing companies that were publishing books featuring Black characters. And that's why I started looking into self-publishing.
I just love the thought of having creative control over my books and the ability to publish the types of books I would have loved to have read as a kid.
And so starting that publishing company for me was my way to do that.
Joanna: I know so many listeners resonate with that. And I also set resolutions. I'm like you. And a lot of people listening, obviously, are self-publishing their book. But it's interesting because it is a challenge self-publishing children's books in particular. So, we're going to come into some of those challenges. Let's start with the writing.
Maybe you could talk about the age range that you write for and what are your tips for writing books for children that age?
Crystal: Something that I get a lot is when people find out that I'm a children's author, they always say, ‘Oh, I should write a children's book.' And I always kind of chuckle because I'm like, ‘It's not quite as easy as you may think.'
I think a lot of people think of writing a novel as something that would take them years to do, or so they think, they feel like writing a children's book will be something that maybe they can do in a day or a weekend. And there actually is quite a bit of nuance when it comes to writing for kids.
Something that I see a lot of people do is, number one, they start writing the book without knowing who the book is for, the age range, and that very much impacts the vocabulary that you use and the content that's in that book.
One of the things that I suggest is always starting by writing a positioning statement for your book.
Before you ever write a word, write a positioning statement for your book.
And I think of a positioning statement as the elevator pitch for your book, because it's just a concise way to identify who your book is for and what that transformation will be for the child after they read it.
As an example, for my book Big Hair, Don't Care I wrote that book because so many little girls at school were getting teased for having their hair just grow out of their head the way it naturally does, be it in an afro, or however their hair grows out. Kids were getting teased in school, and getting in trouble. And it was just crazy. So I wanted to write a book to help boost their self-esteem.
My positioning statement would have been something like, ‘I'm writing a children's book to help 4 to 7-year-old girls go from being self-conscious about their hair to feeling more confident in their appearance.' So, that's an example of what the positioning statement for that book would have been like.
I find that when you write that positioning statement, and you have a clear benefit, those stories tend to sell extremely well, because it helps people understand why they should buy the book in the first place. Everyone wants to know what's in it for them. And the positioning statement helps explain that.
That's one of the tips that I love to tell people when they're working on the book. And this actually works for any book. It doesn't even have to be a children's book.
Joanna: I was going to say we could all do with that. Most of us do just write a book and then try and come up with positioning afterwards. But I think with children's books, as you say, it's so important, because a 4 to 7-year-old is going to be very different to a 12 to 13-year-old.
How do you then turn that positioning statement or that ideal transformation into a story?
Crystal: I turned it into a story by figuring out the key elements that I want to cover. So, again, when I wrote this particular book I knew that, all right, kids are getting teased for this particular reason. And then I started thinking of, ‘How can I make it fun? How can I share this and help increase self-esteem, but in a way that's fun?'
I have big hair, so I said, ‘Let me put myself in some situation.' So I said, ‘Let me put the main character playing hide and go seek. Hide and seek, right? But her hair is so big that she can easily be found from her hiding place.' I thought that would be one fun way to kind of explain her hair being different and being bigger.
And I chose different elements like that, her being at the zoo, and her hair is blocking the view. Just fun things that are actually real life, but told in a way that actually makes it a positive thing instead of a negative thing. And so that's how I kind of weave that positioning statement into my book.
And then I always carry it over to my title, because I think it's very important for your title to be clear. And from that title Big Hair, Don't Care you already know what it's about. It's a girl who has big hair and she doesn't care. With the catchy title that rhymes, it makes people more intrigued and they want to learn more. So, that's how I do it.
What I will say is that something I see is that a lot of adults, when we try to write for children, we tend to write in a way that sounds a bit preachy. Do you know what I mean?
Joanna: Yes. ‘You must be proud of your hair, little girl.' (stern finger wagging!)
Crystal: Yes. Just like that. Anyone that's looking to write a children's book, I encourage you to be very careful to make sure that the way that you're sharing the story or the lesson, share it in a way that's in more of a light-hearted tone that kids will actually enjoy.
The point is not to be preachy. The point is to let the character uncover the solution. My ultimate tip is to let the kid solve the problem in the story. Don't have an adult swoop in with the solution. Don't have an adult come in and say as you just said, ‘You must love your hair.'
The child has to be the one that comes up with the solution. And so if you can do those things, you'll have a story that kids will actually want to read over and over again.
Joanna: And that's the point, isn't it? Because kids that age definitely want to read over and over again.
And what about rhyme? You mentioned the title, Big Hair, Don't Care. That rhymes.
What are your thoughts on rhyming within the book or for different types of books?
Crystal: I love writing and rhyme. For me, it's really fun, but I grew up writing a lot of poetry. And so writing a children's book that rhymes, I think of it as just a long poem. I personally prefer to write in rhyme.
Now, I will say that it does make my writing process so much longer. I've had books where every page was done except that very last page, and it's because I couldn't close it out with the perfect rhyme, with the perfect meter. And it just took me a lot more time than I expected.
But I really love to write in rhyme. And what I've heard from parents is that they enjoy it because they can read it, you know, in an interesting way. Kids love to hear it. And it also helps kids learn how to read. If they hear, you know, cat and rat they can hear it and it actually helps them with their comprehension.
So, I love to write in rhyme, but I don't think that writing in rhyme is for everyone, because if you're using false rhymes, those words that don't actually rhyme, they kind of sound similar, it throws things off.
And if you're unable to write using a good meter, if you can't tell that that one line was way too short for the next one, then it's not going to be a good thing for you to write in rhyme. So, I tell people, ‘Some people can write in rhyme and some can't. Don't force it. If you can't do it well, then just don't.' But for me, I love it. I think it's really fun.
Joanna: I have for a few years now been really into audiobooks and writing my books for audio. I write for adults. But when I moved to writing for audio, my writing improved, because, as you say, there's a meter, where even when it doesn't rhyme, there's a meter with the way language is spoken.
With audiobooks, it's similar to having kids. They're reading out loud at that age. They're not going to be necessarily reading in their heads. They're reading with their parent or whoever, friend, auntie. I'm an auntie. That playing with language I think is what you're doing there, right? It's fun for you and for the kid. There's no point in not being fun.
Joanna: This is another big challenge is the illustrator because, of course, most people listening are authors and you're a writer first.
What are your tips on finding an appropriate illustrator and working with an illustrator, because, of course, that's so important, especially for that age group?
Crystal: It really is. Once you've finished writing your story, finding an illustrator can be a difficult part of the process, because we just don't know where do you find an illustrator? How much did you pay them? How much creative control should they have? So, it is very hard.
But the illustrations are just as important as the text. So, it's really important to get this part of the process right.
What I suggest is that, number one, just take your time when looking for an illustrator. You don't want to try to rush this process, because your final result, you want it to be something that you're proud of. You can join online communities of authors, and you'll see a lot of people will say, ‘Oh, my goodness, I just published my book. And this is the illustrator I used. I love him. I love her.'
You can get referrals that way. You can search online freelancer sites to find illustrators, places like Upwork. But whatever you do, always have them do a paid test before you hire them.
So, before you hire them for the full project, just say, ‘I'm looking for an illustrator to illustrate my children's book, and I'd love to hire you for a test illustration.' And you tell them what you want them to draw.
That is going to be very important, because if they're unable to bring your vision to life, you want to know that sooner than later. You want to know that within that first couple of weeks before you've actually invested three months waiting for them to draw your illustrations, only to discover that it's not what you expected.
So, that's my most important tip is to search online, have someone do a paid test. And you might have to find three people to do a paid test. I don't look at it as losing money, I look at it as taking the proper steps to make sure that I find the best person to work with me.
And then finally, you want to provide as much detail as possible for the best results. Sometimes I think as authors, we will have a vision in our heads, and we just expect everyone to understand what that vision looks like. And that's not going to be the case.
You have your illustrators that come from all over the world. For example, I had someone that wanted a pitcher of iced tea. This is back when I used to help people actually publish their books. I went through the entire process for them. She wanted a pitcher of iced tea to be on the table. The illustrator drew iced tea, but the author wanted southern iced tea, which was in a specific type of pitcher. And a certain color. And so it's just these little tiny things that no one knows.
I once had someone that wanted a robot in her illustration. The illustrator drew a robot, which was square, which is what I think of when I think of a robot. And she was very upset, and she said, ‘The robot is square. He should be round.' Should he?
Joanna: Like that BB-8 or whatever from ‘Star Wars' who's round and people now think about robots as around.
Joanna: That's really interesting because we have these challenges with translation, when you can't even know what the words are, and also with audio performance, or narration, of our fiction, is a collaboration. And is it a collaboration with an illustrator, so, sometimes you'll be like, ‘Yes, your artistic vision is right,' you're suggesting we tell them this.
But having worked with a lot of professionals myself, I find that there is a line between controlling everything, which makes you a bad client and also adhering to your creative vision. And as you said, the more you say upfront, the more likely it is to match, or to at least come close. But to be honest, it never matches. Is that what happens with illustration too?
Crystal: You raise a good point. You don't want to share too much. You don't want to request too much. And it all depends on the actual content of your book and what's important.
For me, what's most important is that my characters look a specific way. I want them to be true and authentic to what I think of when I think of a Black child, from the way that their hair is styled, to, let's say, the actual skin color, the actual skin tone. Those are the things that I focus on.
I do that during the character design stage. After that, then I'll just say, ‘Okay. In this scene the character is in her room reading a book.' That's it. Or if I know I want that room to be girly, I'll say, ‘The room should be pink and girly.'
Then I let the illustrator do whatever they're going to do to make that room look like that, but I don't have any more detail that I provide outside of that.
So, again, for me, it's getting that character right. And once the character is good to go, then I'm fine. So, it's definitely a collaboration, and it's definitely a situation where if you know you have something very specific, you should be providing some sort of a reference image to begin with, because sometimes people just don't know what things look like or what you want them to look like. So, any references you can provide up front will be very helpful.
Joanna: I feel like in a way it's a bit like working with a book cover designer, because if you specify too much, it probably won't be what you wanted in the end.
Joanna: But then another important point would be the contract, because, of course, illustrations have a separate copyright to the words, and then the layout also, that can be related.
How do you deal with contracts?
Crystal: I personally only use work-for-hire contracts. The work-for-hire contract means that I own the copyrights to all of the illustrations. And I use work-for-hire contracts because when I do children's books, I don't just make my money from selling the book. I can then put that character on a t-shirt, and now I can sell it. And you can't do things like that if you don't actually own those illustrations.
I try to encourage people to do work-for-hire contracts. Not all illustrators do them. So, if that's something that you're looking for, then you want to mention that up front, ‘Hey, I'm looking for an illustrator to do a work-for-hire job.'
Sometimes they'll charge more. You might find an illustrator that says, ‘If you want work-for-hire, it's going to be double the price.' But it's worth it because now you get to own it.
So, those are the types of contracts that I suggest because, again, I love to be able to have that freedom to do whatever I want with the illustrations, and be able to really add an entire product line later on, which is one of the things that I've done.
Joanna: Absolutely right. And again, as a business person, that is so important. I always feel jealous, in a way, of children's authors because again, writing for adults, fantasy authors often have designed maps and icons, but most of the rest of us don't, so you don't really have artwork that you can use to turn into merchandise.
But with kids' books, you're exactly right. You can turn these characters into other things and kids love it and parents love it. And it gives you other products and streams of income from the same thing.
I wanted to move on to the challenges with publishing the books, because, again, one of the biggest challenges is the fact that these are full color. They often have a thicker paper because, of course, a four-year-old can rip stuff. They might have hard covers, for example.
What are the challenges of print on demand for children's books?
Crystal: Children's books are definitely much more expensive, because you're dealing with books where every single page is in color. Full saturation.
I do print-on-demand, and I like print-on-demand simply because it takes all the extra work out of it for me. I have explored looking into board books. And the thing is there are no print-on-demand board book companies. As you said, when you're writing for children and kids get my books, they love them.
Sometimes parents will send me a picture with the kid holding up the book, and I'm like, ‘Man, that book is beat down.' They really love this book. So I see the benefit of printing, doing maybe a run of maybe 2000 or 3000 board books, just to kind of see how I like it, but that's definitely something that you have to consider.
One of the things that I like to suggest is when you are publishing a children's book, I suggest actually going with print-on-demand at least initially. And I like that because that way, it gives you a chance to just see how well your book does.
Before you go printing off 5000 copies and having to store them in your garage or your closet, let's make sure that people actually like the book. Let's make sure kids actually like the book. Let's make sure there are no typos. Let's make sure there isn't some sort of hidden image or some sort of a racial bias that you never noticed, that's hidden deep inside of your book in one of the illustrations.
That's what I like about print-on-demand is it gives you a way to test the market before you invest in spending the money to actually bulk print your own books. And so that's what I've done.
My books are available in paperback, they're available as hardcover books, and some of them are available as e-books. And right now, I'm actually working on getting all of those as audiobooks as well.
Joanna: Are you narrating them?
Crystal: I don't think I have the voice for that.
Joanna: Really? I watched you with the kids in the schools on your videos, and it just makes me feel like your voice would be great.
Crystal: Oh, my goodness. It's funny because I've tried out different voices and tried to hire people, and I'm like, ‘I don't know. That voice just isn't quite it.' But I don't know. I think it would be funny just to have an author-narrated version of it, but I don't know. I don't know. And that would be something to test.
Joanna: I think you're great. And I think your voice fits your main characters. It really does. And you've got a young voice, too. This is another thing. I've done quite a lot of voice training now, and I've got a young voice too. There are those of us who can sound younger and enthusiastic and doing stuff for kids, but I think you should give it a go.
But I did want to come back on the print-on-demand. Who are you using for print-on-demand?
Crystal: For print-on-demand, I use Amazon KDP for paperbacks, and I use Ingram Spark for hardcovers.
Joanna: Fantastic. That's what we all use.
KDP Print does full color and decent quality print for the kids' books?
Crystal: Yes, they do. And the quality is actually very, very good for the children's books. When you're using IngramSpark to get that same quality, you would need to get the premium color. I actually really like it.
I love working with both of those companies, and I love knowing that I can use Ingram to get the distribution to bookstores and retailers, and that I can use Amazon to get to all of the people, the millions of people who shop on Amazon looking for books. For me, it's the best of both worlds.
Joanna: I want to talk about schools because, as I said, and I'm going to link to it in the show notes, there's videos of you reading to the kids and asking questions, and it's really awesome.
But obviously, still we're recording this, it's still a pandemic, and schools have been closed and things have been difficult. So, what is happening with your work with schools?
Are more authors doing stuff online now, or are you just waiting to go back physically into schools because of that age group?
Crystal: I'm definitely doing things virtually, which is very weird, I must admit. But, when in business, you have to know how to pivot. And that's exactly what I've had to do.
I recently did a book reading for a university-sponsored event. And I think I ended up reading to three or four different classes, or, when I say classes, age groups. So, like, five or six classes at a time. And so what I do is, number one, the university ordered a ton of books, so every student actually had the book with them.
Joanna: Wow, that's awesome.
Joanna: Nice gig!
Crystal: I said, ‘I need to do this more often.' It was great. Every kid had the book. I read from the book and I held the book up. But then one of the things that I did after that is I still wanted to have the interaction. I like to ask questions.
I might say, ‘Did you notice the XYZ in this page? What did you see here?' I'll ask questions, and then kids can come up to the computer and they can share. Because a lot of my books are about self-esteem, I'll say, ‘What's something that you love about yourself?' And the kids will come up, ‘I love the color of my eyes. I love my big toe,' or whatever. They'll come up and they're super excited.
So, I really feel like I've found a way to make it work. It's not the same as being in person, but it's been working out so far. I do miss the kids. I think it's important for them to actually see me in person. And I say that because growing up, I never saw a Black author.
I've met adults in person. And it's crazy because they see me and they're like, ‘Wait, did you write this? You're the author?' As grown adults, they get very emotional just to see me doing this. I love to meet a kid and see how they look at me.
I have a really cool video and I'm autographing this girl's book, and she's looking at me and she's looking at what I'm writing and she's looking back at me just in awe. And I know that I would have been that little girl had I had the chance to meet an author who looked like me, because, as I mentioned, I've always wanted to write.
There's just something about seeing someone else that looks like you doing something that you're interested in that makes you feel like you can do it too. So, I don't know if that comes across completely when I do the virtual readings, but I'm still happy to do them, because I'm able to reach more people in a lot of different places without having to be there in person.
Joanna: It broke my heart when I heard that as well, because I mentioned before my niece is mixed race, and I want her to see people like her everywhere. I want her to know that she can do whatever she wants.
For people listening, we've got people all over the world listening, people of all different races, and I think it's so encouraging to hear you say that, to just go out there and be, and write those characters into your books, as you've done. And it's just so important, I think.
Crystal: It really is. And it's one of the most fulfilling things about what I do. It's so crazy to me to think that, wow, I wanted to write books when I was a kid, and here I am doing it, and now I feel like I'm actually encouraging other aspiring authors to write as well. It's just an amazing experience for me.
Joanna: Back on that university event, the school event, how are you getting those? Are you pitching them? Do you send letters? Are you doing sort of mass mail outs? Are you connecting individually?
How are you marketing yourself?
Crystal: Good question. I don't do any of those things. I've recently gotten on with a PR company. That's been awesome for, like, getting booked, for speaking events and things like that.
When it comes to schools, universities reaching out, the way that I market is mainly with social proof. What I mean by that is, I have a lot of pictures that parents will send me or will tag me in online. And so it's something that I've added to the back of my books.
I added my Facebook and my Instagram. And I did that because when people love your book, they're happy to share it. I wanted to make it easy for them. They didn't have to search for me. Literally, the information is right there on the book.
That's worked out extremely well because what happens is when people start seeing other people with your book, it's like they develop FOMO, fear of missing out. They're like, ‘Wait a minute. She's saying that book was really good for her son. I have a son of that same age. I should get the book too.'
And what ends up happening is, it's a trickle-down effect because then other people see it, bookstores see it, they get interested. Universities see it, schools see it. And so that's kind of been the main way that I've actually been able to market myself.
What I would do is I would just repost these pictures on my Instagram page, or repost them on my Facebook page. And it might not sound like a lot, but it's better to have someone else commenting on how great your book is than for you to always be the one talking about how good it is. And so that's the power of social proof.
Joanna: A lot of people struggle with just starting that, but you started in 2013, right?
Has this just been slow and incremental growth?
Crystal: Yes, I would say that, but I've also been strategic. I started out all the way back in 2013, reaching out to influencers. If you look on YouTube, I have a ton of people that have read my books and they read them on YouTube or share their thoughts on my books.
YouTube videos live pretty much forever. They live so much longer than a tweet or a Facebook post, or even an Instagram post. Because people use YouTube as a search engine, I've created a marketing strategy that makes me very visible on YouTube. And that's another way that people find the books.
Video is everything. Video is very important these days. People love to watch video, and so that creates something that now I can send to a university or that I can put on my website and have people see, ‘Oh, wow. Okay. She's got a lot of people who love the books. Let me figure out how I can bring her in.' I get a lot of emails. I'm still getting emails from people who actually want me to fly in, which I'm not interested in doing right now.
Joanna: Maybe next year.
Crystal: Maybe next year. And then the final thing I'll say on that is I have just simply asked people. Whenever I meet someone that works at a school, I say, ‘Hey, I'm an author. I have these great books. Let me show them to you. I would love to come into your school.'
That's actually one of the easiest things to do, because a lot of people they're looking for people to come in for their programs. So, if they know that you're an author, and especially if you're a local author, and they don't have to pay for you to fly you in or anything like that, then it makes it very easy for them to recommend you to their principal.
One of the things that I used to do before the whole world fell apart is I would do these free parties at schools. So, I would say, ‘Hey, I'd love to come in to your after-school program and I'll do a free coloring party.' I would literally bring in my coloring books, because I also have coloring books as part of my roster. And I would bring the crayons and I would do a little Q&A.
In exchange for doing that, they had to let me set up a little table to sell my books. And I only did it on PTA nights, where the parents come in, or when they have school plays, and I know that most of the parents will be at the school. And that was how I made my money. Very easily, very quickly.
Getting into schools and quickly selling $500 worth of books in 20 minutes, and then just kind of going home, and the school didn't have to pay anything.
Joanna: I love that. I think so often authors for adults, we get obsessed with online marketing. But you've basically done a lot of in-person marketing, so either physically or with video. And I do think that suits a certain type of personality, though. And like I said, you're very good on video, and you're clearly really good with the kids and the parents and everything. And I'm looking at you going, ‘Oh, I could just never do that.'
Crystal: First of all, thank you. But I did not start being comfortable on video.
What's funny is that I'd just started going live maybe, I want to say, late 2019 was my first time going live. I was so scared. I'm not naturally a video person, and I tend to be very private as well, but I said, ‘I have to do this.'
The more I started doing it, the easier it felt for me, and now, I feel very, very comfortable with it. And so now I said, ‘All right. I need to literally take every one of my books and make a video on it, and put that video on YouTube.'
Especially for children's books, sometimes people just want to see what's in your book. What do the pages look like? I have a Facebook group of over 5000 aspiring authors. And one of the things I encourage them to do is to just do a video flip-through. You don't even have to be in it. So it's perfect for shy people.
Take your camera, hold it up or have someone else hold it up, and flip through the pages, because sometimes people just want to see. What does it look like on the inside? And that's enough for them to buy the book.
Joanna: Interesting. That's very encouraging that you weren't an actual video person because I've tried and obviously, we're doing this audio-only. I just don't want to do video anymore, but, yes, I think you're right. The Facebook group you mentioned, can you mention that, or is that a closed one?
Crystal: Oh, no, it's open. It's called Six Figure Self-Publishing Secrets.
Joanna: Sounds good.
Crystal: It's called that because I mentioned that when I was growing up and I was interested in writing I just never knew that you can actually make money from selling books. And so I want to kind of change that narrative.
Six Figure Self-Publishing Secrets. And it's on Facebook and it's open to anyone. And every day, people in the group post their wins. ‘I just published my book,' or, ‘I just finished writing my book. I'm looking for illustrators.' People give illustrator recommendations. It's just a really supportive online community.
Joanna: That's fantastic. You did mention you didn't think you could make money, and that your family also thought the same thing. This is your full-time career now, is it?
Crystal: This is my full-time job. I've always had support from my family. No matter what I told my mom, ‘All right. I'm going to quit this great government job to go and write some books and publish them.' Always, always supportive.
And actually, my mom is the reason I was able to get so many good reviews was because she completely bought into it. She loved the books. She knew that we needed them, and she literally just reached out to everyone she knew and told everybody that she knew about the books.
I think that's been a big part of why I've been able to start this out and grow slowly, but be comfortable, is because I do have a lot of support. And my family, they're such big supporters of me, and they absolutely are my biggest fans. My husband will tell someone that I'm an author when I never planned to tell them. We'll go to dinner and he's like, ‘You know my wife is…'
Joanna: To the server or something and to the waiter?
Crystal: Yeah. To the server. ‘My wife is a best-selling children's book author. You should find her book.' It's just hilarious.
Joanna: That's so sweet. We all need those cheerleaders, so that's fantastic.
You've talked a lot about encouraging diversity in children's books and in characters, and also with children's authors. I feel like we also need to encourage more diversity in the indie author community as a whole.
What are your thoughts on how we can encourage new writers of color?
I know it's a whole separate podcast topic!
Crystal: In brief, and I have so many thoughts on this, but, number one, I will say, just by actually doing a little bit of work to find your writers who are more diverse. We might not be quite as visible. You do have to look for us.
By finding us and kind of bringing us on, even with the schools I mentioned, I'd never even seen a Black author, but I'd seen white authors come in all the time. So, it's just being more intentional about making sure that kids are able to see writers who look like them in some sort of way, and know that it's a possibility for them as well. It starts there.
Then I'll also say, just as far as the bookstores are concerned, I have issues even with the bookstores, because I don't know how, if they do this in the UK, but having the separate sections in the bookstore, where at home, it's like, ‘Here's the African-American section.'
And it's this tiny little section where these are the few books written by Black authors, but everyone else's books get to go into a genre. These are historical fictions. These are comedies. These are thrillers. But we are limited to this tiny little section, and no one goes in that section. No one goes in that section unless it's Black History Month, and someone feels obligated to find a Black book for the month of February. So, it's things like that that I think are just set up in ways that make it more difficult for us to be discovered.
Joanna: I think you're absolutely right. We have actually now in the UK, since the Black Lives Matter marches last year, the Black Writers' Guild in the UK. You can actually go and there are lists of authors who write in different genres. And that's, I think, really important, too. As you say, it's being able to be intentional about that.
I do get questions quite regularly from people who say, ‘Can I use my real name on my cover?' And this might not be Black authors. This might be Indian authors or authors from all kinds of places. And, ‘Can I put characters of color on the front of my books?'
Crystal: Yes. On the cover.
Joanna: ‘Or will that put people off?' which is terrible that people even think that way.
I always say, ‘You must choose yourself, but I really think you should do what makes you happy, and please do put characters of color on your cover if that's what you want to do.' The name is different, though, I think, because I use different names. We all can use different names as publishers, but I still find it such a difficult question.
What are your thoughts?
Crystal: Yes. Oh, my goodness. I understand it. Honestly, I do understand. And that's what some of the publishers do. They do whitewash the book covers.
In my case, if you look at my book, I'm a Pretty Princess, there's a beautiful Black princess there. And so there's no denying, even though the book is not about her being Black, the book is for everyone. It's not even about her being Black, but she's Black and she's on the cover.
I know that for the most part, Black parents will buy that book, or white parents that have biracial or multiracial children. And I already know that.
So, it is true that your reader will be impacted by the color of the character on the cover. It's just that way, unfortunately. But, for me, I'm not concerned about that because I know that this is what people are looking for.
It might not be everyone that's looking for it, but if you have a child that looks similar to that character, or if you want to expose your child to characters that don't look like them, then this is the book for you. So, you just have to make a decision and be comfortable in that.
I know that for me, I would never choose to whitewash my cover for fear that people won't buy any of my books because they do have Black characters.
Joanna: Absolutely. That's fantastic. I've really enjoyed talking to you. So many great tips there for kids' books.
Where can people find you and your books and everything you do online?
Crystal: Everyone can find me. On social media, it's @CSwainBates. That's the same handle across all social media.
All of my books are on Amazon. My website is crystalswainbates.com. And again, if you're interested in joining my community on Facebook, it's called Six Figure Self-Publishing Secrets.
And if you're interested in any of my courses about publishing books, then you can find those at publishwithcrystal.com.
This has been so much fun. This is such an honor to even be here with you, talking books, chatting about children's books, and diversity. And so I really thank you and appreciate you for having me on.
Joanna: Oh, thanks so much for your time, Crystal. That was great.
Aparna Menon says
Thank you, Joanna! I really loved this episode with Crystal Swain-Bates! It was great to hear about the writing process, publication, and marketing of children’s books but also the discussion of diversity. Aside from the fact that I am an aspiring author and I really value these podcasts, I also happen to be pregnant and due in a few weeks. The baby is mixed race so I am always conscious of what books I am collecting for him! Thank you for raising this discussion 🙂
Jill Stahl Tyler says
Love this! Great, great information about how to think about children’s books and her unique marketing. Going to check out the FB group right now!
Carolyn Berry says
Love this interview! I would love to interview Crystal on the Adventures with Grammy Podcast.
Joanna Penn says
I’m sure she’d love to hear from you!
Rick Williams says
First, I love Joanna Penn’s audio/print bks and podcasts…as well as her voice and joie de vivre! She provides a treasure trove of insights for aspiring authors. Second, the Crystal Swain-Bates interview was extraordinary and timely. I’m on a journey of “writing with grandkids.” I wrote/traditionally published 2 American history bks and my oldest grandson, now 11, suddenly decided we should write an epic fantasy together. We started off w a family & friends model but, hopefully, are turning it into a commercial series. Finished w Bk 1 and moving into agent outreach phase. My grandson recruited his 9-yr-old brother to join us for Bk 2. I call it “herding kangaroos.” I have 5 other grandkids locally–including 3 adopted from China–and hope to write early chapter and picture bks with some of them. Crystal’s interview was informative and inspirational…and entertaining. I agree with Joanna that Crystal should do her own narration for audiobooks!!
Joanna Penn says
Thanks, Rick, I’m so glad you enjoy the show and found Crystal’s interview so useful. All the best with your books!
Rick Williams says
Joanna: You are doing a spectacular job. I’m sure it is extremely hard to remain at the top of your game…but always remember the many writers you are helping! BTW, I was a recent guest with Mary Kole from Good Story Company on a podcast about AI and writing. Mary is a preeminent expert on kidlit but also has a dynamic broad-based platform to help writers. She has your same charisma and would be a great person to interview, IMHO.
Joanna Penn says
Thanks for the suggestion, Rick! I appreciate your kind words.