On Being a Debut Middle Grade Author + 5-book giveaway!

Last year at this time, I was a few months away from releasing VANISHED, my first middle grade novel. If you know someone debuting with a book, or if you’ve been there yourself, you’ll know that those few months prior to publication is one of the most terrifying and emotionally charged periods of a writer’s life.

Today at the Mixed-Up Files, we’re going to take a quick inside-look at what it’s like to publish your first book NOW. I’ve invited four other debut MG authors to share their thoughts: Anna Staniszewski (MY VERY UNFAIRYTALE LIFE – SourceBooks), Tess Hilmo (WITH A NAME LIKE LOVE – FSG), Stephanie Burgis (KAT, INCORRIGIBLE and the upcoming RENEGADE MAGIC – Atheneum), and Caroline Starr Rose (MAY B. – Schwartz & Wade).

So please grab a cup of something warm, and join us at our “virtual roundtable.” At the end of our conversation, I hope you will join in by sharing where you are in the publication journey and a lesson you might have learned along the way. Even if you don’t have anything specific to add, do leave a comment, as one lucky commenter will get to win our 5-book MG debut author giveaway! More details on the books and the terms of the giveaway at the end of the post.

So what’s so different about being MG?

About a year before my book came out, I decided to become a moderator for The Elevensies, an online community of debut YA and MG authors. I had seen the positive impact of earlier debut communities, and I wanted to help shape the one for 2011, with a special interest in middle grade. But how? I knew just by talking to other debut authors, that a lot of them were getting their books reviewed by online book bloggers, who happened to be YA readers, too. But as an MG author, most of my targeted audience wasn’t online, and most of the book bloggers I knew about didn’t’ read much MG. So how would I reach my intended audience, and how would I market my book to them?

"There are a lot of YA-focused blogs out there," says Anna, but nearly as many MG ones."

“There are a lot of YA-focused blogs out there,” said Anna, “but not nearly as many MG ones. I’ve been lucky to have My Very UnFairy Tale Life reviewed by a few YA bloggers, mostly because the book was available through NetGalley. I’ve found that connecting with teachers and librarians has been very helpful. When it comes to finding books for their students, they are amazing supporters.”

Stephanie agreed. As someone who lives in the UK, she noted that, “the biggest challenge of promoting my MG book in the US has been that I can’t do in-person school visits.” On the other hand, she has found the Internet as a source for promoting her book in other ways. “What I have gradually come to understand,” she said, “is that the most influential people online, when it comes to MG novels, are actually adult librarians and teachers. The wonderful thing for MG authors is that there are so many smart, in-touch teachers and librarians online, looking for new books to share with kids – and they have the potential to be REALLY influential in bringing our books to the attention of our target audiences. I’ve been followed on twitter by entire 7th-grade classes!”

"The most influential people online," says Stephanie, "are actually adult librarians and teachers."

At the Elevensies, we ran BookFeast, a yearlong library giveaway, where both readers could enter via email to win books for themselves and their local libraries by putting up a poster of our books in their a prominent area of the library. These posters could downloaded, mailed or delivered in person. For me, delivering those posters in person gave me the perfect chance to meet face-to-face with a librarian to talk about my book, as well as my friends’. In most cases, librarians put in an order for my book after meeting me as a “local author,” and I got invited to talk at several book club events as a result.

Stephanie, who also participated in the giveaway, agreed that the posters were beneficial to having her book cover up in libraries across the country. “I’d recommend doing anything you can to bring your book to the attention of librarians. And going along with that – it helps so much to be part of groups of authors working together! I could never have arranged that giveaway from my home in Wales.”

Taking it a Step Further

All of us more or less agreed that for middle grade, our target audience isn’t just our readers, but the gatekeepers, too: librarians and educators. But were there other ways to reach them outside of social media and book contests?

Tess says that working with an outside publicist was the best decision she made.

Tess, who was a member of the Elevensies as well as Class2k11, decided to hire an outside publicist. “When it came to promotion and marketing,” she said, “it was the best decision I made.” She worked with Blue Slip Media on a specific, limited campaign. “I chose the parameters, we signed an agreement and they were off and running. They helped create a discussion guide and post cards. They contacted key bloggers and industry reviewers. They even got my launch party featured in Publishers Weekly! Could I have done these things on my own? Maybe…but having their help gave me direction and allowed me to relax once in a while!”

Caroline decided to harness the power of the US postal service. “For me, it was important to determine my audience early on,” she said. “May B. is a historical verse novel, meaning decidedly not main-stream and commercial. I was told from the start chain bookstores wouldn’t consider my book unless it won some awards.” Because she felt her book fit best with the school and library market, she began gathering mailing addresses for schools and libraries in her home state, New Mexico; in Kansas, where May B. takes place; and from schools across the nation that focus on learning disabilities (the protagonist in May B. is dyslexic). She also gathered addresses of roughly 800 plains state museums and historical societies.

Caroline mailed out 1,1662 handwritten postcards.

“Overall I mailed 1,662 handwritten postcards,” she said. “It was a lot of work, but it was worth it. I’ve gotten a handful of responses from librarians, teachers, those who work with dyslexic children, and even the person who heads up the Kansas Notable Book Awards.” Along with her mailings, Caroline also created a May B. Book Club Kit Giveaway, where librarians, schools, or book club leaders could enter to win ten copies of the book, a study guide, bookmarks, and a Skype visit with the book club. “I’ll ‘meet’ with my winning group, a library book club out of New Hampshire, next March,” she said.

The Future: e-books

Early on after my publisher made an offer on my novel, one of the items in the contract that my agent spent quite a bit of time negotiating were electronic rights. This was a few years ago, but even then, e-books were slowly on the rise, making their way to the surging presence they are today. I know that most of my readers are 8-12 year-olds, who are unlikely to read VANISHED on an e-reader. But I also know that this is changing, and that as authors, it’s important to be part of the direction of that change.

Caroline, who is reading Breadcrumbs as the first title on her e-reader, commented, “I read somewhere recently that authors should be evangelical about books but agnostic about the ways they’re read. Interesting idea! As someone who loves to hold, feel, smell, and write all over my books, I was initially turned off by the whole ebook thing. What I had to realize, for myself, at least, was that this was partially motivated by fear — fear of change and fear of my preference disappearing. Once I thought it through, I realized that ultimately stories will never go away, though the ways we share them probably will.”

I also was initially turned off by e-books, but now after owning an iPad, my own habits have changed, and I’m reading more titles electronically these days.

Anna, who also owns an e-reader said, “I still devour print books, but now I have access to even more titles. That means I can gorge myself! *Nom nom nom!* Ultimately, if e-books mean more people might become readers, I’m totally fine with them.”

In terms of sales, Stephanie still isn’t sure if e-books are making as much of an impact. “I have to say that my e-book sales figures are vanishingly small,” she said. “The hardcovers are just selling SO MUCH better than the e-books at this point! It’ll be interesting to see if that changes when KAT, INCORRIGIBLE comes out in paperback (in April)…but I’ve talked to other MG authors, and so far, anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that e-books aren’t really a significant sales source for MG fiction, at least not yet.”

Ultimately as middle grade writers, we will still concentrate on the story and less on the format. As Tess said, “I do not write books. I write stories. It doesn’t matter which format my readers choose….as long as they read. ”

Bottom Line

Being a middle grade author, debut or not, means not only finding ways to connect with your targeted audience, but with the gatekeepers who will help in choosing what they read. Twitter, Facebook, and other listservs like CCBC-Net are a great way to find and connect with librarians and educators. Focused mailings like the ones Caroline did is a personal way to reach out to special interest groups. And of course, just dropping in at your local libraries to introduce yourself can have a lasting impact. If you’re shy to go by yourself, team up with other local authors and go in together. You’ll find that many librarians are eager to meet real authors in person and continue a relationship after that first contact.


Before we conclude this post, I asked each author to share some tips or advice for authors about to debut. Here is what they had to say (starting with me, the practical one).

Me: Bookmarks. I think that word says it all. If you’re going to invest in any kind of self-promotional material, bookmarks are an inexpensive, handy way to pass on information about your book. They’re great for school visits, giveaways, book festivals, mailings, and launch parties. They’re also perfect to give to librarians, educators, and children alike.

Stephanie: By far, the best thing about publishing in this field is the readership. The emails I’ve gotten from 12- and 13-year-old Kat readers have been so wonderful, they’ve made every difficult moment worth it. The sheer enthusiasm of this age group – their willingness to be totally open to the books they read, with a real sense of wonder – is priceless and so inspirational. Best of all, the in-person events I’ve been able to do in the UK have been AMAZING, stimulating in every way. I was really nervous before my first event – but as I came back home afterwards, I was practically flying, thinking: “I want to write for this age group FOREVER!” I couldn’t wait to get home and start writing again. I was full of ideas and inspiration. So my biggest tip is: say yes to any opportunity to interact with the kids who are reading your book. It will pay off in so many ways, none of them having anything to do with finances. Those moments of reader contact have made me a better writer AND given me true joy.

Tess: The best advice I could offer is to get organized! You will be asked to do interviews, but each person will want a new and fresh angle to showcase you by. Think ahead, consider various aspects of your journey and of your novel and then write short blog posts and interview answers on those topics. This way, when you get three interview or guest blog post requests in one day, you will have some material to pull from. I offered something slightly different to each interviewer….I spoke about the music in the novel, about the inspiration, about where I liked to write in my home, about the themes of the novel, about how I did my research, about my favorite library memories growing up….and I offered pictures when I could. Having these thoughts sorted out ahead of time, and having any pictures or links associated with them organized will help you immensely.

Caroline: Know your market. Know your story. Believe in what you have to say. As all-consuming as marketing can feel, remember that those regular, everyday-magical recommendations one reader makes to another is what gives a book life (and readers!).

Anna: I was warned that debuting would be stressful, but I had no idea just how much it would take over my life. I gave myself a couple months to do intense promotion, but then I made myself take a break. If I hadn’t done that, I suspect my head would have exploded. So this is my advice: do what you can to get your book out there so you won’t have any regrets, but make sure to take care of yourself and remember that your health and sanity are more important than sales numbers and book reviews. And most importantly: try to enjoy yourself!

A huge thank you to Anna, Stephanie, Caroline, and Tess for stopping by and sharing their experiences with us. As an added bonus, each of them have graciously offered their latest book as a part of our 5-book giveaway. One lucky commenter will win ALL of the following titles:

Contest runs until Saturday Feb 25, midnight EST. Winner will be announced shortly after.

About the featured authors:

Anna Staniszewski. Born in Poland and raised in the United States, Anna Staniszewski grew up loving stories in both Polish and English. She was named the 2006-2007 Writer-in-Residence at the Boston Public Library and a winner of the 2009 PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award. Currently, Anna lives outside of Boston with her husband and their adopted black Labrador, Emma. When she’s not writing, Anna spends her time teaching, reading, and challenging unicorns to games of hopscotch. Her first novel, My Very UnFairy Tale Life, was released by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky on November 1, 2011. The sequel, My Way Too Fairy Tale Life, is scheduled for Spring 2013. You can visit her at www.annastan.com.

Tess Hilmo sang classics like Amazing Grace and This Little Light of Mine growing up in the suburbs of California. Her debut novel, With a Name Like Love, is a tribute to that soulful music. Visit her at www.tesshilmo.com.

Stephanie Burgis grew up in East Lansing, Michigan, but now lives in a small town in Wales, surrounded by castles. Her trilogy of Regency-era fantasy adventures started with KAT, INCORRIGIBLE (Atheneum Books), which was chosen by VOYA for their list of Top Shelf Fiction for Middle School Readers 2011. Her second book, RENEGADE MAGIC, will be published April 3, 2012. You can read the first three chapters of both books on her website: www.stephanieburgis.com.

Caroline Starr Rose spent her childhood in the deserts of Saudi Arabia and New Mexico, camping at the Red Sea in one and eating red chile in the other. As a girl she danced ballet, raced through books by Laura Ingalls, and put on magic shows in a homemade cape. She graduated from the University of New Mexico and went on to teach both social studies and English in New Mexico, Florida, Virginia, and Louisiana. In her classroom, she worked to instill in her students a passion for books, the freedom to experiment with words, and a curiosity about the past. Visit her at www.carolinestarrrose.com.

Sheela Chari is the author of VANISHED (Disney Hyperion), a 2012 Edgars Nominee and a 2012 APALA Children’s Literature Honor book. She has been with The Mixed-Up Files since its inception in 2010.