How can you create a book series that children love — and that you can expand into multiple streams of income? How can you offer a fantastic experience to schools — and get paid well for your time? Tonya Duncan Ellis gives her tips.
Plus, lots happening with Amazon. I would rather see my books get pirated than this (Or why Goodreads and Amazon are becoming dumpster fires) by Jane Friedman; Blockchain for provenance and copyright with Roanie Levy; “Every single one” of Amazon’s businesses has “multiple generative AI initiatives going right now.” [The Verge]; Amazon AI tool coming for writing product descriptions [The Information]; FTC antitrust lawsuit [Politico]; Amazon is “eliminating dozens of its private label brands” which may help “placate antitrust regulators” [Wall St Journal]; “Amazon will be disrupted,” says Jeff Bezos (in 2013) [Insider].
This podcast is sponsored by Kobo Writing Life, which helps authors self-publish and reach readers in global markets through the Kobo eco-system. You can also subscribe to the Kobo Writing Life podcast for interviews with successful indie authors.
Tonya Duncan Ellis is the award-winning author of the Sophie Washington chapter book series and activity books, as well as a professional speaker.
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript is below.
- Beginning your career as a self-published author
- Tips for working with an illustrator
- Deciding what to write about throughout a chapter book series
- Creating additional products from your intellectual property
- Earning an income from professional school visits
- How to market and prepare for school visits
- Networking and co-promoting with other authors
Transcript of Interview with Tonya Duncan Ellis
Joanna: Tonya Duncan Ellis is the award-winning author of the Sophie Washington chapter book series and activity books, as well as a professional speaker. So welcome, Tonya.
Tonya: Thank you, Joanna, for having me. I’m so excited to be here.
Joanna: We’re talking about books for children, which is a really popular topic. But first up—
Tell us a bit more about you and how you got into writing and publishing.
Tonya: Well, I’m a Houston Texas-based children’s author.
I started writing from a very young age. When I was 10 years old, I won a writing competition at my school, and my teachers encouraged me to continue with writing. Back then I had never met an author or thought that that was within the realm of possibility for me to become an actual author.
I did pursue journalism. I learned about writing for newspapers because I thought that would be a great way to make an income and get a job in writing. So after college, I worked as a journalist for a while.
Then I worked in corporate America in business for a while in marketing departments. When I got married, I had three children and I was home with them, but I was able to do freelance writing for some magazines in my community, which I did for about 10 years.
During that time, I would read a lot with my children, and I had always wanted to write a book. It was kind of like a bucket list item I wanted to do.
And I said, you know, I could write a children’s book that might be interesting for my kids because living here in Houston, we have alligators in our neighborhood, you’ll see wild boar running around, there’s all kinds of interesting things going on. I said that this would be a fun story that I could write just for my children, kind of a fun thing to do.
So I wrote the first book in my series, Sophie Washington: Queen of the Bee, and I shared it with the librarian at my children’s school. And she told me, you know, you really have something here because it has an African American family going through just normal life experiences, not traumatic experiences, which are things you typically see when you have an African American protagonist in a lot of the children’s books that are out. So she said, this kind of fills a niche.
She supported me and promoted me with having my first school visit. Then I started doing some community events with the book, and writing other books, and they’ve just grown.
Now I have 13 books in the series, and I’ve sold over 150,000 books.
Joanna: That is amazing. We’re going to come back on a lot of those different things. But I want to ask, first of all, about the series because you said you wrote the first book, and the librarian was encouraging, and now you’ve got 13. I feel like this is something that is important for success, is that one book is just not enough. But when you wrote that first book, did you decide you wanted to write a series? Or—
How did you decide to go into this whole series idea?
Tonya: I did conceive of it as a series because my children loved reading chapter book series.
And so when I came up with the idea for the first book, I said, I’ll have a little girl from Houston. Houston is the fourth largest city in the United States and very diverse, so I wanted to show the diversity in the series.
So I came up with an idea of having a series, and my idea was maybe to have five to ten books, and it just kept growing. So I did think about it as a series when I was conceiving the first book.
Joanna: And did you ever think about pitching traditional publishing with those books? Or—
Did you always want to self-publish?
Tonya: At the beginning, I just thought about self-publishing. I didn’t know much about the process of pitching to traditional publishing companies, and I really didn’t even imagine it growing as much as it did. It was kind of like a fun thing I wanted to do for myself. I’d always just wanted to write a book. So I didn’t even think about approaching traditional publishers with these books initially.
Now, one of my books, book eight in the series, Sophie Washington: Code One, is about the children in a computer coding competition, and Scholastic actually bought rights to that book for a STEM program in 2021. So they did approach me with that.
When I started, I was thinking of myself as an indie author. And really, I started out with a hybrid company, and I see now they were on ALLi’s watchdog list as a company to watch out for, but I didn’t know that at the beginning.
I didn’t know anything about ALLi or anything. And so when I started with them, as I started growing, I realized I need to learn all the elements of being an indie author of my own.
That’s kind of how I found information from you, Joanna Penn, all of your educational materials on self-publishing. I ran across those, and I read all your books, looked at your marketing materials, and learned so much that helped me grow my series.
Joanna: Oh, well, I’m so glad to help.
And just so people know, you mentioned ALLi, that’s the Alliance of Independent Authors.
They have a watchdog list, which has companies to watch out for, so I’ll link to that in the show notes.
It’s interesting because so many people start with those type of companies because I guess you’re on Google, and they’re the ones who are advertising usually. So I feel that’s how people get there. We’re not going to mention any names, but—
How did you go from working with one of those author services companies to deciding to do it yourself?
Was it the money, or was it that you just got a feeling that you wanted to do it yourself?
Tonya: It was the money.
As my series started taking off, they weren’t paying me all my royalty checks. I was getting frustrated. And also, when I started learning things from your materials, I wanted to do more with my own marketing on Amazon and doing different things. I wanted to make my first book perma-free.
I couldn’t do those because they were listed as the publisher, and then I’d have to pay them every time I wanted to do anything.
So I realized I wanted my series to grow, and I couldn’t continue with that. Then they started keeping some of my royalties. I said, no, we’ve got to put a stop to this. So that’s when I took over the reins and learned how to do everything myself.
Joanna: So how did you resolve that situation? Because again, people email me all the time and say, I did this thing with this company, and now I don’t know what to do about it. How did you get those books out of that situation?
Tonya: I had to have them write a letter. I just requested that they write a letter turning the rights back over. In my initial contract, it stated that they didn’t have the rights to my intellectual property. So they wrote the letter, and then I took over from there.
Joanna: Oh, that’s quite good then. So that’s good that you checked that original contract and made sure everything was good.
So you get all those back and control everything. Just going back to when you’re creating these books in the first place, one of the hard things about books for children is illustration, and you’ve got lovely illustrations. So how did you find that process?
How did you find your illustrator? And what are your tips?
Tonya: So for me, my books are paperback illustrated chapter books with black and white illustrations, about 20 inside each book, and then they have the color cover.
Initially, I had a local artist in my area cover the first book, and she had never illustrated a children’s book. The book cover was nice, but it wasn’t exactly what I wanted.
Then for the second book, I used another illustrator who was an art teacher at my children’s school, and I ran into the same issue because she had not illustrated a book that had been published.
So when it came time for the third book, when I was finishing it up I did go back to her, and she was busy with some other projects. So some friends of mine had a comic book series, and they had used my current illustrator for that, and I loved the images. He actually lives in India, so I said, well, let me see what he does with a third book, and I loved it. So I had him re-cover my two first two books in this series, and I’ve worked with him ever since.
I don’t think that my relationship with him is typical from what I’ve heard from other authors. But what I do, is it’s kind of like a pay-for-hire situation, so I have the rights to all the images.
With each book, I will send him a detailed list of what I want, how I want them to look, and I’ll send them clip art as well. It’s been a great relationship.
His company was called Massive Brain, and I feel like he can read my mind or something because everything that I want, he pretty much produces very quickly. The only problems, because he’s in India, I had a wild boar in one of my books, and he put pigs. Like he might send back something with like foreign pigs, which look different, but then I’ll send him the images. So that’s how we’ve worked together through the years, and it’s been a great relationship.
Joanna: That is good. So you’re very clear on what you want, whereas I feel like some illustrators, it’s more of a collaboration where the author might not be so clear. It sounds like you’ve communicated very clearly what you wanted.
Tonya: Right. Sometimes, like, for example, with the most recent book in my series, it’s called Treasure Beach, I had given him parameters for the cover, but one of the other images he made looked so good, I said, let’s make that the cover.
I do tell him exactly what I want. I tell him that they’re in the classroom, they’re in a private school, so they wear a uniform. So I tell him specifically what I want on most of the images.
Joanna: And then the stories themselves, how do you decide on the topics? So you’ve mentioned, I think, the spelling bee and the computer coding and the treasure hunt, I guess that you did there.
How do you decide what stories you want each book to be?
Tonya: Well, they are about an 11-year-old girl from Houston and her diverse group of friends. So they’re in upper elementary school, they’re tween.
They deal with tween issues, like standing up to bullies, being true to themselves, making friends, playing with video games. So when I conceived the series, I came up with a list of ideas of topics that I wanted the character to do.
In one, she plays tennis. So I kind of had a list of five or six ideas that I wanted to cover. Each book teaches a lesson for the children. They’re fun stories. She has a problem in each one, and then she solves them by the end. So I just kind of had a list when I started the series of five or six topics I wanted to cover.
Also, I’m a mom of three, and some of them are inspired by things that my kids do. For example, The Snitch is the second book and they’re encountering a bully.
And my daughter had experienced being bullied at school, she and her friends, and they were afraid of being called a snitch more so than reporting this person that was bullying them. So I said that would be interesting.
Some of it is inspired from my kids, and I have been around children a lot as a mother, so I see a lot of different things that they’re doing. That’s inspired a lot of the topics in my books.
Joanna: That’s interesting. Then coming on to the production process—
How are you actually producing the print books?
Tonya: So I publish them print-on-demand through Amazon and Ingram Spark.
With Ingram, I’m able to get them in bookstores and order copies for school visits or different events. Most of my sales come through print, whereas I know that many indie authors get more sales with eBooks. I do have my books in eBook format, and three of my books are in audiobook format as well, the first three of the series.
Joanna: That’s great. And I think, obviously, I’ve had other children’s authors on, and there’s a big difference between what you’re doing, which is the black and white chapter books that are easier to do with print-on-demand, and the sort of full-color books that are aimed at the slightly younger kids.
I think what you’re doing is the easier option in terms of printing. Because you do school visits, right? And then you can just order boxes from Ingram to take to schools.
Tonya: Exactly. Yes, that’s what I do.
Joanna: You also have a lot of extras on your website. Your website is very professional. I absolutely urge people to go and have a look. It’s fantastic. You’ve got these coloring pages, worksheets, you’ve got these activity books.
Why did you create all of these things, and any tips on those?
Tonya: Well, that idea came from you, again.
Joanna: Oh, yay!
Tonya: Being a great publisher and utilizing all your resources. So after I had invested in my illustrations, since they’re black and white, I said I could use these for coloring pages.
So I produced the coloring books myself on Microsoft Word. I just took all the images I had and made coloring pages, and I had my illustrator make a cover for that.
Then even with the activity book, online there’s different websites where you can make seek-and-finds and crossword puzzles and things like that. So I have those, and writing prompts and different activities that I created for the kids, just to add many add-ons and make it fun and immersive for the readers.
I wanted to just do as much as I could to utilize the things that I have. I also have animated book trailers on my website for all of the books, and book discussion questions, so they can talk about the books.
Joanna: Let’s come back to these trailers. But just staying on the product, so in terms of your sales because the activity books are paid products, and then the coloring pages and the worksheets are kind of free downloads.
Do the activity books actually make money? Are they a percentage of your sales now?
Tonya: They’re not a huge percentage, and I don’t market those as heavily as I have the books.
But in particular, I came out with the activity book at the beginning of the pandemic and it was a way to keep the fans engaged, especially with kids at home. I saw more of an uptick of sales on those at that time.
They’re not a huge percentage, I’d say they’re like a 1%, if that, of the total sales. I haven’t done as much marketing with those. Also, at one point, I even had Sophie Washington birthday, napkins and plates, because a couple of the fans had some parties. So I produced those as well.
Joanna: It’s difficult, isn’t it, because you feel like well, some of these things are worth doing and some of them are worth trying, and then others don’t work.
Have you taken the activity books into schools, as well? Or do you just take the main books?
Tonya: I take the main books. Now, I was doing a lot of live events, and even like farmers markets and different things like that, and I did sell a lot of the activity books, in particular.
I do have coloring books that are 100 pages of coloring sheets, even though I offer one or two free on my website. So those could be sold to younger siblings who weren’t able to read the chapter books.
So when I bring those to live events, I do find them selling, and because I produce those completely myself, I didn’t pay much for the cover, you know, the outlay to produce those was very minimal. So I do make a pretty good profit on them when I sell those. And talking to you, maybe I do need to promote those more because they’re cheaper to produce.
Joanna: Than the books. Yes, cheaper to produce, but you can actually price them sometimes higher.
Tonya: Right. Right, exactly. So now talking to you, I may need to start pushing those more.
Joanna: This is what we have to think is how could—I mean, because I do work books, obviously for my nonfiction books—and again, they don’t have as much content in them. They have no content, they have lines in and questions, but people pay for those because they want to do things themselves.
So it’s kind of a different product. I feel like we forget these, and I love it that you’re doing it with fiction. I mean, you know, your stories are fiction.
Let’s come back on the school visits. So on your website, you have, again, a really professional school visit page with professional speaking rates and a brochure, which is fantastic.
I’ve spoken to a lot of children’s authors, and they are pretty reticent to charge money, or they feel, I don’t know, they feel funny about it.
How did you go about school visits in such a professional way?
Did you always do it like that? Or have you kind of started charging over time?
Tonya: Well, when I first started out, I did free visits. And this is maybe in 2018, I did do some free visits in some schools in my area.
But I have a very professional presentation where I talk about my author journey, I teach children about writing, and even I have my presentations geared to helping them meet standards for certain tests that they have to take here in the US.
I’m teaching them different things, and I even do writing workshops. I feel like this is a needed service for the children.
I need to be paid for what I’m doing. So I started charging maybe after doing four or five visits. I’m also a member of a Facebook group called Create Engaging School Visits. So it’s a forum where authors talk about how we need to value ourselves as creatives in our work, and not to sell ourselves short out here.
I don’t feel funny about it at all because I’ve actually seen children inspired to write. One young girl who I met during a school visit, she wanted to write and her mother reached out to me, and I got her connected with a writing competition. She won $400, and now she’s out going to different events, promoting her book, and doing different things.
These author visits can play a huge role in encouraging literacy with the children and inspiring them.
Joanna: Yeah, I’m totally with you.
I mean, obviously, you prepare. Like you said, you have a professional presentation. And again, even just the look of your website, I think can make people feel it has that value.
I’m not saying that people who do things for free aren’t offering something of value, it’s just that we’re creatives, as you say, and we need to value our own time and getting paid for these things.
You’re actually doing a lesson, and your books might not get bought by the school, so getting paid for the visit is important. You’ve got this brochure, so—
How do you market to schools?
Tonya: I send the brochures out to schools. I email them and send the brochure out.
Prior to the pandemic, I was doing almost weekly events, and I was meeting lots of school teachers and librarians, and talking to them about the series. So that was a great way for me to connect with them and book school visits. But recently, I’ve started with those brochures and sending out emails directly to the librarians.
Joanna: Are you still just focusing on Houston, or are you doing online stuff elsewhere?
Tonya: I’ve done virtual school visits. Houston is such a large community that I can stay pretty busy in my own area. I also got a booking agent who’s in Austin, Texas, to try to get booked in some other areas outside my city, you know. So I tried to do that as well. And I’m virtual, so I am open. I can do virtual school visits anywhere.
Joanna: Yes. Well, that’s what I thought, and also internationally. You know, I was talking to someone the other day, and I was like, have you thought about doing things to the UK? Because it’s so funny, a lot of Americans say to me, ‘oh, I love your accent.’
And I’m like, yeah, because it’s different to your accent. I hear your accent, and I think well, people will love your accent too. And when you speak to a different country, it’s almost like you’re almost naturally more interesting.
Tonya: Right. Exactly. That is true. It just seems more highbrow when I hear that English accent.
Joanna: I think that’s quite funny. Okay, so just coming back to the schools. So you charge for the visit, which is fantastic, but—
How do you incorporate book sales into school visits?
Tonya: I simply hand an order form to the librarian.
So once we discussed booking me to come in, I send ahead the order form, so if the children want their book autographed beforehand, I can have some of those ready. I bring extra as well, because inevitably, teachers and some of the other staff may want to purchase books as well.
I ask them also for the group sizes.
We talk about this space I’ll be in, sometimes I might need a microphone. I always ask for help from an audio-visual tech person because, inevitably, there’s going to be some kind of little snafu, and I’m not the best at setting up all the tech. I make sure to get there at least a half an hour early to get everything set up properly.
Joanna: I mean, I do professional speaking, and all of that is exactly the same. I mean, it’s a professional speaking event.
Any awful mistakes, or lessons learned, or things that you would like to tell to people who want to do this type of thing?
Tonya: Things have gone pretty well for me most of the time.
I would say be prepared with your presentation. I remember one virtual presentation I had, for some reason, I could not see the slides I had.
Fortunately, I had printed them out, and this was virtual during the pandemic—no, I hadn’t printed them out, but I knew my presentation well enough that I could just talk through and handle everything.
I try to be prepared in case something goes wrong with your PowerPoint, or whatever, to make it engaging, especially with the children. So if something goes wrong, and you can’t use slides, if that was what you had intended, you have something to engage the kids in some kind of activity for them.
Joanna: Yeah, I mean, that is a difficult audience. I haven’t done things for kids, and I don’t have kids, so that would actually terrify me.
Tonya: It’s funny because for me, I’m more comfortable talking with children than with adults. I did a talk for The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators in New York earlier this year, and it went great, but I had way more anxiety with that than I have when I’m preparing to speak with the children.
Joanna: Maybe it’s a different fear when it’s with peers or people who were in the publishing industry.
It’s a very different form of judgment than kids who might judge you by just thinking you’re boring, or I don’t know what else kids think.
Tonya: Exactly. And I did want to state again, when you talked about some authors may feel bad about charging, in the beginning, I started to feel resentment after a few times doing it free when someone asked me to do something free.
I said, you know, my work is valuable. I encourage all authors, if you’ve prepared and you’re confident in your presentation, you’ve got valuable information to share.
You’re providing a service, so you shouldn’t sell yourself short.
Joanna: Yeah, I think that resentment is a very good indicator.
I remember when I started out self-publishing and talking about things back in almost like 2008/2009, and I did a bit of consulting back then, and I started really low, like 99 US dollars for an hour.
I remember feeling quite quickly, I’m being too cheap, I’m too cheap, I’m getting too many bookings, and I’m resenting the time. So I put it up until I felt more comfortable, and then I just stopped doing it all together.
Did you ratchet up your fees over time until you felt like it was about what you were happy with?
Tonya: Well, after I joined that Create Engaging School Visits website, some of the other authors shared what they charge, so that gave me a feel.
There’s also an author named Kim Norman, who has a book about school visits that’s a great resource. Her name is Kim Norman, she has a book about doing school visits, and she makes over like six figures year doing school visits. So she gives all kinds of great information in that book. So that was helpful to me.
Joanna: Right, so that book is called Sell Books and get PAID doing Author School Visits, which is a fantastic book title, by Kim Norman. So that’s great.
I do think that’s important because it’s all about multiple streams of income, and that’s what you’re doing. You’ve got the books, but you’ve also got the school visits.
Let’s come back to marketing because many authors—children’s authors, well, everyone—struggles with marketing. But you were in corporate marketing, you mentioned earlier—
What have been the most effective forms of marketing for your books?
Tonya: I feel like the best thing for me was starting out locally.
And because I’m in a large market here in Houston, I did a lot of events and got a groundswell of support from librarians and teachers in my community.
Then they started sharing my work on Twitter and Instagram, so anytime I would do events, I would take pictures of the children with my book and get permission from their parents.
I was posting those on social media, and that helped get the word out about my book all around the world. That was a big thing that helped me in the beginning.
Another thing was getting lots of reviews, positive reviews for my books.
I made the first in the series perma-free and got a lot of bookings, and with it being free, I think a lot of teachers started reading it. That made them give my series to chance as an indie series, I think that got it some exposure.
So those are things, and I now also I have an email list. So I’ve been working on being consistent with that, and I think that helps, especially with school visits because people are seeing what I’m doing and I’m continuing to connect with them. I’ll even put things about school visits I’ve done, and I’ve seen then I get some other bookings when I’m showing those in my email.
Joanna: Well, the email list is interesting because, of course, your email list is not full of 11 year old children.
Who are the people on your email list?
Tonya: Most of them are educators and parents or grandparents that are on my list.
Another thing, I had something called My Sophie’s Club Ambassadors. So I invited them to be ambassadors for my brand and gave them Sophie Washington t-shirts and other little swag and perks.
They had to, as a condition of being an ambassador, post a photo of them with their favorite book and shirt, which helped market my books. Then the parents like seeing their children encouraged to read and seeing them promoted, because I do a lot to highlight children who are doing well and encouraging them with reading and literacy. So the parents like that as well.
Joanna: That’s fantastic.
So you mentioned before the animated book trailers, and I did have a look at one of them on your site. They look great, but I have done book trailers myself, and I have found them to be expensive and not very useful.
How useful have you found your book trailers?
Tonya: They haven’t done that much.
My illustrator isn’t too expensive. So that was something that enabled me to continue with them. So they don’t bring that much money, or there’s no way for me to even really measure that.
With the launches, I would have the trailer, so I just continued with it because it wasn’t that costly. My illustrator took some of the images we already had, and kind of incorporated them. I write the scripts and give him the music to use. So it wasn’t that costly for me. If it had been, I wouldn’t have made them.
Joanna: I think that’s a really important point for people, is some of these things that are more expensive aren’t worth doing.
Whereas the things that were kind of free financially, like you said about local marketing, although they take time, they can actually be more effective. So what about things like advertising? Are you doing any paid advertising on Amazon or anything?
Tonya: I do Amazon ads. I just went wide with my books about four months ago because I had a company looking at buying my series, and I needed to get them wide. I had been on Kindle Unlimited, and I do Amazon ads. Those help with sales. I’ve also done ads through BookBub.
I’ve had BookBub Feature Deals, which has been helpful. Occasionally, I’ll do Fussy Librarian or Bargain Booksy and different things like that, ads for my eBooks.
Joanna: What about networking and co-promoting with other children’s authors?
Tonya: That’s been fantastic for me because I’m very active on Instagram.
And during the pandemic, I was part of a community called Own Voices Book Challenge, and it was a group of other children’s authors. So we started building community, networking, promoting each other’s books.
I also have on Instagram, an Instagram Live show called ‘Write This’ where I interview different authors in the industry. I started it when I was selected to be in a group sponsored by the Highlights Foundation, because it was through Zoom, it was a group of other authors, and I wanted to get to know them, and it was difficult on Zoom.
I said, well, I could do an interview, then I can start talking to people and getting to know them. That’s been a fabulous way of me building connections in my industry with other authors who promote me, I promote them, they may tell me about different opportunities. So networking has really played a huge role in my growth as well.
Joanna: I’m interested in the technical side. Obviously, we’re doing this on Zoom. I’ve never done an interview on Instagram.
What do you use to do an interview on Instagram?
Tonya: It’s really simple. You just go live on Instagram. So on your page, there’s a button to push live.
Joanna: Just on your phone?
Tonya: Yeah, on your phone. It’s through the phone, not your computer. Then they join me.
People do have anxiety when I’ve asked them to interview if they’ve never done it, but it’s very simple. So I just click a button and it sends them an invitation, they click it, and they’re on the screen with me, and then I interviewed them for maybe half an hour. Then I also upload the interviews onto my YouTube channel.
Joanna: Ah, okay, that’s interesting. So you actually invite someone. You go live on Instagram, and then you can invite someone into the show, basically.
Tonya: Exactly. Then we’re live on the interview, and then afterwards, I can save that interview.
Joanna: There we go. I haven’t done one on Instagram.
To be fair, like I record all of these and we’re not live so I can edit it, and I feel a lot more comfortable. There’s no problem about any of that. I’m just not very confident with live video, so it’s interesting that you’re really comfortable with it.
Were you always comfortable [with live video] or is that something you’ve learned?
Tonya: I’ve learned because I was nervous.
I remember when I would first go live, I would get everything perfect and do all this. I remember, actually my daughter who’s a young adult, when I did my first live I did all this and then it didn’t save. And my daughter was like, all you do is push a button. You know, I’m like, I’m so stressed, and it didn’t even save.
I’ve gotten more comfortable. I’ve done maybe 30 interviews on there, and I’ve interviewed some top people in the children’s book world. So I’m very happy with the interviews.
On one interview, one of my friends had a nosebleed while we were talking during the interview. So we were like, “ah!” but she covered it, and we just kept going. So different things do happen when you’re live.
Joanna: Probably people love that. They’re like, oh, that’s just totally normal, right?
Tonya: Yeah. So it’s been fun. I’ve enjoyed it because it’s enabled me, and I’m sure you see this too, just to meet so many different people in the industry. So it’s been a lot of fun, and I learn a lot from what they’re doing.
Joanna: Absolutely. This podcast has brought me a lot of friends and contacts over the years. So yes, I think networking with other authors is so important.
There’s so many things I want to ask you, actually, but let’s get to the business side.
I feel like children’s books have to have more investment because of the illustration usually, and because the number of books sold is usually smaller. Although, you’ve sold 150,000 books, so you’re doing super well.
When did this become a proper business for you?
When were you like, okay, this can be a good business as opposed to just a hobby?
Tonya: I think after I had my fifth book, and it started selling.
I had one child send me a picture of her dressed as the character, and I’m like, wow, this is part of these children’s childhood. They love this. I got really excited and I felt just encouraged to push on.
And in one day, I sold 1000 books. I guess a school or something had bought a thousand of one book. So those type things have encouraged me that this is something that people want.
Still, the margin per book is not huge, and I have to continue with the school visits.
Then, I’ve been embraced by the industry. I’m a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. So they asked me to speak at their national conference with Jane Friedman on marketing for children’s authors.
So those types of things encourage me and make me feel like this is my career, and I’m able to continue with this.
Joanna: You recently announced a traditional book deal as well. Tell us about that and how that happened.
Tonya: Right. So I have a book coming out in 2024, spring of 2024, a picture book called They Built Me For Freedom. It’s about Emancipation Park, where the first Juneteenth Celebration was held. It’s here in Houston, Texas, where I live, the park.
What happened is that I was participating in a virtual SCBWI conference with a manuscript I had. I submitted it for a critique, and unbeknownst to me, it was put in for a competition. I just put it in just to get a critique from an agent just to see what they thought of it.
She met with me and said told me she had recommended it to win for a prize. I was like, what is that? She suggested I write picture books, and she also told me that I should get an agent. She wasn’t taking new clients at the time, but she encouraged me to try to get an agent with that manuscript.
It did win in the competition, and so I just queried agents and ended up getting an agent within a couple of months with that manuscript.
In the meantime, I was intrigued when she talks about me writing picture books because I was saying, well, what? I really hadn’t thought about it.
At that conference, another author who I admire read her picture book, and all of us were crying on the Zoom. And I was saying, wow, I want to write something like this. This is so beautiful and impactful. This is the kind of thing I want to write. So I started learning all I could about picture books. I also read that book, The Artist’s Way, which tells you to take artists field trips.
Joanna: The artist’s date.
Tonya: Yeah, take the artist’s date.
So I would try to go to different places, and I happened to go to that park, and that’s when lines from the book that I wrote came to me. I wrote the picture book, and this is before Juneteenth was a holiday, and I told my agent, this book, Juneteenth, is going to be a holiday. Somehow just from what I was hearing, I’m like, this is something people need to know about.
So she’d sent it out on submission, which is where you’re sending it out for publishing companies to consider it, and it ended up selling. So that’s how I got the deal. The other book never made it. My initial manuscript that I landed my agent with was rejected over 20 times, and we just kind of shelved that one. But the picture book did sell.
Joanna: Well, just for people who are not in the USA—
What is Juneteenth?
Tonya: So Juneteenth is the time when enslaved people in Texas learned they were free. It happened two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. So people in Texas didn’t hear that they were free until two years later, when General Gordon Granger came to Galveston, Texas and announced that they were free. So that was the time when all African Americans, enslaved people, were all freed.
The part that I’m writing about is where they held celebrations to celebrate. The park has had 150 year anniversary a year or so ago, and it’s a beautiful space here in Houston.
Actually, the architect who did work on the African American Museum in Washington DC, he did work on some of the buildings here in Houston and the Emancipation Park. It has beautiful sculptures and artwork in the park. It’s a gorgeous park.
Joanna: Why is it Juneteenth? I mean, it’s in June, right? Is it like June the 10th? Or what’s the teenth?
Tonya: So the teenth is the day. It’s June 19th. That’s why it’s called Juneteenth.
Joanna: There we go. A lot of the listeners are not in the USA, so it’s good to clear that up. So many interesting things you’ve got going on.
Even if your traditional books take off, will you still carry on with Sophie Washington?
Tonya: Well, I have it set in my contract that I can continue with Sophie Washington, but I do have 13 books in the series, so I am pursuing some other traditional projects.
I actually sold another book after I sold the Juneteenth book, but it hasn’t been formally announced, but to that same publisher. HarperCollins.
Where can people find you and your books online?
Joanna: Brilliant. Well, thanks so much for your time, Tonya. That was great.
Tonya: Thank you so much for having me, Joanna. I’m honored to be here and thrilled to speak with you.
The post Publishing Books For Children And Profitable School Visits With Tonya Ellis first appeared on The Creative Penn.
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Author: Joanna Penn