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Capturing the Magic of Self-Publishing Middle Grade with Sybil Nelson & Laura Pauling

Many authors have no problem self-publishing their adult and young adult novels. Many of these authors have found tremendous success. But then the subject of middle grade novels is brought up.

Writers say, “Um, er, I…, not sure what to think about that.” They scratch their heads. “Is there a market for it? I want to reach kids and that means schools and libraries.”

I get it. I do. But after doing my research and scouring Amazon, I found several self-published middle grade books that are doing extremely well. I downloaded them, read them, and found them well written with great stories. (Of course, as with all self-publishing, there are middle grade books struggling to find visibility too.)

I contacted Sybil Nelson, author of the Priscilla the Greatbooks, to see if she was willing to answer some questions. She was! Check out Sybil's bio below to see just how amazing she is!

Laura:  I loved the first Priscilla the Great book. I thought it was very well written, exciting, and perfect for middle school and even elementary girls. Can you tell us a bit about how you created this premise?

Sybil: It actually started as a chick lit book about a woman who had super powers but only when it was her time of the month. I imagined what her first period would have been like and how she would react to gaining all these new powers. I thought it was a pretty funny premise so I ran with it and started writing about young Priscilla. Over the years I took out the period aspect, but I still think that might make a pretty good chick lit book one day.

Laura:  How long have you been writing? Did you try to go traditional with the Priscilla the Great series or did you jump right into self-publishing?

SybiI:  I started writing when I was young, but I think I started taking it seriously around 2004. That’s when I decided that I wanted to get some of my writing published. I went the traditional route and spent two years trying to get an agent. Then once I had an agent, I spent four years with him and he was unable to get my books published even after selling the movie rights to Priscilla the Great

HarperCollins had Priscilla the Great on exclusive for 8 months. During that time, they sent me through three rewrites. It was during that time that I took out the period aspect. I think the rewrites made the book so much better that I don’t regret the time I spent trying to go the traditional route. Ultimately, I am extremely pleased with self-publishing. I love the control I have over my own product. My success or failure is completely based on me.

Laura: Self-publishing a middle grade book is a tough market compared to YA and Adult. But you are selling well with your books priced competitively at 4.99 too. What have been your most successful marketing techniques?

Sybil: Oh, I’ve tried just about everything to market my books, but I would say that hands down the best thing I’ve done is set book one of the series free. Once people get hooked on book one, they come back and buy books 2-5. I also enjoy speaking engagements at schools. I feel those really help with word of mouth advertising.

Laura: What marketing efforts didn’t live up to the time and effort put in?

Sybil: Print ads are a waste of money in my opinion. And blog tours are tons of work and I don’t really find them effective. The only exception is visiting sites of bloggers that are also librarians. They are actually pretty good about ordering your book for their library if they like it. Most other bloggers only blog to other bloggers so you’re not really reaching the reader.

Laura: Covers can be hard with middle grade too because illustration is expensive. I really like the Priscilla covers. Did you hire an illustrator?

Sybil: Yes, I hired an amazing illustrator named Glendon Haddix. I found him early in his career when his prices were a fraction of what they are now. I will still continue to use him though no matter what he charges. He is that good.

Laura: Have you been to book fairs and/or bookstore signings? Any tips for making these efforts a success?

Sybil: I have tons of tips for this. I’ve written about them on my blog: Ready, Set, Sell located at sybilnelson.blogspot.com. I also do a marketing radio show where I give detailed tips for things that work and don’t work in book marketing. Here is one of the episodes here.
Every time I go to a book fair I come up with a few ideas that will make the next one better. For example, here are the tips I listed after I went to the Decatur Book Festival.

1. Never underestimate the number of books you will need, especially if you write a series. Theoretically, I knew this. But for some reason I still only brought the same number of books for each of the five PtG books. Next time
I will make sure to have at least three times as many book one’s as the rest of the series.
2. I saw a few other authors had hired fans to walk around in their t-shirts or other garb and pass out bookmarks etc. For my next festival, I plan on doing something similar. I will find local fans willing to wear my t-shirt all day and hand out coupons for a free book. The coupons will be for a free copy of Priscilla the Great: Vampire Slayer or a short story from my Dancing Dream series.
3. You can never have enough freebies to give away. I also plan on having some stickers to give to kids to wear just as another way to get my name out there.
4.  My Kindle giveaway was great and I had well over 100 people enter. But I noticed that the booth next to me was also giving away smaller prizes every hour. I thought that was a great idea and I will definitely be stealing that.
5. I have 15 books of my own for sale, so for me, sharing a booth probably isn’t the best idea. I actually needed the space all to myself. If you have many books of your own, you may want to make the investment and have a booth all to yourself.

Laura: A big question with publishing middle grade is how to reach our target audience, which includes kids, parents, librarians, and teachers. Have you found any methods more successful than others?

Sybil: Contacting librarians directly has done wonders in this aspect. School librarians are so wonderful and helpful. And when I give speeches at school, they always order my books for their library and then encourage the students to read them. One thing I do to contact librarians is look up the schools in my area and just send them emails. I plan on doing this for more and more cities as time goes on. Especially cities that I want to visit. If I know I’m going to be in an area ahead of time, I will send my promotional brochure to the schools in that area as well as a little note that lets them know what days I am available to give speeches.

Laura: You also write under the pen name of Leslie Dubois. What prompted this decision? Has it been hard to promote both names? What have you found to be the pros and cons for using a pen name?

Sybil: It has been very difficult trying to promote both names. If I could go back I would publish under only one name. The reason for the split was that I didn’t want the younger kids who would be reading Priscilla the Great to stumble upon the books that are meant for older folks published under my Leslie DuBois name.

Laura: Do you plan on writing more Priscilla the Great books? What are you working on now?

I actually have an entirely new series planned for Priscilla the Great. It’s called Priscilla the Great: The Alien Chronicles and it will be a series of 10 shorter books kind of like TV episodes. Each book will have its own story, but it will also be tied to a larger story arc.

Thank you, Sybil, for taking the time to answer my questions and share your experiences with us. I wish you the best of everything with Priscilla the Great and all your books!

Visit Sybil's Amazon author page. The first Priscilla the Great book is FREE!


Sybil Nelson is a wife, a mother of two and a full-time Ph.D. student at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.  She is the author of the award winning Priscilla the Great series as well as a number of books published under her pseudonym Leslie DuBois. To date she has written sixteen novels.

Sybil loves speaking to children and young adults, sharing her inspirational personal story of how she went from poverty to a PhD. If you would like to schedule her for a speaking engagement, please contact her directly through her website www.sybilnelson.com

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Laura Pauling lives in New England. She’s the author of the YA books: A Spy Like Me and Heart of an Assassin. Her middle grade, How To Survive Ancient Spells & Crazy Kings released with Pugalicious P
ress, and she will be self-publishing short novellas to accompany the novel.

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This Post Has 15 Comments
  1. Great interview. I loved the tips on how to market middle grade books, which I think is harder than YA. I had never thought of your book fair tips. Those were so awesome. Thanks so much for the advice, Sybil.

  2. Great interview. The advice was so helpful, whether you publish the indie or traditional way. Middle grade is definitely harder to promote. I loved the ideas for the book fairs. I hadn’t even considered those ideas. Thanks so much!

  3. I had a question, if Sybil has time to answer it. In November I self-published a YA book (geared towards younger teens). I know I should contact local schools and try to arrange visits. My problem: I get so nervous and stressed when I’m public-speaking. It’s my biggest weakness. I love talking to readers one-on-one, but put me in front of a group and I break out in a cold sweat. I know I should just get over it, suck it up. But I can’t seem to get my body on board with the prospect. And if I did speak, I’m not even sure what I would talk about. My background isn’t particularly inspiring. I’m so new to the author world, I feel odd offering advice. Should I hold off on school visits for awhile? Do you have any ideas for how I can connect with local youth without torturing myself in the process? Many thanks for your time, I really appreciate it!

    1. Erin, I’m totally with you on that. My mind goes totally blank when I have to speak in front of more than two people. I’m interested in seeing Sybil’s reply too.

    2. I’d like to hear what Sybil has to say as well. For my 2 cents, I’d suggest maybe you start with a Skype chat. You can offer that for free, and it’s not as intimidating as being in front of the kids live.
      As for what to talk about, you need to go in with a game plan or there is no reason for the school to want to host you. My YA novels revolves around Greek mythology, so I discussed some of the minor myths in the book and then took questions. They kids had a lot of fun pop-culture questions (who would you cast in the movie, etc.) Some other ideas might be teaching a creative writing exercise, like doing a character worksheet, or creating a simple plot structure.

    3. Jane, glad I’m not the only one with this problem! 😉 Jessie, thank you for your ideas! Skyping is a good idea to consider. And I totally agree with having a game plan–not having one is part of the reason I’m freaking out. My book is based on Native American mythology, so I could talk a little about that. I really like the idea of a creative writing exercise. So you were speaking at a classroom level? Or were you in an auditorium with a big group of kids?

    4. I’d suggest starting small. Perhaps an offer to visit a classroom or special writing class after school or at your local library. If you Google author classroom visits, you’re going to find tons of posts by authors who have a lot of experience with tips and dos and don’ts based of their school visits.

  4. Great chat, Ladies. very informative, thank you.
    My middle grade novel ‘The Drazil House Mystery’is about ready to either circulate to publishers or self-publish.
    My question is: Do you happen to know the percentage of middle grade readers who have an e-reader?
    Do you think this is important enough to decide whether to go traditional or indie publishing?

    1. I think the amount of children with some form of ereaders is rising and will continue to. iPads if not already in schools will become more prevalent with the common core testing. Kindle apps can be found on iPod Touches, iPads, iPhones. And parents are passing down their older ereaders.

      But, part of the decision, is your goals. If you want to be in schools and libraries traditional publishing is good road. But as Sybil pointed out, it’s not impossible with self publishing. It just takes work.

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