Indie author Toni Brisland talks about publishing and promoting books for children

Australian author Toni Brisland writes books for children. She has published two novels in her DemiChat series (a Sherlock Holmes spoof), with a third due for release this year. The first, DemiChat and the Kent Street Mystery, is on the NSW Premier’s Reading Challenge Lists for Years 5–6 and selected readers in Years 7–9, and on the South Australian Premier’s Reading Challenge List for Years 5–6. Toni published her first picture book, What Now Baby Bears?, in September 2013; and her second, The Tree House, in February 2014.

You’ve written a series of books for children (DemiChat and the Kent Street Mystery; DemiChat and the Lost Mummy; and DemiChat and the City of Gold) and also some stand-alone picture books (What Now Baby Bears? and The Tree House). Have you found any differences between promoting and selling a series as opposed to stand-alone books?

Toni: Firstly, can I say that my main market is primary schools and this influences how I promote and sell. But, yes, I have found differences between promoting and selling a series as opposed to stand-alone books.

demichat-kentstreet-ebeI think a stand-alone book has to be promoted on its own merits and for me this means linking it into the curriculum in my marketing. What Now Baby Bears? is about the environmental theme of animals and humans living in harmony, and The Tree House is about a young girl with a disability. Both books give teachers scope to structure a lesson around the books and tie them into curriculum. I’ve had feedback that What Now Baby Bears? has also been used to teach children about road safety; and that The Tree House has been read to classes to demonstrate the special learning needs of some children in their schools.

With a series, an audience starts to build up and it’s a little easier to promote. When the second book in the DemiChat series came out I went back to the schools that had purchased the first book. Having said that, a children’s series is a little different to an adult series where the first book ends with a cliff hanger, forcing readers to buy the next book to find out what happens. I think with children’s series, it’s important to continue the themes and creating reader empathy with the characters, so the children want to read more, but the books also have to stand alone in the sense that the story has come to a satisfactory conclusion. When I talk at schools I’ve been surprised that children will buy the second book in the DemiChat series without having read the first one, because the second book is about Egypt and mummies and the ghostly guardian of the tomb of the last Pharaoh of Egypt. That story line appeals to children more than the first book’s story line.

You’ve been very successful in getting your books into schools and libraries. Could you tell us how you achieved that? And do you have any advice for other authors hoping to do the same?

Toni: I’ve volunteered as a director or committee member for the Children’s Book Council of Australia across the three levels of the organisation (National Board, NSW State, and Northern Sydney Sub-branch Region) at different times over the past six years, and through that work I’ve met many teacher librarians and other authors. The reason I volunteered initially was to give back to the children’s literature community because in 2005 I won the CBCA NSW Mentorship Award and I was just so grateful to the CBCA NSW for believing in my writing. I attempted to be traditionally published for five years before opting to be partner-published in 2010.

demichat-mummy-ebeBoth the CBCA and the teacher librarians I’ve met have been supportive of my career and have given me the opportunity to visit schools and sell my books, to the schools and to their students. Teacher librarians have even written about my books on the OZTL-Net (an online network for teacher librarians) without me being aware that was going to happen. I’m very grateful for their support.

Recently, an author emailed to ask me how I get my books into schools because she wanted to do the same. I explained about volunteering with the CBCA and volunteering in schools, and she replied that she’s too busy. I understand that, but my advice for authors hoping to get into schools is that they have to give to the school community first, either by meeting teacher librarians through the CBCA, volunteering to run workshops or to speak in schools for free, participating in school events, or joining programs like Books in Homes that take authors into schools.

Public libraries are a different matter. I really don’t know how my books have found their way into libraries. I did an advertising flyer for my first book in 2010, which was inserted into APLIS, the Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services magazine, but that’s all I’ve done. Of course, I’ve sent copies to the National Library of Australia and the Lu Rees Archives, both of which are both repositories for children’s books written by Australian authors, and also the Mitchell Library in NSW, which collects books by NSW authors.

Writing and producing books for children has different challenges from publishing books for adults. How did you decide which age group to write for, and then work out the right language level for those readers? Did you talk to other authors, or read any books on the subject?

Toni: It wasn’t really a ‘decision’. I didn’t ever think of writing for any other group but children. My first career was as a high school English and History teacher up to Year 12, and I’m a trained school counsellor with an arts degree with a major in psychology and a graduate diploma in counselling psychology.  As part of all that study, amongst other things, I learned how to test for reading age.

I do write adult poetry, but it is more of an intellectual pursuit to keep my writing tight and to balance my writing for children. I tried writing poetry for children but the concepts I want to write about in my poetry babybears-ebeare too adult for a child to understand.

Children’s books often have internal illustrations as well as cover artwork. How did you go about finding an illustrator for your books? Were you happy with the way the illustrations turned out? Do you have any advice for other authors about working with illustrators?

Toni: Every book’s journey with its illustrator has been different. With my first DemiChat book the publisher choose the illustrator. The publisher’s concept of the book was different to mine and the illustrations took on a cartoonish style. For the second DemiChat book, because it’s available as an ebook and print-on-demand print book, I wanted coloured digital illustrations and my first illustrator told me he was unable to do that. I made the tough decision to change publisher, illustrator and illustration style, and chose Cheryl De Los Reyes Cruz from the publisher’s list of about fifteen illustrators. I love Cheryl’s work and am really happy with her artistic flair and the new dimension she has brought to the series. The ebook version of my first DemiChat book has been re-illustrated by Cheryl.

The same specialist children’s partner-publisher published my two picture books. I chose Michele Gaudion for The Tree House after researching The Style File, a showcase of Australian illustrators. This book went into production before my Bear book, but it took longer to complete and publish. For What Now Baby Bears? I chose Emma Stuart from the publisher’s list of illustrators.

The advice I would offer to authors working with illustrators is that an illustrated book is a team effort, fifty-fifty. The book may start with the author, but the illustrator feels that the book is theirs as well and they need the creative space to illustrate their own interpretation of the story. If given this space, illustrators can create something wonderful that will only enhance an author’s work. Also, I like it when the publisher manages the illustrator and the book design team because of the professionalism this brings to the finished product.

You’ve published five books now as an independent author. If you were able to go back to your very first book, what advice would you give yourself as a new author?  

tree-house-ebeToni: I would tell myself:

  • Don’t change your name. Having a pen name (Toni Brisland: Brisland is my married name) and a real name (my birth name: Antonette Diorio) is going to cause an identity crisis both within yourself and within the children’s literary community, not to mention at the bank and with the family!
  • Do a marketing and advertising course before you publish, and allocate most of your budget to marketing and advertising. Remember: you can’t sell a secret.
  • The Pareto principle applies: you’ll only be writing 20 per cent of the time, and running the business of writing 80 per cent of the time. So don’t think you can blissfully sit at home and write. It’s not going to happen like that.
  • Don’t expect to make money from the business of writing. Be sure you are doing it because you love it. (And, luckily, I do.)

You can read more about Toni Brisland and her books at her website. Or visit her at her Facebook page.