Episode 102B – M.K. Tufft – Marketing Middle Grade

Overview

MK studied the market for her kids books, because marketing MG is different than most. Her books are STEM based and enjoys using her background to write her books.

We discuss all the things that go into making a successful middle grade book. It pays to study the market and imitate what works.

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Transcript

[00:00:46] Stephen: All right. So let’s talk some author stuff, cause we’ve got some similar interests in that. So before we delve into our marketing for middle-grade. What are some things that you learned writing your first [00:01:00] book that you’re doing different with your newest, I’m

[00:01:03] MK: much more aware of what the market is buying.

So what kids are actually reading. So I looked at, so I’ve got like tier one, authors, them trying to model and see what makes them successful. What is, what do they have in their books that I don’t have, or don’t have enough of in mind. And I look at Rick reorder is hugely popular with all of his series.

Brian Johnson is another indie author who wrote the pro project. And that book consistently ranks up there top engineering books for kids. So what I’ve learned is. Okay. What did these books have? What did the covers look like? What do my, what feed to have more of, and I’ve concluded that mysteries and spy [00:02:00] content, those Chaunra sell to middle grade kids, mystery, adventure, and spy content.

So I’ve got to up the ante in some of that suspense and adventure and conflict, and I’ve finally figured out. What my covers need to look like, and I’m really thrilled with the illustrator hat. Now that’s doing my covers.

[00:02:23] Stephen: Okay. So you mentioned covers a couple of times. What did you do for the first book compared to now?

So

[00:02:33] MK: my coach said, okay, for children’s middle grade needs to have a cartoony cover. And I, in fact, I loved my first cover. I found a artists. The cover design got done in a week. The book took another year to, to edit and finish. And before I was ready to release it to the world, because I wanted it to live up to the cover.

But feedback I got later was [00:03:00] I look at that current. I think it’s going to be a children’s picture book. So when I started learning about here ones and really understanding different genres and what the covers look. I realized that like the middle grade mystery or the Nancy drew or the Steven Case Smith, they are drum covers, but they are not cartoony.

Just understanding that subtlety is okay. It’s not a composite picture of a person, although I’ve seen some books that really, I can’t tell if their artwork or their photograph, but. And one of my redesign attempts to was not fun and pleasant and went through a company and you’re working through a middleman, who’s farming it out to an artist.

And if you’ve done hardcover and paperback and ebook with [00:04:00] hardcover, you’ve got all this wrap around. You’ve got almost three quarters of an inch that you need to wrap around the. For the bindings. So you’re, you gotta have extra margin on your artwork and communicating that to the art. So when she finally fixed it for the hardcover, he fixed it for the paperback.

So now I had all that extra margin in the paperback cover. So I just, and there was other stuff going on with my family and health and stuff at the time that I wasn’t as. Checking all the files I thought, okay, she just needed to change one thing. And then I’d go back and start working with the files like, oh, she changed everything and now this file’s wrong.

So it made me unfortunately, to relax, to tackle the cover redesign. Cause I didn’t know where to go. And finally, I got the point where, okay, I won this award. I have to get a good. I have to figure out the cover redesigns. So [00:05:00] I waited too long, but it’s done now. So it’s a learning process. Okay.

[00:05:06] Stephen: And when you’re writing, what software and services do you like to use

[00:05:11] MK: early on?

I tried Scribner and loved it. So I am not a Scrivener pro. I bought one of those courses to learn scripts. And I like it so much more than word because it lets me write by chapter and reorganize and drag and drop and both my editors. So I’ve got a developmental editor and a copy editor. They both use words.

So I still have to export it to word. I do my eBooks and vellum. So I’m a Mac user, so I can do the ebook formatting myself. I’m also a long time Adobe. Sweet user. So Photoshop, illustrator and InDesign. I’ve used Photoshop and illustrator since [00:06:00] the early 1990s. And in design, I’ve started using more recently, more like 20 17, 20 18.

But my sister was also in the marketing and editing industry and she’s very proficient within this. So if I need help with tips, she can always help me out. And I’ve been using it for my dog training clubs, newsletter and building my InDesign skills. But basically I did my own InDesign formatting of book one, and then I got my sister to do two for me and she set it up better.

And then book three, I was able to do on my end. So my skill base,

[00:06:43] Stephen: I think you and I are pretty similar, not only just writing middle-grade, but I did the same thing I’ve wrote on word and very quickly discovered, yeah, this isn’t going to be tenable for the long haul. I need something different and that’s when I discovered script.

And I, [00:07:00] sometimes people will say, oh, I tried to use Scrivener. It was so confusing and I didn’t get it and blah, blah, blah. And I look at him like, what do you mean confusing? It was super easy and made sense. And I dove right in. So I think it was just a different way. People’s brains.

[00:07:15] MK: Yeah. And I think one thing I did that helped me is I did do this course kind of thing, which I went through enough of the videos that made me feel like, okay, I know how to set up my.

Files my chapters. And, and you’ve got a choice about how many individual things that you’ve fit into, but it is absolutely my favorite, my favorite software for writing and the format you can’t do as much formatting and Scrivener as you can with word, but you can’t do that much formatting with Bellamy.

So if you’re doing a very technical document, but you got to figure out what can you do through ebook? Because you don’t [00:08:00] have all the formats, all the detailed formatting in the ebook that you do with a print document. And if you really want to get fancy, you can do everything you want to do in InDesign.

And it’s just a matter of what software are you going to use to get the words ready to plug into Belgium or in this. Yeah.

[00:08:21] Stephen: And all I’m writing is middle grade novels stories. So I’m not that worried about 300 million formatting options. Yeah. The books anyway.

[00:08:34] MK: No, and that’s it. You’re absolutely right.

We’re not doing science textbooks where we’ve got lots of equations and tons of figures and everything else. It really it’s the story. And being able to get the illustrations in LA. And being a detail oriented engineer, I quickly came upon a strategy for here’s my folder. I’m going to put, I do illustrations for my book.

So they’re not [00:09:00] picture books, but because of the projects and some of the design challenges, I do some of my own illustrations where it helps clarify a plot point. And so. Do those illustrations myself and I keep them in a folder. And then I number them in order. And I have the version, I have the version for the ebook at lower resolution in color.

And then I have the version for InDesign, which has to be gray scale and can be higher resolution. So I manage that with the original format than the ebook and the gray scale. And then I keep track of all that in an Excel spreadsheet. So I check my work. By chapter in Excel spreadsheet. And I also try to track daily how much I’m running to see.

Okay. Which day is I’m writing that helps me maintain momentum and see how much more do I have to write for my kind of work out kind of sweet spot target. And then I keep my illustrations in there [00:10:00] too, so I can track. Okay. Which illustrations am I actually using? What’s the number. So when I build the files, I can pull the right poster.

In the correct order. Yeah.

[00:10:11] Stephen: So since we both have the similar problem, let’s define this for people because I hear a lot of people talking about their marketing and their strategies. And there’s a lot, it’s funny now that I have been writing for a while. I don’t have a lot out, but I’ve gotten some things written that I’m getting out, but I hear people.

That are like just sitting down. They have one chapter written and they start, where should I publish this? And what ads should I run? Should I do this type of ad? I like, and I understand now I’m like, finish your book without a book. None of this makes sense because six months from now it could change. So now that I’m at the point where things, other than writing the book are making a little more sense.

I’ve been looking at all these strategies and people are like, I [00:11:00] recommend Amazon ads and I recommend Kindle unlimited the get started, and then move it wide with drafted digital or this and offer the first book for free and write in a series and this, and I’m listening to all this one. Okay. Okay. Great.

And it just always didn’t feel quite right with some of it, but Hey, what do I know? I’m just starting now. What I discovered was. Almost none of that advice applies to middle grade at all. Yeah. And other people,

[00:11:30] MK: so eBooks in general, I sell more paperbacks, I think middle grade because the parents or the grandparents want to give their kids a physical book.

And I actually hear that the kids want to read a physical book because if they’re on a tablet, people think that they’re playing a video game. So they want to be seen as reading. So I’d say the Kindle unlimited or drafted digital. I have, I’ve never sold [00:12:00] a single e-book on drafted digital. And then I don’t think I’ve had many Kindle unlimited page reads either.

What Kindle unlimited will do. It gives you five free days. Every 90 days you can set your price to free. If you’re asking for lunch team reviews, it’s much a nicer ass to be able to say, Hey, can you download my book for free and leave an honest review? And they don’t have to pay for it. My first book was I could get down to 99 cents and everybody that reviewed it pretty much pay the 99 cents and bought the book.

But the next two books, the file sizes were up at the lowest price I could step into was a dollar 99. So setting some free days and asking my team for reviews that helped me get, get some, at least minimum number of reviews out. [00:13:00] So that I think is the biggest plus for Kindle unlimited for middle grade.

However, if you want to do a joint promo with some other authors, build your mailing list and give away a free book, Amazon. And if you’re in Kindle unlimited, you can’t share a digital copy anywhere else. And they say digital, if you look at your ISP and requirements, you need a different ISP for a PDF versus an e-book versus a paperback or hardcover to, to sell.

When my Kindle limited expired on book one, and I was planning a joint author. Um, rolling up to Christmas, I felt like, okay, I’m squeaky clean because my book one is not in Kindle unlimited anymore. I can offer a free PDF. And I picked up about another 22 or so newsletter subscribers that way still babysits.[00:14:00]

[00:14:00] Stephen: And that’s so a lot of those strategies don’t work because. It’s different middle grade that most of them are on Kindle eliminated reading books. And like you said, most of them want, uh, something to hold for whatever the reason it’s across the board with the younger crowd. So a lot of those strategies don’t work whatsoever and people don’t get that.

And let me just say what got me to have that light bulb moment and realize it was when I fully understood what I was trying to do. And. I’m not selling to the end reader I’m selling to the end readers parents. So that totally changes how you view any of your market.

[00:14:43] MK: It’s really tough because you’re not only, okay, so you’re marketing to kids.

So you have to have a compelling story or plot that the kids are going to want to read it if it’s given to them, but you first have to get through the gatekeeper barrier of the parent or the grandparent. [00:15:00] Uncle or aunt, the person who actually has some money to buy the book. So you’ve got to pass those hurdles and then if the kid likes it, actually read it.

And if you’re really lucky and lightning strikes, somebody might actually leave.

[00:15:17] Stephen: And, and that’s the hardest part is, uh, getting the kids to be interested in, want to mention. And also having the parents with the checkbooks or digital wallet cards to know about it because kids don’t see an ad for a book or a flyer and run home and say, I got to have this book.

So you got almost a two-pronged marketing approach. You have to build awareness with kids. And sell it to the parents that somehow at the same time,

[00:15:50] MK: teachers, if you can get into schools, there was a podcast or something. I forget which organization did it, but it was from a [00:16:00] successful author from the Houston, Texas area.

And her advice was, get into schools, do school visits. Of course this was pre COVID. And if you can get into schools and you can get teachers to be excited about. That’s a way to get into the hands of students and the recommended to parents. It’s just been challenging with COVID finding the right people to reach out to.

I did one school visit last year. I knew the teacher and it was wildly successful. So it was a great experience. I did the poignancy hardboard boat experiment from the second book. Had really engaging sessions with four different groups of fourth and fifth graders. So that, that really bolstered my ego and feeling okay.

I’ve got some content that [00:17:00] changed some attitudes with kids where, you know, I try to make it relevant to them. I focused on the problem solving skills piece, and I teed it up with okay. No matter what your goals are, whether you want to invent or create something new, or if you want to help people live a better life, or if you want to win an Olympic gold medal learning problem, solving skills can help you achieve your goals and ask them the kids.

What do you want to be when you grow up? And we have some of the jock athletes. But one of the things that really made me smile was at the end of the presentation and the experiment. When the kids came up to me and said, I changed my mind, I want to be you now. So she wanted to do the design and engineering, having that connection to the kids, which was really possible because of the school visit made a huge difference to [00:18:00] me.

And you need all those small wins to keep going and keep learning and keep trying.

[00:18:06] Stephen: So, what have you been doing for the last year and a half without school visit?

[00:18:14] MK: I did have one last year. There were some health issues with my family that I don’t want to talk about. Like threw me for a loop for a few months.

So I got through my commitments with doing some training for girl Scouts in the school. And then I just needed to take a few months off and deal with life. And once I gave my myself permission to do, and I realized that, oh, with all the stress, my weight it’s gone up, my eating was out the window. I ended up actually joining nuMe and focusing on diet to get my weight under control.

And I was doing yoga. So health, physical exercise everyday, but I had a few [00:19:00] months. Feeling crappy and no energy. And I dug myself out of that hole and started working on book four. I got back into the group coaching calls and started actively thinking of, okay, what do I want my theme to be for free book for?

When are we going to be in Hilton head when I can, when can I research it? What, how can I use what I’ve learned since the first three books and I, with marketing with one of the masterminds, I was coming up with an idea for a pre-qual as a lead. And so I dug into this whole backstory for Sam who’s the magic iPad interface, which really is helping to set up some of the plot per book for, so I was working those ideas and working on a cover for the prequel and starting to write and do some illustrations for that.

So I wasn’t always productive on a daily basis. Starting to really get a focus for what I wanted book [00:20:00] for, to be and how I wanted to pivot and make it more fun and entertaining for kids. So I kind of looked for, as I have a little bit of a flavor of, I dream of Jeannie meets man from uncle, well, girl MacGyver saves the baby sea turtles.

So she’s got all this other crap and secret stuff going on to deal with. I’m hearing a lot of fun with,

[00:20:27] Stephen: so I do agree with you that getting it in the hands of people that can recommend it to others. I know some people have mentioned afterschool reading groups, they have it, libraries and stuff. Have you been able to do anything with libraries?

[00:20:44] MK: So I haven’t tried since COVID, but I’m glad you mentioned that because more, even before I started writing, we lost our older dog. A couple of years ago, but George was a black retriever mix who I [00:21:00] had certified as a therapy dog. And we used to do tail wagging tutors at the local library. So that would be where you come with your dog and you’d sit down on the ground and the kids would rotate between dogs and they’d bring a book and they would read to the dog.

The dog was really a really cool listener and didn’t judge their pronunciation and it made reading. Motivating for the kid. And during all that tail wagging tutors work, I got introduced to. Okay. Here’s what kids are reading and here’s books about this golden retriever and here’s books about this two cartoon characters or a rat and an elephant.

And I started thinking, I couldn’t write something better than that, or as good as that. When you look at here’s what the reading is. Okay. I have to be a Nobel prize, winning author to write entertaining children’s [00:22:00] sex, and maybe I can change some attitudes with it. So yeah, if, if we get through this Soma stuff, I think I need to approach a local and see about, can we do something I have reached out to them, gifted them with a set of my book.

I was able to see that. Yeah, they’re getting checked out and they bought more copies. Getting into local libraries has been a goal. I did do hardcover versions last October, November, and did with, did work with an organization that was targeting libraries. And I sold some hardcover books, but I’m not quite the point where I’m getting lots of orders.

But I, I think the way is really start local and try to do in-person visits.

[00:22:56] Stephen: Yeah, I agree.

[00:22:58] MK: And possibly one of the [00:23:00] ideas that’s been kicking up and a couple mastermind groups has been going to maybe a local farmer’s market. Trick. Now I have some fellow author, friends who tried to do something like that, and they sold a few copies of their own books, but some of us don’t can copies of our books and they weren’t able to sell any of anybody.

Else’s and I hear that can be a mixed bag, but since my books focus on stem experiments, I was thinking about possibly trying, you know, to attend a few farmer’s market. The summer and have a different stem experiment each day. So there’s an activity that kids can engage with that they come to my booth and the goal being just to raise awareness that, Hey, I’m a local author, here’s my books, but there’s some expense there with a tent and a banner and some tables and hauling some of your books around.

[00:24:00] But I think with my books and all of them have an experiment, I could do some fun experiments in games that will. Maybe get some attention and catch some parent’s eyes and maybe they don’t bring their kids the first week, but if they know I’m going to be there the next week, maybe they come back and bring their kids.

And

[00:24:21] Stephen: I heard several people that do little local things like that. Not necessarily a book fair or something that’s local to raise some awareness.

[00:24:32] MK: And I realize it’s, we’re experimenting, we’re trying different things. And the thing. Try something, test it, see what works. Don’t bet your retirement money on it, but it’s, it’s very much, I think, try something, test it and don’t get frustrated if it doesn’t catch these, it’s all cumulative the greed.

[00:24:58] Stephen: All right. Marsha has been [00:25:00] really great hearing about your books and talking to you about some middle grade stuff. So before we go, do you have any other. Uh, last minute advice for new authors.

[00:25:10] MK: If you want to write, know your, why you want to do this, what’s important to you because it is not easy. It can be extremely rewarding.

And I am so grateful that I’ve done this, and I’ve got three books out that real relax expectations, understand why you’re doing it. If you’re doing it to make a lot of money.

It, it may take five, 10 years to get enough books out there and get enough marketing power behind you to start making a profit. So be thoughtful about your goals. What I’ve heard is it’s easiest to get through your first book. If it’s a passion project, use it as a learning [00:26:00] experience. Don’t beat yourself up.

If it doesn’t sell because. You’ve got so much to learn. And the first thing you have to learn is how to publish a book. The next thing you need to learn is how to market your books, and you almost need to have enough understanding about the market and what selling to make sure you’re writing in a genre that can make money.

So researching your book, topics up front and your keywords and categories can help let you know what’s selling. What’s not. And if you can use that research to try to tweak your story so that you can attract readers, who will love your story and want to buy them. But especially if you’re doing middle grades, Cut yourself a break and be patient with yourself and celebrate the small wins.

[00:27:00] And I would say for middle grade, I think some of the book awards can be important and providing some credentials, the readers, you can do a reader’s favorite review, which will give you an independent assessment. That’s not a friend or family. Of what they think of your book that can make you feel like, okay, did I hit or miss?

We had great feedback on my reviews, but one of them was not terribly marketable. So five star reviews and some really good content, but they recognize that I wasn’t really writing to huge market, not like reorder and who knows how to market his book. And, but having some of those credentials mom’s choice.

Those can help her. And somebody may be thinking about your book can help make or break that sale. So having one of those little [00:28:00] meatballs on your cover that says mom’s choice gold medal award, or reader’s favorite award can help build that social proof, which we really need for the children’s book market.

[00:28:13] Stephen: Oh, Marcia. It’s been really fun talking to you this afternoon. I appreciate you taking some time to get on and tell us about your books and talk some marketing for middle graders

[00:28:24] MK: and a lot of fun soon. Thanks again for having. I have a great week.

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