Ebooks, Amazon, Big Six going to Big Five (and shrinking)…what does it take to start a new children’s book publisher these days?

At BookExpo America last week, I sat down to chat with Marissa Moss, author and illustrator of (among many other things) the Amelia’s Notebook series, about her new publishing venture. Creston Books will debut their first list of picture books this fall, and will expand to include middle grade books beginning next spring.

Marissa MossMarissa was inspired to start Creston Books out of the loss of Tricycle Press, a children’s imprint of Ten Speed, which was bought by Random House a few years ago. “They were a small publisher that took chances on weird, strange things,” said Marissa. “When I first tried to publish Amelia’s Notebook, I’d already been working with four or five different publishers, and I sent it around, but nobody knew what to do with it. It wasn’t a picture book, it wasn’t a novel – no one knew how to shelve it or categorize it, so they wouldn’t take it. But Tricycle didn’t know any better, so they published it, and it became by far my most successful series.”

“Tricycle’s numbers were good for a small house,” Marissa continued. “But for a big publisher like Random House, keeping them didn’t make economic sense. Big publishers have to make big numbers, so they closed Tricycle down. And for me, being from the Bay Area, it was just a huge moment of communal mourning, that this voice was gone, this advocate for idiosyncratic weirdness in children’s books.”

A word (or more) on the importance of small publishers

Amelia’s Notebook is a perfect example of why indie houses are so vital. Marissa still receives fanmail from women now in their twenties, telling her how big a part of their childhood Amelia was – but all too often, similar books are passed on my big publishers because they’re deemed too much of a risk.

“I can do this because I don’t have huge overheads,” Marissa explained. “Basically, all the money goes to the authors, the illustrators, the printing, and the promotion. And I’m hoping that means we can take chances on books that wouldn’t get published by New York. Not that New York is terrible – I have great relationships with my New York publishers and I love working with them, but they really can’t afford to take those risks, because they’re just too big. But I think those books, the ones that are a risk, often end up being the books that stick with kids the most. It’s a passion for me. I really want children’s books to survive.”

From author to publisher

How to be HumanTo help get things rolling, Marissa launched a Kickstarter campaign for Creston Books last year. “Not only did I get a lot of financial support, I got a lot of emotional support and a huge amount of publicity,” Marissa said. “Publisher’s Weekly did an article on it, which generated a huge amount of promotion I would never have gotten otherwise. A lot of the Kickstarter money came from Silicon Valley people, which was interesting because these are venture capitalists doing something very…undigital. This is not new media. And I felt like that was a nice vote of confidence. They still want picture books!”

Creston Books is an author and illustrator driven house, largely due to Marissa’s extensive experience wearing both hats. As editor-in-chief, she’s excited about working with other talented authors and illustrators. “Being an editor is close to being an author because you’re constantly revising, revising, revising,” she said. “That’s not the tricky part. The tricky part is this. How to promote. It’s been very educational, and Publishers Group West has been a great help. Because I didn’t know the best way to get my books out there, or what format books needed to be in to go to print…things like that. It’s a steep learning curve.”

An ethical house

Rotten PumpkinCreston Books is committed to being both socially and environmentally responsible, from printing on sustainably-sourced paper to focusing on the domestic market. “I’m printing at a press in Wisconsin, because to me it’s really important to encourage creativity and business here, domestically,” said Marissa. “I want to have an ethical business and feel good about it every step of the way. So I pay more per book, but I pay less per worry.”

The ratio of established to debut authors on Creston’s list is about half and half, and Marissa is excited about finding more debut authors in the future. “It’s really important to me to include debut authors,” she said. “One of my authors sent me two manuscripts, and they were both just so heartwrenchingly beautiful, so poetic and touching, that I bought them both. And one is in the process of being illustrated by a debut illustrator. Normally, the paradigm is to pair seasoned authors with debut illustrators, and vice versa. But this debut illustrator…the work just fits. It’s a risk to pair two debuts together, but it’s one I’m willing to take for a gorgeous book.”

Interested in submitting?

Lola Goes to WorkWhile Creston Books is open to picture book and middle grade submissions, Marissa has a few words of advice before you click send.

“Do your homework,” she said. “Read children’s books, know what’s out there. If you’re sending me, for example, an alphabet book, then you’ve got a pretty high bar because you’ve got to beat Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. So know that there is that bar – know what you’re going to be compared to.”

“I also get a lot of picture book submissions from authors with no visual element,” Marissa added. “Think about giving your text to an illustrator and ask yourself, what are they going to do with it? Even if you’re not an illustrator, you need to be thinking visually. You should be thinking about your book like a movie, or in thumbnails – anything to help imagine the page turns. I get too many submissions that feature talking heads: mom talks, child talks, mom talks, child talks. That’s hard to make visually interesting. Also, I’m not interested in “message” books. Every book has a message, but it shouldn’t be message heavy. I want books that kids will love to read over and over and over again. No one-trick ponies – books with a good punchline, but once you know it, there’s no reason to read it again.”

Cozy LightCreston’s launch list features only picture books, but future lists will include middle grade novels. “I have an upcoming debut middle grade novel I’m very pleased with,” Marissa said. “I love the main character’s voice, it’s what hooked me right away. And with middle grade, the voice has got to be compelling. Give me a great voice, and we’ll work everything else out.”

Creston Books accepts both agented and unagented submissions. “There’s often a lot of gatekeepers in children’s publishing,” said Marissa. “A lot of people who have to read and approve the book to get it out there. But for me, it’s all about the kid. Kids take in books in a way adults don’t. We want our books to become a part of someone’s childhood.”