Monday, November 3, 2014

Ebook non-fiction: 3 rules to hook readers (and keep them coming back).


Ever felt like you couldn’t compete?

Want to know how your books can rise to the top?

Head over to Amazon and you’ll find a virtual deluge of nonfiction kids’ ebooks, and they’re not going away anytime soon.  Most are awful, a relic of the Kindle “gold rush.”  They repurpose free information, slap on free pictures, and charge anywhere between $.99 and $3.99 to call it a “book.”

I’ve recently converted a couple of the projects I created as a homeschooler into nonfiction ebooks, and discovered along the way that I really love writing kids’ nonfiction.  It’s even a little addictive once you get started.  I love creating books that teach kids about the world – in a fun way, so that ideally, they won’t realize they’re learning a thing.

So how do you do that in a way that doesn’t turn them off?  Or even do it in a way that keeps them coming back for more?  Don’t worry, it’s not as tough as it sounds (unlike getting them to line up for a second helping of green beans).

Staying afloat

Sure, it’s tough to stay above the tide.  It’s easy to despair when you see the numbers:  There is just so much out there, and more every day.

But I do believe that quality will rise to the top… or at least, some elusive mix of quality plus quantity.  If you publish a single Kindle ebook, it may not succeed, no matter how great it is.  But if you publish a whole series of them, and you acquire a loyal audience who enjoys reading them… then, I believe you will.

So how do you pick up that loyal following?

Three “must-follow” rules

The thing about the Kindle gold rush is that nobody likes to be fooled more than once.  Sure, you may be tricked by a compelling cover into buying some lousy rip-off book that turns out to be little more than repurposed public-domain material.  But will you ever buy a book by that author again?

Of course not.  That’s why I’m emphasizing the word loyal.  Getting a reader is one thing.  Keeping that reader… can actually be easy, if you follow these three must-follow rules when you’re creating nonfiction ebooks for kids:

  1. Check the licenses for all your photos carefully!
  2. Don’t copy and paste text from Wikipedia!
  3. Go over your spelling and grammar with a fine-toothed comb, and hire a professional editor if you can.

1.  Check photo licenses carefully.

You probably know already that you can’t just grab pictures off the internet and stick them into your ebook.  But do you really stop to read the fine print of every single license agreement you come across?  It’s very hard to keep track.  Since I switched to writing ebooks in Scivener, it’s easier to keep a handle on things and make sure I give credit for all the photos I use, wherever it’s due.  (More tips on licensing photos.)

While you’re researching photos, check out the competition on your topic and make sure your pictures are just a little different from what kids will see elsewhere… maybe more close-ups, or more action shots, or creepy details.  You know, just figure out your “angle.”

(Think about buying a high-quality photo to use on your front cover.  I’ve been using Dollarphotoclub a lot lately, which – as the name suggests – costs only a buck an image.  It’s not free, but compared to the expensive sites, it’s a bargain, and you can use the picture for most purposes without worrying about copyright.  Check it out here.)

2.  Don’t copy and paste text from Wikipedia.

Yeah, yeah.  We know.  The world’s greatest information resource is free online and yes, it is in the public domain.  But there’s a reason kids aren’t sitting down to read it cover to cover:  Wikipedia is as dry as paste.  There’s no you in the text there, and that’s what’s going to make your writing stand out.  Sure, go ahead and check your facts with Wikipedia (we all do it!), but when you write them up, toss in your own special flair and attitude.  Throw in your own personal experience, or at least give readers a hint that you are a real person.

(Tip:  To inspire you when writing at a children’s level, check out Simple Wikipedia, where you can find articles on many topics written in easy English.)

3.  Check your spelling and grammar.

Even if you think you’re writing for kids, parents will see what you’ve written.  Remember that you’re holding yourself up as some kind of expert.  Readers are going to lose respect if they find a dozen typos in your first few pages.  Your front matter matters, too:  every aspect of your ebook must be clean and consistent.  Even if you feel like you can’t afford an editor, I’ve seen a few lately on fiverr that charge $5 per couple-thousand words.  I’ll probably get flamed for saying so, but $40 worth of copyediting is better than none, and is likely to catch some of the more obvious errors so your readers don’t have to.

Who’s doing it right?

One indie writer who’s doing a good job in this genre is Emma Child.  Her series stands out, among other things, for its terrific covers.  This is the one that drew me in first:


Here are a few more in the series (click any cover to see its full listing on Amazon):

image image image

What’s Emma doing right?  I think it starts with the cover.  Her covers are…

  • Eye-catching and dramatic.  You’ve only got one chance to sell your book on first sight to a parent googling “sharks,” so save your best photo for the cover.
  • Very, very simple.  Name of animal.  “Fun facts and Amazing Photos.”  You can’t beat them for getting the message across.
  • Unbelievably consistent.  The titles vary only with the name of the animal.  To a reader / parent, this says, “if you / your kid liked the one about bears / snakes / sharks, you’ll love this one, too.”
  • Probably homemade.  That doesn’t have to be an insult.  It just proves that you don’t have to spend a fortune or add a ton of bells, whistles, or bogus award “seals” to get an incredible, gripping cover that buyers can figure out instantly.

I also like the way Emma formats her pictures so that the caption is part of the image:


This means she can make sure that the caption stays on the same page as the image, a common pet peeve with ebooks.  It’s a nice touch.

In general, the text in her books is good.  It’s written on a high enough level to interest kids in the 10-12 age range, or even a bit higher.  And most importantly, it’s not copied and pasted from Wikipedia.  There is an occasional over-enthusiastic sprinkling of exclamation marks, but that’s pretty common for this genre.

One last thing Emma has done totally right?   When I featured one of her covers here, she added me to her list and lets me know whenever she has a freebie, sale or new release.  Keeping in touch with your readers is essential in a genre like this, and there’s a good chance that they will come back.  (Or at least write about you all over again!)

Another writer doing a good job in the genre is Sara Davis.  Here are 3 of hers; I don’t know if she has any others. (cliick any cover to see its full listing on Amazon):

image image image

She’s made up (or had made) a simple little “series” logo to unify all the books.  One cute touch in Sara’s books is a nifty little graphic divider between sections.  This divider includes an image tied in with the theme of the book:

image image

By the way, it’s no coincidence that these writers both covered the same topic of Sharks, Dinos and Snakes.  These are probably the Big Three of Scary Animals as far as kids and popularity is concerned. 

That doesn’t mean there’s no room for you, but if you’re thinking of plunging into this genre, it’s definitely something to think about (either as topics to avoid or as inspiration to create an excellent book about one of these animals!).

Beyond dinos and snakes

What if you have something to say, but it’s not about a popular topic?

That’s okay… at least, I think it is.  You have my permission to write your heart out, as long as you do it well and with passion.

My own nonfiction books in this new series are both on Jewish topics, because that’s what I feel most knowledgeable and passionate writing about.  If I wanted to make a quick buck, I suppose I could write about sharks, dinos and snakes.  Maybe I will someday, if I can find a Jewish angle. :-)

Here are the two books so far in my Now You Know children’s nonfiction series:  Chanukah for Kids and Israel for Kids:

chankids israelkidsnew

I’m pretty proud of them.  Not as hot topics as dinosaurs or snakes, perhaps, but these topics are close to my heart and I’ve written about them in a way that’s honest, clear and hopefully fun.  And having raised Jewish kids, I know there’s a niche here that I hope I can fill.

Jerry Seinfeld once said, “I like the way [the bookstore] breaks down into fiction and nonfiction. In other words, these people are lying, and these people are telling the truth. That's the way the world should be:  "Hi, I'm Jerry Seinfeld.. I'm fiction." "I know." "How did you know?" "Because I'm nonfiction."

Most of the time, I’m a liar.  Maybe you are, too.  I love writing fiction, just pure stories for the joy of it.  But sometimes, I’m nonfiction.

And when I am, I work hard to incorporate all these lessons, so that whoever picks up these books will be enticed to become a loyal repeat reader.  I’d love it if you’d join me in creating nonfiction books you’re passionate about. 

This time, I’m actually telling the truth… and so can you.

If you’ve written nonfiction ebooks, I’d love to hear about them – and your tips for success! – in the Comments.

(photo credit Jay Ryness via flickr)


  1. Aspiring writers must find a group they will sell most of the books to and concentrate on them. You can't be all over. If you look at T.V. channels they always are aimed at a specific group of watchers.

  2. Thank you for the kind words Jennifer. I'm blushing right now.

    If you're writing children's non-fiction, the most important thing is that you must transform into child and think and dream like a child. If you do that, then you're on the right track and nobody can turn you off.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Emma. I totally agree.


As always, I love to hear from you.