Lessons from Hybrid Children's Author Mariana Llanos

We have to have a balance with self-publishing. Nobody’s gonna tell me no—that’s a good thing and a bad thing. I must find balance between having full control over my book.
— Mariana Llanos, Award-Winning Children's Author

Mariana Llanos, award-winning author of several fantastic and timely children’s books, spoke to our members on August 22. She showed us what it’s like to be a self-published author and a traditionally published one. Here are the best lessons from the hybrid author herself:

“You need to have an entrepreneurial spirit right from the get-go.”

Self-published authors become business men and women whether they mean to or not. If you don’t have the desire to hustle, then you won’t see your books being sold. You need to work hard, brand yourself, and market those books. It requires drive, consistency, and good old-fashioned work ethic.

“The only ones who can take away the stigma of self-publishing is us: the writers.”

Can you commit to industry standards in publishing? As a self-published author, it’s your job to hire an editor, hire a cover designer (and/or illustrator), and pay for quality. If you don’t, then you’re part of the problem with the self-publishing stigma.

Mariana also mentioned, “Research the standards for your genre. What do traditional publishers do so you can maintain that status? They have high standards, and I wanted to set the bar high for myself too. That’s our job as self-publishers.”

“Manuscripts get better with time, just like wine and Latino women.”

It’s good to step away from your book for a little while and give it time to simmer. Go work on something else and come back to your manuscript. Also, the more you write, the better you’ll get at it.

“Don’t trust people who like your book too much. ‘I love it!’—I can get that from my mom. I’m paying for the truth. It doesn’t mean I’m a bad writer—it means I’m a committed writer.”

Some authors want to be ripped apart while others will do anything to avoid criticism. The writers who strive to get feedback, who rewrite and rewrite, who listen to editors—those are the ones who wind up writing the best of the best.

“I don’t regret my experiences because they’ve taught me so much. How do you learn as an author if you don’t make mistakes?”

We’ve all made mistakes as new writers, as first-time authors, and as veterans. That’s just part of the game. But without our failures, how will we ever learn? Mariana learned so much in her time as a self-published author that it aided her when an agent came knocking on her cyber door.

Mariana also cautions writers to “understand what your strengths and weaknesses are before making decisions with publishing.” Do you know what your strengths are as a writer? Your weaknesses?

“The biggest mistake for indies is to rush the process. We think that the world cannot wait, that the world will stop spinning, if our book isn’t out.”

By rushing the process, self-published authors will skimp out on quality. Mariana cautions writers to avoid this. It’s okay if your book doesn’t release immediately. Focus on producing high quality first and foremost.

I used to think, Who am I kidding? I’m never gonna write like this writer. It took me four years of my life to realize, I’m never gonna write like so-and-so, but I want to write it myself. I’m gonna be the next Mariana Llanos. When your voice comes out, it is liberated, it is free, and it reflects your soul.
— Mariana Llanos, Award-Winning Children's Author

Q&A with Mariana Llanos:

It’s noted in traditional publishing that the agents are the gatekeepers. Who are the gatekeepers for indies?

With children’s books, you want to be in schools and libraries—those are the indie author’s gatekeepers. You must get past them first.

What was one of the pros of getting an agent for Luca’s Bridge?

With Luca’s Bridge, I needed someone to back me up because of the tough topic. Plus, the subject is very close to my heart and I wanted it to have the opportunity to reach beyond my own circle.

I knew that’s what I had to write. My fingers were bleeding that story.

Why are you relaunching some of your indie books?

For one, there was too much text to be a children’s book. Also, the sizing isn’t right. Libraries prefer bigger books (such as 8x10) and hardcover to paperback. Libraries prefer hardcover with a spine; your chances increase in getting a yes from them if you have hardcover with a spine.

Why did you choose to print Kutu in China?

It’s cheaper, but the quality is still great. This was definitely an experiment. I researched different publishing houses, such as Ninja Print, but the main thing was being in a Facebook group and a member who printed in China telling me about it. It was a risk, and when you start a business, you take risks. I printed 700 copies and then received 200 extra. The printer sent samples they had printed so I could look at them. We did three proofs before ordering the 700. I would probably use them again because of quality and pricing.   

How much control did you have over your cover and illustrations with Luca’s Bridge

Zero control over cover. They showed me the cover, and that was that. I originally had a different illustrator at first, but she wasn’t able to fulfill deadlines. So we had to get a different illustrator. Out of my publisher’s list, they asked me which one I liked and I chose the one they chose anyway. 

How did you get your agent?

I was following the agent on Twitter, and she was looking for Peruvian writers (aka me) and I pitched. I didn’t care how many thousands of writers would’ve been pitching to her. I participated in a contest for books with diversity. When an agent hits the like button on your tweet, you (the author) can pitch to them. Self-publishing played in my favor because I already knew what I was doing—I wasn’t a newbie. A week later, we signed the contract.

Bio: Mariana Llanos is a Peruvian-born writer of children's literature. She has published several children's books, including Luca's Bridge/El puente de Luca (Penny Candy Books,2019), and the award-winning bilingual books Kutu, the Tiny Inca Princess (Campoy-Ada Awards ), Poesia Alada (International Latino Book Awards), Tristan Wolf (IPNE Book Awards), among others. In 2017, Mariana received the Oklahoma Human Rights Award for her work visiting schools around the world via virtual technology, to promote literacy. That same year she was selected as the Best Latino Artist by the Hispanic Arts Council of Oklahoma. Mariana developed an early love for reading and writing in her native Peru. She studied Theater in Lima, but moved to the United States where she decided to pursue her passion: to become a children's author. She resides in Oklahoma City with her husband and their three children, where she dedicates her time to creating multicultural, poignant, and engaging stories. Her next book, Eunice and Kate (Penny Candy Books) will be out in spring 2020. She's represented by Clelia Gore of Martin Literary.

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The Yukon Writers’ Society is an encouraging, supportive group for fiction writers in Yukon, Oklahoma. They meet biweekly on Thursdays to embrace accountability, to learn more about the craft of writing, and to help group members start and finish their books. The Yukon Writers’ Society was founded in 2016 and provides free meetings for its members. Their group anthology, Shivers in the Night, was published in April 2018.