How do I filter out self-published children’s books?

Book spines aren’t just good for impromptu punctuation marks.

The best way to avoid purchasing self-published books is to go to a bookstore or library. If there is shelf space dedicated to a book, it is either traditionally-published or a rare self-published smash hit or was written by a local author, and what monster wouldn’t want to support local authors?

But you’re reading this because you probably are using the best method to accidentally buy self-published children’s books, which is to shop at the pen-paper-scissors-book store.

If you also shop the pen-paper-scissors-book store for toilet paper, you’ll find lots of astonishingly overpriced options and intuitively know which products to avoid. If you search for “kids books age 7,” you’ll find a much more modestly-priced array of choices that seem great, but that will be regarded with about as much enthusiasm as the tissue.

It’s easy to spot a toilet paper scam, because when buying household goods we’re brand-conscious, price-sensitive shoppers. It’s harder to spot a children’s book scam. These are some of the strategies I use to make sure the book I’m buying is worth the paper it’s printed on.

Step 1: Look inside the book

When shopping at the flour-yeast-bowl-book store, you can usually look at a few digitized pages of the book. Two helpful ones to look at are the copyright page and the acknowledgment page.

You may remember the copyright page from research paper days, because it’s where you find the year of publication. It is usually the page just behind the title page, and in addition to helping you with MLA format, it will give you the publisher name, and, if the author is any fun, a hidden joke or two. If the publisher is a name you recognize, great! If not, move on to Step 2.

The acknowledgments page is the one the author spent time writing when she didn’t feel inspired to work on the body of the text, and as a result, the acknowledgments are trivia troves about the author’s most personal relationships. You will find it either at the very front or the very end of the book, and if you don’t find it, the book is probably self-published. Traditionally-published authors will almost always thank their editors and agents on this page. The editor is the person who guided the author through revisions. The agent is the person who helped the author sell the book. If an author doesn’t thank the editor and agent, there is either a fantastic story about publishing house intrigue or the book is self-published.

While you’re looking inside the book, you might want to look at the text itself. Is it physically difficult to read? Is it, for example, typed in Courier New with very narrow margins? Does it have MLA-style double-spacing? These are signs that the book lacks an editor and a book designer.

Step 2: Look up the publisher

If you can’t look at any part of the book at the balloon-pin-vacuum-book-store, the next easiest way to find out if a book is self-published is to scroll down to the Product Details. If there’s no publisher listed or if the publisher’s name is some version of the author’s name, you can assume the book is self-published.

If the publisher’s name seems a bit more professional, do a quick internet search for the publisher’s website. If there’s no website, the author is probably self-published.

If you visit the publisher’s website and it features lots of different books and authors, you have probably found a real publisher! If you visit the publisher’s website, but it features only one book or only one author, you can assume the author is self-published. If the publisher’s website also endorses protein supplements, you can assume the book is self-published and that the author is involved in a pyramid scheme.

Step 3: Read reviews

Another great way to spot a self-published and promoted book is the number of reviews. Consider Mo Willems, beloved children’s author published by Hyperion and frequent thanker of editor Alessandra Balzer and agent Marcia Wernick. Or consider Amy Krouse Rosenthal, beloved children’s author published by Penguin Random House and who always thanked Maria Modugno and Amy Rennert. It is unlikely that the children’s book with 10,000+ Amazon reviews is better than the best children’s authors of our time, whose books have mere hundreds or thousands of reviews each.

So, how did that book by a not-yet-beloved children’s author who did not have an editor or agent to thank get so many more 5 star reviews? The author probably paid momfluencers, either with free books and swag that encouraged a reciprocal good review or with actual cash paid on the condition of that review. It’s easy to spot these books if you read the 5-star reviews. Do reviewers mention stickers, bookmarks, posters, or other promotional material shipped along with the book? The book may be self-published. Do reviewers mention all of these things more glowingly than the book itself? The book is definitely self-published.

You can find additional confirmation in the 1-star reviews. If you see comments on the readability of the text, missing pages, and typographical errors, the book is more likely to be self-published. If you see complaints that the book needs an editor, or is advertised to the wrong age group, it is more likely to be self-published. If there are a lot of comments about a book being overpriced, it is probably self-published, because it’s hard to get a good deal on printing when you’re an individual ordering small print runs.

If reading the reviews on your glue-borax-glitter-book website made you suspicious of the book, look for reviews of the book on other websites. [A word of caution: Goodreads is owned by glue-borax-glitter-books.] If a book has thousands of reviews on one website but exactly zero at another, there’s a strong chance 1) it is a self-published book and 2) the self-published authors have paid for reviews or their book’s position in the search results.

If you don’t want to spend time reading any of the reviews, look for a “sponsored” label. Although some sponsored tabs will be for traditionally-published books, they’re often paid for by independent authors not represented by publishers.

Step 4: Find new sources for books

I buy books at the sneaker-toy-mousetrap-book store, too, and so am not telling you to avoid shopping there. But I might not recommend it to you as a first stop when trying to find a new children’s book. Instead, look for people who study children’s books professionally and see what they have to say. If a book has been covered by School Library Journal, you can assume that school librarians think it is a book worth reading. You might also check out book recommendations from writers whose work you admire. I admire the book recommendations over at The Kids Should See This.

You can also research your own bookshelf. Look at the spines of books your kids love. Is your shelf full of little pairs of eyeglasses? Your child shares my book taste and will like books put out by Chronicle. Do you notice lots of little red rectangles? That’s Scholastic. Little yellow rectangles? National Geographic. Consider going directly to those publishers’ websites to find similar titles, then look them up at the sock-chalk-slipper-book store.