Indie Authors Turn Chapter Book Series into a Franchise
How two indie authors are parlaying a series of books into toys, audio editions, and a whole lot more.Janelle Diller and Lisa Travis were friends long before they were coauthors. The creators of the Pack-n-Go Girls series of chapter books, aimed at girls ages six to nine (of course, boys are welcome, too), met more than 20 years ago. The two have a long professional relationship, having worked together at a community college, a tech firm, and a talent management firm. Perhaps most importantly, they also have a mutual love for world travel.
So, when Travis came up with the idea to write a children’s book series that features diverse girl characters on travel adventures, Diller—who has published novels for adults, including Never Enough Flamingos and The Virus— was right on board: “Both of us have lived abroad and traveled extensively,” Diller says. “We know how travel stretches our thinking. We knew that if we could give any gift to young kids it would be [to encourage them to] be curious, travel, and get out of their comfort zones.”
The first Pack-n-Go Girls book, The Mystery of the Ballerina Ghost (2013), features a Native American girl named Brooke who travels to Austria. Subsequent titles in the series feature Jess, an African-American girl who visits Thailand; Sofia, a Cuban-American who visits Brazil; and Wendy, a Chinese-American who travels to Australia. In the books, each nine-year-old protagonist meets another nine-year-old girl in the country that she visits and a mystery unfolds. So far, there are nine chapter books, as well as a coloring and activity book, with more on the way.
The authors planned to self-publish the series from the beginning. Part of this decision had to do with their desire to expand beyond the parameters of book publishing: “We may be a book company, but we’re so much more,” Travis says. In addition to the books and supplemental tools, they are also developing Pack-n-Go Girl toys—a merchandising venture that they are modeling after companies such as American Girl. They learned that many publishing companies “didn’t want to deal with toys, and toy companies didn’t want to deal with books,” Travis says.
Choosing to publish on their own terms gave them more creative control and more responsibility—something they both take very seriously. When selecting an illustrator for the series, they compiled a focus group of second and third graders, having them look at sample art from several different artists. “Adam [Turner] was their clear favorite,” Diller says. “We were glad, because he was our clear favorite, too.”
Travis and Diller have focused on creating quality books that align with their mission while also ramping up their innovative marketing and outreach efforts. They regularly attend signings at bookstores and to do author visits at schools, libraries, and special events. In order to broaden the classroom appeal of the books, they have created an exploration kit for each of the featured countries, with activities in math, science, reading, writing, geography, and art. They have been very active on social media, drawing attention to the Pack-n-Go Girls books on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. The Pack-n-Go Girls website is also a way for readers to find additional content relating to the travel destinations and to connect with a community of fans.
Using social media has also allowed Diller and Travis to better connect with writers, publishers, librarians, and educators who share their desire for more diversity in children’s books. When the We Need Diverse Books campaign started a few years ago, Diller and Travis began sharing the Pack-n-Go Girls books through associated networks. They have also been involved with the Multicultural Kid Blogs community and for the past three years have been sponsors of Multicultural Children’s Book Day.
Some Sanguine AdviceTheir outreach has paid off. Though they didn’t start out with money on their minds, Diller says, “we’ve doubled our revenue every year—we’re quite pleased with the trajectory.” The duo began selling on Amazon and have added Ingram as a distributor to major and indie bookstores. They have also paired up with Follett and Mackin for the school and library distribution markets. This year they have added hardcover books to their paperback and e-book selections and intend to move on to audio adaptations for next summer, with the toys to follow.
Having found a successful business model that allows them the freedom to market and expand their franchise as they see fit, Diller and Travis have some advice for potential self-publishers. First off, “a book must be well written, well designed, and error-free,” Travis says. “Professional editing, illustrating, and designing gets you noticed,” she adds. “Hard work and innovative marketing take you to the next level.” Diller says passion—something they bring to each new journey—is essential to a project’s success.
And they themselves seek out adventures. Diller has visited more than 45 countries and lives on a sailboat in Mexico with her husband each winter; Travis has studied in Germany, traveled around the U.S. in a Volkswagen camper, and lived in South Korea. And, through the series, they and their readers have “toured haunted castles in Austria, caught thieves in Mexico, saved dolphins and turtles in Brazil, searched for lost golden temples in Thailand, and chased aliens in Australia,” Travis says. In addition to the adventures in the books, Travis adds, they hope to “inspire readers to embrace adventure, be curious, value what unites us, and celebrate the differences that make us unique.”
“We’re lucky in that, even beyond a story to tell, we have a mission behind our books,” Diller adds. “We really do want to change the world one reader at a time.”