In this blog post, I interviewed children’s author Tonya Duncan Ellis of the chapter book series The Sophie Washington Series. Throughout the interview, she shares her remarkable path, starting as a hybrid author, transitioning to self-publishing, and eventually securing a book deal with a Big Five publishing house.
Tonya discusses taking control of her marketing to catapult sales to over 150,000 sold to date and her plans for the future.
Welcome, Tonya. Were you always interested in writing?
I’ve loved books and writing since I was little. My mother took me to the library each week, and I always had my nose in a book. In fifth grade, I won a writing competition, and that got me thinking about one day getting a job as a writer. I’d never met an author, and writing books seemed outside the realm of possibility. I decided to become a newspaper reporter, which I did for a while after college.
What inspired you to become a children’s author, and/or what inspired you to write the first story?
I was inspired to write for children after I started rereading my childhood favorites with my own three kids. They didn’t relate to some of the stories, and I thought that I might be able to write something more contemporary that would interest them. I brainstormed topics that could be included, and these later became titles in my Sophie Washington series.
The series starter, Sophie Washington: Queen of the Bee, has the main character competing in a school spelling bee. My kids all participated in spelling bees growing up, and I served as a spelling bee judge. Sophie, the main character of the book, is based on my daughter, and her wisecracking brother, Cole, is modeled after my two sons.
Tell us a little about your publishing journey with your first book. What were your challenges?
Starting out, I used a hybrid publishing company without doing a lot of research on it. They did a fair job on publishing the book and setting up my initial website, but later, as I started writing more books and they began selling, they kept my royalties. I severed that agreement, learned the entire publishing process from start to finish, and self-published my books myself.
Once your book was out, how did you promote it during the first year? What were the things that worked and didn’t work for you?
I didn’t do a lot of marketing when I published my first book. Since I’d published it with a hybrid company, I didn’t have access to my Amazon author portal and other areas that would allow me to run ads or do other marketing activities, and it was pricey to order books to sell at events from my publisher.
Once I left the hybrid company, I had written five books. I promoted them by vending in markets and live events in my community. This was a great way to get the word out about my books. Posting images of children holding Sophie Washington books they bought gave my series worldwide visibility. The series took off, and to date, I’ve sold over 150,000 books in the series. Scholastic bought reprint rights to the eighth book in the series, Sophie Washington: Code One, in 2021.
How did you develop your author visit presentation? What grades do you serve, and how did you decide the best content?
When I started doing author visits, I created a PowerPoint presentation where I talked about my writing journey and book series. I tailor my presentations to the group and age range of students and the school’s needs. I generally speak to kids ages 8-12, who are the main readers of the series. I also do writing workshops, where I teach children different aspects of writing and help prepare them for standardized test requirements if needed.
Do you do full assemblies or classrooms or both? How are they different when you’re presenting?
I do both full assemblies and classroom visits, whatever the school requires. There isn’t much difference between the presentations. In larger venues, I may be on a stage with a microphone. I try to make my presentations interactive and allow time for student questions and participation.
What advice would you give children’s authors about developing their author-visit presentations?
Keep presentations interactive to engage students. Utilize images you collect during your research and other things unique to your writing process to give the audience a behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like to be an author. Allow time for them to ask questions and maybe ask them questions about the books they enjoy. I’m not a tech expert, so I always arrive early to allow time for help setting up if needed. Send messages to your school contacts beforehand to ensure everything you need is available (microphone, screens, etc.). Send ahead order forms to allow children to purchase books while you are there.
How did you promote your author visits? Do you do them locally, travel, or do Zoom presentations?
I do my author visits locally and through Zoom. I promote them by emailing librarians and through my booking agent.
How did you know how much to charge?
To figure out what I’d charge, I joined a Facebook group called Create Engaging School Visits, where authors share rates they charge on school visits. I also look on other authors’ websites, as some include their rates there.
Are there any other resources or tips you would suggest for children’s authors?
The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) is a professional organization that I recommend children’s writers join. SCBWI has national conferences with teachings from industry experts and chances to connect with literary agents and editors. They include plenty of resources for indie authors, as well, and have grants and scholarships for creators at all levels. Local SCBWI chapters are great places to network with other authors and find writing critique partners.
What are you working on now? What excites you most about the future?
I have an upcoming picture book called THEY BUILT ME FOR FREEDOM, which will be published through HarperCollins’ Balzer + Bray imprint in spring 2024. This is my first book deal with a Big Five publisher, so I’m extremely excited about it. I’ve been writing and revising other picture book manuscripts and plan to start writing a new middle grade book soon.
Where can our readers find out more about you, your books, and contact you for author visits?
They can contact me on my website at www.tonyaduncanellis.com and on Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok @tonyaellisbooks.
Thanks for sharing your journey with us. All the best to you and your books!
TONYA DUNCAN ELLIS is author of the award-winning, 13-book SOPHIE WASHINGTON children’s chapter series and THEY BUILT ME FOR FREEDOM (HarperCollins, Balzer + Bray, 2024). She is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), the Authors Guild, and the Brown Bookshelf’s Highlights Foundation-sponsored Amplify Black Stories storyteller cohort. Tonya has spoken and taught at writing conferences at the Highlights Foundation and for SCBWI in New York City and for SCBWI Houston and Austin, TX chapters. A former journalist and freelance magazine writer, she holds a BA degree in French from Centre College of Kentucky and an MBA degree from Washington University in St. Louis. Tonya is represented by Sara Megibow of kt Literary. She lives in Houston, Texas and is married with three children.