Middle Grade Success with Tonya Duncan Ellis

Author Tonya Duncan Ellis

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Books Kids and Parents Love!

Tonya Duncan Ellis has had her nose in a book since she learned to read, so it’s no surprise that she’d one day become a writer. She has had great success with her middle grade series, the Amazon best selling Sophie Washington children’s books, and a former journalist.

We had a great time chatting about how she got into libraries (make those connections before you even know you need to!), about her massive win from page reads, and about how useful friends can be.

I love Tonya’s outlook – that there hits and misses but they aren’t ‘failures’ if you learn from them.

Her advice for other authors:

When I first started writing and had other commitments I got up extra early (around 5:30 or 6 a.m.) each day to complete my word count goals. Blocking off time each day to write is a great way to make your dream of finishing your book a reality.

Tonya Ellis

What’s the best part of being an author?

Interacting with my young readers and feeling like I’m a positive part of their childhood is the best thing about being an author. I get emails from parents thanking me for writing my series because the books have encouraged their reluctant readers to pick up a book. I love to see children dressing up as my characters or writing to tell me how much they enjoy the stories.

Tonya Ellis

I hope you enjoy getting to know Tonya, her books and her journey!


Contact Info


Facebook – @tonyaellisbooks
Instagram – @tonyaellisbooks
Twitter – @TonyaDEllis

Need help marketing your book this year? >>> How to Market Your Picture Book in a Pandemic <<<

Joining me for the first time?  Start at the beginning HERE

View episode transcript

Middle Grade Success with Tonya Duncan Ellis

Laurie: Hi, Tonya. Thanks for coming on with us today. 

[00:00:04] Tonya: Hey, thanks for having me. I’m so excited to be here. 

[00:00:08] Laurie: Yeah. I’m excited to talk about your books and everything that you’ve done. You have 

[00:00:12] Tonya: 11? Yes. I just released my newest book. Sophie Washington class retreat about three weeks ago. So that’s my 11th week in my series.

[00:00:22] Laurie: Okay. So share with everybody who you are, how you got started, all that kind of stuff. And then we’ll dive into your books. 

[00:00:28] Tonya: Okay, well, I’m a Houston based children’s author. I write middle grade books and my books are the Sophie Washington series. So that’s my series. And it’s about an 11 year old girl from the suburbs of Houston, Texas, and all of her adventures.

[00:00:44] So she does common, middle grade things like manage schoolwork, try to fit in with friends, stand up to bullies, handle that first crush, but they have a Texas twist because there’s, since they’re set in Houston, Texas, they see different things that are unique to my area, like alligators in the neighborhood of wild whore. So it shows the life here in Houston. 

Life in Houston

[00:01:06] Laurie: Oh, cool. 

[00:01:08] And I was the book that caught my attention – like you have 11, so I didn’t look through the descriptions of all of them- but the one that caught my attention was you had a tagline, something like, uh, only losers don’t have cell phones. And so my eldest went into junior high this year and that was like, what I heard, you know, the first day or two school.

[00:01:26] So it sounds like a really applicable series.

[00:01:34] Tonya: Yeah. 

[00:01:35] Yeah. Deals with all those little issues that they have and things that we as parents have to deal with. With helping them grow along, grow up and move along their little path. 

[00:01:45] Laurie: Yes. I don’t know that I’ve had a middle grade author on here yet. I’m been doing it for a couple of years, so I apologize if anybody’s listening and I have, but I’d love to hear about how it goes for you, because I know like just, you know, anecdotally people I’ve talked to it’s harder or it seems harder for middle grade authors to sell their books to my mind.

Middle Grade books

[00:02:12] Tonya: Well, you know, the only books I’ve written are middle grades. So for me, I mean, there are many ups and downs when it comes to marketing, but I haven’t really, felt like I’ve had any more issues and I’ve seen picture book authors, have. I’m a member of the SCBWI society of children’s books, authors and illustrators.

[00:02:35] And when I’m listening to them, I mean, I don’t notice any more difficult. 

[00:02:42] Laurie: Can you explain like the benefits of being a member of that? I’ve had that question come up a lot. 

[00:02:48] Tonya: I found it to be really advantageous, especially during this time of COVID, because they’ve offered all kinds of phenomenal online virtual training.

[00:02:59] Events with world-class authors teaching you about craft marketing. Then they even had one self published author on talking about marketing, and you’ve been all kinds of wonderful tips. So particularly during this time I’ve attended at least 10 online events that have helped me improve. In fact, in the beginning of this, I felt.  As a lot of us have, you know, how can I even write? I can’t do anything. And I tuned into one of their sessions on craft with Kate Mestre and it just got me energized and, you know, ready to go and even meeting in person at the events. They have critique groups, which have really helped me with my writing.

Benefits of the SCBWI

[00:03:42]You just meet so many contacts and things. So it’s been great. I highly recommend that. Is it mostly for traditionally published authors or there are most, a lot of them are traditionally published, but I’ve still felt welcomed as a self published author. And even it’s gotten me connections with traditionally published authors who I have promoted their work.

[00:04:06] Through social media and they’ve helped me along as well. Right? Yeah. So I felt them to be welcoming to me. They do some things do say, you know, this is just for traditionally published, but even when they had conventions in the air in Texas, they had a booth and they welcomed self-published authors to show their work there as well.

[00:04:30] So yeah. So that’s okay. Yeah, I felt, I feel comfortable there as a self-published, author. 

[00:04:36] Laurie: My husband,is outside shoveling – i hope nobody can hear him!

[00:04:43] Tonya: Like 85 degrees here. Oh, 

[00:04:48] Laurie: I know. There’s always something, I guess that it’s too hot or it’s too cold. 

How did she get into libraries?

[00:04:59] So you had mentioned that your, your books are in libraries. So can you tell us how you got into 

[00:05:03] libraries? 

[00:05:05] Tonya: Right. It was a process. I am that been a dream of mine since I started writing my books. And what I did was during NaNoWriMo, a couple of years ago, they had a display case in my local library where they featured some local authors.

[00:05:21] So I think that kind of got my foot in the door. They had my books on display there, and then I’ve got local press. And I think that helped, but you want me to go through the whole process of how I think they were allowed in? Yeah, sure. I think people are just like you and they want to be in library. So yeah.

Kirkus reviews

[00:05:39] So what I did I initially I’ve gotten Kirkus reviews for my books and I think that helps because the librarian in my system or the buyer for our library system said that she needed to have some kind of professional reviews attached to the books. Oh, so, and I had done that a long time ago, so I had a couple of positive Kirkus reviews for two of my books.

[00:06:02] And so, and then I had local press. My books were featured in the Houston Chronicle and some other newspapers and publications, my area. So I think they were aware of the books. So that helped. I would recommend you get those reviews. Also make sure your books are published through Ingram or Baker and Taylor. Because that’s where libraries buy from. Oh, okay. 

[00:06:26] Laurie: Good tip. How did you get into the papers? Did you approach them then? 

[00:06:31] So I sent them press release information about my books because we had a column for books. So I sent emails and press release to that editor. And then after a while she responded, Oh, nice.

[00:06:45] And then as I wrote more books, she did a feature on me. I followed her on Twitter. So a lot of this I would say is the process. Then place. Yeah. 

Build Relationships

[00:06:57] And getting to know people and building those relationships almost before you need them, which is hard because you don’t know what you’re going to need…

[00:07:04] Tonya: Right. That’s very important with marketing for any of us, especially with the self published authors is building those relationships.

[00:07:12] Because even as we talked about the SCBWI, that’s just building those relationships and it’s not going to happen overnight. But as you basically, that you’re part of the industry, you know, they’ll take you seriously as a self-published author that you’re. Part of that children’s book community. Right.

[00:07:33] And then the opportunities just kind of snowball as time goes on. 

[00:07:37] Laurie: Oh, that’s I think that’s so important to have a network like that. And then that one it’s was leveling up a little bit. Sounds like what’s your background? Are you a marketer by trade?

[00:07:51] Tonya: Oactually I am. I know you say a lot of the people are teachers.

Tonya’s Background

[00:07:55] I have an MBA degree, so, and with a marketing concentration. So I was in sales and marketing. But I also am a mom of three and I’ve been a Sunday school teacher room mom, and always working with children. But I have seen sales, marketing background, and I also worked as a journalist. 

[00:08:16] Laurie: Oh. So you’ve always been a writer.

[00:08:19] Tonya: I’ve always been a writer. And I wrote for over 10 years for local magazines in my community doing freelance writing, after I had my kids. 

[00:08:28] Laurie: So that’s sort of natural to pitch and you kind of knew who to go after and to say in that that’s nice. That’s helpful. 

[00:08:36] Tonya: Yeah, I guess I, because I wrote for newspapers and things, so then I was comfortable approaching them and pitching things initially that for me, with like reviews and all that, I just was constantly doing that.

[00:08:50] And then it just grows as time goes on. Right. And you have to do less outreach to you, like after you do all lay all that foundation and then it, yeah. After a while it does. Cause we all know it’s just a lot of work, but I was fortunate to get some bookbubs – my book sales are through print books, but it’s got the reviews.

[00:09:16] So that helped me get a lot of views where I don’t have to really. Big for reviews 

[00:09:21] Laurie: anyway. Right? Cause that never feels good. So the bulk of your sales are paperback, even though it’s middle grade, I guess I kind of expected it would be eBooks. 

Middle Grade Paperback Books

[00:09:33] Tonya: They actually, most of my sales, I listened to one of your recent shows and they were saying about 80% of theirs were paperbacks.

[00:09:39] And I find that the same. Yeah. Yeah. Most of mine are paperback sales because parents still, my readers are between eight to 12 – the sweet spot is kind of third and fourth graders. I want them to have that physical book. 

[00:09:55] Laurie: Yes, yes, absolutely. 

[00:09:58] Tonya: But I have ebook sales overseas for me because the last, my last sales period in Amazon, I had over like, I don’t know it was page reads so I had a five figure month with page reads from India.

[00:10:19] Really? I don’t, yeah, I’m happy. I do have a character in my books. She’s in a couple of them. They let them know. I’m so happy. They do. Yeah. Yeah. 

[00:10:29] Laurie: Like were you in prime there or anything? Or just Kindle unlimited, I guess. 

[00:10:34] Tonya: And with kindle unlimited. So they read that and that’s a huge one. Yeah. That’s a 

[00:10:40] huge market, but I’ve never heard anybody saying that it really paid off before, 

[00:10:44] so that’s fantastic.

[00:10:45] Yeah. I had higher royalties in India than in the United States. 

[00:10:51] Laurie: Oh, wow. Yeah. I don’t know. It makes me wonder sometimes 

[00:10:59] they did somebody say something or did it just catch on or it’s like, how do I duplicate that? 

[00:11:07] Tonya: An Indian character? And we have a large Indian community in Houston and I’ve attended a lot of events with not a lot, but a few with some friends who are.

[00:11:17] So maybe has something to do with it. I’m grateful for that. Well, and 

[00:11:21] Laurie: you know, I don’t know that there’s that many East Indian main characters in books. You know, like have you found, I don’t know. I mean, obviously there should 

Diverse Characters Making an Impact

[00:11:30] Tonya: be, but you’re, you probably are and that character – maybe two or three, and Houston is a very diverse community in the United States.

[00:11:43] So I try to, you know, show that diversity in my books, which is 

[00:11:48] Laurie: needed, like so needed. And and I wonder. How many middle grade, you know, like the eight to 12 year old range, how many have that diversity? Like that could be a real boon for you because I don’t know how many do, and it’s so important. So

[00:12:07] Tonya: for writing them, because I did not see that we didn’t see that diversity. Yeah. 

[00:12:15]Laurie: I’m curious if your own children or inspiration for the series? 

[00:12:21] Tonya: Yes, they actually were. My daughter’s name is Sophia and the main character is Sophie. I have two sons and Sophie has one brother. So a lot of the little scrapes and things they get into based on things in my own kids.

[00:12:36] Yes. Okay. 

[00:12:37] Laurie: And do they like that? Are they happy to sort of be the inspiration? 

[00:12:42] Tonya: I mean, they have really helped me now. They’re older, they’re older teens, but they would, I kind of read them to them as bedtime stories and they give me feedback and it’s still fiction. I mean, it’s kind of based on what they’re doing.

[00:12:56] It’s not exactly. Yeah. 

[00:12:59] Laurie: Gotcha. That’s interesting. Do you have any sort of like, I don’t want to be offensive, but like marketing flops, so you know, things you tried and they didn’t work out ?

[00:13:10] Tonya: Well one thing that I wasn’t happy about was when I first ventured into Amazon ads. I wasn’t watching every day or you need to watch those carefully because I was happy saying, Oh yeah, I got all these sales, but then they charged me almost as much as I made, you know, during this, I was not real happy with that.

[00:13:32] That was the big disappointment for me at the time that happened, that I’m going to pay closer attention to that. Yeah. 

[00:13:40] Laurie: Do you still run Amazon ads? 

Pat Attention…

[00:13:41] Tonya: Yes, I do. I just watch them more closely because I hadn’t paid attention in there. You get charged per click instance. There might have been, had been a random keyword and I hadn’t checked up.

[00:13:56] It charged maybe 20, $30. I’m like, Oh my goodness. What

[00:14:02] do you do? Facebook? Yeah, I do do Facebook ads. And I know you’ve talked about that here on your show, an expert by any means on those. I just kind of run those for visibility and to get people learning more about my books awareness. They’ve been good. I’m not good at tracking those. So, but I can see like the summer when there was a big push with the black lives matter movement, I started running a lot more ads and I do think that may have helped.

[00:14:34] I don’t have a good track on all those. And I know  that you can on Facebook cause we can’t really track those links. You don’t, you’re never totally sure. 

[00:14:45] Because, uh, a Facebook rep calls me and they were trying to put some little tracker on my website. Oh, the pixel. Yeah. That picks something, but it didn’t really stand out to be honest.

[00:14:57] Laurie: I know it’s, it’s like the more, you know, the more you realize you don’t know, because you can go in there and set up an ad. Right. And then I took a course, even what, honestly, it just made my brain hurt.

[00:15:18]Do you write full time? 

[00:15:21] Tonya: I do right. Pretty much. Full-time I do have another side business in real estate that I do. I might transitioning pretty much to my writing because I really love what I do. So even,  times in the evening, I’m doing marketing things when we’re as a family watching TV or the family movie together.

[00:15:46] But if people are just gathered together, so I do that, but I enjoy doing it. So I’m happy that I do because it is very time consuming. 

[00:15:55] Laurie: Yeah. And you don’t always see themselves right away, so it can feel like a drag. So that’s great that you do it. I love how you said in the beginning, you know, you had to get up early too to get the books written.

[00:16:08] And it was quite early.

[00:16:13] Tonya: I would get up at like six in the morning, but I’m a morning person. And I write best in the mornings I noticed I, because I wake up with ideas. So it’s better for me when I write in the morning and that would be quiet. No one would be around. And that was the way that Icompleted, especially the first books in my  series, because I said, I want to get this done.

[00:16:34] And I had a lot of, I had other work commitments too, so I didn’t have that time. I would just do that to block those hours and have an interrupt and an interrupted writing time. 

[00:16:48] Laurie: So you were just super committed and made it happen. 

[00:16:51] Tonya: Really! It was like, I just wanted to do this. I said, I want to write my books, if not now, when, and just commit that time to getting it done.

[00:17:02] Laurie: There’s never a perfect time. Right. You just got to do it because it’s not when the kids grow 

[00:17:07] Tonya: up or, you know, something more. That was really when I first started writing my books, I was grumbling about some other things in my life and …job.. And one of my friends said. What about your books?

[00:17:20] You want to write your books? And she kind of yelled at me and I was mad at her at the time, but now I thank her because it pushed me to go ahead and do what I wanted to do and make my dreams come true. Oh, YAY 

[00:17:33] Laurie: for your friend. We all need friends like that. A little bit asskicking. Oh, sorry. 

[00:17:37] Butt kicking !

[00:17:39] Right 

[00:17:40] Laurie: to get us sometimes for some of us that some people that have had the podcast, their spouses.

[00:17:44] And ! So it’s great that we have support networks. 

[00:17:50] Tonya: Yeah, I’m really grateful 

[00:17:51] Laurie: for the character after her. 

[00:17:54] Tonya: Maybe. No, I had already started writing

[00:18:01] Laurie: some new, fantastic character. Has there been anything that you’ve learned along the way, you know, super surprising that you weren’t expecting or…. 

[00:18:12] Tonya: that’s a good, I I guess the only thing that I’ve learned is it’s a process and you set goals for yourself and you think when I get here, I’m a best seller.

The highs and lows of publishing

[00:18:24] I’m going to be. Whatever, but it’s really kind of up and down, you know, there’s highs and lows. So that’s surprising. 

[00:18:32] It’s so 

[00:18:32] Laurie: true. And you might be out of high one week and then a low the next week and feeling giving up, but just, 

[00:18:41] Tonya: yeah, I guess you just gotta keep 

[00:18:42] Laurie: going if you really want to keep doing this.

[00:18:45] Right. But I’ve been there too, for sure. Yeah. But where can people 

[00:18:49] Tonya: find you Tanya? They can find me on my website at Tanya Duncanellis.com. That’s T O N Y a Facebook and Instagram at Tanya Ellis books and on Twitter at Tonya D Ellis. Okay, 

[00:19:06] Laurie: perfect. I know there’s going to be a lot of, you know, parents of eight to 12 year olds that are going to check this out.

[00:19:11] Like I am, we need this. Thank you so much for coming on with me today. 

[00:19:18] Tonya: Thank you for having me. I appreciate you. And I love your show. I learned so much listening. Thank you. I appreciate you saying that. 

[00:19:26] Laurie: Okay. Bye Tanya.

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Laurie Wright

Laurie Wright

Teacher turned author, turned children's mental health advocate. Laurie has given a TEDx talk, gives workshops for parents, teachers, and children, and has published five books in the Mindful Mantras series, all to help combat the crisis kids are currently facing. Teachers can't stop the urge to teach! A course for creatives who want to write for kids is coming soon!
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