Apology: Sorry there was no episode last week. I was recovering from a trip to the ER.
For many authors, the homeschool market seems like the promised land. Here is a market that buys millions of Christian books a year.
It looks to many authors like how China looks to many international businesses. “Wow China has a billion customers. If we could reach only 1% of them with our product we would be rich!” Those companies then slap Chinese labels on their products only to watch them fail in the Chinese market. Why? Because China is a different market.
To succeed in selling to a culture you need to understand that culture.
Why the Homeschool Market is Important for Christian Authors
It is not uncommon for homeschoolers to walk away from the library with a couple dozen books every few weeks. My homeschool mom has purchased perhaps 4,000 books over the last 20 years. Maybe more. She has an entire room in her house dedicated to books with shelves covering every wall. This is not uncommon. Homeschool moms brag about their “book buying problems.”
More and more homeschool moms are getting into book writing, especially as their children grow up.
My Experience Homeschooling
I am the oldest of five children and my parents started homeschooling us in 1992. They went on to homeschool for another 26 years making them “Elders” in the community. As a family we have helped start homeschool speech and debate clubs around Texas.
My first company, Brook Audio, was an audiobook publishing company for the homeschool market. I have traveled around the country attending and speaking at homeschool events and conferences.
My wife was homeschooled all the way through and her family was also very active in the homeschool community. Her dad was on the board for our local homeschool organization.
While I understand parts of the homeschooling movement, there are literally hundreds of different homeschool communities around the country. Each one is a little different from the others.
The History of Homeschooling Explains a Lot
To understand the homeschool market you need to understand the different streams homeschool parents come out of. There is no homeschool market but rather several separate homeschool markets. In this guide, I will be talking most about psychographic and demographic differences but realize there are also many different geographic differences. Homeschool communities in Suburban California are very different from communities in rural South Carolina.
5 Types of Homeschoolers
These streams tend to represent how homeschoolers congregate, not how they see themselves. They don’t identify with any of these streams and would probably not appreciate being “put in a box” like this. These groupings are for marketing purposes.
Every homeschool family is a unique snowflake, and it will not be hard to find exceptions to these observations. But as a marketer I find it very helpful to see how the markets are different from each other. Just because an observation is not universally true does not mean it can’t be generally helpful.
All of these streams continue to this day although some are bigger than others. Also, some families come out of more than one stream or have more complex motivations for homeschooling.
Stream 1 Hippie Homeschoolers
In the 70s the first wave of homeschoolers were hippies, believe it or not. Their parents didn’t want “the man” indoctrinating their children or couldn’t be bothered to take them to school. A good representation of this early homeschool culture is the bestselling book Possum Living, which is about a father and daughter who live “off the grid” not paying taxes and living off of about $1,000 a year.
Hippie Homeschoolers are more likely to use an approach called Unschooling that eschews curriculum in favor of a curiosity-driven education.
This is perhaps the smallest group today, and they value independence and eschew traditional morality and mainstream culture. This is the kind of homeschooler that smokes pot, has purple hair and spent a few years living in a commune at one point in the 90s.
- Location: Rural
- Estimated Size: 50,000
Stream 2 Fundamentalist Homeschoolers
It started with sex education in the 1980s. Conservative parents did not want their children exposed to sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll in school so they brought them home. These homeschoolers tend to value morality and character more than education. They were willing like the hippies before them to break the law in order to homeschool their children.
I remember the days of hiding from the police as a homeschooler. My family had a cover story, a “name” for our “school” and were very careful what we said to strangers. So different from today where my siblings proudly proclaim that they are homeschooled to anyone who asks.
The academic benefits are icing for these parents. They would continue to homeschool even if they could get a better education at a public school. This is stream is the biggest homeschool segment of if for no other reason than that these parents have so many children.
The typical fundamentalist family has 4-6 children and it is not uncommon to see families who count their children in the double digits. This group is also the poorest typically living off of a single income that is sometimes blue collar. This group of homeschoolers also tends to be more rural than the academic homeschoolers.
- Location: Both rural and suburban.
- Estimated Size: 1,750,000
Stream 3 Academic Homeschoolers
The 90s marked a low point in our nation’s views of its public schools. Parents lost confidence in the government school system. Local governments, not knowing how to fix their education problems, relaxed laws that discriminated against homeschooling. Remember, this is the decade that led to the drastic “No Child Left Behind” reforms in the early 2000s.
Also in the 90s, reports started coming in from the first two streams of homeschoolers. Despite their (sometimes) uneducated parents, they were getting into and excelling in colleges around the country. Universities began to rescind their policies that discriminated against homeschooled students and soon many started to actively recruit them. Remember the hippie girl from the book Possum Living? She went on to work at NASA as a rocket scientist.
This encouraged academically-minded parents in bad school districts. In these homeschool families, both parents typically have college degrees with perhaps a few postgraduate degrees as well. This stream is generally wealthier and more suburban. They live in nice neighborhoods and shop at Costco.
Also in this stream are parents of savants and geniuses. Parents of “wiz kids” often opt to homeschool to help their child advance at an accelerated pace. These “wiz kids” often get a truncated homeschool experience and typically enter college early.
Academic families see tend to see homeschooling as an option while fundamentalist families tend to see it as a calling. It is not uncommon for Academic families to be in and out of private schools.
This Academic Stream tends to be more liberal, more permissive and less sheltering than the Fundamentalist Stream.
Academic Homeschoolers could be further subdivided into two groups: religious and secular. Just because a parent is homeschooling for academic reasons, does not mean that the parent is not also religious.
This is an important distinction to understand.
The Fundamentalist Homeschoolers systematically exclude the Secular Academic Stream from as much as they can. They do this by requiring parents to sign a Statement of Faith in order for their children to participate in homeschool activities.
Do you want to:
- sing in a homeschool choir? Sign a statement of faith.
- join a homeschool debate team? Sign a statement of faith.
- play on a homeschool basketball team? Sign a statement of faith.
- attend a homeschool science co-op? Sign a statement of faith.
This discrimination has created two separate homeschool communities. The Secular Academics tend to stay to themselves.
Religious Academics can float in both communities but tend to join the fundamentalist actives which are the bigger and more established. Academic families tend to have only 2-3 children while fundamentalist families have 4-6 children. So, the fundamentalist homeschool basketball league will typically have more players than the secular league. This becomes a self fulfilling prophecy as the religious academics opt for the fundamentalist programs making them even bigger.
When I was a student the big hullabaloo was that one of the local homeschool choirs allowed Mormons to participate. Some fundamentalist parents did not want their children singing next to a Mormon and pulled them out of the Homeschool choir. It can be hard to find a community as a Mormon or Catholic homeschooler.
- Location: Mostly suburban.
- Estimated Size: 1,000,000
Stream 4 Special Needs Homeschoolers
This stream is the photo negative of Academic Stream. These are parents who bring their children home because of mental, emotional or physical needs.
These children usually have some sort of:
- Debilitating illness
- Physical/Emotional/Mental Special Need
- Relational Challenge (bully problem, extreme autism, etc.)
- Location Challenge (missionary kids living in a remote area of a foreign country)
This stream often does not identify themselves as “homeschooler”. They still think and act with public school social norms. They often see their time homeschooling as a temporary. They typically don’t embrace a homeschool community, choosing instead to stay on the outskirts of the public school community they came from.
Often only the child with a special need is kept home while the siblings still attend a public/private school. They want to return to that community. You can find these homeschoolers at the local public school football game on Friday nights. This stream is arguably the oldest since some special needs children have been kept home for as long as the public school system has been around.
- Location: Mostly suburban.
- Estimated Size: 250,000
Stream 5 Second Generation Homeschoolers
Homeschooling has been around long enough that homeschool students are starting to homeschool their own children. I don’t understand this stream as well, despite the fact that my wife and I plan to homeschool our children. From what I can tell, they are generally less extreme than their parents. They also tend to be less idealistic and less dogmatic about homeschooling. They are more likely to see homeschooling as something with pros and cons rather than an approach that is superior in every way.
Another difference I have noticed with second-generation homeschoolers is that they are more secure in their homeschooling. I remember my mom being nervous about criticism from our church and extended family when we announced we were going to homeschool. One of the homeschool books recommended doing service projects for your church to get them to think positively about homeschoolers. 2nd Genners have less to prove, thanks in part to the hard work of the previous generation. Homeschooling is more mainstream now. For 2nd genners, homeschooling is normal. Going to a regular school would be a weird thing for us.
- Location: Mostly suburban.
- Estimated Size: Unknown
The Future of the Homeschooling Community
Homeschool Leadership Shift
The fundamentalist homeschool community is just now entering a big season of change. Most of the first generation homeschool leaders have or will soon step down. These men have guided the homeschool movement for the last 30 years giving it form and direction. A leadership vacuum opening at the top of the fundamentalist homeschool movement and it will be interesting to see who fills it moving forward.
The new leaders that emerge will give new direction to the movement. I don’t know who those leaders will be but keep an eye on Alex Harris and Brett Harris. Their father Gregg Harris is very influential in the community. The Harris Brothers have already started challenging the matriarchal homeschool culture with their book Do Hard Things.
Homeschoolers have finally won their legal battles and have gained legal protection from most governments and acceptance within the academic community. These external battles where the primary challenge for first generation of homeschool leaders.
The challenge for the second generation of leaders will be more internal. Dealing with sexual predator problem inside the homeschool community and with disillusioned homeschool graduates who are becoming the biggest opponents of fundamentalist homeschooling.
We should also see homeschool communities get more mainstream as University Model Private Schools and new technology lower the barriers of entry. Also homeschool graduates will start rising into prominence throughout culture bringing more visibility to the movement.
In the early decades of the homeschool movement it was mostly white and evangelical. While homeschool leaders accepted people of other ethnicities they did not accept their cultures. Bill Gothard was famous for rejecting any music with an African influence, for example. As the influence of these voices wanes, more communities and ethnicities are experimenting with homeschooling.
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I found this podcast interesting and am looking forward to hearing your tips on marketing to homeschoolers. I am a homeschool graduate and 2020 will be my second year selling YA novels to the homeschool realm. Hence the reason this topic specifically caught my interest. Someone you might be interested in interviewing on this subject would be the author Chuck Black of Perfect Praise Publishing. He’s well-known by many moms and young adult readers in the homeschooling community and has been selling at state homeschool conferences for a number of years now.
I’m a homeschooling mom and novelist so I was definitely interested in listening to this podcast. Will you be doing a follow up one on how to break into this market? How to sell your sessions, classes, and books at conferences?
Yes, I plan to do the follow-up episode sometime after the new baby break.