Self Publishing Case Study: SCAVENGER SCOUT: ROCK HOUND

It’s my pleasure today to feature a picture book self publishing case study for a change of pace. Full disclosure: Shelby Wilde is an editorial client of mine from earlier this year. We worked on this picture book manuscript together and discussed her career next steps. She decided to self-publish her project, and did, in my opinion, a wonderful job with it.

I don’t often feature client work on the blog or do interviews, but I chose this project because I think it’s extremely well done and I think Shelby has some great insights that will be useful to other writers considering self publishing, especially picture book self publishing. (For any writers in this boat, I highly recommend the Self-Publishing Blueprint from Writing Bluerpints. It’s a comprehensive online class on the ins and outs of becoming an indie publisher. I watched the whole thing with great interest.)

Here, she shares her experience with deciding to “go indie,” the unexpected things she learned, and her lovely book. A long article, but a must-read. Hear about it directly from Shelby, below. I will pop in occasionally to comment with takeaways over the course of the interview!

self publishing case study, independent publishing example, self publishing, picture book self publishing, self publishing marketing
Scavenger Scout: Rock Hound by Shelby Wilde, today’s picture book self publishing case study!

Deciding to Self Publish

When I decided to self-publish SCAVENGER SCOUT: ROCK HOUND, I spent months researching the process. I knew I would have to pull out all the stops in order for the book to compete with the quality of traditionally published books on the market. I chose to have hard cover books printed in China, which I would then sell through Amazon. Hard cover format is the preferred format for children’s picture books.

There is another self-publishing path called Print on Demand (POD). I did not choose that option because there are very few POD options for hard cover books and the quality is not where it needs to be, in my opinion. Traditional publishers have set the bar high when it comes to the quality of children’s books and self-publishers need to meet and exceed consumers’ expectations.

Kidlit Takeaways: Picture book writers have the self-publishing options of choosing to print physical books in softcover, hardcover, or both (a big investment upfront as you have to buy a print run of expensive books), POD (no upfront investment but quality control can be an issue), or ebook (despite being easily suited to illustrated content, ebooks do not offer the same reading experience for parents/children as physical copies).

Shelby’s point about competing with traditionally published books is spot on. I tell this to my clients all the time: You can do whatever you want when you self-publish. But you are selling to customers who are used to spending money on traditionally published books, and standards are high as a result. You need to offer them something equal or better in order to convince their dollars to come over to the indie side!

Self Publishing Case Study Interview: The Decision to Go Indie

What is this book’s “origin story”?

SCAVENGER SCOUT: ROCK HOUND was inspired by my daughter, who is a rock hound—she loves hunting for rocks. One day she sat me down and started telling me stories about how she acquired each of the rocks in her collection. In her stories, she debated with dragons, haggled with mermaids and convinced aliens so she could take home her treasured rocks. The combination of fantasy and reality inspired me, and I know it is something that captivates kids.

How did you make the decision to self-publish and why?

Early on, I considered the traditional publishing path for SCAVENGER SCOUT, but soon after the manuscript was completed, I realized I felt a strong connection to the main character. I wanted to guide her story through the publishing process myself, overseeing every aspect. Another reason I decided to self-publish is that I wanted to select the illustrator. If you choose the traditional publishing path and sell your book to a publisher, they will select the illustrator. Because I was so connected to the character of Scout, I wanted to be able to choose the style of illustration that would bring her to life.

Kidlit Takeaway: Choosing to self-publish gives you ultimate control over your project. Control you would lose with traditional publishing because the publisher does have final say on issues like title, format, illustrator, etc. But with great power comes great responsibility, and it behoves you to do your due diligence and make strong, marketable decisions.

Self Publishing Logistics

Describe the process of preparing the book for publication. What was unexpected? What did you learn?

When it comes to preparing the book for publication, selecting the illustrator is only the tippy top of a very large iceberg. The most important thing I learned is something that should have been obvious to me: When you decide to self-publish, you will need to wear all of the hats that a traditional publishing house does. You will need to hire an editor (or editors—did you know there are different kinds?), an illustrator, a book designer (or your illustrator may be able to provide this service), a printer, a shipping company, storage space (if you are having your books printed and shipped to you, instead of ebook or POD). The difference is that the publisher has a team of people who are specialists in their areas and you have just … you. A writer. The learning curve is steep, but it is doable as long as you’re willing to put the time in.

One unexpected challenge was dealing with long timelines. Traditional publishing cycles are long: it typically takes two years to bring a book to market. Self-publishing is a little bit faster—mine took 11 months from start to finish, but still not quick. You have to have a lot of patience. If you have ever created something to sell, the last thing you have is patience. You can’t wait to get it out there. And even though you are a small, nimble company (yep, you need to get a business license if you want to self-publish), you are stuck with a lot of timelines that you don’t own. It takes weeks to months for the illustrator to complete their illustrations, months to print and ship the books, months to promote the book before launch.

Another unexpected challenge: Advertising budget: I didn’t think much about funds for advertising when I was in the planning stages. It’s just a fact that if you want a product to sell, you have to advertise it. Advertising is a skill and it costs money. It’s also relentless. If you stop advertising, you will see an immediate drop in sales. While it’s true that even if you sell your book to a traditional publisher you will still have to market it, at least you’ll have some support from the publisher.

Kidlit Takeaway: The leap from writer to publisher can be a rude awakening. Self-publishing isn’t just a shortcut to making your work available. You are responsible for many things you’ve thought of–and haven’t yet! Shelby also brings up a great point: budget. Do you have one? Picture books are especially expensive to self-publish (as opposed to a novel made available on Kindle, for example) because the biggest expense is the illustrator. To hire a good one, you have to pay thousands of dollars (five figures isn’t unusual). Otherwise, it will show. Unfortunately, readers do judge a book by its cover. Layout costs more money. Then, if you’re creating a physical book, you have to pay for expensive full color printing on a bigger trim size product. Shipping. Storage. Shipping to the consumer. And that’s before you even think about marketing. Picture book self publishing comes with sticker shock!

Describe the process of launching the book. Any lessons there?

This is another area where you have to understand that publishing is a business and you have to do all of the same things that traditional publishing houses are doing in order to compete. Among the activities you will want to put on your launch list: blog tour, social media ads, frequent social media posts, giveaways, partnerships, cross promotion with coordinating products, press release, media interviews, email blasts. Just like the production of the book, launching the book involves skill sets that writers don’t often have: public relations, media relations and marketing. The most important thing I learned when I launched my book is that you have to start months in advance.

Kidlit Takeaway: Marketing is a skill in and of itself. But all writers, whether indie or traditional, have to learn it at some point. The good news is, you are allowed to take small bites. That’s why I like the tip about starting months in advance–you’ll want to give yourself plenty of runway to learn.

Self Publishing Marketing and Career Path

What’s life after independent publication like? How are you currently involved in marketing the project?

I have completed my launch communication plan and have now moved into the “Keep the momentum going” phase. Frequent social media posts, cross promotion, blog tours, book reviews, giveaways, email blasts, etc. Once you self-publish a book, you are now on the hook for marketing the book forever. That sounds daunting, but you have to think of it like any other product. Products don’t sell themselves. You have to put yourself out there as the author, put the book out there through ads, all to keep the stream of people flowing to your book. I enjoy the marketing aspect so it’s fun for me, but it is also time consuming.

Kidlit Takeaway: Ah, the old “art vs. business” debate! A great reminder that any book, even a traditionally published one, becomes a product. And then you sell it forever. The good news is that every positive review, blog post, interview, etc. gives you additional traction, but you always have to be proactive about creating opportunities. Unfortunately, “if you build it, they will come” is not a realistic adage in the age when hundreds of thousands of books are being traditionally and independently published per year.

What’s on the horizon for you? Would you self-publish again? Why or why not?

When I wrote SCAVENGER SCOUT, I also wrote a sequel so I have committed myself to self-publishing that book as well. I anticipate launching in Q2 of 2019. Once SCAVENGER SCOUT Part 2 is out, I will definitely have my hands full managing the printing, shipping and inventory that will come with both books. I am just one person and I’m not interested in becoming a small publisher. I have three other completed manuscripts that I’ve decided to pitch to agents in hopes of getting a contract from a traditional publisher. Choosing the self-publishing path means you are choosing to focus on the business side more than you will focus on the creative side. I want to have more time to spend on writing so I’m happy to let a publisher handle the logistics, even if it means lower profits for me.

Kidlit Takeaway: The takeaway I hear from clients all day every day is that writers are very surprised that they have to become publishers/marketers/businesspeople when they self-publish. They are not just writers. In fact, writing often falls to the bottom of their To Do list. Shelby’s point here is a great one to remember. It’s echoed in Teresa Funke’s excellent and very in-depth online class on self-publishing via Writing Blueprints: each project has its own life and potential. For some projects, self-publishing is the way to go. For other projects, you can always try traditional. Having these options means you can learn about them and choose the ones that are right for you on a project basis, and on a career basis! The bigger message is this: Successful, tenacious writers have more than one project in the pipeline!

If you’re so inclined, support Shelby and SCOUT:
Looking to make the jump into self-publishing? My editing services are perfectly suited to writers preparing to go indie. Get professional eyes on your work so you create the strongest product possible.

Wise Words About Picture Books and Contest!

One of my very favorite picture book writers, Amy Krouse Rosenthal (LITTLE HOOT, DUCK! RABBIT!, and many more) gave an interview in the 2012 CHILDREN’S WRITER’S AND ILLUSTRATOR’S MARKET book that I would love to excerpt here the day before my picture book webinar at 1 p.m. Eastern tomorrow, January 12th, which is still open for registration. As a reminder, you will get a 90-minute craft intensive talk on picture books, the opportunity to ask all the questions you have (every question gets answered, either live during the presentation or in an email afterward), and a critique of one picture book manuscript (up to 1,000 words in length).

During the webinar, I’ll talk about how to find the right hooks and universality to really make your picture books marketable on today’s shelves. I’ll also talk about the writer and illustrator relationship in publishing, as well as how writers need to think more like illustrators (and vice versa) in order to come up with truly successful picture book projects.

This excerpt features Rosenthal’s thoughts on finding just the right book idea, as well as working together with an illustrator and how that creative collaboration takes her work to new heights. Read on:

“When my kids were small, there were countless stories told. Often for the boys, I’d tell them stories about dinosaurs, monsters or something in a cape—all these nonsense stories they loved. Ninety-nine percent of the stories I made up for my kids were nonsensical things. But once in a while there was some kind of cool stuff. You have to tell one thousand bad ones to get to the one good one.”

Rosenthal says finding that one good one amidst all the others is a little bit like dating. “When a relationship isn’t right, even if you think I know this is going to work out, he’s really cute, it always has some convoluted glitch—this non-fluid, non-seamless barrage of obstacles. But true love is this flawless, shiny, perfectly smooth thing, at least in the beginning. When I’m writing something, I’m coming at it from a number of different angles. With the ones that end up working, everything falls into place more fluidly.”

That feeling of fluidity can also come from working well with an illustrator. For one of her most recent books, Plant a Kiss (which explores what might grow if you, quite literally, planted a kiss), Rosenthal worked closely with illustrator Peter Reynolds to develop the vision and feel of the book—a process she says has “been a dream.” Not only was it a chance for her to work with one of her favorite artists, but she was thrilled with the vision he brought to the book.

“When I started, I had mocked up the book with stick-figure illustrations. It was tidy, executed visually 100 percent. There was a moment of talk when we thought maybe the book should look like this. It was kind of cute. But thank goodness we reached out to Peter and he said yes. During the first conference call he said he’d send us some sketches. Later, I opened the document, and he had illustrated the entire book. And it was just this moment of ‘Oh my god, he nailed it.’ The characters are beautiful.”

With all of her picture books, Rosenthal has strived for this type of creative partnership. “I really value the collaboration. Oftentimes the writers are kept apart from the illustrator, but that paradigm never made sense to me. From the first ‘yes’ [for Little Pea and Cookies] I made the plea to be involved. I couldn’t imagine not doing it. The books gain so much by the writer and illustrator interacting.”

Interview excerpt of Amy Krouse Rosenthal by Meg Leder from 2012 Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market (c) 2011 Writer’s Digest Books. All materials used by permission of F+W Media. All rights reserved

Now that you’ve heard one picture book creator’s thoughts, you can hear even more thoughts on the craft of PBs during the webinar. To sweeten the pot just a little bit, I am going to give away one more copy of CHILDREN’S WRITER’S AND ILLUSTRATOR’S MARKET, edited by Chuck Sambuchino, but this contest is a quickie. You can enter in the comments below through 1 p.m. Eastern tomorrow (Thursday, January 12th). I will announce the winner during the webinar (and on the blog next week). If you are taking the webinar, do mention that in your entry. US residents only, please.

Forward this post around and let’s give away another copy of CWIM. Those picture writers out there registered for the webinar will hear more from me tomorrow afternoon!

For those blog readers wondering when I’ll get back to the craft posts here, those are coming up next week. It’s just that 2012 has so many exciting things going on right out of the gate that I have to spread the word. I’ll resume my regular programming once the Writer’s Digest Conference excitement dies down. I seriously can’t wait for this year’s conference. You can check out more details here, and be sure to email me if you still need a special $115 discount code!

Daniel Nayeri: Publishing Renegade

Daniel Nayeri is a publishing renegade. There, I said it. He’s an editor at Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He’s also the author, with his sister Dina, of ANOTHER FAUST and ANOTHER PAN. His latest, out from Candlewick yesterday, is STRAW HOUSE, WOOD HOUSE, BRICK HOUSE, BLOW, a collection of four novellas, each in a different genre.

[The] novellas riff on influences as varied as The Wizard of Oz, Mad Max, and the sardonic Death of Pratchett’s Discworld…Strong and assured, these stories seamlessly merge different styles, teasing out and playing with readers’ assumptions about how westerns, fantasy and fairy tales work…provocative and deeply satisfying. (Kirkus Reviews)

After seeing some awesome new promotional stuff that Daniel is doing for his latest release, I wanted to sit down with him and pick his brain about why he’s so hardcore. Marketing is super important. A lot of writers are just trying so hard to get an agent that they don’t realize all the work they’ll have to do once their books are finally under contract. Daniel is a great example of an author thinking hard about his marketing. First, watch his four book trailers for STRAW HOUSE…, then check out our interview, below!

MK: STRAW HOUSE is a collection of genre novellas, which you don’t see much in today’s market, so it was innovative from the start. Tell us more about the why and the how of this project.

DN: I’ve always wanted to be versatile. Someone once said to me, “Daniel, your interests are a mile wide and an inch deep,” and I might have misread that as a compliment. As someone who has worked most of his life in a library or a bookstore, and now as an editor in a publishing house, I spend a lot of time thinking about the kinds of stories people love. One thing I’ve noticed is that we get a lot of teens and early adults who just browse around aimlessly, and when you try to recommend something, they just shrug, “I don’t know what I like.” Then you get these middle-aged to elderly people, and they head straight for their section. Ladies who only read Sue Grafton or hyper-violent crime dramas. Men who are working their way through Louis L’Amour or the Aubrey-Maturin series.

That’s always been fascinating to me. I’m fascinated that at some point in their lives, they discovered a genre to become obsessed over. I had my own binges on Raymond Chandler and Cormac McCarthy, Diana Wynne Jones and Philip K. Dick. So I thought perhaps I’d try to show off a little bit of range, and in the process help a few readers step out into genres they might not otherwise discover–and fall in love with–until much later in life.

MK: For the book, you commissioned four “commercials,” rather than book trailers. What’s the distinction?

DN: I think the distinction is that a “trailer” implies that you’re getting a piece of the experience. When you watch a “Transformers” trailer, you’re getting an excerpt of the finished product. All the explosions and grimaces and oiled-up models are at the glossiest they’re going to get. But for a book, I don’t think a 30-second video is ever going to give people the experience of reading the story. More often, since I don’t have the budget of “Transformers,” what viewers would get is an inferior experience.

Obviously, I wouldn’t want to introduce people to a story I worked on for four years by shoving my own cruddy AfterEffects skills in front of them. Plenty of authors can do that. They’re amazing with Photoshop, or they have a bullet-proof concept, or whatever. I’m not in that position. I want readers, not viewers. A “commercial,” on the other hand, never implies that you’re getting a piece of the experience. No one watches the Old Spice commercials and thinks they’ve actually smelled Old Spice. They just ogle that attractive guy, and laugh at the funny jokes, and associate a certain tone with Old Spice. Later on, they go to the store and smell it. If they like the smell, the buy the product. It comes down to the smell. The only thing the commercial did was get them to pay attention. It’s the same with food commercials. As a former pastry chef, I know the presentation of a dessert is important, but it doesn’t trump the taste.

That’s the distinction I was trying to make. I wanted people to get a sense of the presentation of the book, the tone, the ideas. But I didn’t want anyone to think they got a taste of the flavor. God-willing, the commercials are good enough for them to take the time to read a little of the book.

MK: Take us behind the scenes of the commercials. How involved were you? Any anecdotes?

DN: I was pretty involved, but I wouldn’t say I get any credit for the artistry. I’ve partnered with the guys at Plywood Pictures before. They’re good friends of mine. They’re also insanely busy, so when I asked them to do these videos, it came with a few elements that I think sweetened the deal. First, I think publishers should start spending money on good videos. I think that market should grow, and production companies like Plywood are just the type to do it for them. So they had the opportunity to show their skills to publishers.

I also asked them to do “commercials” instead of “trailers,” the same distinction I parsed above. So they weren’t creatively limited to the plot of my stories. They could pitch their own ideas. We brainstormed and they had these four ideas, and I just tried to make it all happen. I became a production assistant for the shoots, running out to get meals or coffee or whatever. I know I’m not a filmmaker, so I provided manual labor. Every once in a while, someone would go, “And that guy wrote the book.”

MK: What other marketing outreach are you doing?

DN: Well, we had a gorgeous paper-engineered mailer. If you look closely at the picture, you can see where the title has been laser-cut out of the top. It looks like it’s free-floating. Unbelievable work. We also had a gallery showing last week. We had around nine artists from all different styles illustrate any scene from the book. The show went really well, good food, lots of drinks, and several of the pieces were sold, and a couple of them had their first conversations with agents. That was pretty cool to see. The buyers hadn’t even read the book yet. They just liked the work. That was gratifying for me, because sure, they’ll check out the book. But more than that, it presented the artists on their own terms, as artists. They weren’t just there to prop me up, even though I’m certainly grateful that they did me the honor. I wish I could have afforded a bunch of them myself.

MK: How has your publisher, Candlewick, responded to your marketing plans?

DN: They’re amazing. Absolutely amazing. I can’t be easy to work with. I have random ideas. I’m opinionated. I put my foot in my mouth ALL THE TIME. I barely ever shave. I’m fairly certain I smelled like onions the last time I visited them. [MK: Maybe try some Old Spice?] And still, the Candlewick team listens to my ideas and gets behind the good ones in a way that I’ve never seen before. They are giving away one of the four stories on the Kindle right now (we were number 1 for a few days!). Of course, I don’t email them with a list of demands. They have more important authors on their list, and I’m aware of that. It’s ridiculous to assume I should get the kind of front-end investment that an award-winner or a perennial bestseller should get. That’s a huge misconception.

So I do a lot of early development on my ideas to make sure that if it’s a waste of time, they’re not the ones taking the loss. I pitch them with a plan, with partners in place, etc. But none of it would be possible if they didn’t bring their expertise, their enthusiasm, and their muscle. I couldn’t be more grateful.

MK: What can authors take away from your strategies here?

DN: The biggest “strategy” that I can think of is to have a community and to think of your book as a way to help other people showcase their talents. Let other people shine. As writers, we don’t realize sometimes that artists in other media have huge production hurdles in front of them. If a director wants to make a portfolio, they have a lot of costs to cover to make good films. As writers, we get to show our talent every time we open Microsoft Word. So I think writers can come alongside other artists and say, “Hey, you’re looking for promotional pieces for your work, and so am I. If you provide your talents, I can cover costs, and together we both get to present our work.”

Obviously, I don’t think I broke even with ANY of these artists. Their talent is way more valuable than the dominoes I bought to make a Rube Goldberg machine (in the Wish Police video). But it’s the least I could do. The other part of this “strategy” is to say, “be as invested in the work of your peers as you are in your own work.” You have to curate your peers, because you can’t give time and effort to everyone, but be the guy who *does* favors more often than the guy who *gets* favors, and you’ll find that lots of people are interested in helping out.

MK: What are your plans for future books?

DN: Well, for the most part, I was inspired by Western themes and ideas for this book. Obviously, the Western and Hard-boiled Detective story are distinctly American. Sci-fi and Romantic comedy have broad roots, but I was mostly pulling from western tradition for my own. For the next book, I’m working on four Eastern themes and genres–an Arabian Nights tale, a Chinese Box story, a Ibn Battuta travelogue, and an Anime. I’m really excited about it. My family and I immigrated to the states from Iran when I was 8-years-old, so the East-West relationship has always been a subject I’ve enjoyed thinking about.

Thank you so much to Daniel for this interview and for the crazy-brainy answers. Now go buy Daniel’s book, which came out yesterday. RUN! HURRY! Look how happy-making it is!