Self Publishing Children’s Picture Books: A Case Study

It’s my pleasure today to feature a self publishing children’s picture books 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 self publishing children’s picture books. (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 children's picture books
Scavenger Scout: Rock Hound by Shelby Wilde, today’s self publishing children’s picture books case study!

Self-Publishing Children’s Picture Books

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 self- publishing 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 side of indie writers!

Self-Publishing Children’s Picture Books: 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 Children’s Picture Books 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. Hiring 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. (Here are some book marketing strategies.)

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. (More tips on social media for authors here.) 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.

Picture Book Self-Publishing Resources Callout

Hey lovely readers! I work with a lot of clients as a freelance editor who are looking to publish their picture books independently. They often ask me for resources to help them with their endeavor, and so I’m compiling a list. For this particular list, I’m looking for services specific to picture books.

Where you come in: Have you personally worked with any self-publishing service provider to produce your independent picture book? Did you have a good experience?

I’m looking to hear about:

  • Typography and layout designers
  • Printers
  • Cover designers
  • Hybrid publishing houses
  • Marketing services

I am looking for personal experiences here. For this reason, I am obviously much less inclined to hear from PR people and representatives from various companies and publishers.

Please leave some testimonials and links in the comments for me to research, or email me at mary at kidlit dot com. Thanks so much for your help!

One Last Self-Publishing Post

A lot of great comments have been flying around on my two previous self-publishing posts (post 1, post 2). And a lot of great points have been brought up. There’s one last thing I really want to delve into on the subject of self-publishing. Let me be perfectly clear: I do not think publishing is perfect.

It is one thing to be published, it is another thing, entirely, to be published well. What does being “published well” mean? That you get in bookstores, that readers hear about your book, that you get both old school (print ads, radio) and new school (web, social) advertising and media attention, that you start building a brand, that you generate sales numbers, that you, ideally, earn out your advance (if any) and earn royalties (if any).

And I would say that not all books, by far, are published well. One of the biggest problems with traditional publishers is that far too many don’t give the books on their list the time or attention necessary to generate sales. It is not a secret that a push from the publisher in terms of publicity will correlate positively with a book’s relative success in the marketplace (even if, during the infamous DOJ trial, certain publishing executives claimed that a book’s success was entirely “random.” You know who you are and you’re an embarrassment.)

Publishers can definitely boost a book’s odds of being successful (though their powers are not mystical—sharp readers will still call out a bad book, even if it has a huge marketing budget). That begs the questions, though: Why don’t they do that for each book? Why publish a book if you can’t publish it well?

This is definitely one shortcoming of the traditional model, and one big frustration for everyone involved (agents, editors, and especially those authors who are slighted by this system). It’s not that publishers are purposefully withholding their marketing money or attention. It may look like that since, in recent years, marketing budgets have gotten smaller and smaller. (Some would argue that they no longer do book marketing for most books at all.)

There are fewer book tours and advertising placements, fewer book review opportunities and media appearances. Newspaper book review sections have shrunk down to (checks notes) single digits. The industry is changing. And houses publish many, many books. Not all of them have the same chances to reach a huge market. Publishing professionals always hope for the best, plan for the worst, and know that every product is a risk. (For more great thoughts on “What’s wrong with traditional publishing these days?” go over to Barry Lyga’s blog. He just did a really intelligent series on this topic.)

Traditional publishing is not a perfect system—far from it—but at least there are others on your team to advise and support. In self-publishing situations, more than traditional publishing, you are all aspects of a house. You are the writer, the editors, the designer, the printer, the sales force, the publicist, the marketer, the distributor. (Or you hire out these services freelance, at your own cost.) Successful traditionally published authors do wear some or most of these hats these days, but they do have contacts and channels for their outreach and promotion work through their houses.

So whether you’re using the traditional publishing machine or self-publishing resources, it’s not the tools that matter, it’s how you use them. In many industries where people are creating a product to sell to other people (at the end of the day, that’s what a book is), entrepreneurship is becoming more and more important. Since traditional publishers are putting less behind some of the books they publish, and since self-publishing is absolutely self-driven, all authors need to become more proactive about the products they create.

I don’t believe that traditional publishing is over. But I do firmly believe that the old days of the recluse genius sitting in some attic, who only writes and doesn’t do a lick of outreach or publicity, are gone. There are too many enthusiastic, driven people out there who will gladly talk about their products all over town. I don’t think you can afford—whether traditionally published or self-published—to shy away from promotion.

The marketplace and technology are showing the holes in traditional publishing. This industry is not, by any means, immune to the same upheaval as happened in the music business when digital music and iTunes came in. Traditional publishing needs to embrace new technologies and models of publishing instead of deny that they’re competition. Traditional publishing needs to bend in the direction of the future. But authors need to heed this warning, too. Take classes on book marketing. Start learning about publicity tools and how to use them. You can no longer rely entirely on your publishing-system-of-choice to get your book out there. Even if you are traditionally published, take a look at what self-published writers are doing. Adopt some of that entrepreneurial spirit. Find some of that dogged determination.

There are a great many thing to be learned from each side. Traditional publishing writers can learn the entrepreneurial zeal of self-published writers. Self-published writers can strive toward the same dedication to editorial and design quality that traditional publishers uphold (rather than using self-publishing in the way a small but vocal minority uses it … to shortcut around gatekeepers but without learning much about the craft or the business in the process).

Don’t rely solely on your publisher to publish you well. Never rest on your laurels and think your job as a writer, publicist, editor, marketer, book distributor, salesperson, etc., is done. Publishing is a career that’s passion-driven. Most people really don’t get into it for the riches or the acclaim. They get into it because they can’t do anything else. That should give you the right idea about work ethic. And whether you publish traditionally or you self-publish, I think that being published well should always be your goal and highest standard.

Self-Publishing Then and Now

I love my blog and I love my readers. But whenever I post on something with wider implications to the publishing landscape, I always get new readers who come and rabble-rouse in the comments. Don’t get me wrong. I love getting new readers. And new readers can agree with me or not. In fact, I love it when they bring intelligent dispute into the comments. But if I post on anything contentious, I can guarantee that I’ll get some new readers who just want to vent their spleens. This happened in the comments for yesterday’s post. I would usually let it go, but the pro-self-publishing argument some of them are saying is just ridiculous, so allow me a quick rebuttal.

These people are citing the literary geniuses of old who self-published their books in a completely different era, as if it had any bearing on what is going on right now. (As Thomas pointed out in comments. Thanks!)

I really hope that my readers, who I know are savvy about today’s publishing realities, can tell the difference between self-publishing, readership, distribution, and publicity then, when self-publishing was one of the only options available to writers (and called for a large money and time investment, as it still sometimes does), and those same elements of the book trade now.

That self-publishing has a rich history is a totally irrelevant argument because the industry of publishing and technology in general have changed so much. Sure, Walt Whitman self-published. But I bet he didn’t code his poetry into an interactive iPhone app that he tried to hawk for $2.99 per download. In fact, if I delve into Walt Whitman’s history of self-publishing Leaves of Grass, it says, “The first edition of Leaves of Grass was widely distributed and stirred up significant interest.”

So that’s where, already, the story of self-publishing in the old days is different from self-publishing in the 21st century. On two very crucial points: distribution, and significant interest. Back then, books were more difficult to come by than they are now. Most people could become a visible competitor on the playing field just by showing up. And the printed word was usually one of the only ways for people to express themselves publicly AT SCALE. Now, anyone can start a blog (hi there!) and rant. Back then, you had to get up on an actual soapbox and shout or you had to self-publish a pamphlet, book, or article. Whole towns could start a lively discussion based on one pamphlet that got read, passed on, distributed widely. People would clutch books and pamphlets to their chests and duel about them in the town square. If only today’s self-published, or traditionally published, for that matter, books could stir such passion!

It’s interesting that self-publishing used to be the norm and, now that traditional publishing is in flux, the curve is arcing back toward self-publishing again, but, other than that, all the sarcasm about literature’s greatest voices self-publishing is overstated.

And now that traditional publishing has amassed market share, guess who publishes the greats of yore now so that they they can enjoy a mass audience? Traditional publishers. I’m sure that James Joyce and Charles Dickens aren’t rolling over in their graves when they see their work on shelves around the world.

Also, to the guy who made the huge list of classic books that got rejected … that’s not an argument for self-publishing. That’s a fact of life. EVERY SINGLE BOOK AND AUTHOR THAT IS PUBLISHED TODAY HAS GOTTEN REJECTED AT LEAST ONCE. Stephenie Meyer. J.K. Rowling. Stephen King. James Patterson. For every publisher who buys a project, there are at least five or six who pass on it (either because they reject it outright or they get outbid in a competitive situation).

Which only goes to prove perhaps my biggest point about publishing in general, one I’ve made many times on this blog: publishing and writing and literature are subjective. Some people love self-publishing. Others don’t. To each their own.

Self Publishing Considerations and How to Self Publish

I have never talked about self publishing on this blog. Of course, I have many thoughts on how to self-publish and the topic of self-publishing in general, but they’ve largely been quiet. Why? Because a small minority of self-published authors blame agents and editors and other gatekeepers for “having to” self-publish. The establishment is The Man. Agents keep literary geniuses down. So the geniuses circumvent The Man and self-publish. But, luckily, as the self-publishing market has matured, this type of writer gets less and less traction in the conversation, and I’m happy for that.

how to self publish
Ready to forge your own path to publication and self publish? Some thoughts on how to self publish and if it’s right for you.

Self Publishing Considerations: Is It Right for You?

What finally got me to articulate myself on the topic is a fantastic Salon article. The average person has no idea what lurks in slush. The writers querying agents obviously think their stuff is up to snuff, or they wouldn’t be querying. Even so, most slush is not ready for human consumption. Why? Because writers are notoriously erroneous judges of their own work. A lot of them think they’re ready for “prime time,” and that is often not the case. It is my informed opinion—having read what most people call their polished, submission-ready work—that most self published books, unless professionally edited beforehand, will read like my slush pile, not like the New American Literature.

Most of the time, when you get a query rejection, it is really saying, “This isn’t ready for publication yet.” (Learn about at types of agent rejection here.) The questions that would go through my head when I would evaluate submissions as a literary agent were: Is this saleable? Can I sell it? If the answer to one or both questions was “no,” I would reject. If the answer to both was “yes,” I’d pursue the project. It really wasn’t more complicated than that.

I do have to say this about self publishing: it is a very useful tool for people who have a niche audience or their own book sales channels. Ideally, both. Or people who have figured out how to writing to market and game the system with tools like K-Lytics to build up their readership in an intentional way.

These are the types of writers who should be learning how to self publish. Most traditional publishers may not do “niche” projects (not a large enough target market to justify general trade publication). If you have a book about a very specific subject, say, a kid with heart disease, and you also have access to the American Heart Association’s mailing list through your day job, for example … you might be successful at zeroing in on your target readers through direct sales.

For fiction, it can be a little bit more nebulous, but that’s where strong genre and category specificity comes in, as well as keyword research.

Looking to Self Publish for the Wrong Reasons

But most people wondering how to self publish don’t have a niche book or a good marketing strategy: they want to target the mass market. They have a project that would appeal, in their opinion, to everyone and anyone. And self publishing a book intended for a trade audience is where these would-be authors get in trouble. Because reaching a mass audience of casual readers when you self publish a meant-to-be mainstream fiction project is very difficult.

From now on in this article, I’ll be talking about these people. The people who don’t believe what editors and agents keep telling them: their work isn’t ready. Just because a shortcut exists, doesn’t mean you need to use it, nor does it mean that you’ve hit upon a secret goldmine. And just because you use it, doesn’t mean you’ll get the same results as people who publish traditionally (your book distributed in stores … readers for your work … reviews … sales … any kind of profit).

The Internet disproves a simple, old-fashioned idea: “If you build it, (throw it up on Amazon KDP or any of these other websites) they will come.” Readers will not come. They have too much other stuff on their phone and ereaders and browsers and smart TVs. Every other author with a dream is uploading to KDP today as well.

The Internet is flooded with content. As a reader, my time and psychic space are limited. I seek only the things I’m looking for or already know about. I don’t go trolling for complete unknowns just to check out a new ebook, in most cases. Sure, maybe a Kindle ad will hit me in a curious moment, but those ads cost money … which is one of the pragmatic realities of self-publishing that not many people think about when they want to “prove all the haters (agents who rejected them) wrong.”

There’s definitely a right way to self-publish, and a wrong way. The right way takes an incredible amount of research, planning, skill, and execution.

How to Self Publish the Smart Way

But it’s not my job to sway anybody from wanting to self publish. All the people who want to self publish, should. Be prepared, if you go this route, to market. I don’t want you to be surprised at how difficult it is to get their books in the hands of readers. It’s also one thing to self publish once you already have a reader base, like Kindle evangelist Joe Konrath, who now has Amazon releasing his books, but quite another to rustle up some hungry eyes as a rank debut. But if you’re wondering how to self publish and your book is a good candidate, you should check out the Self Publishing Blueprint, a very comprehensive course full of great information.

It all depends on what will make you really feel like you’ve accomplished your goal. Each goal can be met in different ways, and each project can have a different path or outcome. While it is possible to traditionally publish something that was self-published originally, do know that this is unlikely. There are agents who will consider self published projects, if they have gone on to sell big (like, thousands or hundreds of thousands of copies). But a lot of literary agents and publishers prefer to focus on bringing something to market for the very first time.

Sure, there are exceptions. Christopher Paolini started out self publishing, and Fifty Shades of Grey is everyone’s prime example of a self-published project hitting the mass market. But it’s unreasonable to expect to be the next big hit, at least not without a lot of knowledge and elbow grease. The great news is, self-publishing tools (and educational resources) are more robust and plentiful than ever before.

For a client’s firsthand experience with how to self publish, check out this self publishing case study.

Many of my clients either want to self publish or have self published in the past. No matter your goals, I’ll work with you as a self publishing editor to help you arrive at the strongest possible project for any market.

Copyright © Mary Kole at Kidlit.com