Decisions, decisions: Self-publishing a children’s book

I was recently asked to write a 500-word guest blog for BiblioCrunch, the self-publishing resources website, on “The Basics of Putting Together a Self-Published Children’s Book.” That’s a lot of information to get into 500 words. I thought the only possible way would be to delineate a decision tree. But even that didn’t work. (I like to think because I’m informative, and not because I’m wordy.) So I decided to post the full-blown version here where I have no restraints on length, and write BiblioCrunch a précis that will link here for full information. How clever is that?

So, if you are wondering what you’d have to do to self-publish a children’s book, here are the decisions, step-by-step:

1. Are you talking about a picture book or about a chapter book or novel? Mostly pictures go to 5 below. Mostly text, keep reading.

a) Do you want to be your own publisher, so that you can call all the shots, knowing that you probably will not get the exposure that a larger publisher can deliver, or is your secret hope that a successful self-published start will leapfrog you over the slush pile and end in a big-publisher contract?

Self-publishers, go to 2. Would love a traditional publishing contract eventually, keep reading.

b) There are three (main) ways to self-publish a novel or chapter book. You can publish your work as an e-book; you can publish it as a print-on-demand book; and you can publish it as a print book.

c) The most common way of self-publishing an e-book is to do it through Kindle Select Publishing (KSP), where you basically feed your manuscript into a grinder, fiddle with formatting, and lo and behold, you have an e-book! KSP will insist on three months’ exclusivity, after which you can leave the Select program, convert your e-book and sell it on other platforms. Many people either go to Smashwords or BookBaby for this next step. Smashwords will handle conversion and distribution to various platforms in return for a cut of the action. BookBaby does it for a flat fee.

d) If you are hoping that the rights to this book will eventually be bought by a traditional publisher, publish your book as an ebook, and then spend as much effort, creativity, money, and time as you can promoting it. Bringing it out as an ebook-only will leave your print rights “clean.” Publishers much prefer clean. Your job is to convince them that the print edition would sell, because the digital version is going like hotcakes.

2. If you are not hoping that a traditional publisher will step in, then all three avenues of self-publishing are open to you. You can publish your work as an e-book; you can publish it as a print-on-demand book; and you can publish it as a print book.

a) There is no reason not to publish an e-book. It will cost you next to nothing. See 1c) above.

b) Print on demand is a trickier decision. The key question is how confident you are that you can sell a reasonable number of books. If your book appeals to a specific audience—dog lovers, just to give an example—and you know how to find that audience—you’re well connected in the dog enthusiast world, you know the magazines that dog lovers read and the events that dog lovers attend—then it might be worth investing in a print run instead.

So, those who don’t have a pre-defined market, read on. Those who think they have a niche market that they can reach, go to 4.

3.  If you’re hoping that your book will be discovered by the general market, print on demand can reduce your risk. There’s relatively little investment needed. But there are also some definite risks. This is the part of self-publishing that many authors trip on.

a) First of all, there are a few ways to produce a print-on-demand book. The market leaders are:
CreateSpace (Amazon—largest online book retailer)
Lightning Source (Ingramlargest U.S. book wholesaler)
Author House (still Penguin Random House?—an amalgamation of presses, making it the largest author services/book production company in aggregate, currently being sued by some of its authors)
BookBaby (an online service that produces ebooks and custom print books)

b) Which one you choose can affect your ability to sell your books in bookstores. Bookstores still account for the bulk of book sales $ for U.S. publishers. Reading, signing, and being displayed in local bookstores is also an important way of generating awareness and word-of-mouth—and a key source of pleasure and affirmation for budding authors.

CreateSpace books are not welcome in independent bookstores across America. Amazon is seen as out to crash the industry, and you can’t blame the independents for not wanting to give them any help. Plus, CreateSpace offers bookstores only a 20% discount. You need to know that the standard discount is 40-46%. Why should they give your book shelf space for less than half the margin?

c) You also need to know that your retail price is largely determined by the market. Book stores are rarely interested in selling outliers. At this moment, the standard price for a 32-page picture book is around $17, and the standard price for a novel, though it varies by bulk, seems to be hovering around the $14 mark. So, if the retail price ceiling is $14, and you sell it to the retailer at a 45% discount, that means you get $7.56 for the book. If you’re paying $7-8 to print the book, which is what it’ll cost you through many of these book producers…well, you do the math.

d) Print on demand has its role. It’s an effective way of making print books available through the online market, with minimal upfront production costs and no warehousing to worry about. But be sure you know its limitations if you’d like to be sold in bookstores.

4. If you have a well-defined market and are reasonably confident of a certain number of sales—or you’re willing to risk some money anyway for the chance to get into brick and mortar bookstores—a small print run might be the better option for you.

a) Technological improvements have not only enabled print on demand—they’ve also resulted in huge leaps in the quality of digitally printed books, so that for many people, digitally printed books can now be indiscernible from traditional offset printing. The big advantage of digital is that you can print small runs.

b) The cost per book has also dropped, and even on a smaller run the per book price is usually much lower than print on demand, so there is enough margin left for the publisher to make selling through bookstores feasible.

c) It means more work for you, of course. It means housing and shipping your books (speak to your post office about media mail, and also about regional priority paid), but it’s much easier on the math, and it gives you easily accessible stock to sell at book festivals, conferences, readings and school events, and of course to your family and friends.

Whichever publishing option(s) you take, remember that your cover is a great influencer of book sales. See 6 below.

Now you have your novel in hand, go to 8 below.

5. If you’re self-publishing a picture book, the journey is a little more complicated. First, of course, you have to find an illustrator. It is widely accepted in the industry, offensive though it can be to authors like me, that the illustrations move a book off the shelf, the cover design and illustration especially.

a) In the children’s book publishing industry, the authors are often amateurs (meaning that few make their livings exclusively from authoring children’s books) but the illustrators are mostly professionals. Very expensive professionals. So how do you find someone that you can afford?

Try networking. Try your local art schools and colleges. They might have students or recent graduates who would love the chance to build their portfolios. Look at the portfolios posted on the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) website. If you fall in love with a certain illustrator, write to them. Send them your manuscript and hope that they fall in love with the project. Websites like BiblioCrunch, which provides a one-stop shop for all the services a self-publisher could need, might also turn up the perfect illustrator.

6. In addition to an illustrator, you really need a book designer. Book design is crucial when it comes to picture books. If you’re not a designer yourself, you’ll need to hire one.

a) You can either hire a designer as part of a larger book production or packaging arrangement. BookBaby, Smashwords, CreateSpace all offer design services. Or you can hire a freelance book designer. BiblioCrunch is a good place to start looking for professional freelancers of many capabilities who can help you publish your book. You can also look at alumni portfolios posted by design colleges. Look specifically for book design experience, as it’s very much its own art.

b) Be wary that it is easy for those outside the industry or those who are not designers to underestimate the importance of good book design. If you don’t have the eye, good or bad design can all look pretty much the same to you. But those with the eye won’t stock or buy your books. So, seek a professional opinion.

7. Once your book is designed and illustrated, you’ll be ready for publication. You can publish your work as an e-book; you can publish it as a print-on-demand book; and you can publish it as a print book.

a) E-books have only recently become a viable alternative for picture books. But with the advent of the tablet and today’s graphics handling capabilities, picture e-books are now a low-investment option. However, unless you know your way around the latest design programs, exporting to all the different e-book formats and getting onto all the different e-book platforms can be complicated and fiddly. Conversion services abound and are very reasonably priced. Some, like BookBaby come with distribution to multiple platforms and purported marketing services.

If you’re looking for a truly do-it-yourself e-book option, look into Apple’s iBooks Author. Apple provides this software for free, and if you can use anything as complex as PowerPoint, you should be able to navigate this program effectively. Being Apple, the design templates are second to none, and the program comes with lots of easy-to-use widgets to make your e-book interactive, if that is indeed what you want. The only downsides are that you need an iPad to test your work in progress, and once you’ve created your book in iBooks Author, you can publish it only as an iBook, or export it as a PDF.

b) Print on demand was also not viable for picture books until recently. The presses involved were simply not up to handling graphics well, but this has changed. The formats available are still restrictive—I believe CreateSpace offers only two sizes, and only softcover—but this is also improving. Lightning Source now offers hardcover picture books in a range of trim sizes. BookBaby has also added a picture book option. But be warned: if you’re hoping to sell in bookstores, the numbers are stacked against you. See 3 above.

c) The best but unfortunately most expensive way to make a picture book is to use high quality offset printing. The cheapest option is to have your books printed in Asia and shipped back—believe it or not, even with shipping, this is cheaper than having your books printed in the U.S. What this option does require, though, is time. Allow six weeks for the printing process, and another six weeks to ship.

If you’re ordering anything over 1,000 copies, offset printing in Asia is, in my opinion, the best option. It gives you the best quality product, in a form that is readily accepted by bookstores, for the lowest per unit price. But if you don’t think you’d ever need 1,000 copies, or if you don’t want to wait twelve weeks, you can look into digital printing here in the U.S. The quality of the digital presses has improved to such an extent that this is now a viable option. See 4 above.

8. So now you have your book in hand, what next?

Now the hard work begins. Now you have to figure out how to get your audience to see and want your book. This is a huge challenge with e-books, where your title competes with the millions of others in store. The industry calls it “getting lost in the tail.” I don’t know that anybody has found a solution beyond using promotions, discounts, and even free downloads to heighten your visibility and hopefully influence the algorithm.

With a print book, you should ideally find national distribution. New services are becoming available for this quickly growing sector of the market. Small Press United and Ingram both offer national distribution for self-published books. But note that they won’t push your books for you; they’ll just make them available to bookstores and libraries who care to order.

The book-pushing will devolve to you. To do this, you can sample—send your books to as many reviewers, bloggers, and news outlets as you can; you can go down to your local bookstores and ask them to carry your book, and set up readings and signings; you can take books to fairs and festivals, or set up speaking engagements, and sell them yourself.

Whatever you do, you have to have a thick skin, and you have to be prepared to just enjoy the ride. It’s a long shot, but that’s OK if you take pleasure in the gamble itself.

If you’d like to discuss any of this in further depth, I offer Skype consultations for $50/half hour.

And, of course, I’ve omitted a big step. I’ve extended the benefit of the doubt that what you’re about to publish is as strong and competitive as it can be. That mandates that it has been professionally edited. I’m an Ezra Jack Keats Award-winning author and a working editor, yet when I self-publish, I get myself professionally edited.

If you’re looking for an editor, I handle both middle grade novels and picture books. If you’re working on YA or older, I can refer you to some great editors. Feel free to contact me at shirin.bridges@goosebottombooks.com.

Until then, happy writing!

Shirin Yim Bridges

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