Believe It, Achieve It!
by Susan Ross
(London, Ontario, Canada)
The Great Bellybutton Cover-up
There are pros and cons to self-publishing your own children's picture book. Here's the pro side: YOU are responsible for EVERYTHING. That means you can do everything exactly the way you want to. If things go right, the credit is all yours. Here's the con side: YOU are responsible for EVERYTHING. If things go wrong, it falls on your shoulders, and worse, you end up in a financial hole.
Self-publishing is expensive, and you need to be prepared to do a lot of self-promotion. If self-publishing will cause you financial hardship or if you are introverted, my opinion is that self-publishing is not for you.
Before you publish your book you need to test your product. This is a critical step. Arrange to go into a few schools and read your story to see the children's reactions. You cannot just have your friends read your manuscript and go by their opinions. They aren't your audience. I have revamped each of my books more times than I can count based on comments made by children, librarians, teachers and, yes, friends and family. One book had to be totally scrapped. You can't predict what material will be a hit and what will be a bomb without testing your product. Say Please to the Honeybees took six months to write and had multiple revisions because everyone kept saying it was too similar to my first book, The Great Bellybutton Cover-up. All my books were told verbally for years and then fine-tuned as manuscripts with the help of hundreds of children.
Once your book is refined you need to find an illustrator if you yourself can't draw at the level required for a picture book. Be brutally honest with yourself, because the pictures are critical to your sales. Generally, the publisher finds the artist and you have no input into the pictures. In this case however, YOU are the publisher. It took me six months to find the perfect artist to do my pictures. I searched high schools and art programs at colleges, etc. for my artist. That way I could keep costs down (although with each book she illustrated, her fee increased significantly, so I'm now paying her professional wages). The pictures were illustrated exactly the way I wanted (with the exception of some compromises). This took months. I strongly suggest you find an illustrator in your home town. It is much easier to discuss details in person than to try to describe what you want over the computer or telephone.
After the book is written and illustrated a layout needs to be done to determine exactly what goes where. This can be done by the illustrator or the printer. If you are good on the computer you can probably do most of it yourself. I personally worked with my printer first and then my illustrator decided to take over and I worked with her.
You will need an ISBN number.
You will need a CIP number. This number is used by libraries.
You will need a barcode to sell the book in stores.
Although books are considered copyrighted as soon as they are written, I would suggest formally copyrighting them, just in case you ever need to go to court, although this is unlikely to happen.
You can either do the above four items yourself or get your printer to do it for you. The first two items are free if you do them yourself.
You will need a printer (the person, not the machine). Research is critical to get the best price for the fewest books. If you can find a printer in your city, that's your best option since you can check on the books and deal with your printer in person. If there are problems with the printing, you can have it rectified more easily than if you are dealing with someone out-of-town.
You need to be able to print at least 500 books, or the cost is exorbitant per book. I caution you against going to the opposite extreme, however, and ordering thousands of books. I did two runs of 2,000 and 3,000 (different titles) and am very sorry that I did. Although it lowered the price per book and seemed the thing to do at the time, it was an overall financial mistake. Up until then, each of my books paid for the next one, so I only needed to raise money for the illustrator, layout and the printing of the initial 500 books. So the moral of the story is: don't over-extend yourself. It's also annoying to see all those boxes piled up in my rec room. Hopefully they will not get damaged. (I have cats; need I say more?)
Pricing is tricky. You need to price your book high enough to make a profit (Indigo will take 45% of your gross profit, for example) but low enough that you will sell. My three books are $9.95 each. That's at the high end, but I still only make about $2.00 a book in stores since I don't want to print more than 1,000 at a time.
You will need to advertise your product as much as possible. At the very least you need flashy business cards. I would also suggest printing black and white bookmarks that the kids can colour, with a picture of a character from your book, the book's title and your website on it. These can cost as little as a penny and you can hand them out to EVERYONE, EVERYWHERE. I have the cover of one of my books on both front doors of my car and my website on the bumper. (My husband is not amused.) Don't squander your money though. I paid a lot for an ad in a local magazine and didn't receive any orders, so be careful; but perhaps I picked the wrong magazine.
I highly recommend having a website. I personally think this is really important if for no other reason than it's an ego-booster and promotes your image as a professional author. I LOVE my website. Check it out at www.susanross.ca . I had a lot of input into it. That is the wonderful thing about self-publishing. You have control of everything.
If you use your car for business you may need to change your coverage. I didn't know any of this until my third year in business. Different insurance companies have different rules and prices vary enormously. You will also need business insurance to cover your stock, your computer, being sued (someone may come to your house to pick up a book and slip on your icy sidewalk), etc. For me this was a package deal. Shop around. I got quotes that varied by hundreds of dollars.
Marketing is extremely time-consuming and you have to be creative and outgoing to do it properly. I will approach people (generally women who look like grandparents or people with children in tow) anywhere to sell my books. (It drives my friends and family crazy.) Now I must mention that I am five feet tall and female, so I am not very intimidating when I approach people. I don't know if I'd advise doing the same if you are male and/or 6' 2". I have sold door-to-door, in parking lots, restaurants, to tellers in the bank, to receptionists in offices where I have an appointment, at the car dealership, to the pest control guy, the plumber…. I have no shame. I go into libraries and stores. I do school visits. (Please note that I was a teacher and am very comfortable going into schools. Do not go into a school and read your book in a monotone.) I do signings at book stores, craft shows, Christmas shows, anything to get my book in front of the public eye. Here is a tip: do NOT let them put you in the children's area of a bookstore to sell your book. You miss all the people who are not intending to buy a children's book but will do so on impulse (read: 'grandparents'). Also do not attend shows that cost hundreds of dollars unless you are sure they attract the crowds and clientele that will make attending worth your while. (I sold at a "craft" show in which the main focus was sports cards. Fortunately it only cost me $20.00. Almost everyone attending was male. Men are not generally big on buying children's picture books. To make matters worse, the show's organizer put me beside a children's book distributor. At least I had someone to talk to.) I have not yet figured out how to sell to multiple people at a time at these shows. So for me, even if 1,000 people walk by, I can only grab about 10 potential customers an hour. I am working on this problem.
And then there's the business aspect of this, which I personally hate. I am not going to give much advice on this because I am terrible at it. This is my one major downfall: keeping track of the books and bookkeeping. You have to do it. I'm sure I've lost money because of poor records: where and when I sold the books, who owes me money (no I won't lend you any) and what I've spent where. When I make enough money I will hire a bookkeeper and never do any of this stuff again. Keeping track of the books on consignment is especially difficult for me. I will now only do consignment for Indigo because I have to. Everyone else has to pay up front. As an FYI, businesses do not necessarily pay in a timely manner. Also, when selling directly to the public, I don't take personal checks from people I don't know. Talk to an accountant or a bookkeeper before starting your business.
Please note that the above article is from my point of view and describes the steps which I took to publish my books. It is not meant to be viewed as a guideline, but merely helpful advice to get you prepared for what you can expect when you start your journey. You need to research each topic in detail so you have as much knowledge as possible before spending your money. I am still learning (especially the business and marketing aspects) and hoping that, one day, my books will be bestsellers. (I am 2,000 away from The Great Bellybutton Cover-up becoming a bestseller in Canada. 3000 sold!)
Good luck on your adventure!