My 12-part guide to writing and publishing picture books for children
Not that long ago, people sneered at self-publishing. They thought of it as the last resort — for writers whose work wasn’t good enough to be snapped up by a publisher. This is no longer the case. There are now some great books out there that are self-published, and it is a very valid option — in fact, a great choice — for some writers. But is it both an option and a good choice for you? And, in particular, is it a good choice for authors of children’s picture books? In this post, I want to offer you some information that may help you to decide between the self-publishing and traditional publishing routes.
Please note: this article is primarily talking about printed books. E-books cost far less to produce, but most picture books for children are printed. We’re focusing on printed books here.
There is a lot to consider if planning to venture into self-publishing. It involves a great deal more than writing, illustrating and designing your book, then sending it to print. This isn’t to say it shouldn’t or can’t be done. But, the first thing to note is, should you choose to self-publish a children’s picture book, you will need a substantial sum of money and a vast amount of time to invest in the project. And, if you have the funds and free time, you need to be sure you can make it worth your while.
I am now going to address each step of a typical pathway to self-publication, which will help to explain the process. If all of the work and expense outlined below does not turn you off self-publishing picture books, and you are confident you can make a go of it, good for you. But let’s take a look at what is involved.
Imagine you’ve written your story — a manuscript for a children’s picture book — and you’re happy with it. You’ve read it to your family and a few friends, and they all think you’re brilliant and you should be published. If you are thinking you’d like to self-publish your story (because you’ve heard you get around 85% of the profits as opposed to a measly 10%), the first thing you are advised to do is send your manuscript to an objective reader for a manuscript assessment.
Take a look at the websites of your state writers’ centres and most will offer manuscript assessments or mentoring programs for writers. These programs vary in cost, but they are well worth accessing because a professional has the skill to see any problems and is equipped to work with you to ensure your manuscript is up to scratch — well, not just up to scratch, but something worthy of being published. It is very difficult for your mother or your bestie to tell you if your writing sucks, but it is the job of a dedicated writing team to do so. Do some research to find the right professional assessment or mentorship program, and then take the plunge.
Now that you have a completed manuscript in your hands, which has been given the tick of approval by a professional, should you pay to have it edited? The answer is yes, depending upon how thoroughly your manuscript was assessed and developed. If it was simply assessed, you should most definitely have it edited. If, however, you and your manuscript went through a mentorship program and your work has been scrutinised by several keen pairs of eyes, and one of those pairs of eyes belonged to an editor, then perhaps not. But do remember the importance of editing and know that most writers are not editors. You want to make sure your book is the best it can be, and that it goes to print without any typos or grammatical issues.
Next, you need to consider the illustrations. If you are a writer and an illustrator, then you may begin the process of illustrating your book. If, however, you want an illustrator to create beautiful illustrations for your book, you are going to have to find the person for the job. Now, this step can be tricky, primarily because people generally underestimate the time it takes to illustrate a book and therefore undervalue it. Here’s a link to the recommended rates of pay for book illustration, according to the Australian Society of Authors.
You’ll need to research illustrators (try The Style File) and find someone whose style you love, and you’ll then need to communicate with them very clearly about what you want. Provide them with a design brief, and respect their working process and their time. You will more than likely need to allow more time for the illustration stage of creating your book than you’d imagined. Illustration takes time and many illustrators have work booked in months in advance. And remember to expect to pay your illustrator for their work. Good illustrators are professionals who expect and deserve to be well rewarded for their expertise.
If, on the other hand, your brother or your good friend has a knack for drawing and is keen to do the illustrations, you may consider working something out. First of all, be sure their work really is good enough to feature on the pages of your book, and know that just because someone can replicate a cartoon, or even draw a still life particularly skillfully, doesn’t mean they can illustrate a picture book. Think about your buddy’s suitability for the job before approaching them, to avoid unnecessarily hurting their feelings later.
Also, just because your illustrator is your friend doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pay them. Look at those professional illustrator rates and think about what you are prepared to pay for your illustrations. Of course, some self-published authors promise illustrators, especially if they’re friends, a percentage of the profits, but you cannot be sure your book will ever earn enough from sales to pay your own way, let alone your friend’s. This is something for you and your friend to work out, but be sure to be careful or you’ll create rifts and resentments that needn’t occur.
Next you will need to have the book designed. This means laying out the book in InDesign or another professional design program, and making it print-ready. Again, if you’re lucky, you may have the skills, or you may have a friend who’s a deft hand at design, but it is likely you’ll need to contract a book designer. Be aware that not all graphic designers are good book designers. Book design is a specialised subset of graphic design, and you’re best to find someone good at their craft. As far as I am aware, there is no set rate for book design; you’ll need to contact a book designer (oh, hello, I am one) for a quote.
At this stage, don’t forget about the imprint page. Take a look at various books and check out the information they include on their imprint pages. In a self-published book, you’ll want to credit the people involved, say something about copyright, mention your website (you do have a website, right?) and include your ISBN and catalogue-in-publication data.
Next, think about having your finished book proofread by a professional. Something may have gone amiss during typesetting and you don’t want your book going to print with an avoidable error. This shouldn’t cost too much because, presumably, your book doesn’t have too many words and most proofreaders charge per word or words per hour. Most picture books have under 500 words, more again under 250. Again, this is a highly recommended step.
Your next consideration is colour reproduction. I won’t go on about it here as I’ve talked about colour reproduction in other posts, but it is a valuable step of the process. Colour reproduction ensures your illustrations are colour matched to the stock on which they are to be printed. You don’t want your book coming back to you with dull or horridly bright images. Colour reproduction ensures this won’t happen. You’ll need to contact a pre-press company for a quote on your book.
Next, at last, is print. At this stage (well, actually well before now), you need to decide upon a printer. First of all, it is interesting to note, that fewer picture books are self-published than most other genres simply because of the costs involved in printing a full-colour book, however short. As it is, most picture books are printed offshore, usually in China, because it is less expensive per unit. You may like to contact some local printers as well as some offshore printers to make a price comparison, but do factor in the price of shipment and tax of offshore printing, too.
There is no hard and fast rule here. Many local printers who specialise in books do a wonderful job. (On that note, do be sure the local printer you choose is experienced in and equipped to print and bind books before you decide to go with them.) The benefits of going local are that you can converse with the printer directly about your job and you are keeping business in the country.
The upside of sending books offshore is cost. There are several sustainable offshore printers who do amazing work and who cost considerably less than local printers. Reputable offshore printers have local representatives with whom you can speak directly about your book, and who will keep you informed about the printing process.
In the end, it is up to you. Do your research; check out who printed your favourite books by reading the imprint page; get in contact and source some quotes. Then do the best thing for you.
The other viable and increasingly popular option is print on demand. This is as it sounds: instead of ordering thousands of books in the hope of selling them all, you can have books printed as they are ordered by customers. This is a safe way of wading into the publishing pool and, while the cost per unit may be slightly more, it may well save you lots of money in the long run. Again, do your research.
Now, imagine you have ordered thousands of books and you need to store them. Where? Perhaps you have a great big weather-proof storage shed out the back or a ginormous lock-up garage that’ll do the job, but chances are, you don’t. Boxes of books take up more space than it is likely you have and you need to store them somewhere safe. I’ve known people to hire storage space in their local area, and there are also dedicated book warehouses dotted around the place. Again, you’ll need to do some research. Ask around, make some calls, and find out what will work for you and your budget.
If you are self-publishing your book, you are also responsible for the distribution — that is, unless you are interested in having your book represented by a professional distributor. A professional distributor is not obliged to represent your book should you wish to engage them. A distributor has their reputation to protect and will only work with you if they feel they can place your book with booksellers — that is, they believe booksellers will want to stock your book. A good distributor has established relationships with booksellers and knows where your book is likely to be stocked. Check out book distributors online and make some enquiries. There are, of course, costs involved, which will be dependent upon your arrangement with the distributor.
Alternatively, if you decide you would rather distribute your own book, be ready to hit the road. Not only are you going to have to make a lot of phone calls and send a lot of emails, you are going to have a far greater chance of placing your book with booksellers if they can see a copy of your book and meet you. They are going to want to know that a) they like your book and believe they can sell it, b) you are a reasonable person with whom they feel confident they can do business, and c) you are prepared to do the work it is going to take to sell your book. (What? More work? I’ll explain more about marketing in a moment.)
Again, no bookseller is obliged to stock your book and many bookstores are reluctant to stock self-published books because it means negotiating a new business contract with each author — think about the paperwork that means for the bookseller. Yes, many booksellers prefer to deal with the distributors with whom they already have a solid relationship. Another thing for you to consider.
If you are having a book published, regardless of whether it is being self-published or published traditionally, you are going to have to market yourself and your book. This is true even if you hire a professional publicist, which we’ll look at in a moment. If you are intending on being a successful published author, you will need, at minimum, to have a website and a social media following, and, importantly, an email database of interested readers. Not that long ago, this wasn’t the case, but times have changed and now all authors, unless they are already super-duper famous, need to actively grow their public profile if they are to sell books. I’ll talk more about this in Part 10: PR — book launch, web presence, book talks and more.
If you are self-published, you need to be even more invested in your marketing. Again, you may have to hit the road, this time to do author talks, readings, school visits and book signings. You will want to try to drum up media coverage, be it a radio interview, a mention in a relevant publication or a book review on a blog. You will want to get your work out there, in front of as many people as possible to sell your book. There are a lot of people competing with you for their time in the sun, so you need to come up with some interesting angles to sell your book.
If you can afford it, you can hire a publicist. A good publicist is worth their weight in gold. They already have relationships with the media, and they know proven methods and valuable secrets to marketing your book. Also, and it is worth noting, it is far harder to self-promote than you may imagine. It is tiring to keep talking yourself and your work up when you are feeling deflated having endured a few knockbacks. Tricky, too, particularly in Australia, where our culture encourages us to play ourselves down. Having someone, such as a publicist, toot your horn for you can be a lifesaver.
My three children’s picture books are published by UQP, so I am not an expert when it comes to the percentages of profits of self-published authors. You can do your own research, just as I have; there are plenty of articles on websites that talk about the various profits to be made in self-publishing.
Some sources say to expect 85% profit from sales of self-published books, although I imagine this figure relates more to e-books than hard-copy books, especially those sold through retail outlets — booksellers require and deserve a slice of the pie too, you know. And, before clapping your hands you will need to take into account not only your investment and the ongoing costs of distribution and marketing, but the fact that traditionally published books generally make more sales, in Australia and overseas.
I think the main exception to that rule is authors who already have a huge following; say, a TV celebrity who puts out a picture book or a professional blogger with many thousands of followers. Those people attract more sales because they already have celebrity status and people will buy what they sell. Saying that, most celebrities will choose to be traditionally published rather than self-published as they a) can crack ripper deals, b) would rather the professionals do what they do best and c) don’t have the time to manage a self-published book. A very popular blogger, on the other hand, may well be able to sell thousands of books through their website and dodge the costs of selling through the traditional channels.
Middle ground … and a warning
If you choose to self-publish, but you don’t want to tackle everything yourself, there are various reputable organisations and businesses out there dedicated to helping authors bring their books to the world. Many credible publishers now have self-publishing arms — a great middle ground to getting your book published. They have publishing expertise and can help with everything, from manuscript assessment through to marketing, for a fee. Again, and as with everything, do your own research and look at the self-published books in their portfolio for evidence of their efficacy. If you believe you’d like to pursue self-publishing, it may be just what you need to help you navigate the journey.
Do be aware, however, that there are many unscrupulous people lurking around, very happy to sell you a pipedream and make a ton of ill-gotten cash in the process. Don’t be the person caught out with a thousand books stacked up in your spare room (and the lounge room and the sun room and your daughter’s garage), with dashed hopes and a pile of bills. DO YOUR RESEARCH.
This section on traditional publishing is far shorter than the first section on self-publishing, primarily because I don’t want to cover the same ground.
As you are probably already aware, should your manuscript be accepted for publication by a traditional publisher, the publisher will bear responsibility for and shoulder the cost of editing, illustration, book design, typesetting, proofreading, printing, storage, distribution and a degree of marketing. Not only will your book cost you nothing, apart from the substantial amount of time you spend writing, editing and perfecting it, you will be paid an advance against sales to seal the deal. That’s right: instead of paying to have your book published, you will be paid. It may well not be a jaw-dropping amount of money, but you will not be out of pocket.
You can expect your royalties to be around 10% of sales, which isn’t bad when you think of all of the work (see Self-publishing above) you didn’t have to do to get your book on bookshelves around the country, hopefully even overseas. You can focus on what you do best — write — while the professionals can do what they do — publish your book.
Not only that, but having your book published lends it credibility. You, or your agent, have submitted your manuscript to a publisher who has endorsed your work. Publishers will only publish books that they believe are worthy of being published, that fit their list and that they believe they can sell. Why publish a book if it is a dud? Of course, it happens, but to publish your book, your publisher is saying that they believe in you.
Credible publishers know the ropes of publishing, and they will hold your hand through the process. They will let you know what is expected of you, and they will do their best to create marketing and sales opportunities for your book as they want your book to be successful — their profit depends on it.
Saying that, even though your publisher will dedicate a certain amount of marketing dollars to your book, the money will only stretch so far. The more boutique the publisher, the smaller the marketing budget is likely to be; and the more unknown the author, the smaller the budget again. The captain of the Australian cricket team may well get a book launch paid for by the publisher, but the average early career author will not.
You are still responsible for a great deal of the marketing of your book and of yourself, as an author. It is likely you will need to organise and pay for your own book launch, and that you will need to supplement your publisher’s marketing efforts. You may like to write social media shout-outs, and rustle up media opportunities and book readings. It will all help to sell your book and advance your writing career. Do all of this in cooperation with your publisher and be sure to communicate with them about any of your marketing efforts. You don’t want to double-up or omit something the publisher has done or has not done.
Yes, it is very difficult to enter the world of traditional publishing. I heard somewhere that an astonishing amount of submissions — around 96%, if I remember correctly — are rejected. There are a lot of children’s picture books out there, so imagine just how many are being sent to publishers on a weekly basis! But, if your work is good, if your idea happens to fit the publisher’s list, and if the publisher can envisage your book in the hands of little readers around the country and the world, then you may well be just what they’re looking for.
My thinking: consider attempting the traditional publishing route before launching into self-publishing, unless you have money and time to spare, and an impressive social media following. In some cases, self-publishing is the best route to take, but it more often leads to dead ends and disappointment. Either way, before you decide to self-publish or before you submit your manuscript to publishers, do your best work. Your book represents you and the world deserves the best you have to give. You owe it to yourself.
If you found this post helpful, you may like to read other posts in the series: My 12-part guide to writing and publishing picture books for children. I will publish the posts over the coming weeks and announce them on Facebook and Instagram, but if you want to make sure you don’t miss a post, subscribe to my newsletter for free.
My 12-part guide to writing and publishing picture books for children:
Part 1: Know and love your readers
Part 2: Ideas and inspiration
Part 3: Character, theme, rhythm and rhyme, and all of that writing stuff
Part 4: Who’s who in the zoo (writer, illustrator, editor, designer, publisher)
Part 5: Editing and storyboarding
Part 6: Illustration
Part 7: Traditional publishing or self-publishing
Part 8: Submitting your manuscript — the slow business of traditional publishing
Part 9: Contracts, advances and royalties
Part 10: PR — book launch, web presence, book talks and more
Part 11: Who are you and who do you want to be?
Part 12: Resources