Updated: Aug 19, 2021
A year and a half ago, I didn’t know one thing about self-publishing a children’s book. Last month, I officially published my debut picture book, The Train Rolls On. While I still have A LOT to learn about writing, publishing, and marketing children’s books, this journey has taught me many things that I didn’t previously know. Today, I’m going to share some of that knowledge with you by reflecting on five of the biggest lessons I’ve learned about self-publishing picture books.
It was difficult to pick just five lessons to focus on here, so I decided to break the self-publishing process down into its major phases (editing, illustrating, designing, printing, and marketing) and provide one lesson that I learned related to each phase. Perhaps I can elaborate more on each area in future blog articles. 😉 Let’s start with editing since it picks up where I left off in my previous article, 5 Things I've Learned About Writing Picture Books, which you can read here:
1. Editing can seem like a never-ending process, but it’s totally worth the effort!
Maybe it’s just me, but I self-edited The Train Rolls On multiple times before sending the manuscript to a professional editor. Once I had taken the story as far as I could alone, I brought in Editor Sarah Fabiny to assist me. Sarah and I conducted three rounds of formal revisions, where we worked on tightening up the text and improving the pacing and tone of the story. Once our collaboration was complete, I assumed that the editing phase was done.
Surprisingly, however, editing didn’t end there. For months, I continued to self-edit the manuscript, combing through it several times (too many times to count) in an effort to improve the text and rhythm even more. In fact, on several occasions, I sent Book Designer David Miles suggested edits that had nothing to do with the book’s design because I was still fiddling with the text and trying to make sure that the final book was as good as it could possibly be. Here's a simplified example of what the editing process looked like:
As a self-publisher, it is ultimately up to me to determine what text goes on the page. This responsibility turned out to be more daunting than I had originally thought, and I did not take it lightly. I researched the fundamentals of writing rhyming picture books, requested feedback from several individuals, and tinkered with the text until I could tinker no more. (Just ask Eric!) My hope is that the editing process will get easier (and shorter) with every book that I publish, but only time will tell. All I know is that I am really happy with (and really proud of) the finished book no matter how long it took to get there. Speaking of lengthy timelines…
2. It can take a long time (and a lot of money) to illustrate a picture book!
When I initially researched the illustration process, multiple sources indicated that it could take three to twelve months to complete picture book illustrations and that the average completion time was approximately six months. Based on that, I expected to spend roughly six months illustrating The Train Rolls On. In the end, Christina Wald spent over nine months illustrating the book, so the process took significantly longer than I anticipated. Granted, my book was not the only project that she was working on at the time, and she did complete the book well within the twelve-month timeframe referenced above. Also, in her defense, many of the book’s illustrations included the train, its crew members, AND fifteen zoo animal characters, so drawing and digitally painting these intricately-detailed scenes took a lot of time and effort on her part. Thankfully, the finished product was well worth the wait, and I wouldn’t change a thing! (I’ll just remember to build extra time into the next book’s completion schedule.)
In addition to the lengthy completion timeline, hiring a picture book illustrator can be a very expensive endeavor. In general, picture book illustrations can cost anywhere from $4,000 to $60,000. It all depends on the scope of the job and the illustrator’s experience level. In the case of The Train Rolls On, the illustrations were (by far) the most expensive part of self-publishing the book and were most of the reason why I ultimately decided to run a Kickstarter campaign. Yes, I could’ve hired someone with cheaper rates; however, the last thing that I wanted to do was skimp on the illustrations since they tell more than half of the story and are such an integral part of selling picture books. I knew up front that the quality of the illustrations could make or break the success of the book, and I wasn’t willing to compromise on their quality.
Plus, being my first time publishing a book, I wanted to partner with someone who was very experienced in illustrating children’s books, and that experience comes at a price…a hefty price (as it should). So, I hired the best illustrator for the job and found a means of paying her what she deserved without draining my bank account. While I never expected to run a Kickstarter campaign, I’m really glad that I did. I learned a ton in the process, and it allowed me to create a finished product that I am very proud to have my name on!
3. It pays to hire a professional book designer!
I’ve said this before, but there is a lot more to designing a picture book than I ever thought there would be. (Not exactly sure what book design entails? Read my blog entitled What Is A Book Designer, & Why Did I Hire One?) In the beginning, I questioned whether I should hire a professional book designer or save the money and try to design and format the book on my own. In the end, I am so glad that I hired David to help me bring all of the book components together. His time and expertise was well worth the money, and there is no doubt that he saved me A LOT of headaches throughout the design process. The Train Rolls On looks and feels professionally-made, and I largely have David to thank for that.
Watch this short video clip to preview the quality of the finished hardcover book:
Someday, I may try my hand at learning the software that many book designers use. If I become proficient at it, I may even give the book design process a go on my own. However, for now, I’m glad to have the experience of a professional on my side so that I can focus my energy on learning the many other ins-and-outs of the self-publishing process.
4. Always print proof copies of physical books!
In my opinion, it is imperative to print proof copies of each format of a book (paperback, hardcover, etc.) from each printer or print-on-demand (POD) platform used. Reviewing the associated computer files and/or e-proofs is also recommended, but there is no substitute for being able to see and touch a physical copy of the book prior to officially publishing it and/or placing a bulk print order.
With The Train Rolls On, I had originally planned to print all of the books for the Kickstarter reward packages through a single POD platform. However, upon ordering a proof copy of the paperback book from a second platform, I found that I preferred the second platform's print quality to the first (for that particular version of the book). Without ordering physical proofs from both companies, I never would’ve been able to see this difference and adjust my Kickstarter distribution plan.
Paperback Print Quality From POD Platform #1: Paperback Print Quality From POD Platform #2:
5. It’s hard to be a successful children’s book author!
There are so many great children’s books available that the competition for space in the marketplace is incredibly steep. In fact, it is nearly impossible for people to find and connect with a particular author or their books if that author doesn't have a solid marketing plan in place. For this reason, marketing has become a major component of being an author, particularly a self-published author.
During my initial research, multiple sources indicated that an author's work consists of 10% writing and 90% marketing. Before I started the publishing process, I was very skeptical of this statement. After all, how could marketing possibly take up that much time? Now that I have been through the entire process, however, I can totally understand where this statement comes from. Marketing (even more so than editing) is a never-ending process, and there are a ton of marketing avenues that require trial-and-error in order to learn, let alone master. It takes a lot of time and energy to try out these different avenues and figure out a marketing plan that works for each author and each book, but it's necessary work. The bottom line is this: If authors want their books to sell, they’ve got to be willing to put on their marketing pants and spread the word about their books.
In the end, self-publishing a book requires many more skills than just writing. Writing a good book is one of the first steps, of course, but it is only the beginning. Throughout this self-publishing journey, I have acquired a lot of knowledge and skills that I never expected to learn (website design, email marketing, Kickstarter campaigns, Amazon algorithms, HTML formatting, advertising, etc.), and that is partly what has made this experience so interesting and rewarding. In the beginning, I wasn’t sure if I would publish more than one book. Now, I can’t wait to publish Book #2! More on that soon…😉
For five of the biggest lessons that I’ve learned related to writing picture books, read the first article in this series here. For more information about the book, check out A Sneak Peek Inside The Train Rolls On or Behind The Scenes: The Evolution of The Train Rolls On.